2012 Korean Grand Prix: Fast and steady wins the race, takes the lead in the Championship [spoilers]
And what better way to start one than by having the top two title contenders, two title hopefuls and four world champions in the starting five on the grid? If the grid positions meant it was game on, however, Alonso might be hoping that for the next three races he and Ferrari can play the game a little harder. Make that a lot harder.
Red Bull's Mark Weber had taken pole ahead of Vettel, then celebrated his reservation at P1 by returning to his poor starts of years past. After the lights went green Weber got bogged down, Vettel beat him to the first corner, and by Turn Three Weber's pressing issue was all the guys in his mirrors and for the time being he had to give up taking the fight to his teammate.
Turn Three is where most of the race's events would happen, and the bulk of them – again, the few there were – happened on the first lap. Alonso beat McLaren's Lewis Hamilton to take third, and behind them the 'destiny' of Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi took a wrong turn when he plowed into both Jensen Button in the McLaren and Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes. Button's race was over immediately with damage to the right front. Rosberg made it exactly one more lap before retiring his car into a gap in the guardrail at Turn Three because of damage to his radiator.
That brought local yellow flags out, ending any DRS overtaking goodness, while the marshals spent nine laps rounding up a tractor to remove Rosberg's car. Kobayashi, meanwhile, pitted for a new front wing and then served a drive-through penalty for his game of bumper cars, but his race would end 17 laps later because of the incident.
Before the race, everyone had pointed to the fact that the graphs and the numbers showed the Ferraris and McLarens having better pace over long stints than the Red Bulls. This was held out as a possibility that the race could be a proper High Noon cowboy shoot-em-up with one ragged man standing when the Korean dust settled.
Vettel didn't see those graphs and was working with some different math. The resurgent world champion put more late afternoon sunlight between himself and Weber on about every lap, taking his Turn One lead all the way to the checkered flag.
There was a spot of love shown to Turn Four, also on the first lap, when Kimi Räikkönen in the Lotus, who had started fifth, tried to pass Hamilton. The move didn't work but Ferrari's Felipe Massa demonstrated what Räikkönen had meant to do when he passed Räikkönen and claimed fifth spot, then began chasing down Hamilton.
As the cars crossed the line to begin the second lap the order was Vettel, Webber, Alonso, Hamilton, Massa, Räikkönen, Force India's Nico Hulkenberg and Lotus' Romain Grosjean – that last driver no doubt on cloud nine for having made it an entire lap in an actual race. Save for Hamilton dropping to tenth place by the time the flag was waved, that same order is how the race finished.
There wasn't even a dominating blowout to get excited about: gaps between the front runners were held to single-digits for the most part. The big guns harried one another but not one of them could inspire the fear of any deity.
Behind that, the midfield teams made the most they could of what passing opportunities there were, with running wide and other driver errors often responsible for one car scooping another.
Not in that category, however, is Michael Schumacher, whose career is coming to a regrettable end as he was repeatedly passed on track, his Mercedes-AMG Petronas doing its best to pretend it hated earning points; starting the race in tenth, Schumacher finished in 13th. Lewis Hamilton, moving to Mercedes next year to replace Schumacher, will have a lot of work to do and might want to start taking anger management courses immediately.
Closer to the pointy end, Hamilton brought his usual fire but his car, yet again, couldn't keep up. After a broken suspension component was discovered to be the cause of his lackluster pace in Japan, a broken anti-roll bar on his car in Korea slowed him down immensely. Still, not only did he fight off Massa and Räikkönen for as long as he could, he had to switch to a three-stop strategy, and toward the end of the race while closing in on the ninth-placed car a chunk of Astroturf got lodged in the turning vanes in front of his sidepod, costing him more performance, yet he managed to take the final points-paying position in tenth.
After getting back into the points in Japan, in Korea Williams instead did an impression of a scrappy-but-struggling midfielder. Pastor Maldonado tried a one-stop strategy at one point but didn't make any headway with it, watching cars make their way around him and eventually stopping twice to move up a position from 15th at the start to 14th at the finish. Bruno Senna had a quiet race in the pack but did climb three big notches from 18th on the grid to 15th at the finish. Nevertheless, both had been higher up the field earlier in the race.
The overtake of the day came from Nico Hulkenberg, who leapfrogged both Grosjean and Hamilton as the Lotus was trying to pass the struggling McLaren.
The performance of the day was undoubtedly Toro Rosso: Jean-Eric Verge came all the way back from 17th to finish eighth, teammate Dani Ricciardo making a late mistake and getting passed by his teammate but still clawing his way from 16th on the grid to finish ninth. It was a carbon copy of the team's result in Belgium, which happened to be Toro Rosso's best result of the year.
Not such a good day for Sauber, who lost their man of the moment on the first lap essentially, then watched as Perez tried to go long on the soft tires but couldn't get that to work, then suffered a horrible pit stop when they switched pit strategies. He would finish in 11th.
The last laps had everyone worried about tire wear, Vettel being told by his race engineer in which corners he needed to take it easy and that his right front tire was so dodgy that "anything could happen" under braking. Vettel locked up once in Turn 3, and an incident that is normally not considered a huge deal as long as it doesn't cause a flat spot was Vettel's "big scare" of the race.
Countering that, however, was the fact that his win put him six points in the lead in the driver's championship. No longer a supposition, it is clear that Red Bull has the car to beat, Alonso – who finished third behind Weber – saying that he's not personally concerned about the final four rounds, that the next updates Ferrari brings will decide how much he's going to be able to counter Vettel's attack.
Perhaps just as happy as winner Vettel was Ferrari's Felipe Massa. He finished fourth and believed a podium was possible, driving so closely behind his team leader in third that Ferrari had to tell him he was "a bit too close." Even then, he kept the gap to under two seconds, most likely reveling in the mere fact that he could. The prediction is that his future is now secure in Maranello for next year, and that his retention will see Nico Hulkenberg leave Force India for Sauber instead of Ferrari.
Red Bull mopped up in the Constructor's Championship, going 77 points clear of Ferrari. The scarlet team are just six points ahead of McLaren, though, and Lotus is 29 points behind the English team but still working feverishly on its car in the quest for third place.
For the drivers, Ferrari's got two weeks to think about how to do... something... before the next race in India. Vettel has gone to 215 points, at the top of the table, with Alonso at 209, and Raikkonnen and Hamilton – still in with a chance at the start of the race – admitting their title hopes have been sent to Davy Jones' Locker. With just four events remaining this year, the season has finally come down to a race of two horses. They'll run again in Greater Noida in less than 14 days, so stay tuned.
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