2013 Korean GP: Sebastian Vettel untouchable again to close on world title
Hulkenberg stars, Perez's tyre blows, Webber's RB9 meets fiery end
By James Galloway
Last Updated: 07/10/13 7:47am
Although the German's pace advantage over the rest was not as pronounced as it had been last time out in Singapore - his winning margin over second-placed Kimi Raikkonen a relatively mere four seconds - and he had to survive the tension of two mid-race Safety Car periods in quick succession, the stark reality yet again was that Vettel had the 55-lap race under control from start to finish.
With chief championship challenger Fernando Alonso enduring a frustrating afternoon, the Spaniard unusually finishing one place lower than where he qualified in sixth, Vettel now has a 77-point title lead and will clinch his latest crown as early as next week's Japanese GP if he wins for the ninth time this year and Alonso finishes outside the top eight.
While such an early coronation may be long shot, there is now little doubt - if any remained - that Vettel is poised to become just the fourth man in history to become a quadruple F1 title winner.
But while the identity of the winner was never seriously in doubt from the moment Vettel comfortably converted his latest pole into the race lead, behind the Red Bull the action was at times gripping - and often chaotic - as the increasingly supporting 2013 cast put on an exciting show.
For much of the 55 laps the impressive Romain Grosjean, having passed Lewis Hamilton for second place inside three corners on lap one, had run Vettel closest yet the Frenchman, not for the first time, was ultimately overhauled for second by Lotus team-mate Raikkonen.
As in Singapore, Raikkonen made light of a poor qualifying session to stealthily jump up to the podium positions over the more testing longer distance, the Ferrari-bound driver jumping 2014 team-mate Alonso at the second round of stops and then incisively passing Grosjean at the first re-start.
He may be out of sorts on Saturdays, but Raikkonen's sixth runner-up finish of the year continues to mark him out as one of F1's brightest stars.
One man who many believe should have the chance to prove he belongs in such exulted company is Nico Hulkenberg and the German put himself firmly in the shop window for Raikkonen's soon-to-be-vacated Lotus seat with a brilliant career-best drive to fourth.
Moving ahead of the two Ferraris on the opening lap, Hulkenberg successfully stayed ahead of both Alonso and Raikkonen through the opening two stints despite struggling with tyre graining on his C32.
Fifth then became fourth when he passed Hamilton at the first restart, and despite a renewed push from the faster Mercedes in the closing laps, Hulkenberg, aided by impressive straightline speed and traction, brilliantly held out to compound Hamilton's tough afternoon.
Although Hamilton had lost position to Grosjean on the opening lap, he had kept in relative touch with the top two through the opening stint. But mid-way through his medium-tyre run Mercedes' age-old Achilles' heel of tyre degradation resurfaced in quite dramatic fashion.
Despite repeatedly urging his Mercedes team to bring his second stop forward - and even resorting to using an expletive to describe the state of his rubber - Mercedes kept Hamilton out to avoid a slower three-stop strategy and he fell into the clutches of team-mate Nico Rosberg, who up until that point had run in relative anonymity.
However, in the first of what proved several dramatic incidents in quick succession, Rosberg passed the ailing Hamilton down the backstraight only for the German's frontwing to start scraping against the floor and sparking spectacularly. With the nose having come loose, Rosberg immediately pitted. He eventually recovered to seventh.
Jenson Button, despite an early stop for a front-wing change, finished eighth ahead of Felipe Massa and Sergio Perez.
Both Massa and Perez were summoned to see the stewards after the race after a late combative dice over those final points places, but that didn't tell the full story of both drivers' afternoons.
Indeed, Massa had been involved in the race's first real dramatic moment when, amid the ever-frenzied opening dash down the backstraight, spun under braking on the inside and forced team-mate Alonso to take avoiding action. While the Spaniard was lucky to escape without any damage to his car, Massa dropped to the back of the pack before setting in motion his recovery drive to the points.
McLaren rival Perez, meanwhile, suffered a sudden right-front tyre blowout coming onto that same backstraight later in the race, which may have been prompted by a massive lock-out of the same tyre for the previous corner.
With the tread exploding off the wheel, Mark Webber, following closely behind, picked up a puncture when running over the resultant debris and had to make an unscheduled pitstop of his own.
It proved particularly untimely for the Australian as he had been in the midst of a promising recovery drive from his 13th-place grid spot. However, just laps later, Webber's his hopes of a strong result were conclusively ended when he was hit from behind by Force India's Adrian Sutil and retired on the spot.
Then to cap what is increasing turning into a disappointing end to his long F1 career, the rear of Webber's RB9 immediately caught fire with the rear of the car soon engulfed in flames.
A fire truck, instead of the usual safety car, was then erroneously dispatched at the head of the field, symbolising what was fast turning into an increasingly unpredictable afternoon.
Not that any of that truly troubled the other Red Bull driver, however, who now heads to Suzuka on the brink of yet another piece of history.