Venue: Yeongam, South Korea
Circuit Length: 5.615 kilometres
Lap Record: 1:39.605 = 202.941 km/h • Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Renault) • 2011
This is the track at which Mark Webber last sat on pole position, when he shared the front row with Red Bull teammate Vettel last season. The Australian has six chances to add to his F1 career tally of 11 poles before he leaves the sport at the end of 2013; Korea (but see note below), Japan, India, Abu Dhabi, Austin and Brazil. He has never been on pole at any of the final five races on that list…
18 corners, 11 left, 7 right; long main straight of 1.2km with the year’s severest braking at the end – down from well over 300 to under 90. We don’t hear from the rookies too often, so for once let’s give Giedo van der Garde his head. The Dutchman was in Korea to run in Free Practice last year so it’s not an entirely new experience for him in the Caterham in 2013: “From inside the cockpit the Korea track is a pretty typical modern F1 circuit,” he explains. “There’s the long straight out of T2 where you need good straight-line speed and then it’s a bit stop / start through turns three, four, five and six, and then you’re into the high speed section up to the heavy braking zone at turn 10. It’s pretty bumpy through that whole section and in the early stages of FP1 there’s little grip around the whole track, but it quickly builds up over the weekend so you can start really pushing through there from quite early on.”
The law of diminishing returns
That, in a sense, is what Sebastian Vettel’s rivals face over the six-race sprint for the Championship line. In Singapore Ferrari bust a gut to give Fernando Alonso a car capable of taking it to the Red Bull Renault – but still came away with their Spanish driver 60 points in arrears of the German. “Never say never: in sport something unexpected can always happen,” insists Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali, but the clockwork reliability shown by Vettel this year suggests he is clutching at straws. Vettel has never been anywhere but the front row in Korean qualifying and he’s won at Yeongam for the past two seasons, so the signs are already ominous. Still, Alonso was the first winner when both Red Bulls failed to make it home back in 2010 so the precedent does exist.
While it hasn’t worked its way onto the drivers’ list of favourite tracks yet, Korea does offer an interesting difference from the rest, as Mark Webber explains: “The atmosphere at the track isn’t great because there aren’t many spectators, but the track’s got some challenging sections and some good corners,” says the Australian. “The last sector in particular is fun because it has a nice flow to it and the walls are pretty close, so you have to be very accurate with your line. Something that’s unique about this race is that the drivers all stay in the same hotel. Meal times can be a bit bizarre because everyone sits by nationality and we like to have a good look at what everyone else is eating for breakfast.” You can bet there won’t be too many jars of Vegemite around the place…
Webber, of course, starts his Korean weekend with a significant anchor attached to his Red Bull. His reprimand from the Singapore stewards for hitching a lift with Alonso back to pit lane was his third of the year. That means an automatic 10-place grid penalty this weekend, so even he puts it on provisional pole he will start 11th at best. That makes career podium #38 a pretty tricky proposition but with Kimi Raïkkönen only 19 points ahead in fourth place overall and Nico Rosberg just 14 behind in sixth the Aussie has every incentive to go for as big a points haul as he can salvage.
With Red Bull also a country mile ahead in the Constructors’ Championship the interest switches to the - tussle for second place. It’s currently occupied by Ferrari but the Maranello squad enjoys a fragile seven-point margin over Mercedes. Time for Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg to step up: Lewis was second in Korea in 2010-11 but could manage only 10th last year while Nico’s eighth place in 2011 is his only points-scoring finish at the track to date. As Toto Wolff says, “In the three races since the summer break, our team has scored an average of 20 points per Grand Prix. But it’s a measure of our expectations now that we have left each circuit disappointed that we didn’t achieve even more. That’s a feeling we’ll be looking to change this weekend.”
McLaren have just six more chances to achieve a podium finish in 2013 – but it might not be too wise to look to Jenson Button for a top-three finish in Korea given the Englishman’s luck in Korea up till now. “If there’s one circuit on the F1 calendar that hasn’t been particularly kind to me, then it’s the track in Korea,” says the popular 33-year-old. “I had a pretty tough race there in 2010, an average race there in ’11, and I didn’t even have a race there last year – someone smashed into me at Turn Three on the first lap, and my race was over. Of course, it would be easy for that to make your head drop, but, in fact, the opposite is true: I travel to Korea next week even more determined than normal to reverse the trend, get the absolute maximum from the car and get a good result.” If Martin Whitmarsh’s men do not score a podium in these last six races, it will be the first World Championship season since 1980 without a McLaren in the top three at any Grand Prix.
Last but not least, watch for Dan Ricciardo striving with might and main to end the season ahead of Toro Rosso teammate Jean Eric Vergne before the Australian heads to Red Bull. A top-10 overall finish seems unlikely – Paul Di Resta is 10th on 36 points, exactly twice as many as Dan in 14th – but JEV is five points adrift while Dan has Nico Hulkenberg just one ahead of him, Sergio Perez four points above him and Adrian Sutil eight points in front.
Pole Position: Mark Webber (Red Bull Renault) 1:37.242 = 207.873 km/h
1st: Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull Renault) 1:36.28.651 (av. speed 191.938 km/h)
2nd: Mark Webber (Red Bull Renault) gap 8.231s
3rd: Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) gap 13.944s
Fastest Lap: Nico Hülkenberg (Force India Mercedes) 1:51.033 = 164.480 km/h on lap 52