Korean GP 2011: full race report

Sebastian Vettel takes yet another win to seal Constructors’ title for Red Bull Racing

Lewis Hamilton second after epic defensive battle with Mark Webber, who finishes third

Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso take a close fourth and fifth respectively

Sebastian Vettel today won the Korean Grand Prix at Yeongam to write Red Bull Racing’s team name on the 2011 World Championship Constructors’ trophy. The German was peerless as he has been so often this season, and with the pressure of the drivers’ title off his shoulders, he seemed better than ever.

Lewis Hamilton, who had started on pole position, was second, having had to deal with the close attentions of Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber for the vast majority of the grand prix. Webber hounded Hamilton mercilessly and their squabble for second provided sterling entertainment for the assembled masses and TV audiences worldwide.

As if to confirm exactly how close the top teams are at the end of this season, Jenson Button in the sister McLaren and Fernando Alonso followed closely behind to finish fourth and fifth, the Spaniard in particular very rapid in the closing stages.

As the race prepared for the off, Red Bull’s task was simple – to outscore McLaren – and the title would be theirs. At that point, it did not look as straightforward as it was to transpire; spots of rain spattered onto camera lenses and the skies looked ominous. Tyres were, as ever, to play a major role, and who could dismiss Hamilton, Button and the two Ferraris?

The field set off on the parade lap and Ciaron Pilbeam came over the radio for Mark Webber. “There’s a few drops at Turn 13,” he said. Webber was on super soft tyres, as were all the top ten apart from Adrian Sutil, who had opted for the softs. Further down the field, Kobayashi, Senna, Maldonado, Perez, Glock, d’Ambrosio, Liuzzi and Ricciardo were also on softs.

It seemed to be an age before they were all lined up, but soon the light sequence came on, went off and the field departed. Hamilton and Button had had good starts but so had Vettel. Massa looked feisty as they came down to the first turn, but the frontrunners filed through with no incident, Hamilton leading from Vettel. Kamui Kobayashi and a Toro Rosso were involved in a slight scuffle, but no-one seemed to be carrying major damage.

The fight had kicked off up front, meanwhile. Sebastian Vettel had decided that he did not like this idea of second place, and was doing his level best to pass Lewis Hamilton. It did not take him long, and Hamilton appeared to accept the fact. Jenson Button seemed to be too cautious and was tumbling down the field into turns two and three. As they emerged from three, he and Webber and Massa were so close as to have onlookers wincing and looking away, fearing an accident.

They reached the end of the first lap and the order was Vettel, Hamilton, Webber, Massa, Alonso, Button, Rosberg, Petrov, di Resta and Schumacher. Vettel fell quickly into his famous rhythm and began to eke out a gap to the chasing McLaren of Hamilton. We wondered all if this would be another cakewalk for the German, reinforcing his utter dominance when in the interests of fairness and fun he should really be driving with one hand.

“It’s Raining,” announced the official FIA water from the sky prediction-o-meter when it got to lap four. It didn’t seem to be. There were a few slides here and there, and undoubtedly some areas of the circuit that were damper than others, but no real rain to cause that delicious chaos. Maybe Vettel had a moment, or maybe he had taken the advice of those who wanted to see a real race, but Hamilton had closed the gap to a mere 1.1 seconds at the end of the lap. It was a blip. Normal service had been resumed by the following tour.

There were things to be seen, though. Felipe Massa was not far behind Mark Webber for third place, and Jaime Alguersuari and Paul di Resta were engaged in a gentleman’s disagreement over who should occupy tenth spot. Di Resta then complained of graining and the dispute had been settled. Alguersuari continued onward, and boy, how onward he would go today.

As lap 10 approached, the question of when to stop, and what for, became more pertinent. The nightmare scenario was pitting for fresh slicks and then having the heavens open, for that would plonk you back amongst the Virgins. No one felt like blinking. The order remained Vettel, Hamilton, Webber, Massa, Alonso, Button, Rosberg, Petrov, Schumacher, Alguersuari, di Resta, Sutil, Buemi, Kobayashi, Maldonado, Barrichello, Perez, Senna, Kovalainen, Trulli, Glock, Ricciardo, d’Ambrosio and Liuzzi.

Before the decision to pit was made there were positions to be had. Jenson Button joined the Webber-Massa-Alonso battle for third, and had a couple of very good looks at the Ferrari’s rear end, appearing to be much quicker. Alonso must have been fuming at Ferrari’s new-found policy of letting their drivers race each other, for otherwise he could have set about Webber himself instead of watching as the ineffectual Massa made repeated attempts. The Spaniard was forced to keep an eye on his mirrors too, for that dancing McLaren. And because Button was now in turn being delayed, Nico Rosberg had caught them all too.

Button decided to duck the issue by being the first of the front runners to pit on what was just turning into lap 14. But Nico Rosberg and Mercedes had had the same idea, and the two trundled down the pit lane together. The well-drilled Anglo-German team had the edge over their English rivals and Rosberg emerged into the pitlane side-by-side with Button. Down to the awkward exit they went – and Rosberg would be in front! But not for long. He was too enthusiastic and locked up his brakes, allowing Button to nip up the inside. After some close but fair racing from the pair, Button finished on top.

Meanwhile, Webber, Massa and Petrov had also stopped, although Vettel and Hamilton at the forefront had made the call to stay out. Hamilton only lasted one lap longer and stopped for rubber on lap 16. He went on to another pair of super-softs, whereas the following Fernando Alonso had just opted for the softs. As Alonso came out of the pitlane he was oh-so-nearly hit by a Michael Schumacher in the heat of fisticuffs with Vitaly Petrov, amongst others.

That would very soon turn nasty. As they bombed down to Turn Three, Petrov had his eyes on his mirrors and the Ferrari of Alonso which had recently joined their company. This was a mistake from the Russian, as it had the unfortunate consequence that he forgot to press the brake pedal when there was a hairpin coming up. Michael Schumacher, who had slowed for the corner in the traditional fashion, was tonked amidships by the Renault missile, and both were out of the race. “Absolutely my fault,” admitted a penitent Petrov. “There you go,” smiled a philosophical Schumacher.

A fair amount of damage had been caused by this crash and so the Safety Car came out on lap 17. Sebastian Vettel, who had dived in for fresh rubber the lap before, was well-placed to lead the field round behind the natty Merc. On lap 20 they resumed, Vettel showing all the composure of a man who has everything in his lap and nothing to prove.

On lap 21 the order was Vettel, Hamilton, Webber and Button running close together, Rosberg, Massa, Alonso, Alguersuari and di Resta. The Safety Car had bunched them up together nicely and the Ferraris were threatening Rosberg menacingly. Kobayashi and Senna were having a ding-dong fight further down the field, the Japanese eventually yielding the place to the Brazilian.

It was at this point that the eye was well and truly drawn to the exploits of Jaime Alguersuari in the Toro Rosso. He was running in eighth, with a straightline speed that was the stuff of envy. Sebastian Buemi, his team mate, was also bearing down with intent on Paul di Resta for ninth. With Nico Rosberg effectively slowing the Ferraris in front, too, Alguersuari was gaining on them. It was looking good for Toro Rosso. A couple of cars ahead, Fernando Alonso was still behind Felipe Massa, but Alonso’s pace was not particularly remarkable at this stage. It could have been explained by the fact that he was on the slower tyre. On lap 27 the pressure told on Rosberg, anyhow, and the two Prancing Horses got by.

Which would make what Mark Webber was about to do very special indeed. The Australian was also on the soft Pirelli and was clocking lap times that were making McLaren sweat. It was on lap 31 that he declared war on second-placed Lewis Hamilton in front of him, and shadowed him very closely. They pitted together on lap 34, and Webber could not get past there. Over the following three laps they had a superb fight, the Yeongam teack lending itself well to wheel-to-wheel racing. Hamilton’s defence was exemplary – clean, fair, but uncompromising.

Once he too had stopped, Button emerged behind that wonderful, dangerous ballet. He was never quite close enough to challenge Webber as Webber was challenging Hamilton, but nevertheless he was in attendance. They were distinctly ahead of Fernando Alonso, yet to pit and therefore leading the race. It had twigged with the Spaniard that he stand the best chance of passing Massa in the pit lane, and so he had woken up and was setting quicker and quicker times on these old, soft tyres. It was incredible how he found the pace, but motivation may have had something to do with it. On lap 38 his efforts bore fruit. He pitted and exited ahead of the troublesome Brazilian, who had had no team courtesies to perform today.

On lap 39 Vettel led from Hamilton, Webber, Button, Alonso, Massa, Rosberg, Alguersuari, di Resta, Buemi, Sutil, Kovalainen (who hadn’t yet made his second stop), Perez, Senna, Barrichello, Kobayashi, Glock, Trulli, Ricciardo, d’Ambrosio and Liuzzi. Hamilton’s sterling rearguard attempt to keep the marauding Red Bull behind him was still the most exciting part of the race to watch. “Have you put all the front wing in?” he asked McLaren tetchily. “Yes, Lewis, you’ve got everything we’ve got!” they replied.

The battle would go as follows. Exiting turn 17 Webber, with his excellent balance in the high-speed end to the lap, would catch Hamilton along the pit straight and then have to make a decision whether to pass him into the first turn. A no-brainer, you’d have thought. But the DRS zone was in fact on the following straight, so if Webber made the pass into One, he’d then most likely relinquish it on the very next straight. So, you’d say, why didn’t he just follow the McLaren through One and deploy DRS down to the hairpin? Well, he did. But that was where the McLaren’s frankly outstanding traction helped Hamilton. Hamilton could just pull away from Webber on the exit of One and down the straight. It must have been so frustrating for Webber to repeatedly be that close but have nothing to show for it.

Elsewhere, Fernando Alonso was driving with that great verve and passion that he shows on occasion. On laps 40, 41 and 42 he set successive fastest laps, dropping the hapless Massa by over five seconds since the stop. This was dominance over a team mate to an unsubtle crescendo, and you sensed Alonso was sending a message to the powers-that-be in the Scuderia. On the track he was also hunting Button to the tune of half a second a lap, and would be with him well before the end at this rate.

Out front, Vettel was piqued that his prized property – the fastest lap – was being so perfunctorily appropriated by Alonso. He sped up accordingly, not though he needed to. His engineer came over the radio, telling him not to abuse the tyres. Later, Vettel would confess that this particular idiosyncrasy drives his team up the wall.

While Vettel’s only concern was whether Rocky would kill him or not after the race, Lewis Hamilton had more pressing problems in the shape of Mark Webber. For a few laps now Webber had inched closer than he had ever been, and on lap 47 he was very near indeed. On lap 49 the Australian decided to throw caution to the wind and made the move into turn one, to which Hamilton appeared to acquiesce. But the Englishman knew he would have the privilege of DRS down to the hairpin and promptly took the place back from the industrious Red Bull driver.

Alonso had finally reached the back of this Hamilton-Webber-Button train, but like Button he could get no closer than just over a second. On lap 53 Alonso came over the radio – “I give up!” he moaned. Sleight of hand? the chaps on the BBC mused; but in truth the Spaniard had driven hard and well and had little return for his efforts. Next time, he was saying, make it so Massa doesn’t get in my way.

And so it drew to a close, Buemi and di Resta at it like cat and dog for ninth. Vettel crossed the line to win the race and lifted his arm to salute his team, who tonight will have their party. Hamilton, setting a very quick lap in the closing stages once Webber had cooled his attempts to pass, was second. Webber was a good third with Button fourth, Alonso fifth, Massa sixth, Rosberg seventh, Alguersuari a creditable eighth, Buemi ninth and di Resta sneaking in for that final point.

Both F1 titles are won, then, by Sebastian Vettel and by Red Bull. Does this mean they will take it easy from here on in, then? Not on your life. The only question is whether Seb will be allowed to set the fastest lap. And did he get it in Korea? Of course he did.