Hamilton’s Sunday afternoon stroll in Sochi

It was a day of milestones for Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team in Russia. A ninth victory of 2014 meant that Hamilton is now on 31 career Formula 1 victories, moving level with Nigel Mansell and becoming the joint leading British F1 driver of all time. Hamilton’s race win and the 25 world championship points that come with it was also enough to give the Silver Arrows their first ever world constructors championship, even without the additional 18 points the team got for Nico Rosberg’s second place finish.

Despite the beautiful setting in Sochi, and an excellent track, the race itself was pretty uneventful, and certainly one of the least exciting of the season so far. The reasons for that were probably fourfold. Firstly, Rosberg’s mistake going into the braking zone at turn two on the opening lap meant that the two Mercedes drivers would be separated for the duration of the race.

Rosberg locked up heavily at turn two, wrecking his chances of victory

Rosberg locked up heavily at turn
two, wrecking his chances of victory

Rosberg and Hamilton both started well, but the long run down to the turn two braking zone allowed the German to slipstream his team-mate and squeeze up the inside. Rosberg, however, left his braking much too late, severely locking his tyres, running straight on into the asphalt on the outside of the corner. Although Rosberg swept into the lead, he had done so by running off track and gaining an advantage. Not only did he have to hand Hamilton back the lead of the race, but he compromised his entire race by having to stop at the end of the opening lap for new tyres because of the severe vibration caused by his turn two lock up.

So, on lap two the two Mercedes couldn’t have been further apart, with Hamilton leading and Rosberg right at the very back of the field. This leads me on to the second reason that the race was so uneventful; the track surface and tyre compounds. Amazingly, Rosberg was able to complete the remaining 52 laps of the race on the set of medium compound tyres that he put on at his first pit stop. Not only that, but he was able to fight back through the field to finish in second place.

Rosberg was able to do this primarily because Pirelli – like everyone else going to the Russian grand prix at a brand new track for the first time – had been rightly conservative in their choice of tyre compounds, choosing to bring the soft and medium compounds to Sochi. As it turned out, though, the track surface was very smooth and unabrasive. We saw clear evidence of this in free practice and qualifying, with drivers able to run multiple laps on the same tyre and continue to improve their lap time.

For virtually everyone, this meant that the race would be an easy one stop race, cutting down the opportunity for teams to try something different with strategy to move themselves forward. That coupled with tyres that were incredibly consistent meant that wheel to wheel battles were severely limited in Russia.

Thirdly, surprisingly, there was no safety car to close up the field. Having watched the GP2 and GP3 races at Sochi, a safety car looked all but certain in the F1 race. That was because, after the awful accident experienced by Marussia’s Jules Bianchi last week at Suzuka, race officials were understandably being extra cautious to deploy the safety car when cars were stopped on the track. This, coupled with the face that the Sochi track is a street circuit, which can make the recovery of crashed or stopped cars more difficult, meant that a safety car looked likely, as we saw in the support series races.

Grosjean pushed Sutil into a spin at turn two

Grosjean pushed Sutil into a spin at turn two

However, there were simply no incidents at Sochi. No cars stopped on track and there were no crashes. The closest we came was on lap 32 when Lotus driver Romain Grosjean pitched Adrian Sutil’s Sauber into a spin at turn two. The former received a penalty for the incident from race stewards, while the latter succeeded in keeping his car out of the crash barriers and was able to safely rejoin the race.

Finally, despite Williams showing some great qualifying pace, the Grove-based squad were simply unable to compete on race pace with their Brackley-based counterparts. With Rosberg out of contention for victory, Hamilton’s closest challenger was Valtteri Bottas in the Williams for much of the race. While Bottas was able to stick reasonably close to Hamilton over the first 15 laps or so of the race, the Englishman was in cruise control mode. We saw clear evidence of Hamilton lifting and coasting fairly early on and continuing to put in fastest laps of the race.

Hamilton crosses the line to take one of the easiest wins of his F1 career

Hamilton crosses the line to take one
of the easiest wins of his F1 career

Gradually the gap began to stretch into the double digits, with Hamilton never close to unleashing the full potential of his W05 Hybrid. The bottom line is that the Mercedes is simply too good. Reliability issues aside, the team have done a fabulous job in adapting best to the new regulations, delivering not only the class leading power unit, but a chassis and aerodynamic package that compliments that power unit perfectly. Hamilton’s stroll and Rosberg’s fight back through the field, in different ways, demonstrated that equally well.

A jubilant Mercedes team celebrate their first F1 world constructors' championship

A jubilant Mercedes team celebrate their
first F1 world constructors’ championship

Mercedes can be rightly proud of their first ever Formula 1 world constructors’ championship. Despite the cloud that still hangs over the sport in the wake of Bianchi’s crash at Suzuka it is right that the Silver Arrows take the time to enjoy this historic moment. The Frenchman is still very much in everyone’s thoughts, though, while he remains in a serious but stable condition in hospital.

While the constructors’ championship has been wrapped up three races early, the drivers’ championship is still very much alive. After winning four races in a row for the second time this season, Hamilton’s points lead over Rosberg now stands at 17; the largest that it’s been all season. However, with 25 points for a race win, and double points in Abu Dhabi, Rosberg still has every chance of beating his team-mate to the drivers’ crown. To do that, though, he’ll need to end Hamilton’s terrific run of momentum.

Reliability, seemingly the only Achilles heel of the Silver Arrows team in 2014, may still have a decisive role to play in deciding the drivers’ championship. Mercedes, and their two drivers, will hope that it’s decided on track in a straight fight, however. Formula 1 fans will certainly want that, too.

Bianchi’s crash overshadows Hamilton’s Suzuka triumph

After being beaten to pole position at Suzuka by Nico Rosberg, Lewis Hamilton took a brilliant victory for Mercedes in difficult conditions. Hamilton’s pass around the outside of turn one on lap 28, and the huge gap he subsequently pulled out over his team-mate, should have been the big talking point in Japan, but sadly Jules Bianchi’s crash, which brought the race to a premature end, is dominating the headlines.

Before discussing that incident, I just want to pause on the performance of Hamilton for a while. As I said, he was beaten to pole and beaten by a reasonable margin – nearly two tenths of a second – by Rosberg, but he didn’t let that bother him in the race. After the Typhoon Phanfone weather system forced the race to start under the safety car, Hamilton had the measure of the treacherous conditions, relentlessly closing down Rosberg, particularly after the switch to intermediate tyres.

Hamilton sweeps around the outside of Rosberg to take the lead

Hamilton sweeps around the
outside of Rosberg to take the lead

His passing manoeuvre on lap 28 was brilliant and clinical, with the Briton pouncing at the first opportunity and never looking back as he built a double-digit lead over Rosberg. The German was once again beaten by his team-mate in a wheel to wheel battle and that might be crucial in the battle for the championship.

Not that any of the drivers were thinking or talking about that after the race, though. The podium celebrations were understandably muted after Bianchi’s crash which wasn’t caught by TV cameras. It seems that the Marussia driver aquaplaned off the track at the top of the hill at Dunlop on lap 43, just one lap after Adrian Sutil in the Sauber had a very similar incident.

2014 JAP Ambulance Bianchi

Bianchi was transported from the track in an ambulance

Sadly for Bianchi, a recovery vehicle was in the process of removing the stricken Sauber when the Frenchman had his accident. As a result Bianchi struck the recovery vehicle side on, ripping the roll-hoop from his car. Bianchi lost consciousness before being removed from the car and the circuit by ambulance. There was very little confirmed news for quite some time after the race, but we now know from an official FIA statement that the Marussia driver had a CT scan which revealed that he “suffered a severe head injury”. He subsequently underwent surgery at Mie General Hospital before being moved to intensive care.

Everyone’s thoughts and best wishes are with Bianchi, his family and the Marussia team. No-one should be pointing the finger or trying to apportion blame. What is crucial, however, is that Formula 1 learns from this nasty incident and makes steps to further improve safety, as they did after the tragic deaths of Ayrton Senna and Roland Ratzenburger at Imola in 1994. Obviously, having the roll-hoop completely ripped from the car is extremely serious, but the nature of the incident is not one that the roll-hoop was designed for. We’ve seen cars roll this season and in each case the roll-hoop has done exactly what it was designed to do and held up extremely well.

If any steps can be taken to further improve the design and strength of the roll-hoops, then of course those steps should be taken. For me, though, the key learning point must surely be that, in wet conditions, if there is a recovery vehicle on the track – and by that I mean on track, in the gravel traps or anywhere in front of crash barriers – then the safety car should be deployed.

It might be time to reconsider the use of tractors to recover vehicles

It might be time to reconsider the use
of tractors to recover stricken cars

Clearly, this might mean more safety cars in Formula 1. We certainly don’t want to get into a situation where every minor incident results in a safety car deployment, like we see in IndyCar, and that’s why I’d restrict safety car deployment in such situations to wet weather conditions. In the dry, double waved yellow flags – as we have seen already – is sufficient because visibility and track conditions are normal. In the wet, cars will often crash at the same parts of the track because of rivers of water running across the circuit and aquaplaning. Formula 1 should also look to limit the use of tractors to recover vehicles, wherever possible. Cranes must be the better option in such situations, although there will always be places where their use is just not possible.

F1 heads to Russia for the inaugural race in Sochi in a week’s time in a subdued mood. It’s at times like these that race victories and championship battles take a back seat. I hope to see a complete and speedy recovery for Bianchi. Let’s hope that we see him back on the Formula 1 grid soon, fighting fit and ready to race.

Hamilton charges while Rosberg cruises in Germany

Well, the German grand prix was certainly an exciting one, not that you would have noticed if you were Nico Rosberg. After suffering his first retirement of the season at Silverstone, the German bounced back at home to take what must rank as one of the most straightforward of his career.

Hamilton's qualifying crash meant that he started the race in 20th position

Hamilton’s qualifying crash meant that
he started the race in 20th position

Rosberg was aided by some misfortune for his Mercedes team-mate, Lewis Hamilton. This time trouble stuck for Hamilton during qualifying. His right front brake disk failed at 130 mph during Q1, pitching the Englishman’s Silver Arrow into a spin, and into the wall. Even though Hamilton’s time was good enough to get him through to the second part of qualifying, with his car in the wall and its driver out of the cockpit there was no opportunity for Hamilton to challenge for a higher grid slot.

It looked like a 15th place start for the 2008 world drivers’ champion, thanks to a three place penalty for Esteban Gutierrez, while Rosberg claimed pole position ahead of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa in the Williams cars. As it turned out, though, the damage sustained when Hamilton hit the wall meant that his Mercedes team were forced to change his gearbox. The resulting five place grid penalty meant that Hamilton started in 20th.

Rosberg started well, while Massa's Williams rolled after contact with Magnussen's McLaren

Rosberg started well, while Massa’s Williams rolled after contact with Magnussen’s McLaren

Going in to the race everything pointed to a Rosberg win, and so it turned out. Rosberg got away cleanly at the start and was well ahead of the carnage caused when Kevin Magnussen’s McLaren came together with Massa’s Williams at turn one, pitching the latter into a roll and out of the race. Out came the safety car, but that made no difference to Rosberg, who again streaked clear at the restart.

Although he’d made up places at the original start, Hamilton was still only 17th when the safety car came in, with lots of work ahead of him to claw his way up to the sharp end of the field. By lap 10 Hamilton was up into the points in 10th place, while his team-mate was leading comfortably at the front. Hamilton was slicing his way through the field and was even up to second at one point before making his first pit stop on lap 27, running longer than his competitors having started on the slower prime tyres.

 

Hamilton's coming together with Button didn't help his charge through the field

Hamilton’s coming together with Button
didn’t help his charge through the field

Hamilton fitted primes again at his pit stop and looked set to do a two stop race. As his team told him on the radio, Hamilton was looking good for a second place finish. That was until lap 30. Just a few laps after his pit-stop Hamilton came up behind Jenson Button’s McLaren. As Button went wide into the hairpin it looked for all the world that he had opened the door to let his former team-mate through. It certainly looked that way to Hamilton as he made his move down the inside of the McLaren, but Button cut back across Hamilton damaging the front wing of the Mercedes.

The damage had an impact on the handling of Hamilton’s car, increasing his tyre wear and forcing him to switch strategies to a three stop, running the options in the last two stints. Hamilton stopped for the second time on lap 44 meaning that Mercedes aimed to do two 13 lap stints on option tyres in the latter stages of the race. Amazingly, such was Hamilton’s speed, even with the damage to his front wing, that second place was still a very real possibility.

Then came another piece of bad luck for the Englishman. Sauber’s Adrian Sutil spun at the final corner and then stalled his car. The stricken Sauber was left in the middle of the track and it looked like the safety car would be deployed. That’s certainly what Mercedes thought as they pitted Hamilton the very next lap, even though it was five laps earlier than they had been aiming for. Had the safety car been deployed it would have been a potentially race winning strategy call. Hamilton emerged from the pits in fourth place and on fresh option tyres. With a bunched up field, with his competitors all on used tyres Hamilton would have been in a brilliant position to challenge his team-mate, who had led every lap of the race.

Bottas drove brilliantly to claim a second consecutive second place finish

Bottas drove brilliantly to claim a
second consecutive second place finish

Unfortunately for Hamilton, the safety car wasn’t deployed. Despite the dangerous position of Sutil’s Sauber race control decided that it was fine to allow marshals onto the track to push the stricken car out of the way. That meant that Hamilton had to run on his last set of tyres for far longer than expected. In the end it cost Hamilton at least second place. Although he was able to pass Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari very easily and close on Bottas rapidly, by the time that he caught the Williams his tyres were finished and he was unable to pass.

Third was the best that Hamilton could manage in the end, while Rosberg, barely featuring on the TV coverage, cruised to victory some 20 seconds clear. Hamilton looked downcast after the race, despite his stunning drive from 20th to a podium. Luck certainly wasn’t on his side in Germany, but he should console himself with the thought that going in to Silverstone the points gap to his team-mate was some 29 points. It’s now just 14. Had Hamilton won in both Silverstone and Germany, with Rosberg second, the gap would have been 15 points.

The championship is far from over and if Hamilton can win in a week’s time in Hungary – as he did last year – things will be nicely set up going in to the mid-season break.

One in the eye for Hamilton in Monaco

Having grabbed the lead of the world drivers’ championship with victory in Barcelona – his fourth straight win – Lewis Hamilton promptly surrendered it back to Nico Rosberg, who took a lights to flag victory in Monaco. All quite straightforward, you might think, but that would be a massive over simplification.

The tensions between the two Mercedes team-mates, which had been bubbling away under the surface prior to Monaco, finally erupted this weekend. The battle between the two drivers has been close all season and, going in to the final Q3 run in qualifying the pair were separated by less than six hundredths of a second. But it was what happened on that final qualifying run that has ramped up the tension at Mercedes to such an extent that come the podium in Monaco, the two team-mates couldn’t even look at each other, let alone congratulate each other on another 1, 2 finish.

Rosberg's qualifying error actually guaranteed him pole position

Rosberg’s qualifying error actually
guaranteed him pole position

The flashpoint was the mistake from Nico Rosberg on Saturday, which saw him lock up at Mirabeau and go straight on down the escape road. The error ruined Rosberg’s final run and opened the door for Hamilton, who was half a lap behind him and going quickly. However, the problem for Hamilton was that Rosberg’s error also brought out yellow flags; yellow flags that Rosberg guaranteed would continue to be waved as he reversed backwards onto the track.

There was talk that Rosberg deliberately went off to guarantee himself pole position, but I don’t agree that was the case. Indeed, the stewards didn’t think so, either, having examined the TV footage and telemetry as part of their post-qualifying investigation into the issue. The issue for Mercedes is, though, that many in the paddock, including, crucially, Lewis Hamilton thought otherwise. Hamilton’s mood would not have been helped by Rosberg’s pole celebrations, which I would say were over the top, particularly so given the circumstances.

It’s in a situation like this where the media like to stir the pot. Hamilton fell into the trap of saying that he’d deal with the situation like Senna in a post-qualifying interview, which ramped up the tension another notch. The Prost/Senna comparisons, already prevalent in the media, were brought out again. All the talk was of a potential incident at turn one.

Rosberg leads the field into Saint Devote

Rosberg leads the field into Saint Devote

As it happened there was no such incident come race day. Rosberg got off the line brilliantly, unlike in other races this season, and led Hamilton and the rest of the field into turn one. Given the nature of the Monaco track – tight, twisty, and with limited opportunities to overtake – the start was the first of two big chances for Hamilton to overtake Rosberg; one which he couldn’t take.

The second chance would come through strategy, with Hamilton hoping to use the single pit stop that both drivers were scheduled to make to his advantage. Unfortunately for him, the second of the two safety car periods, caused after Adrian Sutil crashed his Sauber heavily coming out of the tunnel, fell in the ‘window’ for making that pit stop.

The safety car all but ended Hamilton's chances of beating Rosberg

The safety car all but ended
Hamilton’s chances of beating Rosberg

We heard over the radio that Hamilton was irked that he hadn’t stopped immediately, before the deployment of the safety car. Instead Mercedes took the safe option and stopped both drivers on the same lap, following the deployment of the safety car. That decision, while completely understandable, meant that Hamilton had to wave goodbye to his second big chance to overtake his German team-mate.

With Hamilton questioning the decision and his frustration levels rising, he resumed the fight after the safety car in the wrong frame of mind. Not that it mattered at the time, though. Hamilton could never quite get close enough to Rosberg to attempt to pass, even when the latter was forced to save fuel for several laps. The fight was over long before Hamilton suddenly and alarmingly dropped back several seconds from Rosberg after dirt became lodged in his eye.

Ricciardo celebrates his podium finish after the race

Ricciardo celebrates his podium finish after the race

In the end, Rosberg won the race comfortably, by over nine seconds from Hamilton who did well to hold off the hard charging Daniel Ricciardo who took third for Red Bull Racing. Once he’s had a chance to calm down and reflect on the situation Hamilton may feel differently, but he was certainly not happy post-race. The body language between the two team-mates at Mercedes suggests that they’re on the verge of meltdown; a consequence of the team’s decision to let their drivers race each other on an equal footing.

Jules Bianchi scored his, and Marussia's, first points in Monaco

Jules Bianchi scored his, and
Marussia’s, first points in Monaco

While meltdown might be on the cards at Mercedes, there was delight for one of Formula 1’s smaller teams. Marussia, through 24-year-old Frenchman Jules Bianchi, finally scored their first point in Formula 1 in their fifth year in the sport. Bianchi’s ninth place finish (he actually crossed the line eighth, but had to take a five second penalty) resulted in the Banbury-based team scoring not one, but two world championship points.  This means that they’re now ahead not only of fierce rivals Caterham, but also Sauber in the world constructors’ championship. A massive achievement.

There’s no chance of them, or anyone else for that matter, overhauling Mercedes, though. That is unless the Brackley-based squad shoot themselves in the foot by going into a full-scale meltdown. The Silver Arrows have now amassed 240 world championship points. Their nearest rival, Red Bull Racing have yet to break into three figures, thanks, in part, to an early retirement for Sebastian Vettel in Monaco.

All eyes will continue to be on Mercedes as we head to Canada in two weeks’ time. Lewis Hamilton will be desperate to reassert his authority, and retake the championship lead, in Montreal; a track he loves and has had great success at in the past. Nico Rosberg will be equally keen to ensure that the momentum remains with him. The battle between the Mercedes team-mates looks set to be a season long one.

F1 dazzles in the desert

After two easy victories, one for each of the Mercedes drivers, in the opening two races of the season many were writing off Formula 1. Quieter engines, fuel efficiency and the same big margins of victory; no battles at the front – F1 had lost the plot, right? Wrong. The Bahrain grand prix was full of thrills and spills and featured a titanic battle for victory between the Mercedes drivers – easily the best race in recent years; a real thriller that had you on the edge of your seat right until the chequered flag.

In the end, just like a week ago in Malaysia, it was Lewis Hamilton that came out on top in Bahrain, although his margin of victory over team-mate Nico Rosberg was dramatically reduced from 17.3 seconds last time out to a whisker over a single second this time. As reflected by the narrow margin of victory, we had a real fight between the Mercedes drivers in Bahrain, not only in the final grandstand finish over the last 10 laps, but also, crucially, in the run up to the first round of pit stops.

Hamilton beat Rosberg off the line and took the lead into turn 1

Hamilton beat Rosberg off the
line and took the lead into turn 1

Unlike in the last two races, in Bahrain Rosberg beat Hamilton in qualifying to take his first pole position of the season, with his team-mate qualifying second, giving the Silver Arrows their first front row lock-out of the season. Rosberg had clearly raised his game after being dominated by Hamilton at Sepang and looked to have the edge over the 2008 world drivers’ champion this time. The German, the race winner in Australia, might have been able to streak clear in the same way that Hamilton managed in Malaysia, but he was beaten off the line, and into turn one, by his team-mate.

Having gotten the drop on Rosberg, Hamilton couldn’t pull away, though. The gap hovered around a second to a second and a half in the opening stint of the race allowing our first round of fireworks to take place as we approached the first pit stops. Knowing that the driver who stopped first would enjoy the advantage of the undercut – the advantage of fresher tyres for a lap or so – Rosberg pushed hard to overtake Hamilton and closed to within DRS range of his team-mate.

Rosberg squeezed ahead of Hamilton several times, but couldn't make the pass stick

Rosberg squeezed ahead of Hamilton several times, but couldn’t make the pass stick

On lap 18 Rosberg made his move, diving down the inside of Hamilton at turn one before conceding the lead again as the Englishman fought back. On the next lap Rosberg tried again. This time it looked like he might have made the pass stick, but Hamilton wasn’t giving up and re-passed Rosberg into turn four. It was a truly brilliant counter-attack from Hamilton and it looked critical as at the end of the lap he made his pit stop. He had secured the advantage of the undercut.

Once both of the Mercedes drivers had stopped – Hamilton for another set of option tyres, while Rosberg had switched to primes – things seemed to settle down. The undercut had given Hamilton a six second advantage, which steadily increased eventually reaching 9.7 seconds on lap 40. While it was never quite a case of ‘race over’ given that Hamilton would use the slower prime tyre in the final stint while Rosberg would use the faster options, things did look reasonably comfortable up front.

Maldonado's Lotus flips Gutierrez’s Sauber into a dramatic somersault

Maldonado’s Lotus flips Gutierrez’s
Sauber into a dramatic somersault

But then along came Pastor Maldonado in the Lotus. On lap 41 the Venezuelan exited the pits and T-boned Esteban Gutierrez’s Sauber, launching the Mexican’s car into a somersault at turn one – an incident which resulted in Maldonado receiving a five place grid penalty after the race, plus three points on his super-licence. Unsurprisingly, out came the safety car and away went Hamilton’s lead.

With Hamilton now on the slower tyres and Rosberg on the faster options, it looked to be advantage Rosberg. Just before the safety car pulled in with 10 laps to go, though, both Mercedes drivers received identical radio messages from Mercedes technical director Paddy Lowe “With 10 laps left to race, can we just make sure we bring both cars home.” Team orders, I thought. I was wrong! Rosberg attacked Hamilton immediately and while he couldn’t get the pass done he stayed close enough to Hamilton to receive the advantage of DRS when it became available two laps after the re-start.

Rosberg attacked again on laps 52 and 53, squeezing ahead of Hamilton only to be swiftly re-passed by his team-mate. It was thrilling stuff, but with better tyres and the edge in terms of outright speed I thought it was only a matter of time before Rosberg made the move stick. I was wrong again! Hamilton was told that he could use the overtake button on the exit of corners to aid in his defence and he was able to pull out a gap of around a second to Rosberg in the final couple of laps.

Perez celebrates his third place

Perez celebrates his third place

The second display of on-track fireworks between the Mercedes drivers was finally over as Hamilton took a brilliant victory, different in so many different ways to the win just a week earlier at Sepang. I haven’t even mentioned the other brilliant battles throughout the field during the race. Sergio Perez claimed third place to give Force India only their second ever podium finish and we saw on track fireworks from a whole host of other drivers. It was a tremendous race and a brilliant advert for the new era of Formula 1.

Not only did the battle between the Silver Arrows prove a thrilling spectacle, it also finally showed us the extent of the pace that the Brackley-based team have in their pocket. In just 10 laps they built up a 24 second advantage over Perez in third place; an advantage of some 2.4 seconds per lap. Something that will surely send shivers down the spines of the rest of the paddock.

Hamilton takes the checquered flag in Bahrain, just ahead of Rosberg

Hamilton takes the checquered flag
in Bahrain, just ahead of Rosberg

The championships look like Mercedes’s to lose, but we’re highly unlikely to get the sort of cakewalk that we’ve seen at times from Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel in recent seasons. The Mercedes drivers seem pretty closely matched and the team seem determined to let them race. That’s great for the sport. While Hamilton has two victories to Rosberg’s one, it’s the German that so far holds the championship advantage thanks to Hamilton’s unfortunate retirement in Australia.

There were more fireworks after the race, this time in the night sky as the organisers brought the curtain down on the 900th grand prix and the 10th at the Sakhir circuit. The next race in China has a lot to live up to.

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.