Sebastian Vettel drove to the brink of his fourth consecutive World Championship title with his eighth victory of the season and fourth in a row in the Korean Grand Prix yesterday – but behind him smoke, fire and controversy raged.
The Red Bull driver was less dominant than he had been in the previous three races, and had to be careful to nurse his car on a track notorious for punishing the right front tyre. But at least there were no boos this time.
Vettel can now clinch the title in the next grand prix in Japan, if his nearest rival Fernando Alonso finishes eighth or below. The scenario is perfectly feasible, given the Red Bull driver’s dominance and the fact that Alonso’s Ferrari could finish no better than sixth here yesterday.
Lotus’s Romain Grosjean took the fight to Vettel initially, by passing Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes into second on the opening lap, but was later overtaken by team-mate Kimi Raikkonen – before the pair nearly collided. The Finn, in turn, had been thrown a lifeline by the first of two safety car deployments, on the 31st lap when Sergio Perez’s McLaren had thrown the tread off its right front Pirelli tyre after he had locked up under heavy braking. As the race resumed on the 37th lap Grosjean made a mistake in the last corner, enabling Raikkonen to line up a pass in the next one.
Lotus played down the controversy over the near miss afterwards even though there had been a series of tense radio exchanges with Grosjean, who wanted to know whether he could challenge his team leader in the closing stages. “We’ll talk about this afterwards, but for now big smile on the podium please, big smile,” he was told.
“Unfortunately for me and good for Kimi, the safety car came,” Grosjean said after complying. “I made a small mistake, my fault, and Kimi passed me and then there were yellow flags so I couldn’t use my DRS afterwards. I was quicker today but this is a track where it is almost impossible to overtake. It’s not the end of the world.”
Raikkonen simply said: “He made a mistake in the second-last corner and I got a good run. I heard there would be yellow flags on the straight so knew he would not get me back with DRS. So I decided to overtake and it was not too difficult.”
Just as things were settling down again, Adrian Sutil spun in turn three on the 37th lap, his Force India striking Mark Webber’s Red Bull. The Australian’s car caught fire and the safety car was deployed again. While local marshals were slow to react, the chief fire officer deployed a fire tender without the permission of race control, a breach of governing FIA protocol which is likely to cost the already financially imperilled organisers dear.
When the race resumed again on the 41st lap Vettel moved clear of Raikkonen and Grosjean, but was scolded by his team for setting the race’s fastest lap on the 53rd of the 55 tours as he needed to nurse his right front tyre and avoid the fate that had befallen Perez. Eventually he won by 4.2 seconds as Grosjean shadowed Raikkonen home.
Fourth place was the subject of a furious late-race fight between Nico Hulkenberg, Hamilton, Alonso, Jenson Button and Nico Rosberg. The Sauber had the edge on traction and straight-line speed over the Mercedes, and, though Hamilton briefly got ahead going into turn one on the 48th lap, the German was able to repass on the main straight and thereafter frustrated Hamilton’s every move to take fourth. As they battled Alonso did all he could to take advantage, and on the 41st lap he and Hamilton switched places several times before the Englishman reasserted himself.
“That was not a great day for us,” Hamilton said. “It seemed that we were losing out to other cars under traction all day. In my second stint my right front tyre was just destroyed all of a sudden, so it was really hard to maintain the pace. Our car was really strong through the middle sector but not quick enough on the straights. It was a nice battle with Fernando but it’s hard to take when it’s only for [fifth or sixth].”
Further back, Rosberg fought back from delays caused by a front wing failure just as he had overtaken a tyre-troubled Hamilton for third place on the 28th lap, and as Button faded a little he was able to overtake on the 53rd lap. But by then he had lost touch with the Hulkenberg-Hamilton-Alonso battle.
Button rued an early clash with Sutil which damaged his front wing, necessitating an early pit call, and later a delay on his second as the pit release lights went green then red, obliging him to stop momentarily.
“Considering those delays, eighth place wasn’t a bad result,” Button said. “But I was gutted to lose seventh right at the end.”
Vettel insisted he wasn’t thinking about the title and said: “I’m just thinking in the present. There are still a lot of points to get and, even though it looks very good for us, there’s a chance still for others so we have to stay on top of our game. I’m just having a good time, the team and car are working really well, but it’s on the edge, more so than it looks from the outside. To be honest with you, I don’t really care, I’m just really looking forward to racing in Suzuka.”