The German romped to a dominant victory in the early morning Korean Grand Prix after getting the best of his teammate, and polesitter, Mark Webber into turn one.
“I think it was a perfect day for me and the team,” said Vettel. “It was important to get a good start. I was able to out-accelerate Mark and get side by side, I had the inside for Turn 3 and a good exit, which meant I could stay ahead for Turn 4.”
From that point onwards Vettel was able to open a comfortable gap to Webber as Red Bull claimed a one-two finish that will go a long way to helping the Milton Keynes based squad claim a third consecutive Constructors’ Championship.
“I had a bit too much clutch off the line, which was disappointing,” said the runner up. “I put up a fight on the back straight with Sebastian, as it wasn’t all over. I tried to make a move, but once I pulled out of his slipstream, both of us were on the same speed.”
With Webber losing the lead into the first corner to Vettel the focus shifted to the fights behind the Red Bull duo with Lewis Hamilton making a quick start. The McLaren driver tried to outdrive Webber from the first corner but was forced to the outside of the track.
Spotting the gap Fernando Alonso shoved his Ferrari into the apex at turn two and left Hamilton high and dry as they sped along the long straight towards turn three.
Hamilton tried in vein to get back past Alonso but the real drama was behind the leading quartet.
Jenson Button, starting 11th, made a good getaway and was battling with Nico Rosberg and the Sauber’s of Sergio Perez and Kamui Kobayashi. With Button side by side with Nico Rosberg suddenly there was carnage as the Sauber drivers braked incredibly late into the tight right hander at turn three.
It also ended Button’s remote hopes of claiming a second title. For the McLaren driver it was clear afterwards how frustrated he was:
“It seems both Sauber drivers think the first lap of the race is the only lap,” Button said. “I don’t know what they were doing.”
Button then went on to talk through his short race.
“I got a really good start and passed Michael [Schumacher] and was alongside Nico [Rosberg at Turn 1] when Perez came from nowhere, chucked it up the inside, outbraked himself and hit the car in front.
“I had to run wide and push Nico off the circuit to stop an incident, so then Nico and I had a drag race down the back straights, Saubers all over the back of us. I braked very, very late and then suddenly got a big bang on the right hand side and Kamui came flying past.”
When asked after the race for his thoughts on the driving standards of Kobayashi and Perez Button commented that:
I don’t know how he hit two of us, which was pretty special. It’s very poor driving standards, considering this is the pinnacle of motorsport. It’s not just a slight misjudgement, its massive. The race is not two corners long and some people need to learn that – whether they will we will have to wait and see.”
For McLaren it was to be a dreadful day with Hamilton suffering en route to a tenth place finish.
McLaren are yet to confirm exactly what the cause of the failure was but speaking afterwards Sam Michael, the team’s sporting director, commented on the issue:
“We think it was a rear anti roll bar suspension failure,” said Michael. “Until we strip the car however we don’t know the exact nature of the failure but we knew it was an inboard failure and not a wishbone from the telemetry. [It was a] different failure to Japan.”
The suspension failure saw Hamilton fall down the order with Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen both overtaking him. The excessive tyre wear caused by his suspension failure would eventually lead Hamilton to change his strategy to three stop.
Stopping on lap 26 it was inevitable that he would need to make a third stop and salvaging even a point would be a struggle. With an ill handling car Hamilton was forced to scrap with Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Riciardo in the closing laps.
With Hamilton defending from Romain Grosjean the pair became preoccupied with one another as they fought through the DRS zone into turn 3. Grosjean tried to dive around the outside of Hamilton but with nowhere to go he was pushed wide and off the track.
With all four wheels off the track Grosjean had to ease off and fell in line behind Hamilton with the McLaren driver focusing his attention on defending the inside line for the Lotus.
Nico Hulkenberg had kept a watching brief behind the battling pair and coming out of turn three he had great traction and used his KERS to get the drive out of the corner and close on Hamilton and Grosjean.
With both drivers fighting with one another Hulkenberg was able to stay below their radars until the last minute and then pounce under braking into turn four. He drove around the outside of Grosjean and then even though Hamilton was able to defend and force the Force India onto the kerbs Hulkenberg dug deep and found bravery to place his car on the inside into turn five.
The move captured everything that was great about Formula 1 but for the remainder of the race the field stagnated and little action was to take place.
Hulkenberg would go on to finish sixth and showed again why his reputation is soaring within the paddock. Even though his chances of a Ferrari drive seemed to have evaporated a Sauber seat is now on the horizon for the German.
“They both went to the inside so I just saw the opportunity to use the outside line and made the move work,” said Hulkenberg about the battle with Grosjean and Hamilton. “That certainly put a big smile on my face.”
Before the race Grosjean’s race-craft was under the spotlight following his Japanese Grand Prix opening lap crash. The Frenchman admitted to being nervous but once through the opening corners he settled into a solid race pace before finishing seventh.
“For sure I was a bit nervous starting the race today,” said Grosjean. “But we did a lot of work this week trying to understand a few things and it’s certainly helped.”
Once into the race he was able to fight and show the speed that has marked him a potential race winner in the future but ultimately he would be hamstrung by tyre wear in the final stint of the race.
“I struggled on the last set of tyres as I had graining straight away meaning the performance was not great during the final stint. Maybe we could have achieved one place better – I think I now know every detail of Force India’s car after spending so much time battling with Nico!”
“The tyres were marginal for everyone,” said the victor. “You couldn’t push so much and my front right didn’t look too happy from the inside many times.”
With Vettel trying to keep his tyres intact he eased off in the final stint and with Webber holding stint behind him there was little threat to the German. The fight for the final step on the podium was between Alonso and Massa and there was little chance of the Ferrari drivers coming to blows in the closing stint so Alonso was able to cruise towards the rostrum.
“It was a difficult race and, come the end of the weekend, I am happy with the way things went,” said the Spaniard. “I was starting from the dirty side of the track, we had doubts over tyre life and what would be the race pace of our rivals. With all these concerns, managing to get to the podium meant I could breathe a big sigh of relief.”
For Massa the race showed again his improved form. Following his podium in Japan his season has rebounded and his future now looks secure with Ferrari.
Speaking after the race it was clear how much of a relief it is for the Brazilian to have finally found his speed again after struggling for much of the last three seasons since returning from injuries in his Hungarian crash:
“After Suzuka, this was another fantastic race for me,” said Massa. “I managed to run at a great pace from start to finish. I expected that to a certain extent, because on Friday, I’d seen that over a long run, the car behaved very well. It’s true that you can never be certain about how things will go in the race, but everything went smoothly. I always managed to get a hundred percent out of the car and I am very pleased about that.”
With the championship battle now looks to have been distilled to one between Vettel and Alonso. To claim a third title the reigning champion is now looking to avoid mistakes in the remaining four races:
“We will have to do our best to remain where we are now,” said the championship leader. “We have to just keep it simple and do our job.”
For Alonso, who had led the championship since his Valencia victory, the remainder of the season will come down to who can maximise their potential for the remaining races of the year:
“Red Bull have had three perfect weekends so congratulations for that, but when everything goes smoothly for so long, inevitably sooner or later something has to happen. We are right in the fight for the title with a car that has never been the fastest. It seems we are capable of doing something good too, don’t you think.”