Sebastian Vettel notched up four wins from the latest back-to-back races in 2013 to make it eight victories in total so far as he builds seemingly unstoppable momentum towards clinching this year's world championship.
While things could scarcely look any brighter for Vettel, they were somewhat more overcast at the Korea International Circuit on Sunday morning. The sunshine and blue skies of the previous days might have disappeared overnight, but the early threat of the rain in Yeongam had disappeared and it wasn't even quite as cool as had been feared, temperatures still managing to nudge into 20C as Sebastian Vettel led the cars round on the formation lap to the starting grid.
When the lights went out, Vettel got a textbook start and leapt into turn 1 unopposed, while Lewis Hamilton was under immediate pressure from the Lotus of Romain Grosjean. The Mercedes made it through turn 1 in front, but then lost advantage in the run down to turn 3 and had no option but to allow Grosjean complete the pass through the hairpin, dropping Hamilton to third ahead of his team mate Nico Rosberg in fourth and Nico Hulkenberg in fifth.
The hairpin proved messy for a number of cars, both Force India's Adrian Sutil and McLaren's Jenson Button reporting front wing damage of varying degrees. But there was worse to come for Felipe Massa, who strayed onto the kerb and spun, narrowly avoiding collecting his own Ferrari team mate Fernando Alonso in the process. The incident dropped the Brazilian down to last place by the time he was able to recover, but Alonso was able to continue in sixth place ahead of the Toro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo.
Once the initial hairpin chaos was out of the way, the race quickly settled down and Vettel pulled out a two second lead by the end of the first lap but thereafter seemed content to stabilise his advantage over Grosjean rather than tax the tyres by trying to pull away any further. The first notable change in position after that was Kimi Raikkonen calmly managing to pass Ricciardo for seventh place on lap 4, which allowed him to line up Alonso for a successful pass on lap 9 at the hairpin.
Further back, Mark Webber was busy recovering from his grid penalty held over from his Singapore race. He broke into the top ten and moved up into ninth on lap 6 with an easy move on Pastor Maldonado, the Williams having been the biggest gainer at the start having initially made up nine spots. Webber was able to continue the momentum with a lap 8 pass on Ricciardo for eighth at the hairpin.
With the exception of Ricciardo, all the cars had started on the supersoft options, but Sutil and Button's early stops for new front wings allowed them an early change to the prime medium compound and on lap 7 Button was the fastest man on the track, encouraging other drivers to reconsider their planned two-stop strategies: Massa came in on lap 7 and Maldonado, Paul di Resta and Esteban Gutierrez were in next time by, and the effect rippled through the rest of the field who were obliged to react to their rivals' decisions.
By the time that he pitted at the end of lap 11, Vettel was the last of the leaders to come in for a change to the medium tyres. He was able to resume in front of Grosjean and Hamilton, with Ricciardo the only driver yet to make his first stop briefly promoted to fourth place but going much slower that the cars around him on fresh rubber. With the exception of Alonso getting back in front of Raikkonen and looking much happier on his new set of primes, the running order of among the leaders was essentially unchanged after the cycle of visits to pit road.
The question now was how the teams would be able to manage tyre wear over the rest of the race, with the majority of the field either facing three stops in total or else trying to make the prime tyres last 22 laps apiece - a tall order, with Grosjean and Alonso among the drivers being warned about overusing their right-front tyres within five laps of their first stop. As another early indicator, Ricciardo's first stint on mediums came to an end after 18 laps, dropping the Toro Rosso all the way down to 13th position after the Australian picked up a new set of the primes for his second stint which allowed him to smoothly make up a place with a nice pass on Paul di Resta on lap 23.
One driver seemingly with no hope of getting to the finish with just one more stop was Jenson Button, who had been forced onto pit road very early because of the front wing changed and whose set of medium tyres similarly lasted just 18 laps before he was in again on lap 23, a hesitant getaway dropping him from 10th to 17th place but the new tyres giving him a huge edge over the other cars around him to that he was soon on the march up through the positions again.
Raikkonen elected to stop for the second time on lap 26, as other drivers including Lewis Hamilton were also already showing a significant fall-off in pace and losing several seconds a lap. Tyre graining for Nico Hulkenberg encouraged Fernando Alonso to redouble his attack on the Sauber for fifth place, but try as it might the Ferrari just couldn't get close enough in the dirty air at the crucial moments which left Alonso thwarted and frustrated. Instead it was Alonso who lost out, making it too easy for Mark Webber to pass him on lap 27 at turn 6.
Di Resta's race ended on lap 26 when the Force India lost control at turn 11 and skidded over the asphalt into the barrier, and there was also an emergency for Mercedes two laps later when the front nose mount on Nico Rosberg's car failed after passing over particularly energetic bumps, dropping the front wing onto the track where it sent up showers of sparks before he could get back to pit road for a replacement. That delayed the team's servicing of Lewis Hamilton's car, with the Briton coming in on lap 30 for a fresh set of tyres having haemorrhaged significant time in the interim. He emerged from his stop behind Raikkonen but ahead of Hulkenberg and Alonso.
The pre-planned race strategies were largely already in the dumpster even before lap 31 at which point the safety car was scrambled: after a heavy lock-up into turn 1, Sergio Perez' right front tyre delaminated in spectacular fashion with the entire carcass ripping itself off and doing heavy damage to the McLaren's bodywork as it tore free, the rubber remnants landing in the middle of the track in the run down to turn 3. Teams immediately responded by pitting if they hadn't already just done so, but Red Bull found themselves servicing Mark Webber twice in consecutive stops as they grew concerned that his initial set of tyres had been compromised by running over debris from Perez' incident.
Once the stops played out, Vettel was still heading the field with Grosjean in second in front of Raikkonen, Hamilton, Hulkenberg and Alonso, with Button brought back into play in seventh place ahead of Rosberg, Maldonado and Ricciardo. Webber had fallen all the way to 11th and moreover was back on supersofts which would have to last for the remaining 20 laps of the race; when he asked why the teams had made that selection, the Red Bull pit wall responded that he had no sets of the prime tyres left on the shelf so it was options or bust.
After a prolonged safety car sorting out the waved-around backmarkers, the race restarted on lap 37 with Vettel easily pulling away from the two Lotus drivers who were scrapping in no-holds-barred manner that finally went in the Finn's favour. However, the restart did not last long: Adrian Sutil lost the back end of his car in the run down to the hairpin and spun, sliding straight into the side of Mark Webber's Red Bull which just happened to be passing through the hairpin apex at the time. What appeared to be a fairly innocuous incident became serious when it became clear the impact of the rear end of the Force India had ripped into fuel lines on the Red Bull, sparking an instant blaze at the back of Webber's car that quickly took hold. If the fire wasn't cause for the return of the safety car, then the sudden unilateral appearance of a fire marshall's vehicle on the track right in front of the still-racing cars was enough to send well-deserved paroxysms of panic through race control.
Webber's car was quickly extinguished and racing resumed again on lap 41, and while Raikkonen was close to Vettel for this restart there was still nothing he could do as the championship leader put his foot down and started pulling inexorably away once again. Behind Grosjean, Hulkenberg used startling amounts of traction to hold on to the fourth place that he'd picked up from Lewis Hamilton in the previous brief restart, while Hamilton in turn battled furiously to hold on to fifth from Alonso. The Ferrari was at least safe from attack from behind, with Jenson Button just focussed on getting to the end on tyres significantly older than anyone else around him, the McLaren ultimately succumbing to Rosberg with two laps to go.
Other than Hulkenberg/Hamilton/Alonso, the hardest-fought battle on the track was a furious spat between Maldonado, Massa, Perez, Esteban Gutierrez and Valtteri Bottas for the final points position. It ended badly for Maldonado after he went wide at turn 10 on lap 43, which saw him plunge four positions and put Massa up to tenth.
However at the head of the field, there were no further dramas in store for Sebastian Vettel who serenely claimed his third Korean Grand Prix victory in succession in a performance hailed by Red Bull team principle Christian Horner "a really disciplined drive by Sebastian today," and one that makes it theoretically possible for him to clinch the 2013 world championship as soon as next week at Suzuka, Japan.
Raikkonen held on to second place from an unhappy Grosjean, while Hulkenberg continued to thwart everything Hamilton could throw at him to dislodge the Sauber from fourth place. Fernando Alonso was just able to resist Nico Rosberg's late attack to maintain sixth place, while Jenson Button was somehow able to make the final set of medium tyres last long enough to get across the line in eighth place ahead of Massa and Perez, who were both cited for post-race investigation by the stewards for making repeated contact during their earlier scrap.
Daniel Ricciardo disappeared from the top ten late in the race after being told to park the car by the Toro Rosso pit wall. That helped Gutierrez finish in 11th ahead of Bottas and Maldonado, with the Caterhams of Charles Pic and Giedo van der Garde (despite the latter picking up a drive-thru penalties) finishing in 14th and 15th ahead of the two Marussias of Jules Bianchi and Max Chilton. Jean-Eric Vergne joined his team mate Ricciardo in late retirement, but both Toro Rossos were classified as finishing in 18th and 19th and Sutil was similarly listed in 20th position despite retiring in pit lane with five laps to go.
Even as the podium celebrations were playing out above them, the teams on the pit lane were beginning the process of packing up their belongings as quickly as they could. It might only be a short hop from South Korea to Japan, but with under a week before the next round of the 2013 F1 season - and a race that may now decide the world championship title - there really was no time to lose.See full race results