• Korean Grand Prix - The Final Stint

Bulls on a charge

Laurence Edmondson and Chris Medland
October 14, 2012

A round-up of the good, the bad and the downright ugly from the 2012 Korean Grand Prix

Fernando Alonso no longer heads Sebastian Vettel in the championship © Sutton Images
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A two-horse race

The last three flyaway races have been pivotal in the drivers' championship. As the paddock left Europe, McLaren looked like it had stolen a march on its rivals while Red Bull were floundering and Fernando Alonso's lead stood at 37 points (and 39 over Sebastian Vettel). But with an aggressive schedule of upgrades over the past three races Red Bull has taken charge and, most importantly, made that performance count. After the race in Korea, Lewis Hamilton (62 points behind) admitted his championship hopes are over and Kimi Raikkonen (48 points behind) came to the same conclusion. Now it's a straight fight between Vettel and Alonso for the title, but Red Bull has a big advantage in qualifying, more downforce and the momentum of winning three races in a row. It's not looking good for Alonso and in the post-race press conference he said Ferrari has been without a major upgrade for six or seven races. The team now needs a big improvement in India as Alonso can no longer rely on consistent podiums unless he is happy to leave the fate of the title in Vettel's hands.

Kobayashi's celebrations cut short

What a difference a week makes. Kamui Kobayashi was the hero last weekend as he took the first podium of his career in Japan, but it all turned sour this weekend. While a repeat wasn't expected on a circuit that didn't suit Sauber, Kobayashi's first lap brought some choice words from Jenson Button. Kobayashi admitted he made a mistake having clipped the rear of Button's car under braking for turn three, and as a result slewed in to Nico Rosberg's Mercedes before rebounding back in to Button and taking both drivers out of the race. Button said "It's pretty poor driving standards considering this is the pinnacle of motorsport", and the timing couldn't have been worse for Kobayashi. He himself had admitted he needs sponsorship to retain his seat at Sauber and that was not the way to impress following his Suzuka result. With reports that the Sauber line-up for next season is now finalised (see below), Kobayashi could be heading out of Formula One's exit door as his team-mate moves in the opposite direction.

The Story of the Weekend

© Sutton Images
  • Shock Nico Hulkenberg - The result isn't shocking, but that he beat di Resta so comfortably all weekend was. His race performance was impeccible too, holding off the quicker Lotus of Grosjean throughout. Very impressive.
  • Shocker Kamui Kobayashi - The high of his Japan podium didn't last long as he ran in to Button, then Rosberg, and then Button again under braking for turn three. He got a drive-through and eventually had to retire
  • Best overtake Nico Hulkenberg - Having dropped behind Grosjean, Hulkenberg took advantage of Grosjean's attempts to pass Hamilton and went round the outside of both in turn four
  • Best lap Sebastian Vettel - His in lap for his second pit stop was awful as he locked up on worn tyres and lost about five seconds to Webber. His out-lap on lap 36 in response, however, was majestic as he pulled away from Webber by 1.6s in the final two sectors alone
  • Worst lap Sebastian Vettel - As referenced above, leading comfortably on lap 35, Vettel was pushing a bit too hard on worn tyres and locked up in to turn three, running very wide and getting a flat spot that slowed him for the rest of the lap. It saw his gap to Webber drop to 3.7s when he left the pits
  • Drive of the day Sebastian Vettel - Having lost out to Webber in qualifying, Vettel delivered his second dominant race in seven days to get ahead of his team-mate in turn one and manage his tyres to take a comfortable victory

Grosjean's step forward

Eric Boullier said Romain Grosjean's seventh place was congratulated by the team "like he won the race" having avoided first-lap incident, and it was good to see him come through unscathed as collisions occurred behind him in to turn three. However, one swallow doesn't make a summer and it's good to see that Grosjean is still focused on improving his driving at the start of races beyond this weekend. In Singapore he had a clean start but then the old questions were raised when he ran in to Mark Webber in Japan, so the Indian Grand Prix will still see Grosjean under scrutiny. After finishing seventh and acknowledging how important today was for him, he said: "Important to have no trouble at the start, [but] there are four more races to do the same". Another incident before the end of the season could potentially put his seat in jeopardy next year, but if he can stay clean in the four remaining races then he'll start 2013 with the pressure off and this year's troubles starting to become a distant memory. That's only going to help his performances; remember Massa and Hamilton last year? Exactly.

Massa's new deal

Felipe Massa may as well have announced his own contract extension this weekend, such has been the transformation in his character. According to whispers in almost every corner of the paddock, he will remain at Ferrari next year and the new deal is likely to be announced next week. Up until his podium in Japan he had been defensive and downbeat in press conferences, but now he approaches the media with a smile on his face and a spring in his step. Whether you agree that Ferrari should keep him or not, he has started to perform at the last two races and in Korea showed that he is completely loyal to the team and Fernando Alonso. "Towards the end, I closed on Fernando but attacking him was never even up for discussion: I know how important every single point is in the title fight," he said. "The whole team is doing its utmost to help Fernando and I am there for him, just as the team is and as it has been for me when I found myself in the same situation." Talking about the driver line-up for next year Stefano Domenicali added: "Very soon you will know what our position is in that respect."

... And the rest of the driver market

With the 2013 line-up at Ferrari looking likely to remain unchanged, a few more pieces appear to be falling into place in the rest of the driver market. Rumours suggest Nico Hulkenberg is destined for Sauber, while GP2 driver Esteban Gutierrez looks set to fit the Mexican-shaped hole that will be left by Sergio Perez's departure for McLaren. That would leave Kamui Kobayashi out in the cold after what has been an impressive season and he has admitted he hasn't been in serious talks elsewhere. Meanwhile, there would be a spare seat at Force India and Adrian Sutil's frequent return trips to the paddock this year have increased speculation he will return at his old team. Ex-Toro Rosso driver Jaime Alguersuari is also in the frame, as is Force India test driver and World Series by Renault championship leader Jules Bianchi. Williams remains quiet over its drivers for next year but Pastor Maldonado is much more likely to be granted a stay than Bruno Senna as test driver Valtteri Bottas waits in the wings. The seats at the back of the grid are likely to go to the highest bidder, although Caterham seems to be keen to hold on to Heikki Kovalainen and Timo Glock will stay at Marussia. Only time will tell exactly where each driver ends up, but at least things are starting to move now that the top-level drives are being filled.

Cut Korea some slack

Leaving Suzuka, the Formula One paddock was less than effusive about having to head to Korea. From one classic location full of fanatical support and packed grandstands, the teams headed for a remote part of South Korea and a circuit that has yet to see capacity threatened. However, the complaints about empty stands and a lack of atmosphere are slightly unfair. The circuit is a big one and can hold 135,000 people; that's 35,000 more than Suzuka and 85,000 more than Bahrain. Come lights out, the main grandstand was full, and television cameras don't always show the surroundings to gauge attendance, with Jenson Button pointing out yesterday: "In turn three there are a lot more people down to turn four, but you wouldn't see that". Korea is still learning about Formula One, but it's got a challenging circuit which tests the drivers and teams, which is all we can realistically ask of any location joining the calendar.