As Formula One makes its fourth visit to the Korea International Circuit in Yeongam, many fans are yawning at the prospect of a carbon copy of the 2012 event, which was dominated by Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull team. Many people now believe it is simply a matter of time before Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing waltz to a series of four consecutive world championships, with another win at Korea seemingly almost certain. However, cast your eyes back to Korea’s inaugural Formula One Grand Prix held back in 2010 and remember that life has not always been so rosy for Red Bull Racing, as just three years ago their season almost totally unravelled in the mud, rain and darkness of Korea.
As Formula One touched down in Korea for the very first time in 2010, for what was the 17th round of the season, the sport was gripped in a scintillating five way battle for the drivers’ championship. Following the prior round at the Japanese Grand Prix, which was to be made famous by Kamui Kobayashi’s overtaking exploits, five drivers still remained in the fight for the championship.
Mark Webber topped the table with 220 points, ahead of Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel, who were both locked on 206 points, with the Spaniard ahead courtesy of four race wins to the Germans three. The McLaren pair of Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button followed up in fourth and fifth, but while both British drivers remained with a mathematical possibility of winning the championship, they were 28 points and 31 points behind Webber respectively.
Korea was set to play a crucial part in this title battle, with just two rounds of the 2010 season remaining once the chequered flag fell at Yeongam. However, at one stage the Grand Prix looked as if it might not go ahead at all, with political tensions, as well as construction delays meaning that the actual track was only finished 10 days prior to the first free practice session. There were fears that the chemicals used in the tracks construction, which had not had time to be thoroughly absorbed, could play havoc with the grip levels of the Bridgestone tyres.
The three practice sessions over the course of Friday and Saturday morning passed without any real incident, with the circuit naturally improving over the course of the weekend as more rubber was laid down and teams optimised their setups. Robert Kubica was the fastest man of the weekend up to that point with a 1:37.354, set in the closing moments of FP3.
In truth, the most notable part of the weekend so far was a recreation of the famous photograph of the 1986 world championship challengers, with the five drivers in contention for the 2010 title in place of Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet, Nigel Mansell and Alain Prost.
Saturday, as was often the case in 2010, belonged to Red Bull, as the team took their eight front row lock-out of the year and Sebastian Vettel claimed his ninth pole of the season. Mark Webber would start alongside the German, while championship rival Fernando Alonso lined-up just behind the Red Bull pair in third. Lewis Hamilton kept his title hopes alive with fourth, but was half a second down on Vettel’s best time. Rosberg, in the first of the Mercedes would share the third row Ferrari’s Felipe Massa. Jenson Button, Robert Kubica, Michael Schumacher and Rubens Barrichello rounded out the top 10.
Come raceday, any fear of a lack of grip due to track chemicals was swept aside in a wash of rain, as the heavens opened on the Korea International Circuit. In fact the rain was so intense that the inaugural Korean Grand Prix faced the ignominy of being started behind the safety car, due to complaints from the drivers due to the amount of standing water on the track and the lack of visibility caused by the spray kicked up by the cars.
After a 10 minute delay, Bernd Maylander ceremoniously led the field away from the grid in the silver Mercedes SLS AMG, but it was only three laps before the red flags were deployed to stop the race. A 45 minute delay ensued in which a number of drivers bickered about the conditions, before the race once again got going behind the safety car.
This precession continued on for another 14 laps as Mark Webber, Sebastian Vettel and Jenson Button continued to voice their complaints about the treacherous conditions, while Lewis Hamilton broke the monotony by declaring that he was ready to go racing, claiming that the track was now almost dry enough for intermediate tyres.
On lap 17 fans around the world let out a cheer as the safety cars lights were finally turned off, with Bernd Maylander guiding the Mercedes into the pitlane as Sebastian Vettel led the field across the start-finish line for the first green flag lap of the 55 lap long race.
Lewis Hamilton’s cries to restart the race were instantly rewarded as his future team-mate Nico Rosberg threw his Mercedes down the inside of the 2008 champion’s McLaren into turn one.
Just two laps later Mark Webber’s championship hopes came crashing down around him. On lap 19, the championship leader ran wide into turn 12, putting his left front tyre onto the wet kerb, which snapped the RB6 to the right, spinning full circle before clouting the barrier left rear first. However, worse was to come as the errant Red Bull then slithered back onto the circuit, straight into the path of the oncoming Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, collecting the German who had been running in fourth and scattering carbon fibre across the track. The pair were both out on the spot and the safety car made another unwelcome return to the track, as the marshals worked to remove the mud spattered Red Bull and Mercedes.
Vettel now led the race from Alonso and Hamilton, who had both managed to avoid the accident between Webber and Rosberg. Their team-mates followed behind in fourth and fifth, with Felipe Massa ahead of Jenson Button. Michael Schumacher was now sixth having made an impressive start, with Robert Kubica, Nico Hulkenberg, Rubens Barrichello and Adrian Sutil close for company.
The race restarted on lap 24 and more trouble was soon to follow as Jarno Trulli broke the nose of his Lotus in a botched overtaking attempt on Bruno Senna’s HRT for 21st position, with the Italian ultimately retiring. Lucas di Grassi then topped those antics by throwing his Virgin Racing car into the barriers rear first on lap 26, which put the Brazilian out of the race.
Having been passed by Michael Schumacher for fifth on the following lap, Jenson Button headed to the pits to gamble on a set of intermediate Bridgestones. The reigning world champion at the time had won in both Australia and China in the early part of the season, after making similar tyre calls.
However, the move backfired for the Briton as he fed out of the pitlane in 15th, right behind a group of squabbling midfield runners. On lap 31 Sebastian Buemi, in a vain attempt to pass the Virgin Racing car of Timo Glock collided with the German. The Toro Rosso man was out with a broken suspension, his STR5 beached out on track. Bernd Maylander got the call and the safety car was out once again.
This was a disaster for Button as the front runners dived into the pits for what was effectively a free stop. Hamilton, Massa and Schumacher managed to slip into the pits as the safety car was deployed, while Vettel and Alonso had to complete another lap before their stops. Vettel and Alonso came in on lap 32, the Red Bull man with an inch perfect stop to regain the lead. However, a problem with the front right tyre on Alonso’s Ferrari cost the Spaniard time in the pits and he would lose second place to Hamilton.
As the race restarted on 35 Lewis Hamilton instantly undid all his good work by out breaking himself into turn one, letting Alonso slip by into second.
The race began to settle down at this stage, with the most interesting on-track action being the battle for the minor positions, as Jenson Button encountered more problems as he squabbled with Adrian Sutil, Kamui Kobayashi and Jamie Alguersuari. Vitaly Petrov had a big accident at turn 18 on lap 40, but fortunately for Bernd Maylander the marshals could clear the badly broken Renault without the need for another appearance from the safety car.
As the darkness began to descend on the much delayed race, Red Bull’s weekend went from bad to worse on lap 46. The FOM cameras suddenly focused on the slowing Red Bull of Sebastian Vettel, with Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari sweeping past the sick sounding RB6 into turn 3. Vettel had led the race from the very start, but it was to all ultimately be in vain, as he pulled his stricken car to the side of the track, with smoke and fire erupting from the rear banks of the Renault engine. Vettel was out of the Korean Grand Prix and with it seemingly went his hopes of winning a first world championship.
Adrian Sutil and the Williams duo of Nico Hulkenberg and Rubens Barrichello provide some late entertainment in Korea, as the Force India man clashed with the Sauber of Kamui Kobayashi, forcing the German into retirement and ultimately earning himself a 5-place grid penalty for the Brazilian Grand Prix. Both Williams drivers suffered tyre issues in the closing stages of the race, which saw Hulkenberg forced to stop for fresh rubber. The German, then in his debut season in Formula One, battled through the field after his stop to snatch the final points position from the Toro Rosso of Jaime Alguersuari on the last lap of the race.
Drivers were now complaining of the failing visibility as darkness fell around Yeongam, but that did not trouble Fernando Alonso who stormed to his 26th victory in Formula One. It was the Ferrari man’s third win in four races and his fifth victory of the season, which saw him jump the non-scoring Mark Webber to take the lead in the drivers’ championship by 11 points.
Lewis Hamilton came home a solid second for McLaren to keep his world championship hopes alive, while Felipe Massa rounded out a successful weekend for Ferrari with third and the final podium position. Incidentally it would be the last time both Ferrari drivers would share the podium until the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix, over two years later.
Michael Schumacher equalled his best result of 2010 with fourth and was followed home by Robert Kubica with another impressive performance for Renault, while Vitantonio Liuzzi achieved a seasons best result of sixth. Rubens Barrichello, the Sauber pairing of Kamui Kobayashi and Nick Heidfeld and Nico Hulkenberg completed the top 10.
Red Bull’s disastrous Grand Prix had left both drivers hopes of winning the championship slashed, with Mark Webber relegated to second behind Fernando Alonso, while Vettel was now 25 points behind the Spaniard and had even slipped to fourth overall behind Lewis Hamilton, following the Briton’s second place finish. The teams lead in the constructors championship had also been slashed to 27 points with the double DNF. Red Bull advisor Helmut Marko even admitted in 2011 that he had considered resigning from his role after the Korean weekend, believing that the team had squandered its chances of winning both titles in 2010.
As we now know, Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull bounced back in the final two rounds of the season to win both championships, but in the immediate aftermath of the inaugural Korean Grand Prix many believed that Red Bull had thrown it all away, with Fernando Alonso seemingly set to ease to a third title.
Three years later and Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull Racing now sit on three consecutive championship victories respectively, while Fernando Alonso is no closer to winning a third title. Do not write of the 2013 season just yet, madder things have happened in Formula One. Consider this, if not for Mark Webber’s mistake on lap 19, Formula One’s recent history could read very differently.
Images courtesy of Scuderia Ferrari, Clive Mason, Paul Gilham, USAG Yongsan and Wikimedia Commons