Sebastian Vettel marched to his eighth victory of the year with a controlled drive at a Korean Grand Prix in which all the action happened behind the Red Bull Racing driver.
Starting from pole, Vettel made a good start to hold his advantage through the first few corners, as behind him Lewis Hamilton and Romain Grosjean tussled for second position, the Lotus driver eventually winning out.
While the championship leader did not build the sort of gap to his rivals he has enjoyed at other circuits, Vettel was able to forge a three-second gap to Grosjean in the first stint and even when two rapid-fire safety car periods occurred in the middle of the race, the Red Bull driver controlled matters expertly at the front to eventually finish 4.2 seconds ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and third-placed Grosjean.
“I’m extremely happy with the result, great job by the team, we had two very good stops,” said Vettel. “I think it was quite good to have the safety car coming out the first time, we were just a couple of corners before the pit entry.
“Then, fortunately, we had enough pace to always open up a little bit of a gap, even though I think Kimi and Romain were pretty competitive the longer the stint was. So I think they did maybe a better job with their tyres, looking after their tyres. But all in all, fantastic.”
It was behind the race leader that all the drama took place. After a first stint in which Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo, the only man to start on the medium tyres, had climbed into the top 10 and during which Red Bull Racing’s Mark Webber also worked his way into the points positions, the order began to settle somewhat. Vettel led Grosjean, Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, while behind them a train was forming behind Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg, with Fernando Alonso, Kimi Raikkonen and Webber all waiting to pounce.
That began to change in the run-up to the second pit stops. First, Hamilton began to lose pace, complaining that his front right tyre was “destroyed”. That allowed Rosberg to narrow a 12-second gap to less than two. But moments after passing his team-mate the German’s front wing failed and trailing sparks he was forced back to the pits for a nosecone change.
His slow stop kept Hamilton out on track and when the Mercedes man finally was brought in by his team, Webber vaulted to third, the Australian having passed Alonso, when the Spaniard made a mistake on lap 28.
Any joy the Red Bull driver was feeling at being in a position to battle for a high points finish was eradicated just after his second stop however.
Webber dived into the pit lane on lap 30 and made a clean stop for a second set of medium tyres. But when he rejoined it was behind McLaren’s Sergio Perez, who was struggling with a damaged front right tyre. The Pirelli tyre blew, taking bits of the McLaren with it and Webber was forced to take evasive action. The Safety Car was deployed.
That was the cue for Vettel and Grosjean to pit and both got away cleanly. Behind them was Kimi Raikkonen who had, almost unnoticed, climbed through the order from ninth on the grid.
Webber, meanwhile, was brought in again by Red Bull Racing, taking on a set of supersoft tyres. He was sent back out in P11 but when the safety car left the circuit, the Australian was broadsided by the Force India of Adrian Sutil on the re-start. Webber’s car was pitched off track where it burst into flames. The Safety Car was back out almost immediately.
Ahead of the incident, Hulkenberg passed Hamilton for fourth place, while in the podium positions, Raikkonen forced an error out of team-mate Grosjean and stole second.
“I got a good run, he made a mistake in I think the second-last corner and I got the good run,” said Raikkonen of the move. “I had heard that there will be yellow flags at the end of the straight, so I knew he’s not going to pass me back with the DRS because it’s not open with the yellow flags. So I thought I would try to overtake and it was not too difficult.”
The Finn admitted, however, that his race to his eighth podium finish of the year had not been easy.
“The car was just understeering too much, the whole weekend, even today, so I had to try to look after the front tyre and that was really the limitation on how much I could push,” he said. “We were stuck behind the traffic after the pit stops. We decided to stop earlier and it was a good move and obviously the safety car helped a little bit but we had the speed and we could run until the end. So even without the safety car we could have maybe run until the end and still have a podium position. So it was good – but not ideal.”
In the final stages after the second safety car, the race was all about Hulkenberg. While the front three maintained position, the Sauber driver in fourth, fought a mesmerising rearguard action as Hamilton, Alonso and eventually Button and Rosberg queued up behind to attack.
The German, though was faultless, delivering a superb drive to claim his best finish of the season.
The order behind the Sauber man remained Hamilton, Alonso, but Rosberg eventually muscled past Button to take seventh place. The McLaren driver held eighth place, while Felipe Massa, whose race was compromised by a Turn 3 collision with Alonso just after the start, recovered to finish ninth, ahead of Perez.
Vettel’s win means he extends his Drivers’ Championship lead over Alonso to 77 points, with five rounds left. The championship now moves on to the Japanese Grand Prix, a race the German says he is looking forward to.
“I think it’s the best track in the world,” he said. “The fans are crazy – completely crazy in a positive way so really looking forward to Japan.”
It could be for more than the fan worship. It is possible for Vettel to win the title at Suzuka should he win and Alonso not finish above ninth place. A long shot perhaps but it certainly brings into focus how close the 26-year-old is to a fourth consecutive crown.
2013 Korean Grand Prix – Race Result
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull Racing 55 25
2. Kimi Räikkönen Lotus 55 +4.2 secs 18
3. Romain Grosjean Lotus 55 +4.9 secs 15
4. Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 55 +24.1 secs 12
5. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 55 +25.2 secs 10
6. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 55 +26.1 secs 8
7. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 55 +26.6 secs 6
8. Jenson Button McLaren 55 +32.2 secs 4
9. Felipe Massa 55 +34.3 secs 2
10. Sergio Perez McLaren 55 +35.1 secs 1
11. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 55 +35.9 secs
12. Valtteri Bottas Williams 55 +47.0 secs
13. Pastor Maldonado Williams 55 +50.0 secs
14. Charles Pic Caterham 55 +63.5 secs
15. Giedo van der Garde Caterham 55 +64.5 secs
16. Jules Bianchi Marussia 55 +67.9 secs
17. Max Chilton Marussia 55 +72.8 secs
18. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 53 Mechanical
19. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 52 Mechanical
20. Adrian Sutil Force India 50 +5 Laps
Ret 2 Mark Webber Red Bull Racing 36 +19 Laps
Ret 14 Paul di Resta Force India 24 Accident