Rencken: It's not all over yet
Has the 2012 Formula 1 World championship, after 16 rounds of 20, settled into a groove of predictability? Not only did Sebastian Vettel win for the third time on the trot to make it four wins in a championship that to date had had had seven different winners in as many races, but Red Bull’s double reigning champion did so from the front, just as in Japan a week before.
Fernando Alonso, whose third place cost the 2005/6 champion a title lead that at one stage provided the Ferrari driver with virtually a three-race cushion despite having far from the quickest car, disagreed defiantly, saying:
“In the last four races we need to score seven points more than Sebastian. It will be tough but we believe we can do it,” before pointing out that there still remained 100 points to play for.
“Tough” is on the money, for as Red Bull Racing proved by locking out the front grid row en route to the team’s first 1-2 of the season, recent developments – which include a double DRS system which stalls air flow over the rear wing, significantly boosting top speed – have made their cars sublime, as capable of winning on the floodlit streets of Singapore as on the classic Suzuka circuit and in the dust of Korea’s distant south-western corner.
However, to win, Vettel needed to overcome the challenge posed by his pole-starting team mate Mark Webber who before the race indicated he would be racing for his own account. But the best the lanky Australian could do was hold the German off to the first corner after a poor start, then cede to the younger; thus after 400m it was all over.
If, that is, the car did not succumb to a mechanical malady such as alternator issues which twice robbed Vettel of victory earlier in the year – including at Monza, which would have made it four Vettel wins in a row, proving just how this once topsy-turvy season has turned…
LITTLE HOPE FOR HAMILTON
Once past Webber, Vettel stretched the gap; soon it was three seconds, then four and so to 10, at which point Vettel stabilised his advantage secure in the knowledge that Webber had the pace to do the same to Alonso, who jumped Lewis Hamilton going into Turn 3 for the first time before nailing home his advantage as the hapless Briton’s race went from bad to worse: first an anti-roll bar broke - screwing his tyre wear - then a stray slice of Astroturf attached itself to the right side of the silver car, playing havoc with its aerodynamics.
From third on the grid he finished 10th, the 2008 champion later admitting a distant fourth in the chase meant his chances of another McLaren title before moving to Mercedes were effectively over.
If Hamilton had a bad day in the office, team mate Jenson Button’s didn’t get past the door: having been slowed by yellow flags during Q2 he lined up 11th and was thus able to chose his tyre strategy, selecting to start on Soft New – but before he was able to benefit from a full fuel run on the harder of Pirelli’s two supplied compounds “Kamikaze Kamui” took the Briton and Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) out with a desperate dive down the inside on Lap 1.
Without exception the top 10 on the grid elected to start on Supersoft New, switching to Soft New for their final two stints, with only Hamilton (SSN, SN, SN, SSU) eventually running a three-stopper (see above) and Pastor Maldonado uniquely pitting once on his way to 14th for Williams. The two-stoppers all chose to pull in stops on laps 15 and 33– underscoring the predictability of this race.
ASSURANCE FOR MASSA
If Vettel and Webber felt comfortable out front – save for a few anxious moments for the former when he locked up going into Turn 3, and fears over his right front tyre towards the end of the 55-lap race – so did Alonso, who had team mate Felipe Massa riding shotgun at a respectable distance in the second Ferrari.
Driving for his career after a few lacklustre seasons, the Brazilian hardly planned do anything rash – going on to finish fourth behind the Spaniard, their points thus scored elevating the team to second in the Constructors’ championship, albeit some way off Red Bul. Following his fine second in Japan, the chirpy Felipe is now virtually assured of wearing red in 2013.
However, behind the top quartet, a battle royale raged as Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus), who consolidated third in the championship from Hamilton with fifth, Nico Hulkenberg, driving an impressive race for Force India at a crucial point in the driver transfer season, and Romain Grosjean in the second gold/black Lotus, dived every which way in their attempts to put one over on the other two.
It was impressive stuff from three committed racers, each giving the other enough space – just – while for the last-named the result went some way towards to restoring his reputation after his Rambo moves in earlier races.
After the race Lotus team boss Eric Boullier told Wheels24: “Romain had to finish in the points – and he did.” Does a single swallow a spring make, or will destruction follow in the remaining races?
Jean-Eric Vergne, who started 16th, drove a fine race – “probably the best of my career” – to eighth as the only points-scorer to race an SN/SN/SSN strategy, beating Toro Rosso team mate Daniel Ricciardo across the line, with Hamilton finishing ahead of his 2013 replacement at McLaren, Sergio Perez (Sauber) in 11th.
Going to Korea, by some margin the least popular race on the calendar among paddock folk due to the circuit’s forsaken location and local disinterest, a tipping of the scales in favour of Vettel/Red Bull was expected – and so it proved, particularly as the combination had dominated the previous two editions of this race. They won in 2011 and led handsomely in 2010 until engine failure intervened.
Yes, he had that tyre scare towards the end, but bravery carried the day – and now he leads the championship for the first time this year.
Ferrari is far from down and out, although Alonso’s quest to beat Vettel to the title of youngest triple champion just became appreciably harder. Yet Red Bull simply cannot afford to slacken for Alonso is likely the most relentless driver in the history of the sport, more so then even the determined Vettel.
Coming to Korea, Vettel needed to take a point per race off Alonso over each of the then remaining races to lift the title. Now Alonso needs two points at each of the four remaining races. So quickly has the championship turned but, as Alonso said on Sunday evening, “a beautiful championship fight awaits”.
Here’s hoping beautiful equates to unpredictable…