It was a familiar sight in Korea in Saturday: an all Red Bull front row at the end of Q3. And on Sunday, another familiar sight: Red Bull felled by their usual demons, driver error and mechanical failure. Unfortunately, on this go round, both demons attacked at once.
The major story of the race was the weather. It was wet enough to mandate a safety car start, followed by a red flag period, followed by a restart, also led by the safety car. At one point, it looked as though the entire race might be run that way, and in the end, nearly a third of it was before the first green flag was dropped. Eventually conditions began to improve.
The first Red Bull pilot to run out of luck (if luck is the word) was Mark Webber. The Aussie pilot, who had been leading in World Championship points at the start of the race, put a wheel wrong on the second racing lap, and began to spin. He caromed across the track into one of the dreaded walls in the “city section” of the track (apparently these walls only exist because of a plan to construct an entire city around the track at some point — currently, the track is about a half mile from nowhere, which makes the walls seem pointless), bounced across the track again, whereupon Nico Rosberg, who had overtaken Hamilton for third, plowed right into him. Rosberg had nowhere else to go. It was day over for both drivers, and another stint for the safety car.
From that point on, Vettel, Alonso and Hamilton were the front runners. Although, given the conditions, no one’s race appeared to be a shoe-in, these three were in the quickest cars, and seemed to have the best skills for dealing with the weather.
There was plenty of drama behind them, as various drivers tried to cope with and/or take advantage of changing conditions. Jenson Button, who had started sixth, took on intermediate tires rather early, and never seemed to recover. For the remainder of the race he struggled among the back-markers, running as low as 16th, and finishing only 12th. Speed TV’s Bob Varsha suggested that McLaren has been using the 2009 champ as a guinea pig for tire strategy in wet races this year, for the benefit of Lewis Hamilton.
Although McLaren are always quick to maintain that they never employ team orders, that says nothing of team preference. Like it or not, Button joined the team as the de facto number two. While McLaren might never ask Button to move over for Hamilton, there are other ways of getting one driver to support the race of another. For example, Martin Whitmarsh might tell the engineers, “Let’s throw inters on Jense’s car, and see how well he goes. If he’s quick, we can bring Lewis in for a change as well.” Or words to that effect.
Of course, it’s possible that the premature tire change was Button’s idea. He’d just been passed by Michael Schumacher, and maybe he was thinking, “If that old duffer can get past me, perhaps it’s time to pit for new rubber.” In any event, no matter whose idea it was, Button’s stop was ill-timed, and his race never recovered. One might say the same for his championship hopes for this year.
One former champ who did have a great race was Michael Schumacher. It was, hands down, his best race of the season. He pulled off two clean, well-executed passes to overtake both Robert Kubica (who is never easy to get by) and Button, and the rest of his race was driven intelligently, to give him a solid fourth. He was never really contention for a podium, as his team mate Nico Rosberg would have been, had he not been taken out by Webber, but at times we saw shades of the old Schumacher when the track conditions were at their wettest. Once the track began to improve, the Merc was no match for the leaders. Ultimately, the Merc brain trust instructed Schumi to consolidate his position and preserve his tires, which he did.
Lewis Hamilton took second, and he was happy to get it. The McLarens were unable to rival the Red Bulls or Alonso’s Ferrari on pure pace, and Hamilton had the further humiliation of being passed by Rosberg when the green flag dropped. Had it not been for the Webber-Rosberg incident, Hamilton might have been relegated to fourth. But being both good and lucky is the best of all worlds for a racing driver, and Hamilton was both on this day. He drove intelligently, stayed out of trouble, and profited from the mistakes of others.
If you were determined to find fault, you might say that Hamilton didn’t look after his tires well enough. In the closing laps, he was unable to keep pace with Alonso, and eventually finished 14 seconds behind him, even though at one point it looked as though he might make a run on the leader. But in reality there was probably little he could have done to preserve his tires. The McLarens had struggled for front end grip all weekend, and had dialed more downforce into the front wing, which in turn produced greater wear on the front tires than was ideal. Hamilton’s inters began to degrade within a few laps of his pit stop, even though he was running behind the safety car at the time.
Alonso ran securely in second for nearly two-thirds of the race, until lap 49, when he inherited the lead from a hapless Sebastian Vettel, whose engine had blown up. The Red Bull produced some spectacular fireworks, belching fire, smoke and sparks and disgorging bits of metal all over the track. Vettel looked philosophical about it once he’d made his way back to the pits. Red Bull consultant (and former Le Mans winner) Dr. Helmut Marko gave Vettel a consoling slap on the back, but the young German pilot seemed cheerful enough, giving Marko a smile, as if thinking, “That’s racing, chum.”
Not so, Mark Webber, who was disconsolate after his crash. He hid from the media scrum for a time, and when he finally emerged to make a statement he was visibly upset. But then, he’d been the victim of his own mistake, whereas Vettel had been a victim of a worn-out Renualt power plant.
As for Alonso, he drove a near-perfect race. He only lost position once, and that was due to a slow pit stop, when one of the Ferrari mechanics had difficulty securing the right front wheel. He lost second to Hamilton, but gained it back immediately when Hammy ran wide in Turn 1. The Ferrari was slower than the Red Bulls in certain portions of the track, and slower than the McLarens in others. But the average pace of Alonso’s Ferrari was good over the track as a whole, as the car seemed to be extremely well balanced. Alonso drove intelligently, looking after his tires the whole way (as prompted from the pit wall by his engineer), and at no time did he appear to be struggling for grip or pace.
His team mate, Felipe Massa, managed a podium by driving prudently, looking after his equipment and staying out of trouble. Although he was clearly lucky to make the podium, due to the retirements of Webber and Rosberg, he looked about as happy as a dog who’d just lost his favorite chew-toy. Perhaps it’s really sinking in that he’s being thoroughly overshadowed by his team mate.
At the beginning of the season, Massa might have flattered himself that he had the edge over new boy Alonso, but Alonso has been the star of the Ferrari show from the first race of 2010, which he won. Massa had his day in the sun when paired with Kimi Raikkonen, who seemed to grow bored with the sport once he’d won his title in 2007. But that day has passed. Alonso is no Raikkonen. He quickly made himself an integral part of the team, and he’s tenacious, both on the track and off, and has an innate sense of intra-team politics. He’s always looking for the angle, and usually finds it.
Many were critical of Alonso for demanding that the team order Massa to make way for him in Germany earlier this year, allowing Alonso to take the win. But clearly Alonso was thinking about the season’s end, rather than merely the win on that day, and if he ends up winning the title this year by a slender thread, both he and the Scuderia will consider the $100,000 fine they incurred for breaking the team orders ban money well spent.