Tyres the key talking point as Formula 1 heads to Korea

This time last year it seemed as though Sebastian Vettel’s world title charge ended in a cloud of engine smoke following a Renault engine failure at the Korean Grand Prix. This weekend the German arrives in the South East Asian country fresh from having clinching a second world championship.

Vettel’s dominance over the course of the year has been complete but in his mind his title defence starts this weekend. It is crucial for Vettel to continue to punish his rivals with his relentless pace and not ease off the throttle now that he has clinched the championship. If any chinks appear in his armour in the remaining races his rivals will be keen to expose them and let them magnify over the summer. Even though the German has taken the title it is crucial that he maintains the momentum of his success through the rest of the year.

Hamilton looks to halt momentum shift

Momentum is king in racing and the pressure shifts in Formula 1 from one driver and team to another in an instant. If Vettel needs any reminder about how crucial it is to not let his guard down in the coming races the first place he should look is in the direction of Lewis Hamilton.

It is amazing how quickly the momentum can swing in Formula 1. Reputations are made in an instant and can change just as fast. Think back to the German Grand Prix and Lewis Hamilton’s superb victory. It seemed as though the Englishman could use this as a springboard to a strong end of the season but instead he is now firmly entrenched in battle to assert his authority over the McLaren team that he has called home since he was a karting prodigy.

The successes of Jenson Button this year, especially his Japanese victory last weekend, have been in stark contrast to the peaks and throughs that have dominatedHamilton’s season. The 2008 world champion has looked a shadow of former himself. Instead of the flamboyant, brave and captivating driver that came to Formula 1 in four years ago we have seen a clumsy Hamilton move from one race to the next unable to avoid his rivals on track and looking a pale imitator of the man that won in Shanghai and at the Nurburgring.

Hamilton knows that there is four races left in 2011 and enough time for him to showcase his supreme abilities but with Button riding the crest of a wave of confidence it remains to be seen if Hamiltoncan bounce back from what was one of the worst weekend’s of his career.

The Korean International Circuit

Last year’s Korean Grand Prix was held in atrocious conditions and as a result it is difficult to know just how much can be read into the race won by Fernando Alonso. With rain flooding the circuit the race began behind the safety car and was neutralised for long periods by the silver Mercedes at the front of the field.

Formula 1 arrived at the circuit with high hopes but low expectations. The circuit itself was completed just before the F1 circus arrived in town but much like the circus work still needed to carried out once the trucks arrived. Kerbs needed painting and with grass yet to take root drainage was always likely to cause trouble in the event of rain.

This year Formula 1 returns and there is now expectation that the teething problems that plaguedKorealast year have been rectified. There is a sense of pride within Korea about this circuit and this race that few countries can compete with but until the race can run problem free question marks will hang over the facility.

The actual race track gained a favourable response from drivers with Michael Schumacher one of many to praise the venue:

“Visiting Korea for the first time last season was an interesting experience and I enjoyed learning the new Yeongam track. It’s a very impressive facility, and the track has enough challenges to make it enjoyable to drive.”

Schumacher comes to Korea hot on the heels of a very strong showing in Japanwhere he finished sixth and had a competitive race last year in Korea. Since the Canadian Grand Prix the seven times world champion has looked much more competitive and while he will never be the dominant force of the mid nighties and early 21st century there is now an optimism surrounding the German that had been lacking during the early stages of his comeback.

One of the main complaints from drivers last year was the pitlane. Both the entry and exit came under fire from drivers to such an extent that organisers had to change the entry after the opening day of practice. This issue should be put to rest this weekend and with the rest of the circuit having received little to no criticism from drivers the Korean International Circuit should be able to move forward from last year’s monsoon to a much brighter future.

Evolving track surface will provide a challenge for teams

With the track surface set to evolve dramatically over the course of the weekend the engineers will face one of their toughest challenges of the season as the goalposts consistently change for car setups.

Sauber’s Technical Director, James Key, was keen to stress the challenge facing competitors over the course of the race weekend:

“We have got some quite good memories of Korea from last year. It’s obviously a neat track. It took a bit of work with the very low grip levels on the very fresh tarmac, but, once the track rubbered in, it turned out to be a good circuit which the drivers liked. It seemed to be quite technical with two long straights, but then you’ve got the relatively winding sector towards the end of the lap, and then some high speed corners before the last straight. So it’s a really good mix of corner speeds that will probably require quite a different set-up compared to what we were using in Suzuka. Last year it was extremely wet, therefore we haven’t experienced a full race distance in the dry, so we don’t fully know what to expect from the tyres, which will be the super soft and the soft compounds. We don’t know how green the track will be in the beginning, so we’ll have to see the track evolution during the weekend and try to allow for that.”

Strategy for the Korean Grand Prix

After Jenson Button won the Japanese Grand through superior tyre management this weekend’s race will follow in a similar vain with the supersoft and soft Pirelli tyres set to dominate proceedings.

Last year in Korea Bridgestone suffered one of their hardest races with the usually ultra durable tyres graining within a handful of laps. The Japanese manufacturer blamed this on a dusty track surface from the new circuit on the opening two days of dry weather running.

With the track surface having had a year to “bed in” it will be very interesting to see how the weekend progresses but with Pirelli’s aggressive tyre strategy this race could, just like Japan, go all the way to the last lap.

Pirelli’s motorsport czar, Paul Hembrey, was keen to explain why Pirelli have taken such an aggressive approach to this weekend:

“Korea presents the supersoft tyres in particular with their toughest test of the year, but with the championship decided this is a valuable opportunity for us to try out some alternative nominations in order to have some more information for next year. Because of the abrasive surface and comparatively high lateral loading in Korea we might expect a higher number of pit stops than usual from the drivers basing their strategies around the softer tyre.

“Some may prefer to concentrate on the harder compound, so it’s going to be another very interesting race tactically. But all this speculation could come to nothing if it rains, which is quite possible too. Whatever happens, historically it will be an important event for us as it’s the first race we come to with a Pirelli-equipped Formula One world champion for more than 50 years.”

Weather for this weekend

The Formula 1 paddock will be glad that after the monsoon conditions of last year there is little chance of a wet race this weekend. Even so showers are threatened for Friday before the weekend sunnier conditions over the course of the weekend.

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