|Something had to give in this most tightly fought of championship battles, and it took a set of unusual circumstances to shake up the five-way stalemate. But at a barely-completed circuit, with its surface and drainage not quite ready for the rain on race day, in a race that finished in near-darkness, the experienced cream - Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Ferrari, McLaren - rose to the top, whilst once again Red Bull imploded and, in realistic terms, one of the five contenders finally got dropped.
Firstly, though, a quick word about the new Yeongam circuit. Many tracks look decent on paper, but whether they actually are any good is another matter entirely. In my humble opinion, the Yeongam circuit diagram, another one of Hermann Tilke’s creations (when are they not these days?) has to be one of the ugliest ever dreamed up - one half being long straights at weird angles to each other, and the other half contorted by constant left-right squiggles that could have been devised by a drunk after a few too many lagers.
But in reality, Yeongam has the potential to become one of the most interesting challenges of the season, because it tests everything. Sector one is all about horsepower, brakes and engine reliability. Sector two undulates and will reward balance and aerodynamic grip. Sector three will highlight mechanical grip and driver precision, as well as looking spectacular when the envisioned city and marina is built. But it does mean the place will feel like a construction site for the next few years at least ...
|Webber’s deficit of belief
As for what actually happened on the track, it is possibly a little unfair to not talk first about Alonso, but the story of the day really was Red Bull’s first failure to score any points at all since Valencia last year. While it opened the door for McLaren to still have a fighting chance at the constructors’ crown, it gifted Alonso not just the lead on the drivers’ table, but a handy lead at that. And from Mark Webber’s point of view, the most disappointing aspect of that was the meek manner in which it happened.
In a season where mental strength has been one of the Australian’s key strengths, what occurred on Sunday seemed directly linked to a complete deficit of belief. Over the last few races, although his points lead has been increasing overall, he has seen the Alonso juggernaut approaching, plus his team-mate Sebastian Vettel coming home with a wet sail. Vettel out-strategised him at Monza, completely had his measure in Singapore, pipped him all the way in Japan, and took pole here as well by the barest of margins.
For sure Mark has exceeded himself this season to pretty much match the very best. But the truth, which no one has ever denied, is that he is up against Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton - three men who either already are, or have the potential to be, amongst the sport’s all-time greats. As excellent as he has been, Webber is not in that category. It would not be a surprise if there has been a small voice telling Mark that he was only in his position because of the errors and misfortunes that had befallen each of his rivals.
As long as those tribulations continued, and as long as luck kept going his way, that sense of destiny surrounding his campaign could be maintained. But what if there are no more mistakes from Alonso and Vettel, as there haven’t been since Belgium? What if the cumulative 0.142s that Vettel has had over him in qualifying in Japan and Korea is all down to talent? Why does being narrowly beaten to pole mean once again being consigned to the dirty side of the track for the start?
It may be that that voice - the voice of doubt - turned into a scream come race day. Actually, a wet race and a safety car start saved Mark from dropping places off the line. Keep the car on track and a good result beckoned, given the likely field spread in the spray. But instead Webber was amongst the most vociferous in wanting the race called off when it was red flagged, in complete contrast to Hamilton’s boyish eagerness to race. A 2nd place with half-points awarded would have kept his championship lead.
In reality, what did Mark have to fear? That Alonso, Hamilton and Vettel’s ability would have his measure in the conditions? Alonso had never won a race in the wet before, and while Hamilton and Vettel have had memorable wet victories (such as Silverstone and Monza in 2008 respectively), Webber has shone in wet conditions as well - like at Fuji in 2007. But when the race restarted behind the safety car, Mark’s body language was resigned, and one wonders what went through his mind when the race went green.
It really felt like Webber wanted to be anywhere else than defending his points lead in this situation. For the first time since early in the season, that sense of fight and Aussie grit that has carried him so well seemed to desert him. Without wishing to sound like Nostradamus, watching on television I feared for what seemed like his fragile mental state, and thought he was going to be an accident waiting to happen. And it happened almost immediately. He won’t win the title in this kind of mode.
Whilst Gerhard Berger’s suggestion that Webber deliberately rolled across the track after hitting the wall to try to take out one of his title rivals is most unlikely, I was surprised that Mark didn’t hit the brakes. It almost felt like once he lost control he was past caring, and he just waited for his car to come to a natural stop without thinking of the potential consequences. As it happened, he managed to take out the one man in Nico Rosberg who was taking points off one of his challengers in Hamilton.
|Red Bull damned if they do, and damned if they don’t
Mark’s failure to finish looked like handing the championship lead, and the ascendancy within the Red Bull garage, to his team-mate. Undoubtedly this season has stirred up a good deal of anti-Vettel fervour amongst Webber supporters, but it was difficult not to feel a measure of sympathy for Sebastian after another mechanical failure at such a crucial moment curtailed another sensational weekend. After all the preceding discussion about Webber, I do not mean to give Vettel short shrift by simply saying he was brilliant.
It was easy after Belgium to query whether Sebastian would be able to learn his lessons as he said he would do. Counting Turkey, Britain, his start in Germany, Hungary and Belgium, Vettel had made costly errors in five out of seven races which had punched a hole in the middle of his title campaign. But since Spa he has been near-faultless apart from a tiny mistake in Q3 in Singapore, even though he hasn’t really had to get involved in wheel-to-wheel combat which seems to be one of his weaknesses.
His Renault engine failure here now puts him 25 points adrift of Alonso. But as Jonathan Noble has analysed on autosport.com, Red Bull cannot really afford to put their eggs in the Webber basket, such are the possible permutations that could arise in Brazil and Abu Dhabi. Put simply, Red Bull are potentially damned if they back Webber, damned if they back Vettel, and damned if they do neither. That is a seriously unenviable situation for them to be in despite the pace dominance of the RB6 this year.
The key problem for the team this season, if you will pardon the pun, is that in key areas - drivers, reliability, strategy - they have not taken the bull by the horns and asserted any dominance. Red Bull’s situation makes for an interesting comparison with another example from Adrian Newey’s past, that of Williams in 1991 and 1992. In 1991, Williams conceded an early advantage to McLaren, and although they had the best car thereafter they could not claw the gap back, just like Red Bull with Brawn last year.
For 1992, Williams kept the same Renault engines and the same drivers in Nigel Mansell and Riccardo Patrese, and the FW14B was a development of the 1991 car. It has been similar for Red Bull. But the difference is that in 1992 Williams were relentless under the no-nonsense leadership of Frank Williams and Patrick Head. Reliability issues did not arise until both titles were sewn up. The expected lead driver - Mansell - raised his game and dominated even if the car was embarrassingly superior.
By contrast, Christian Horner has been weak, and strategy has at times been poor. Reliability problems have cost valuable points. The expected lead driver in Vettel may be charging home, but he made too many mistakes earlier on and has suffered the bulk of the misfortune on the reliability front. That has given Webber a look-in that Patrese never had. But whilst Webber may have only made a few major errors this year, his form and now his self-belief are not quite there at the crucial back-end of the season.
|Alonso and Hamilton provide the inspiration for Ferrari and McLaren
If Red Bull’s current dilemma is all self-inflicted, then Alonso and Ferrari’s position, with the drivers’ title in their grasp even if the constructors’ may be just out of reach, is also a credit to them. By Turkey they were some way off the pace, but since then the F10 has roared back into contention, even if there were further hiccups in Valencia and Britain. Alonso kept his chin up, declared publicly that he could still win the title, and it looks like he may well be right. That’s exactly the assertiveness Ferrari hired him for.
It was the kind of leadership that took Renault to the heights of 2005-06, and now he is having the same impact at Maranello. Yes, like Vettel he made far too many errors earlier on which will affect how his season is judged overall, but with the exception of Belgium, after Britain he has also been near-perfect. His victory in Korea may have been somewhat fortuitous after his bungled stop, but it gives him three wins out of the last four races, four out of the last seven, and more wins than anyone else this season.
The bold declarations earlier on to rally the troops have now given way to messages urging effort and hard work. Although Alonso also had his doubts about the conditions at Yeongam, he was not as vocal either way compared to Hamilton and the Red Bull drivers. For Fernando, it has all been about getting the job done in a way which Red Bull could only dream about. Alonso’s personality may have turned many off (especially after 2007) but you can’t question his solidity as a driver and a team motivator.
And the team has responded in kind. They are delicately managing the use of their meagre engine resources after their woes in that area in the first part of the season. Alonso’s motors may well go bang in the last two races but you sense Ferrari might just be able to pull off the tightrope act. Felipe Massa hasn’t provided too much by way of support, but his steady effort to finish 3rd in Korea, plus the fact that Interlagos is next up, means that he may yet have a role in the championship outcome.
Down at McLaren, whilst Hamilton’s error at the third safety car restart essentially handed Alonso the win, the highlight of Lewis’ weekend was not only his driving - on the limit and maximising the car’s potential as usual - but also his attitude after three races in which he had only scored 10 points and the damage had largely been self-inflicted. His can-do, up-for-the-fight demeanour on Sunday would have had a galvanising effect on the team, as Alonso’s attitude post-Silverstone had on Ferrari.
Although Hamilton is 21 points adrift of Alonso and the McLaren continues to be shy of the Ferrari and the Red Bull on true pace, if luck goes his way he is still very much in the hunt, especially remembering his pace at Abu Dhabi last year. The same cannot be said for Jenson Button, who couldn’t get a good balance on his MP4-25 in qualifying, then chewed up his wets quickly in the race, changed onto intermediates and got caught in a midfield stoush that he was never able to clear, particularly with his front brakes locking.
The reigning champion is now 42 points behind and barring a miracle will not be able to make up the deficit. To be frank, it is no surprise that Jenson is the first of the five contenders to drop out and it was about time he got put out of his misery. Since his two victories in changeable conditions in Australia and China, only in Turkey and Italy has he looked to have had any chance of victory, and his pace has simply not been strong enough to sustain a championship challenge to the end.
|How many accidents is that for Petrov this season?
Michael Schumacher possibly received less airplay in Korea than he had in any other race this season, which was ironic because his 4th place was amongst his best drives all season. During the early running behind the safety car, he kept practising his braking into turn 1, and when the race did get going, he used that experience to scythe past Robert Kubica, before taking Button as well. Whatever you think of his driving this season, Schumi’s mind is still as sharp as ever.
Spare a thought for team-mate Rosberg though. Not only had he out-qualified both Massa and Button, but he had assertively overtaken Hamilton when the race went green. Had he not been in the wrong place at the wrong time when Webber slid across the circuit, he looked like posing a threat to Alonso who, with championship points on the line, may not have been in a mood to fight the Mercedes driver too hard. The first glimpse of a potential victory that Mercedes has had in a long time went begging.
While Massa has skipped away in the battle for 6th in the drivers’ standings, Rosberg is still ensconced in a close fight with Kubica for 7th, and Nico’s retirement allowed the Pole to recapture 7th place after finishing 5th for Renault, having taken Rubens Barrichello late in the race when the Williams’ intermediates faded. It says a lot for how awesome Robert has been this season when he puts in a merely solid weekend without anything notably brilliant and it feels a touch disappointing.
Kubica was only behind Barrichello because, during the flurry of pit activity after Sebastien Buemi tangled with Timo Glock and the safety car was deployed, Robert found himself held whilst other cars went past. Actually, he started going even though his lollipop man never moved, and almost collided with Vitantonio Liuzzi’s Force India in the process, which would have repeated his accident with Adrian Sutil in Hungary. That was not exactly the cleverest thing Kubica has done this year.
Equally unsmart was Vitaly Petrov having yet another shunt. You can’t fault any driver entirely for a crash in the wet, but this was particularly poor. I’ve lost count of the prangs he’s had in this Andrea de Cesaris-like season, but I’ll bet Eric Boullier is keeping count of the repair bills. Also, the Russian was in 7th at the time, ahead of his team-mate, after an early change to intermediates reaped dividends. A good points finish may have cemented his 2011 seat; a big crash has dented his position instead.
|Hey Adrian, you need to brake for corners
While Petrov did his 2011 chances no help, Liuzzi did them no harm by coming home 6th and defending Force India’s tenuous hold on 6th in the constructors’ points, although he had been eliminated in Q1 for the fifth time this year. It was not just a matter of staying on track and making up places by default, the key to Tonio’s race had been good pace in the ten laps or so between the second and third safety car periods, a clean pass on Kamui Kobayashi, and keeping his inters alive while Barrichello’s died late in the race.
Clean passes was what Liuzzi’s team-mate Sutil seemed incapable of achieving. Adrian has a deserved reputation for being something of a wet weather specialist, but he tried too hard on dodgy brakes resulting in no fewer than six incidents: one when trying to overtake Nico Hulkenberg on a restart, two all on his own, one when making an overly ambitious lunge inside Button, and two when battling with Kobayashi, the second of which finally put the German into retirement.
The two incidents with Kobayashi were particularly amateurish, since he was trying to brake so late he would have ended up in the neighbouring county. That he has been slapped with a five-place grid penalty for Brazil is no surprise even if a tad harsh; that he is awarded "Reject of the Race" should be no surprise either. His grid penalty will make it even harder for Force India to maintain their place ahead of Williams, especially when the VJM03s have now clearly dropped off the best midfield pace in dry conditions.
Williams scored a double-points finish, but what could have been 5th and 6th became 7th and 10th late in the race. Barrichello had made it to Q3 for the 11th time this year and Hulkenberg almost made it too, but they like Liuzzi had made up most ground between the second and third safety car periods, by and large keeping them ahead of those who had put intermediates on earlier. But their excessive tyre wear, necessitating a second stop for Hulkenberg, dropped them down the order in the closing laps.
Hulkenberg’s late stop elevated the Saubers of Kobayashi and Nick Heidfeld up to 8th and 9th in their second straight double-points result. Both were amongst the first to switch to intermediates, probably a bit too early, and their pace initially suffered. But they largely stayed out of trouble whilst others caused mayhem around them, and the C29’s gentleness on tyres proved a major benefit as their inters were still OK at the end even when others who had run them much shorter had found them going off.
It was another close-run thing for Jaime Alguersuari, who got pipped for points yet again when he was passed by a recovering Hulkenberg on the last lap. The frustration for Toro Rosso was compounded by Buemi’s collision with Glock at a time when he was on the same strategy as, but running ahead of, the Saubers. Although the incident with the Virgin was completely Buemi’s fault, for he had made his move too late and from too far back, the wet conditions contributed to him losing control.
|Missed opportunities for the new teams
As such, his five-place grid penalty for Brazil also seems a little bit harsh, but no doubt the Virgin team will disagree. Admittedly, like in Singapore, the fact that Timo was competing against midfielders did not mean he was in with a shout of the points - he was yet to make a stop - but it was an opportunity for a good result nonetheless, especially when in qualifying he had narrowly been beaten by Jarno Trulli’s Lotus but otherwise was comfortably the best of the new teams.
Lucas di Grassi’s race also ended with a damaged car. The team had actually tried some interesting strategy calls with him during the initial safety car, pitting him several times to give him fresh wets before becoming the first to switch onto intermediates. He was in the mix with the Saubers when an ill-judged move on Sakon Yamamoto at what was not a passing place sent him spinning off. Lucas wouldn’t have had the pace to get in the points, but it would have been interesting to see where he would have finished up.
It was another case of missed opportunities for Lotus, with Trulli suffering more hydraulics problems and Heikki Kovalainen having one of his less impressive weekends. Not only was he a second off the pace of his team-mate and Glock, but he could not hold onto the midfield during the race and incurred a drive-through penalty for pit lane speeding. Nevertheless, 10th place for Lotus in the constructors’ standings is just about secured, with Lotus having scored a 12th and three 13ths so far this season.
By contrast, Lotus’ nearest challengers HRT have not bettered three 14ths, the third of those courtesy of Bruno Senna here. But once again it had not been an impressive weekend for Bruno, especially after he had been out-qualified by Yamamoto by over 0.8s, and recorded a fastest lap in the race almost a full second slower than his Japanese team-mate. Though Sakon ended up finishing behind Senna, that he was within 0.12s of di Grassi in qualifying continued his recent run of improving performances.
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