It was back to business-as-usual at the front of the Korean Grand Prix, with Sebastian Vettel taking the lead on the first lap and then slowly cruising away from the rest of the field on his way to his tenth Grand Prix victory of the 2011 season, which also helped to deliver the constructors title to Red Bull Racing with Mark Webber also finishing on the podium.
The convincing lead meant Vettel was well in front of a tense and thrilling battle over second place between his team mate Webber and McLaren's Lewis Hamilton, who were both comfortably ahead of Jenson Button after the Japanese Grand Prix winner had a curiously underpowered but eventually quiet run to fourth place after a worrying start.
The race winner was decided through the first half dozen laps: Hamilton got a decent start on the clean side of the track but Vettel also got away well and was immediately challenging for the lead into turn 1. Hamilton held on but looked on the backfoot, and when they exited the hairpin and headed down to turn 4 the writing was on the wall - a dab of KERS and there was nothing Hamilton could do to stop the Red Bull getting past on the inside line.
Behind them, Jenson Button had lost out badly after a flying Felipe Massa slipstreamed behind Mark Webber to overtake both the McLaren and Red Bull through the hairpin. Button fought back and seemed to be back in front, but then out-braked himself into turn four which not only allowed Massa to complete his pass but also enabled Mark Webber and Fernando Alonso to get by the McLaren as well and push Button down to sixth place.
Perhaps due to the overcast conditions that deposited a light shower on the track in the early laps, neither McLaren seemed to be showing anything like the superior pace they had demonstrated in practice and qualifying. Hamilton was unable to do anything about Vettel slowing pulling away in front, while Button had to rely on an early pit stop strategy to allow him to 'undercut' the Ferraris and return to the track in front of them both after their own stops, back up in fourth place.
The leaders had all pitted by lap 17 when Vitaly Petrov totally missed his braking going into the hairpin and crashed into the rear-right of Michael Schumacher who had been minding his own business making the turn. Schumacher suffered extensive damage and was out on the spot; Petrov managed to take his crumpled Lotus-Renault to the pits, but the team diagnosed it as a severe case of scrappage and he too was out of the race.
The amount of debris strewn over the road at turn 3 required a safety car which closed up the field, but Vettel had no problems at the restart on lap 21 and set about building his lead up all over again. Even the weather was being kind to the race leader now, the skies clearing and the sun breaking through to lessen the chance of any unpredictable track conditions catching him out on his way to the chequered flag.
But while the race win was signed and sealed from early on, that was anything but the case for second and third which turned into an epic battle between Hamilton and Webber. Webber's pace was surprisingly good even on the harder tyres and he was rarely out of the DRS activation zone behind Hamilton, but he was never quite able to capitalise on his advantage when he needed to: at the critical moments, Hamilton simply had superior traction out of the key corners that gave him enough of a gap to take the ideal blocking line through the next few turns that Webber hoped to use to jump him.
Lap after lap this went on, but Webber's best opportunities to claim second position came in the laps immediately after they both pitted on lap 34, and then later at the end of lap 48 when Hamilton came up on the slow traffic of a Lotus. That gave Webber the chance to briefly take the lead, only for Hamilton to then get the advantage of the DRS activation zone to retake the position into the hairpin. It was all breathless stuff and one of the best on-track battles of the season with two perfectly matched drivers and cars giving it their all lap after lap.
Button had earlier very nearly jumped Webber at the restart on lap 21 with a daring line around the outside of turn 4 before he had to yield. Button then lost touch with the Hamilton/Webber battle but closed up again in the final stint and was ready to pounce if the drivers ahead fell over each other. Button himself came under pressure from behind from Fernando Alonso in the final laps, who continued to press hard despite at one point radioing in to the pit crew "I give up!" - as if the two-time world champion would ever seriously do such a thing, let alone broadcast it.
Alonso's race had been compromised when he emerged from his first pit stop on lap 16 behind team mate Felipe Massa, and the two Ferraris were then bottled up in turn by Nico Rosberg who had jumped them both during the pit stops despite having a side-by-side drag race down pit road with Jenson Button two laps earlier. Rosberg had won the battle but then slipped wide at the exit allowing Button past; but in doing do that gave Rosberg the advantage of the DRS activation line and the Mercedes blasted past the McLaren down the straight. Button had the pace to stay with him, and next time through it was Jenson's turn to apply the pressure and get past Nico for the position - this time for good.
Rosberg continued to lead the two Ferraris until he locked up badly into the hairpin on lap 27 and gave them both a chance to get past, Alonso nearly pulling off the double on Massa at the same time. When that didn't quite work out, Alonso instead switched to plan B and stayed out on this second set of tyres longer than anyone else, making the tyres work admirably while setting fastest laps until he finally pitted on lap 37. By then he was able to exit comfortably in front of Massa at last and free himself up to make that late-race charge up to Button's rear wing. That was as good as Alonso could do, and he had to settle for fifth with Massa in sixth place.
Rosberg had been looking set to take seventh place despite his race strategy being compromised by that lock-up on lap 27 which flat-spotted his tyres and required him to make an earlier-than-expected pit stop that dropped him as far down as 14th. But Rosberg lost the position to Jamie Alguersuari on the last lap and then crawled to a halt immediately after the chequered flag, seemingly suffering the same extreme fuel marginality that Button had done at the end of last week's race at Suzuka.
Alguersuari's Toro Rosso team mate Sebastien Buemi finished in ninth place confirming the team's strong race pace after a disappointing qualifying showing. Paul Di Resta edged his Force India team mate Adrian Sutil for the final championship point in tenth place.
Other than Schumacher and Petrov, the only other retirement of the afternoon was Pastor Maldonado who was wheeled back into the Williams garage after 31 laps shortly after having received a drive-thru penalty for taking the wrong line into the pits on his first scheduled stop. However, the team will have been buoyed by a solid showing from Rubens Barrichello, who bounced back to finish in 12th place after a bad qualifying that saw him fail to get through Q1.
Kamui Kobayashi was once again one of the more entertaining drivers of the day, although he came off worst in a three-way battle with Bruno Senna and Barrichello on lap 23 that left him with front wing damage. Recovering from that he promptly found himself in another three-way battle with Jerome D'Ambrosio and Daniel Ricciardo on lap 31, as he fought his way back up to 15th place just behind Heikki Kovalainen in the Lotus and just ahead of his own Sauber team mate Sergio Perez in 16th.
There were definitely surprises to be had at Yeongam - how little effect the dirty side of the grid actually had at the start for example, and the relative lack of impact of tyre degradation despite the teams' fears going in - but ultimately the winner was not one of them. Sebastian Vettel was triumphant again, with the enthusiastic radio celebrations and the pointing finger working to full effect.
Strangely, despite losing out on the race win, Lewis Hamilton looked far happier after the race than he had done after clinching pole position on Saturday - as well he should, because it was surely one of his best drives of the year. He even smiled as he congratulated Vettel and Webber before the podium presentation, and when he lifted the trophy he will surely agree that this was one he had needed to work exceptionally hard for.
Full race results