Sebastian Vettel completed Formula One’s tour of the Far East with a third straight victory, in the process taking the lead in the Drivers’ Championship.
His third victory in a row was secured in the first three turns of the race. When the lights went out pole position holder Mark Webber made a marginally slower getaway and Vettel was able to pull alongside his team-mate into Turn One. It was a close battle but by the end of the circuit’s long back straight the champion was ahead and had the better inside line. After that Vettel opened up a gap of a couple of seconds and seemed able to respond whenever Webber went quicker.
On lap 14 Webber headed for the pits to discard his supersoft tyres for a set of the softs. Vettel stayed ahead after his stop a lap later and set about increasing his lead to around 10s where it stayed. From there it was simply a case of both drivers managing tyre wear in order to maintain their one-two status to the flag. It was Red Bull’s first one-two finish since last season’s Brazilian Grand Prix.
Behind them Ferrari finished third and fourth with Felipe Massa tucking in behind Fernando Alonso. Kimi Räikkönen was fifth for Lotus, Nico Hülkenberg a hard-fought sixth for Force India ahead of Romain Grosjean in the second Lotus. Jean-Eric Vergne and Daniel Ricciardo were eighth and ninth respectively for Toro Rosso, and Lewis Hamilton picked up the final point for tenth after McLaren had a bad day.
This is the first time Vettel has led the Drivers’ Championship since May. He has 215 points compared to Alonso’s 209. Räikkönen remains third in the standings, increasingly distant on 169, while Lewis Hamilton is fourth with 153. “I think it was a fantastic race,” said a delighted Vettel. “Obviously the foundation was to have a good start, which I wasn’t sure [of] because I was starting on the dirty side but I have to say I had reasonable grip and a very good launch. I could see that Mark was struggling a little in the first bit of the start and I was able to get side-by-side. Then I had the inside into turn one, which was good.”
Vettel conceded that after that it had simply been a case of controlling the gap back to Webber and his rivals and managing his fading tyres. “It was a perfect first stint,” he said. “I think towards the end I was able to pull away a little bit and open a gap to Mark which helped to stay out a little bit longer and I think after that we had a very good stop, a very strong second stint opening the gap again.”
Webber, meanwhile, admitted that his less than perfect getaway had compromised his race. “The initial launch wasn’t good. The first bite just kicked to wheelspin and from then on I knew I could have some issues,” he said. “It was just a very mediocre run to the first corner. Seb got a good one.”
Alonso said he was happy with having got the maximum out of his Ferrari but admitted he did not know what his team could do to counter-punch against the form currently being shown by Red Bull. “I think it’s a question mark,” he said. “We didn’t bring to the last six or seven races, anything new. We are doing what we can at the moment and we are trying to save points, which I think we are doing perfectly every Sunday.
“Again it was a perfect Sunday for us: good start, good strategy at the right time and in the right moment, then finishing again on the podium. “I think it was a very strong Sunday. We overtook McLaren in the Constructors’ Championship, which is something that maybe we didn’t expect two or three races ago, so definitely we are moving in the right direction. We just need a little last step to be as competitive as Red Bull and I think it will be a beautiful last four races to the end.”
Red Bull increased their Constructors’ Championship lead to a commanding 77 points, with 367 compared to Ferrari’s 290. As Alonso said, third and fourth in the Korean Grand Prix jumped his team ahead of McLaren in the standings, for whom Jenson Button had a first-lap retirement after being hit by Kamui Kobayashi’s Sauber on the run down to Turn Three. Lewis Hamilton lost third place to Alonso at the start and then suffered an anti-roll bar failure mid-race that upset his car’s balance and forced him into a three-stop strategy for badly wearing tyres.
Hamilton conceded “In terms of winning the world championship, logic suggests that that’s probably it for me,” while Räikkönen said “The gap to Sebastian in the Championship is quite big now so it will be very difficult to catch him.” Increasingly the season looks like becoming a straight fight between Vettel and Alonso, with the momentum definitely in the German driver’s favour.