Four-midable Vettel clinches the title in India

It’s a case of another race, another win, and in this case another world drivers’ championship for Sebastian Vettel.  Aside from the championship speculation the tyres had once again been a major talking point in India and there was some hope that the different strategies used would result in an exciting and unpredictable race.  Unfortunately, that never really developed.

As expected, Vettel led away from pole in India

As expected, Vettel led away from pole in India

With Vettel starting on pole on soft tyres that only lasted a handful of laps and his Red Bull Racing team-mate starting in fourth on the harder compound, sandwiching the Mercedes cars of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton – both of whom were, like Vettel, starting on soft tyres – there was a fair degree of uncertainty about which of the Red Bulls would come out on top.  In pure timing terms, Webber’s strategy was theoretically around two seconds faster over the course of the race.  Added to this, Vettel’s strategy meant that he would have to overtake lots of cars as he came back through the field after stopping early to switch to the harder tyre.  A great opportunity for Webber, it seemed.

What can you do? Webber walks back to the pits after retiring with an alternator failure

What can you do? Webber walks back to the
pits after retiring with an alternator failure

Although, as expected, Webber did lead in India – breaking Vettel’s 100% record of laps led at the Buddh International Circuit – such was Vettel’s speed in getting through slower traffic that Webber never really stood a chance.  Ultimately, of course, it wouldn’t have mattered if Webber had been Vettel’s equal in speed terms in India.  Another failure on his car, this time an alternator meant that he retired from the race 20 laps from the end on lap 40.

While Vettel and Red Bull Racing made their strategy work perfectly by gearing their car aggressively so that the 26-year-old German was able to pass cars with relative ease, Mercedes certainly didn’t.  In the end, though, it was a good day for the Silver Arrows; Rosberg’s second place and Hamilton’s sixth place finish enabled them to leapfrog Ferrari into second in the world constructors’ championship, which Red Bull also took in India.

The Mercedes team-mates pictured duelling early in the race

The Mercedes team-mates
pictured duelling early in the race

The Mercedes drivers would never have been able to compete with Vettel for victory in India, but it was very telling that both of their drivers struggled badly to overtake cars after pitting.  Vettel made it look easy, but Mercedes were just not fast enough down the straights.  This meant that, having been overtaken by the Ferrari of Felipe Massa on the first lap, both drivers were then stuck behind him for most of the race.  Rosberg made his way back ahead of the Brazilian using an undercut strategy at the second round of pit stops, but Hamilton, who stopped on the same lap as Massa, was unable to do likewise.

Despite outscoring both Ferrari and Lotus in India, Mercedes have to ask themselves some serious questions.  Having started both cars on the soft tyre, the team would have known that they would have needed to overtake slower cars that started on the harder compound.  Why they then decided to set their car up in a manner that did not facilitate overtaking is a mystery for me.  We saw Hamilton, for example, stuck behind the Williams of Valtteri Bottas – which Vettel managed to breeze passed easily – for a number of laps at one stage of the race.

Ultimately, though, Mercedes did well to negotiate Rosberg ahead of Massa.  This, coupled with a disastrous race for Fernando Alonso, who finished down in 11th place, unable to add to his record 1571 world championship points, meant that the Brackley based team moved ahead of the Scuderia in the constructors championship.

It was another strong result from Grosjean in India

It was another strong result from Grosjean in India

Lotus also did well to recover from a disastrous qualifying for Romain Grosjean to outscore Ferrari in India, meaning that it remains very much a three-way fight for that coveted second position in the constructors’ championship.  Having badly misjudged things in qualifying meaning that Grosjean failed to make it out of Q1, starting down in 17th position, things looked bleak for Lotus at the start of the race.  The Frenchman drove brilliantly, though, to take a place on the podium with a third place finish.  Kimi Raikkonen’s seventh place finish certainly wasn’t quite as inspiring as he tried, and failed, to make a one stop strategy work.  He did, though, at least have the satisfaction of snatching the fastest lap of the race away from Vettel on fresh tyres at the end of the race.

The final word goes to Vettel, though.  A fourth consecutive Formula 1 world drivers’ championship at the age of 26 is certainly an amazing achievement.  It does, though, make things a little dull for those that are not Vettel supporters.  Vettel’s dominance, and the extreme role that tyre strategy is playing in modern Formula 1, is certainly dulling the spectacle.  Radio messages such as the one from McLaren to Sergio Perez telling him not to fight Vettel due to their different strategies seem incompatible with the concept of racing, especially in a championship that’s meant to be the pinnacle of motorsport.

There’s hope that with a big regulation change coming next year, we may well see things mixed up a little in 2014.  One thing’s for sure, though, if Red Bull Racing build another world-beating car, it’s all but certain to be world drivers’ championship number five for Vettel in 2014.  I don’t know about you, but I find that an incredible depressing thought…

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Safety concerns overshadow another Vettel victory in Korea

So, four wins in a row in 2013 and three wins in a row in Korea for Sebastian Vettel.  To be honest it never really looked in doubt after the German got away cleanly from pole position and pulled out an immediate gap to the cars behind him.  With Fernando Alonso only managing sixth place for Ferrari, Vettel now has a 77 point lead at the top of the world drivers’ championship.  A fifth straight win in Japan next weekend could see him wrap up a fourth straight championship, if Alonso fails to finish in eighth place or better.

Vettel on his way to another victory in Korea

Vettel on his way to another victory in Korea

You’ve got to congratulate Vettel on his win.  Since the summer break he has simply been untouchable and his rivals will be left scratching their heads to come up with an answer to his continued dominance of the sport.  As good as Vettel’s performances are, though, there will always be a question about how much of his speed is down to the German himself, and how much down to the Red Bull car, and its designer Adrian Newey.

Whatever the case, Vettel and his Red Bull seem to be in perfect harmony at the moment.  It doesn’t make for the most thrilling of race spectacles, but that’s not something that Vettel and his team will be too concerned about.  At least in Korea, the gap between the reigning world drivers’ champion and the rest was much closer than it had been two weeks ago in Singapore.  There was also more action further down the field and some standout performances from other drivers.

Raikkonen squeezing down the inside of his team-mate to take second position

Raikkonen squeezing down the inside
of his team-mate to take second position

Both Lotus drivers drove extremely well in Korea.  Romain Grosjean had been fast all weekend and followed up his third place starting position with third in the race.  He would have been slightly disappointed not to have taken second position, having done wonderfully at the start to pass Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes in the run down to turn three on the opening lap.  That disappointment will be magnified by the fact that it was his team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen, who beat him to second place.  The Finn took advantage of a small mistake by Grosjean after a safety car period, to dive ahead of the Frenchman into turn one.  A great drive from Raikkonen from a ninth place start, highlighting what a good acquisition he’ll be for Ferrari next year.

Ironically, perhaps, the other standout performance in Korea came from the man who Raikkonen pipped to the Ferrari seat.  Nico Hulkenberg scored points for the third race in a row for Sauber.  He followed up his excellent fifth place in Monza two races ago with a brilliant fourth place in Korea.  The German maximised the performance of his car to hold off Fernando Alonso at certain stages of the race while taking advantage of his car’s superior straightline speed as the race was restarted after a safety car period to pass Hamilton on lap 37 and, crucially, stay ahead of him over the remaining laps.  Hulkenberg is certainly doing all he can to secure the seat vacated by Raikkonen at Lotus for next season.

Rosberg, his front wing sparking after failing, briefly led Hamilton before pitting

Rosberg, his front wing sparking after
failing, briefly led Hamilton before pitting

As good as the performances of the top four were in Korea, the race was somewhat overshadowed by three safety related incidents.  The first of these came on lap 28.  Nico Rosberg had been catching his Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton hand over fist over the preceding laps as the Briton suffered with a badly degraded right front tyre.  While Mercedes inexplicably left Hamilton on track, Rosberg made his move in the DRS zone on the run down to turn three.  As the German pulled alongside his team-mate his front wing failed and sparks flew under the car as he made his way back to the pits.  Mercedes will certainly be concerned at the failure which, had the wing become completely detached, could have caused a serious incident for both of their cars.

Rosberg’s front wing failure was, perhaps, the least serious of the three safety incidents.  The next came on lap 31.  Sergio Perez, following a big lock up into turn one, was making his way down the straight on the approach to turn three when his right front tyre on his McLaren failed completely.  The tyre delaminated, causing a puncture for Mark Webber who ran over the debris and brought out the first of two safety cars.  While Pirelli will undoubtedly point to the age of the tyre – Perez had been on that set of tyres for over twenty laps – and the huge lock up as the cause of the delamination, we’re once again left with some question marks over the tyres currently used in Formula one.

In the run up to the race, Fernando Alonso had heavily criticised the Pirelli tyres, calling into question the quality of the product that Pirelli are producing.  The Spaniard is particularly worried about tyre durability, stating “We are getting used to these tyres that cannot last one lap”, going on to label the tyres as “not normal”, explaining that “If you push, you finish the tyres”.  The pre race response from Pirelli was robust, with their motorsport director Paul Hembery calling Alonso’s comments “disappointing and below the standards you would expect from such a champion”.

After yet another race where tyre degradation was once again the overriding factor in the race, you can’t help but think that Alonso has a point.  In Korea it was the right front tyre that was the limiting factor.  Aside from Perez’s total tyre failure, we heard Lewis Hamilton complaining bitterly about his tyres over team radio and numerous other team radio messages between other teams and drivers concerning right front tyre wear.

Alonso and Webber, pictured before the race in Korea, both criticised the Pirelli tyres

Alonso and Webber, pictured before the race
in Korea, both criticised the Pirelli tyres

Mark Webber added his criticism of the tyres to Alonso’s after the race in Korea, saying “Pirelli will put the puncture of Perez down to a lock-up but the reason the drivers are locking up is because there’s no tread left”.  He also highlighted the overriding role that tyre wear is having in modern Formula one results by saying that “The drivers aren’t super important”.  With Pirelli now confirmed as the Formula 1 tyre supplier for 2014, we’ll have to wait to see if they change their approach to tyre construction.  I personally hope that they do.

While, Perez’s tyre failure was concerning, though, the tyre situation has certainly improved from earlier in the season, with the low point being at the British grand prix where there were multiple failures.  Indeed, in Korea the tyres were not the biggest safety concern.  That came on lap 38.  Adrian Sutil spun and hit Mark Webber’s Red Bull at the hairpin, bursting an oil radiator on the Australian’s car.  This caused a fire, the second in two races on Webber’s car, and as the Red Bull was engulfed in flames a fire safety truck was released to deal with the inferno, but bizarrely BEFORE the deployment of the safety car.  As it turned out, the FIA had expected that the fire truck from turn three, where Webber’s car was ablaze, would be used, but instead the truck from turn one was called into action, which we saw making its way down the main straight with a train of F1 cars closing in.  The safety car was then deployed, but had the turn three truck been used, we might not even have needed the second safety car at all.

The situation was certainly a strange one, and one the Formula 1 one bosses will not be keen to see repeated.  I’m sure that procedures will be re-examined and tightened as a result, but that won’t be of too much concern to Sebastian Vettel.  The German is all but certain to take the world drivers’ championship yet again.