Last weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix was pivotal in the world championship. Fernando Alonso arrived in the Land of the Rising Sun with a commanding championship lead but his opening corner crash left the door open for Sebastian Vettel to become the title favourite.
Vettel’s commanding lights to flag victory in Japan moved the reigning champion to within four points of Alonso. Vettel has now won two races in a row and with Ferrari clearly struggling for pace it is clear that the championship advantage has swung the direction of Milton Keynes.
Consistency has been key for Ferrari throughout 2012 but now finding speed is the crucial requirement for Maranello. Alonso was hamstrung in Monza by a suspension failure in Italy that left him languishing down grid before salvaging a podium. It seemed that Alonso was able to drag points from the car when it was underperforming but poor performances Singapore and Japan have left his championship hopes in tatters.
In both races Alonso qualified down the field and while he was able to claim points in Singapore Japan was a different story. Racing towards turn one in the midpack Alonso drifted towards the outside of the track and made contact with Kimi Raikkonen. He punctured his left rear tyre and spun into retirement.
Even though he is still leading the championship with the momentum having shifted to Vettel it is clear that Alonso faces an uphill task this weekend.
The Yeongam Grand Prix Circuit
Formula has been racing in Korea for just two years and while attendance at the track has not been as strong as expected the Yeongam track provides a challenge for the drivers.
Here Heikki Kovalainen takes us for a lap of the Yeongam circuit:
“The start / finish straight is pretty short and then it’s into the second gear turn one. It’s very tight and you need a good exit to make sure you go onto the first long straight with as much speed as possible, using KERS to really push you out of the corner and towards T2.
“Braking into turn 3 is pretty straightforward – it’s another second gear corner and you want to come out of there with as much speed as possible so you’re using another big chunk of KERS and DRS to power your way out.
“Turn four is almost 180° so it’s down to second or even first gear, depending on the balance of the car. If you have a really strong front end you may be able to get through in second, otherwise you need first. Turns five and six are a bit fiddly, still in second, but then the speed builds as you go uphill through turn seven and you stay flat out through eight. It’s a really quick section of the track, you lift a little in nine, carrying as much speed as possible as you very quickly arrive in the braking zone for turn ten.
“For turn ten you go quickly down through the gears to first and it’s not so important to get on the power early, it’s more about carrying speed through the middle and exit of the corner and then it’s on to turn 11, a double apex left which you go into in fourth and then flick down to third as you head towards turn 12.
“12, 13 and 14 are a sequence of right / left / right corners, all medium speed, third or fourth gear and you need to make sure you have the right line out of them for turn 15. 15 and 16 are almost one corner but you have to avoid a pretty heavy kerb in 16 so you can get on the power and stay on it through 17 and 18 and back on to the start line.”
Alonso looking on the bright side
“I am sure we can be in the fight right down to the wire,” Alonso said on Ferrari’s website. “The people who are working on the car are the same who have done the job so far and there’s no reason to think they can’t do a good job again now. Let’s not forget that, if I am still leading the championship, it’s because we have been capable of improving the car significantly compared to the start of the season and also because we are capable of always getting the most out of what we have to work with.”
Alonso has always been a magnetic presence at Ferrari with the Spaniard bringing the team together in the same way that Michael Schumacher did at the start of the century and his mantra has long been that “we win as a team, we lose as a team” and he repeated this after Japan.
Finding a way back to the top step of the podium this weekend would be a key start in breathing fresh life into his championship charge.
Gloves off at McLaren
For much of their three years as teammates we have seen and heard Hamilton and Jenson Button speak of their friendship and respect for one another but Hamilton’s recent tweets have shown us just how difficult it is for two ultra competitive drivers to co-exist in the one team.
I have no doubts that both drivers respect one another but being able to retain even a cordial relationship can be difficult in the high pressured world of a Formula 1 title fight.
When Button signed for the team the expectation was that he would be blown away by Hamilton. On the balance of their three years together this has not been the case. Lewis is the faster driver over a single lap, as expected, but Button’s consistency and his ability to galvanize the team around him has left Hamilton appearing as an outsider within the team.
In 2008 and 2009, when teamed with Kovalainen, Hamilton was the focus of the teams attention and it was clearly “his” team. When Button joined almost everyone questioned his wisdom to take on Hamilton against such odds.
Taking on Lewis in the same car within his team was apparently akin to jumping into a lion pit armed with a steak knife. Button though showed incredible mental strength and has overcome the disappointment of qualifying slower to outrace his teammate.
While this has given Jenson the quiet air of confidence that comes from vindicating his ability Hamilton’s frustrations have become more and more public.
Tweeting telemetry from Spa in a bid to explain being outperformed by Button was more than a mere misjudgment by Hamilton. The move struck of a driver looking to ensure that the masses of the public would know that it was the car and not down to him that he had been outclassed. He was trying to make sure that his rep wasn’t hurt by his performance.
Fans of the sport knew that there was more to his lack of pace in comparison to his teammate but Hamilton has long been interested in transcending his sport and becoming a “mainstream” commodity. He has used twitter to connect with the fans. He has not however “connected” with his teammate through the medium.
Last week Hamilton tweeted that Button had unfollowed him. It seemed like a massive story….expect Button had never followed him. The lack of respect that Hamilton had felt for the slight was all in his mind and it gave an insight into how unsettled he is at the minute.
This unsettling has led to him leaving the team but surprisingly it has had little effect on his performance for most of the year. Japan withstanding, when he was struggling with an ill handling car in the opening stint, Hamilton has been in great form this year.
He has not made mistakes and shown a blistering turn of speed. His race craft has improved and he has looked like the driver than stormed onto the scene in 2007 with a great mix of speed and consistency.
In the final five races he will need all that talent if he is to claim a second title and with time running out his chances of leaving McLaren with the title are slipping away.
“The car that I ended the race with in Japan felt great,” commented the 27 year old. “I’m confident that we’ll kick off the race weekend in Korea with a strong package. I put the car on pole there last year and managed to finish second.”
Sauber look to build on fourth podium
For much of the year Kamui Kobayashi has been outclassed by his teammate, Sergio Perez. The Japanese driver had faced a lot of questions about his future recently because he has struggled for most of the year to compete with Perez. His first career podium at his home Grand Prix has however given his a lot of breathing room
Kobayashi’s podium, combined with Perez’ move to McLaren, means that it is almost inevitable that he will be retained for a third season at the Swiss squad. His aggressive style of driving has made him a firm favourite with fans around the world but he now needs to make the next step and find the consistency that has marked his teammate as a future star.
“We can build on the momentum we have and, therefore, I’m confident this time we can score points,” commented Kobayashi about this weekend’s race. I think our car should be competitive on this track.”
Sauber struggled in Korea last year but the team has been strong at most tracks this year and with Mercedes struggling for pace the opportunities are presenting for Sauber to finish fourth in the Constructors’ Championship.
On the other side of the garage Perez enjoyed racing in Korea last year but admitted the team’s lack of straight line speed is a concern for him this weekend.
“The track layout in Yeongam is quite challenging,” said the Mexican. “There are some high-speed corners and in general the circuit has quite a variety of corners. Therefore it is not easy to find a good rhythm but this is crucial for a good lap time. However, because we are usually lacking a bit of straight-line speed, it won’t be an easy Grand Prix for us.”
Time running out for Raikkonen and Lotus
Kimi Raikkonen will make his first start in Korea this weekend and even though he has been arguably the most consistent racer in the field this year the lack of a victory has hindered the Finns championship challenge.
Lotus has flattered to deceive for most of the year. They have had a car that has looked capable of wins for the whole season but have been unable to actually make the step forward that they needed. Their failure to get their Double DRS system to work has been a key reason for this.
Having trialed the system as far back as the German Grand Prix the fact that they are yet to race it has to be seen as a huge disappointment for the Enstone squad.
Team principal, Eric Boullier, commented on this failure during the week but the Frenchman is confident ahead of this weekend’s race:
“What happened with our ‘DDRS’ shows that you can’t take any improvement for granted until you actually measured it on the track. Let’s say that we are cautiously optimistic.”
For Raikkonen track time will be imperative as he looks to get to grips with the new track.
“Since I was very young I have always been able to pick up circuits very quickly,” said Raikkonen. “I’ve seen a Korean Grand Prix on TV, but we’ll have to wait until the first laps of FP1 on Friday to get to grips with the circuit. Hopefully we will have normal weather there and will not miss any track time on Friday because of rain or technical issues. I will approach Yeongam the same way I approach every race – with the intention of going there to do my very best.”
Can Grosjean curb his will side?
Romain Grosjean was labeled a “nutcase” by Mark Webber following their startline crash in Japan and it’s obviously crucial that he finds a way to balance his speed and aggression. In Japan he was focusing on Perez to his outside and crashed into the back of Webber.
Speaking afterwards Grosjean said that he knew that he needed to stop the accidents having been involved in numerous accidents this year. His speed is not in doubt but finding the balance and bringing home points has to be the target for the remaining races.
It has been unfortunate for Grosjean that numerous of his accidents have come from small errors but over the course of the season those errors have accumulated and he is now a marked man by his rivals.
If it’s a case that the Frenchman looks to slow down slightly and ensure that he scores points he will have made a lot of progress. His future with the team is secure but if he is to gain acceptance once again by the rest of the drivers avoiding accidents will be crucial.
It will however also be his first time racing in Korea so, like Raikkonen, good weather will be crucial in giving him the chance to learn the track.
Car setup for Korea
James Allison, technical director at Lotus, talked of the challenges facing the teams this weekend.
“It’s a bit like Germany,” said the Englishman. “The first part of the circuit is largely straights and sweeping curves and the second half a series of slower speed corners. It averages out as a fairly ordinary type of track with slightly more overtaking opportunities than average. The weather may be a little cooler than we would ideally like it, but we are expecting a good weekend.”
Sauber’s Giampaolo Dall’Ara, the team’s Head of Track Engineering, echoed these thoughts:
“The Yeongam circuit is a modern race track which has a bit of everything,” said the Italian. “The first sector has three straights with two sharp corners in between and also a low-speed section with tight corners at the end. Then the second sector features medium to high-speed corners before going back into a twisty sector three. The tarmac is not abrasive and the allocated Pirelli tyre compounds are soft and super soft, which I think should fit. However, the grip build up is rather slow during this race weekend because there are almost no support races on the programme.”
Formula 1 revolves around Pirelli tyres
Pirelli will take the supersoft and soft compound tyres to Korea and strategy looks to play a key role this weekend. The Korean track is quite abrasive and tyre wear has been an issue in the past and Paul Hembery, motorsport boss for the Italian manufacturer, spoke about this in the leadup to the race:
“We’re bringing the same tyre nominations to Korea as we did last year, which at the time was seen as quite a bold choice because Korea has the highest lateral energy loadings of all the circuits where we use the supersoft tyre. In the end, we saw the supersoft lasting for 10 laps or more and the soft lasting for 20 laps or more, enabling a two-stop strategy for the majority of the drivers. This year, however, all our Formula One tyres are softer apart from the supersoft, which has remained the same. We should see another two-stop race this year, which in theory should be even faster.
“This year though, there have been some changes to the aerodynamic regulations, which have generally slowed lap times down over the course of the season. Strategy played a key role in last year’s race but there was also a safety car and some rain at the start of the weekend. So Korea is the sort of circuit where anything can happen, and as always the teams with the most data and the ability to adapt that information to rapidly changing circumstances will be the most successful.”