Fernando Alonso squealed with almost hysterical laughter and screamed one word as the tension eased out of him on the slowdown lap: "Avanti!" And who could blame him, after a 26th career victory in the inaugural Korean Grand Prix – a race turned into a tense affair thanks to heavy rain – had brought him another crucial step closer to a third world championship?
It was a day of extreme emotions, as the Spaniard took his fifth win of the season ahead of Lewis Hamilton and team-mate Felipe Massa, and title rivals Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel failed to get their Red Bulls to the finish. Webber crashed out early, while running second, and Vettel's Renault engine blew up as he was leading on the 46th lap. The result gave Alonso an 11-point championship lead over Webber, 231 to 220, with just two races left, while Vettel drops to fourth on 206 points to Hamilton's 210 and a fading Jenson Button's 189 after the troubled world champion finished 12th.
Dusk was gathering as the race was completed just before the two-hour cut-off point, but the floods that delayed its start were nothing to the emotion that washed over businessman Yung Cho Chung, who had brought Formula One to South Korea. After the rain that had been falling all morning got heavier just before the start, which was delayed 10 minutes, the race was red-flagged after just two laps had been run behind the safety car. That led to a lengthy delay, in which a white-faced Chung remarked of the 80,000 spectators who had queued for hours to get in: "They will kill me."
He need not have worried, but it was a close-run thing. Finally, after the restart at 4.05pm, the safety car led the field for another 15 laps before the track was finally deemed safe for racing to begin on the 18th.
Vettel sprinted into the lead from Webber with Alonso third and Nico Rosberg deposing Hamilton for fourth. But then Webber spun and hit the wall in turn 12 on the 19th lap, collecting Rosberg. Out came the safety car again until lap 24, whereupon Vettel resumed control ahead of Alonso and Hamilton. After their pit stops between laps 31 and 32, Hamilton jumped Alonso for second as the Spaniard had a slight delay after arriving slightly sideways and making it difficult for mechanics to reach the right front wheel, but they were racing under the safety car again after a collision between Sebastien Buemi and Timo Glock.
After racing resumed on the 35th lap, Hamilton ran wide in turn one as his front wheels were locking, handing second back to Alonso. And that's how it seemed likely to stay as Vettel built a lead of 2.7sec by lap 41. But then Alonso and Hamilton began to move in and, going into turn one on lap 46, the Ferrari dived inside the Red Bull to take the lead. On the exit to the corner, Vettel's engine blew and, as Webber breathed a sigh of some relief, Red Bull's mechanics once again put their heads in their hands. Now it was Alonso's race to lose. Hamilton gave it everything he had, annihilating the Ferrari in the first two sectors, Alonso made it all back in the final one. Towards the end, Hamilton dropped back, keeping a badly worn right front intermediate tyre alive, and was 14.9sec adrift as a delighted Alonso took the chequered flag, barely visible in the darkening gloom.
"We know these types of races are very difficult," the 2005 and 2006 champion said. "It's a new track, so there was no reference for driving in wet conditions. It is better to lose four or five seconds in the first 10 laps of the race and then build up the pace slowly. We knew that, so we tried to remain calm.
"Conditions were extremely difficult, there was no visibility at all for the first 10 laps plus the safety car laps, so it was not easy, but then the car was performing well with both types of tyre, the extreme wets and intermediates."
As a drying line appeared late in the race, Alonso went faster and faster, his tyres nearly worn to slick treads. "The tyres were very good and you felt a lot of grip and still some corners with a little bit more standing water, so those corners were a little bit trickier."
It was a fearsome performance that struck at the very heart of Red Bull's title challenge. McLaren are used to fighting their old adversary, but as the title battle hots up, Red Bull are discovering just how tough "the reds" can be, with Alonso winning three of the last four races.
Results and standings
FIA Formula 1 Korean Grand Prix, Yeongam (55 Laps): 1 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 2hrs 48mins 20.810secs; 2 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 2:48:35.809; 3 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 2:48:51.678; 4 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 2:49:00.498; 5 R Kubica (Pol) Renault 2:49:08.544; 6 V Liuzzi (It) Force India 2:49:14.381; 7 R Barrichello (Br) Williams 2:49:30.067; 8 K Kobayashi (Japan) BMW Sauber 2:49:38.699; 9 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber 2:49:40.917; 10 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Williams 2:49:41.661; 11 J Alguersuari (Sp) Scuderia Toro Rosso 2:49:44.956; 12 J Button (GB) McLaren 2:49:50.749; Not Classified (All 0 laps completed): 13 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus F1; 14 B Senna (Br) HRT-F1; 15 S Yamamoto (Japan) HRT-F1; 16 A Sutil (Ger) Force India; 17 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull; 18 V Petrov (Rus) Renault; 19 Timo Glock (Ger) Virgin Racing 0 laps completed 20 S Buemi (Swit) Scuderia Toro Rosso; 21 L di Grassi (Br) Virgin Racing; 22 J Trulli (It) Lotus F1; 23 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP; 24 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull. World Championship Standings: Drivers: 1 F Alonso 231pts; 2 M Webber 220; 3 L Hamilton 210; 4 S Vettel 206; 5 J Button 189; 6 F Massa 143; 7 R Kubica 124; 8 N Rosberg 122; 9 M Schumacher 66; 10 R Barrichello 47; 11 A Sutil 47; 12 K Kobayashi 31; 13 V Liuzzi 21; 14 V Petrov 19; 15 N Hulkenberg 18; 16 S Buemi 8; 17 P de la Rosa (Sp) Scuderia Toro Rosso 6; 18 N Heidfeld 6; 19 J Alguersuari 3; 20 H Kovalainen 0; 21 J Trulli 0; 22 L di Grassi 0; 23 K Chandhok (India) HRT-F1 0; 24 T Glock 0; 25 B Senna 0; 26 S Yamamoto 0; 27 C Klien (Aut) HRT-F1 0. Manufacturers: 1 Red Bull 426pts; 2 McLaren 399; 3 Ferrari 374; 4 Mercedes GP 188; 5 Renault 143; 6 Force India 68; 7 Williams 65; 8 BMW Sauber 43; 9 Scuderia Toro Rosso 11; 10 Lotus F1 0; 11 Virgin Racing 0; 12 HRT-F1 0.
Two to go: how this title race could be settled
With its relatively short straights and a variety of slow, medium and high-speed corners, Interlagos could have been built specifically for Red Bull and Ferrari, while McLaren expect to struggle there in comparison.
1. Mark Webber, Red Bull
2. Robert Kubica, BMW Sauber
3. Lewis Hamilton, McLaren
Abu Dhabi 14/11/10
In 2009, Red Bull finished first and second in the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the cars from Milton Keynes were perfectly suited to the Yas Marina circuit. That means it will suit them even more in 2010. But Lewis Hamilton led comfortably for McLaren until obscure brake problems intervened.
1. Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull
2. Mark Webber, Red Bull
3. Jenson Button, Brawn