Rencken: Clean start for Korea?
Following just a week after Japan’s Formula 1 race – dominated by Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel - this weekend’s Korean GP at the Korean International Circuit outside Mokpo in the far south-eastern corner of the Asian country has certainly evoked mixed feelings.
On one hand the F1 circus is relishing a resumption of the battle between the top title contenders – German Vettel and Ferrari’s increasingly desperate Spaniard Fernando Alonso – and on the other the sport is dreading the thought of returning to the rather bleak region for the third edition of what is without doubt the least favourite venue on the trail.
TWO TRACKS IN ONE
The pity is that, but for its forsaken location, the complex has huge potential and could easily make any list of five given a touch of spit and polish. Yet the promoters simply don't seem to care, as evidenced by the fact that when F1 arrived in 2011 team members were horrified to discover their hospitality units had not even been cleaned after the inaugural race a year earlier – fossilised sandwiches in the fridges and all!
Will things be any more professional this weekend?
The semi-permanent facility constructed (just in time) for the 2010 race using a combination of purpose-built track and public roads planned for a long-off marina resort, KIC is effectively two circuits in one: an ultra-fast opening half, followed by a narrow, bumpy and wall-lined close to each 5.615km lap.
The layout has 18 turns (11L/7R), although the sequence from T10-17 is taken as one continuous flow - thus being particularly challenging – while three of each lap’s 12 braking events are deemed ‘heavy’, with g-forces under braking for T3 hitting well over five. On the run between T2/3, at 1050m the fourth-longest straight in current F1, top speeds are over 320km/h are reached (without DRS assistance), with two corners taken at more than 250km/h and five at speeds of less than 100km/h for a lap average of 195km/h.
With the circuit being used infrequently (never?) between grands prix, it undergoes high levels of surface evolution during the course of the weekend as the racing line rubbers in. In fact, during the past two years, lap-time improvement between Friday’s first practice and Saturday’s qualifying was among the best of all, with 2012 expected to be no different.
Changes to the track since 2011 are few, being confined to extensions of run-off areas, mandatory upgrades of kerbs, and higher debris fences, while the FIA has decreed an extension of the DRS zone by 80m. During the race’s 55 laps drivers will change gear almost 3000 times, with full throttle being used on 60% of each lap.
Unpredictable weather is a feature of the region - both races to date had rain - but long-term forecasts indicate 20°C with cloudy skies throughout. Given KIC’s low abrasion rate, Pirelli has specified it’s Supersoft (red sidewalls) and Soft (yellow) rubber – as supplied in Canada, Singapore and Monaco, semi-permanent circuits all – but these could be complemented by the company’s intermediates and wets should the weather over the Yellow Sea turn as in the past.
Vettel’s runaway victory in Japan a week earlier not only made him the first consecutive winner of the season but also brought the reigning double champion to within four points of championship leader Alonso’s 194 after the latter squandered his 29-point lead with a bit of overly robust driving going into Turn 1.
His Ferrari and Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus touched, puncturing Alonso’s left rear tyre and ripping it off the rim. With such are titles won and lost as the double champion surely knows, yet for once his racer instinct cast aside.
RAIKKONEN IN THE FRAME
Thus, where after 14 rounds Vettel faced a deficit of five points per race over the final set of six, with five (of 20) to go the average is now only one point. Plus Vettel, who won here in 2011, has without doubt the faster car. However, as proven by his 2010 Korean victory, Alonso is no slouch on this circuit so a resumption of the battle between the two top drivers of their generation is expected…
Raikkonen, too, is in the frame despite being the only driver in the top five not to have a won a race during a season featuring such as Pastor Maldonado (Williams) on the top step, but this due more to the Finn’s Lotus, which lacks that final edge. However, the black/gold team has brought a raft of aero upgrades to Mokpo so the 2007 champion, on 157 points, could well leave Korea as the eighth winner of this topsy-turvy season.
Fourth on the log with 152 points is Lewis Hamilton but, with relations between the Briton and McLaren (again) being at a low after he (again) tweeted nonsense to his followers, one wonders how this will affect his performance, particularly given that many in the silver team are said to be unamused that he has chosen to defect to Mercedes at season’s end.
The 2008 champion has finished second here twice, so could spring a surprise – as is his wont on occasion when all is well in his world.
PERFECT STORM NEEDED
Although no longer a realistic title contender, Mark Webber (134), who finished third here for Red Bull in 2011, is certainly in with a shout, as is McLaren’s Jenson Button, on 131. Mercedes is desperate for good results, as is the retiring Michael Schumacher, who vacates the team to make way for Hamilton, while the German’s team mate and compatriot at the Three-Pointed Star needs to prove that his win in China was no flash in the pan.
Can Mercedes do it? Yes, but it needs a perfect storm to do so.
Either way, Korea promises to be a humdinger, a fitting tribute to Asia as the sport bids the Orient farewell for another year and heads for India/Middle East and the Americas for its final 2012 fling.
The race will start at 8am SA time on Sunday, qualifying at 7am on Saturday.
Stay with Wheels24 for the 2012 Korean F1 GP weekend.PERFREC