Sebastian Vettel took a major step toward retaining his Formula One World Championship crown last Sunday by dominating the South Korean Grand Prix, a uniquely all-German affair as the unfancied Sauber team returned to form courtesy of a stunning fourth place for Nico Hulkenberg.
Vettel is now mere points away from his fourth consecutive title crown, a feat that would place him ahead of the late, great Ayrton Senna in the record books and equal with the Brazilian’s arch-rival, Alain Prost.
The Red Bull driver made the sweetest of starts to surge into an early lead, but things unraveled for some of those behind him as outgoing Ferrari stalwart Felipe Massa spun in his efforts to challenge teammate Fernando Alonso for sixth place; his mistake caused Adrian Sutil to clip Jenson Button’s McLaren and forced the Englishman to pit for repairs.
Mercedes has long had the fastest car in 2013, but again it failed to make headway; Nico Rosberg had closed rapidly on teammate Lewis Hamilton, who was falling backward from his initial sixth-place starting position, but as he pulled out of the Briton’s slipstream to pass, the sudden added air drag dislodged his front wing. He and Hamilton struggled back to the pits, the German for a new nose while Hamilton required fresh Pirelli tires.
Sergio Perez soon became the center of attention when his erstwhile quiet race livened up as his right-front tire blew itself apart when the rubber ran out, the Mexican having been too optimistic in his efforts to go as deep as possible into the race before making a pit-stop. This in turn necessitated a safety car period, one that Vettel overcame with ease to reassert his authority. It didn’t last long however, as a mere three corners into the lap Adrian Sutil repeated Massa’s earlier error and rammed Vettel’s Australian teammate Mark Webber. Webber was left parked at the side of the track with his car in flames when the impact fractured his exhaust pipes, the resulting smokescreen causing a fire truck to be sent out onto the circuit while racing was still under way.
The error by race marshals meant the safety car made its second appearance in as many laps, but again Vettel was in supreme control when the racing got back under way. He left Lotus duo Romain Grosjean and Kimi Raikkonen to slug it out for second place, the Finn eventually prevailing.
Hulkenberg’s starring role was just getting started as the race counted down toward the final lap, with the German sitting fourth, ahead of Hamilton, Alonso, Button and Rosberg. Despite the greatest efforts of Hamilton, the Sauber driver refused to be intimidated by the sight of three former world champions in his wing mirrors, judging his line inch-perfectly to frustrate the desperate weaves and dives of Hamilton. In the one instance when the Mercedes man managed to pull an overtake, Hulkenberg nipped back under the Briton and regained his position by virtue of his superior traction out of corners.
The real winner of the day though, was undoubtedly Vettel.
“It was a fantastic race with a fantastic car,” beamed the world champion post-race.
“Everything fell into place again for us: the strategy, the pit stops — everything!" he said. "I would even go so far as to say that we’ve been a step ahead today in terms of speed.”
Vettel is mathematically able to win the title in Japan this coming weekend. To do so, he must win, with nearest rival Alonso finishing ninth or lower.