The rain is a great leveller, they say, and it has certainly upset the applecart again in the F1 2010 World Championship, with Fernando Alonso triumphing in a sodden inaugural Korean Grand Prix to move into the lead of the title standings – and with it close in on a third career crown.
Even as he languished some 47 points adrift of the world championship lead post-Silverstone back in the summer, Alonso has remained adamant that he would be the man on top come season's end. Few, in truth, believed him. They do now.
The most prolific winner of 2010 following his Korean success – with five victories to his credit from 17 races – the Spaniard will carry an eleven-point lead over erstwhile pace-setter Mark Webber into the final two outings in Brazil and Abu Dhabi, and firmly installed as the new favourite to claim glory. The Australian, surely, will be kicking himself for his early error without which he would be comfortably clear of team-mate Sebastian Vettel, who similarly failed to score due to a late-race engine failure. What happens between now and Interlagos will be fascinating.
With the feared heavy rain arriving right on-cue in the build-up to the race – and sending Ferrari's Felipe Massa and Virgin Racing's Timo Glock spinning on their way around to the grid, with Michael Schumacher similarly having a 'moment' of his own on the slippery track surface – conditions were deemed too dangerous to risk a normal start, and thus the safety car led the field away ten minutes after the scheduled 'lights-out' time.
With defending F1 World Champion Jenson Button likening the 1.2km straight to 'a lake' and current title protagonist Alonso describing the situation as 'the worst conditions in which I've ever driven a car', the decision was taken after only four laps to red flag proceedings and have a re-think.
As time ticked by and discussion after discussion took place, concerns increased regarding just how much daylight was left, recalling memories of Malaysia 2009 – but just under an hour later, the safety car was deployed once more to lead the cars from the grid in qualifying order, in the hope that at last some real racing might be able to go ahead.
As the safety car motored on, Sakon Yamamoto went briefly off-piste whilst Lucas Di Grassi pitted, following the example of Bruno Senna during the first safety car period, though in the Hispania rookie's case, it was so that a wheel that had been fitted the wrong way round initially could be rectified.
Whilst the general consensus amongst drivers were that the track was still too sodden to allow racing to begin, there was one dissenter, with Lewis Hamilton champing at the bit to get going as he urged over his pit-to-car radio that it was 'almost intermediates' territory 16 laps in. Just over a lap later, the McLaren-Mercedes star's prayers were answered.
The ever-opportunistic Schumacher darted down the inside of Renault's Robert Kubica at the re-start, whilst a handful of corners later Nico Rosberg pulled off a bold move on Hamilton for fourth. Meanwhile, just behind, a racy-looking Schumacher was harrying Button for P7, as Vettel completed the first real 'racing' lap almost three full seconds clear of the pursuing Webber.
There were 'moments' for Jarno Trulli, Senna and Adrian Sutil, but of far greater significance was a spin for world championship leader Webber, who lost his Red Bull RB6 just three laps in after taking a bit too much kerb in Turn Twelve, spun into the barriers and then as he rebounded back across the track again collected the luckless Rosberg, ending the young German's impressive challenge – and quite possibly also ending the disconsolate Australian's title bid altogether. His first accident-induced DNF of the campaign, it could not possibly have come at a worse moment.
With the safety car returning, Sauber duo Kamui Kobayashi and Nick Heidfeld and Vitaly Petrov pluckily elected to switch to intermediates – arguably a little too early – and as the action resumed on lap 24, with 17 laps remaining to be completed to reach three-quarter distance and thereby full points, the drivers found themselves up against the clock.
Staying in the wars, Trulli lost his Lotus front wing with a clumsy move on Senna into Turn Six, as Vettel began to move clear again at the front, lapping four tenths of a second quicker than Alonso and 1.4 seconds faster than Hamilton as the field started to spread out – with the exception of Button and Schumacher, still very much together in their duel over what was now fifth. That battle was resolved when the revitalised multiple world champion successfully dived down the inside of the reigning world champion on lap 27 in the same place as Rosberg had passed Hamilton earlier on.
Di Grassi became the race's next victim when he lost control and thumped into the circuit barriers as Vettel increasingly found his feet in the treacherous conditions and pulled ever further away. As the track came increasingly towards the intermediates, however, it was the canny Button who became the first of the front-runners to pit for inters – and emerged right behind a five-car scrap. Happily, after clearing one of the Saubers, a spin from Heikki Kovalainen following a tap from a Toro Rosso removed another driver from the Briton's path as he bade to make the most of his early switch.
Vettel soon demonstrated that anything Alonso could throw at him, he had an answer to as the pair traded fastest laps, whilst down at the back of the order, Sébastien Buemi locked up as he aimed his STR down the inside of Timo Glock, careering into the side of the Virgin Racing entry and bringing out the safety car again with debris littered across the track at the fastest point of the circuit.
Whilst race leaders Vettel and Alonso continued on, the majority of those behind pitted immediately for a change of rubber, and when the German and Spaniard came in a lap later, a delay for the latter enabled Hamilton to vault him into second – right in the slipstream of Vettel, although admitting to not feeling comfortable tyre-wise.
There was almost a second pit-lane incident this year between Renault and Force India as Kubica was released very nearly into the path of the incoming Sutil – mirroring a similar occurrence in Hungary back in the summer – but as the racing resumed yet again, Vettel leapt off into the lead once more as Hamilton ran wide into Turn One, handing the position he had gained off Alonso right back again and swiftly finding his mirrors full of the second Ferrari of Felipe Massa, with the ever-present Schumacher shadowing the pair of them in fifth and wet-weather maestro Rubens Barrichello sixth for Williams.
Button's race, however – and his title defence – went from bad to worse when Sutil went for a move and ran them both wide and off the track, costing the McLaren further ground and leaving him all the way down in P15. This time, though, Alonso was not letting Vettel get away, pegging his RBR rival back as the pair dropped Hamilton behind, whilst Sutil's lively afternoon continued as the German undid all of his good work by running very wide off track and ceding a whole clutch of places again.
The next drama was provided by the ever-entertaining Petrov, who threw away eleventh place on lap 41 with a hefty impact that will have done his employment chances at Renault in 2011 few favours – but for Vettel it mattered little, as the following lap, three-quarter distance arrived, and better yet for the Heppenheim native, he was beginning to inch away from Alonso, who himself had the advancing Hamilton to deal with.
However, a small error from Vettel into Turn Three enabled Alonso to close up on him, dragging Hamilton along for good measure, with a mere 3.5 seconds blanketing the front trio as the leader perhaps unsurprisingly started to complain about the fading light and the visibility problems it was creating – though Hamilton still seemed happy enough.
Suddenly, though, the Renault engine in the back of Vettel's RB6 began to sound sick and Alonso swept past into the lead, with tell-tale smoke signs shortly afterwards leading to an eruption from the V8 – and with it, the loss of what had appeared to be a certain race victory for the luckless 23-year-old, having put not so much as a foot out-of-place. Red Bull's predilection for self-destruction in F1 2010 had suddenly struck again, and the title chase had been turned right on its head once more – and it was falling right into Alonso's lap.
Sutil's scrap with the Saubers came to a perhaps predictable conclusion as the German lost it as he endeavoured to take Kobayashi on the outside, side-swiping his opponent as they duelled over ninth place, scattering debris across the track once more.
As the laps – and the clock – ticked down and darkness fell, new race leader Alonso began to edge away from Hamilton as the positions looked settled, but there was heartbreak for Williams' Nico Hülkenberg who was forced to sacrifice an excellent sixth place with a late-race tyre change, the rubber on his FW32 worn down to next-to-nothing as team-mate Barrichello similarly started to suffer and fall back.
Further back, Button's slim chances of points ended with a pirouette just three laps from home, but out front Alonso was pressing on, lapping comfortably clear of anybody else in the race as he dropped Hamilton like a stone, the McLaren star like his team-mate visibly struggling.
For Ferrari's talisman, however, there was no such drama, as the Oviedo native motored serenely on to take the chequered flag for his third victory in four races to claim the world championship lead for the first time since the Bahrain curtain-raiser, whilst Hamilton kept his own title bid alive with the runner-up laurels. Massa came home to take a deserved podium in third, as Schumacher matched his best finish of the campaign behind his former team-mate in fourth.
Following an unusually quiet and somewhat nondescript race, Kubica took advantage of others' late tyre woes to move up to fifth from towards the foot of the top ten, as Vitantonio Liuzzi scored a vital result for Force India with sixth place, passing the fading Barrichello, who clung onto seventh, with Sauber pairing Kobayashi and Heidfeld winding up eighth and ninth and the unfortunate Hülkenberg recovering to tenth.
Behind the young German, the sole-surviving Scuderia Toro Rosso of Jaime Alguersuari ended up just outside the points in eleventh, ahead of Button – whose challenge for the crown, although still mathematically possible, is surely now over – and new team runners Kovalainen, Senna and Sakon Yamamoto.
To see the race result in full, click here