Sebastian Vettel is currently showing why he is so highly regarded in Formula One. Just five races ago, Vettel trailed Fernando Alonso by 42 points in the Drivers’ Championship. Since the mid-season break, however, Vettel has turned that deficit into a six point lead and is now the favourite to be World Champion for the third consecutive year – a feat only Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher have achieved in the history of Formula One.
Vettel qualified second for Sunday’s Korean Grand Prix, and after beating his pole-sitting team-mate into turn one was unstoppable. This is his third victory in as many races, and puts him in the lead of the World Championship, a position he looks unlikely to relinquish. Webber’s second place was largely the result of yet another mediocre start from the Australian, and he seemed disappointed with his own performance after the race.
Ferrari had no answer to the pace of Red Bull and had to settle for third and fourth, with Alonso finishing just ahead of Massa. It was the first time this season that Massa has looked quicker in a race than his team-mate, but despite catching Alonso quite easily, the Brazilian dutifully played the part of number two and stayed behind to allow Alonso to take as many points as possible and keep his title hopes alive. Massa’s driving seems to have been transformed in the last five races, and he now looks almost certain to keep his seat at Ferrari for 2013.
McLaren had a day to forget. Button was taken out by an error from Kobayashi under braking for turn three on the first lap, and Hamilton suffered a rear anti-roll bar failure on lap 18 which made his McLaren extremely difficult to drive. Nonetheless, Hamilton showed his enormous skill by driving around the problem and managed to earn a single point for tenth place. Unfortunately for Hamilton and McLaren, any hopes of championship glory in 2012 have now effectively been wiped out. It is still mathematically possible for them to take both the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships, but they would have to rely on substantial misfortune for Red Bull and Ferrari.
For Mercedes, the race was borderline embarrassing. Despite qualifying both cars in the top 10, race pace was nowhere to be found, as Michael Schumacher struggled to keep his tyres up to temperature. It seems that the tyre management issues of early in the season have not been solved after all. Even Schumacher’s prodigious defensive skill was not enough to keep him in the points, and he finished the race down in 13th place. Nico Rosberg was unfortunate to be caught up in the same incident with Kobayashi that took out Button on the first lap and retired with a damaged radiator. It’s the second consecutive race that has seen Rosberg eliminated through another driver’s error, which will doubtless be extremely frustrating for the young German.
While Mercedes seem to be going backwards, Toro Rosso have made great strides forward, and finished with both cars in the points for only the second time this season. Vergne and Ricciardo made the most of Hamilton’s mechanical woes to finish ahead of the McLaren driver, and earlier in the race made the Mercedes of Michael Schumacher look positively pedestrian. The Toro Rosso was the quickest car in a straight line all weekend, which greatly aided overtaking on the long straight between turns two and three. Vergne finished eighth, just ahead of team-mate Ricciardo.
Perhaps the most impressive drive of the day came from Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg, who split the Lotus cars of Raikkonen and Grosjean to take sixth place. The drive was further confirmation, if any was needed, of Hulkenberg’s significant talent. There are rumours linking him to a drive with Sauber for 2013, which would be a step towards more competitive results if the team’s form this year carries over to next season.
Raikkonen’s title challenge has more or less faded by now, as he could only manage fifth place and now lies 48 points – almost two race wins – off the championship lead with just four races remaining. Nonetheless, the consistency displayed by the Finn on his return to Formula One continues to be impressive, and he will no doubt continue to be a threat next year. Romain Grosjean is probably the most relieved man on the grid, as he managed to navigate the first lap without incident. The Frenchman has been under substantial pressure to rein in his early-race enthusiasm, and he looks to have made some progress in that regard.
The Drivers’ Championship is now a two horse race, with only Vettel and Alonso realistically in with a chance of title honours. Red Bull certainly appear to have the faster car, and momentum is with Vettel after his three consecutive victories. Nonetheless, Alonso can never be counted out as long as he has a car to drive. Ferrari will be working tirelessly to improve the performance of their car, which should lead to a tense and thrilling last four races of the season.