Korean GPR Race Recap: Vettel takes win & championship lead on ailing tyres

Sebastian Vettel won the 2012 Korean Grand Prix after taking the lead from teammate Mark Webber off the start and battling his seriously ailing tyres down to the checkered flag. Webber finished second, with Fernando Alonso completing the podium. Vettel led the race handily after drag racing Webber down on the first lap.

Alonso, Lewis Hamilton (who finished tenth on a change to a three stop strategy, with Astroturf streaming behind his McLaren), and Kimi Raikkonen made it three wide into Turn 3 on the start, with Felipe Massa attempting to make it four. The Brazilian would end the race fourth, after gaining then dropping time on the team’s suggestion to Alonso, with Raikkonen rounding out the top five. The race saw a lot of processional driving with flashes of tense scrapping over position, and nearly every driver and team worried about tyres in the final laps. Kamui Kobayashi knocked Jenson Button out on the start, as Nico Rosberg also pulled to the side after joining in that contact.

Webber (1:37.242) won pole on his final lap after the checkered flag during Saturday’s qualifying sessions, beating out Vettel’s earlier time and holding the position as Vettel was unable to improve. That left the German to start second, with former teammates and title rivals Alonso and Hamilton directly behind. Raikkonen and Massa complete the third row, while perennial first lap chrashmeister Grosjean starts next to Hulkenberg on row four. Its typical busy self, qualifying saw Button get dropped in Q2 after Ricciardo caused local yellows by pulling to the side of the track with a gearbox issue. More dramatically, both Alonso and Hamilton came close to relegation at the end of Q1, as they sat sixteenth and seventeenth at the end of that session. Only an aborted lap from Senna saved the championship leader and his former teammate, knocking Senna out at that point.

Hamilton may have led the first practice, but Vettel soon reclaimed familiar territory for Red Bull, leading the second Friday practice and that on Saturday as well. Alonso, Webber, Massa, and Vettel joined Hamilton as the top five on Friday, while Webber, Alonso, Button, and Schumacher did so that afternoon, and Hamilton, Button, Grosjean, and Raikkonen were the fastest five Saturday morning. No session saw particular drama as the drivers set about clearing the dust off the little-used Yeongam circuit.

Race Start:
Button, Di Resta, Perez, Kobayashi, Vergne and de la Rosa all started on the harder, soft compound tyres as the field got away on the still dusty track for the formation lap. The top three shuffled back around quickly, sitting longer than usual to wiat for the rest of the field to line back up. When the lights went out, Webber got a good start, but was quickly taken by Vettel as the German went into the first turn. Meanwhile, Hamilton stayed in front of Alonso at the start. They drag raced down the straight, with Webber just unable to take his position back from Vettel.

Alonso nipped by Hamilton as they went side-by-side-by-side with Raikkonen, even as Massa weaved behind, looking to make it four wide as they came down to the next turn. Rosberg locked up slightly, allowing Kobayashi little room. They came together, leaving no room but for the Japanese driver to run into Button. That ended the latter’s race, forcing Kobayashi to limp back to the garage with a shredding tyre. At the end of L1, Vettel led Webber, Alonso, Hamilton, Massa, Raikkonen, Hulkenberg, Grosjean, Perez, and Schumacher as the top ten. Di Resta, Senna, Maldonado, Vergne, Kovalainen, Petrov, Ricciardo, Glock, Karthikeyan, de la Rosa, Pic, and Kobayashi rounded out the running order, as Rosberg pulled to the side of the track on that first lap.

Things soon settled down as drivers lapped away, though yellow flags continued to wave where Rosberg pulled to the side. That caused confusion, as the yellow flag corner sat in the middle of the DRS zone. Race control soon cleared that up, deactivating DRS until the mess was swept away. The stewards soon gave Kobayashi a drive-through penalty for causing the collision with Button. Meanwhile, the yellows continued as a crane came to take Rosberg’s car truly away from his parking spot. Once removed, green flew and DRS became an option again. Just as the green flags flew, Vergne took twelfth from Senna. Teammate Ricciardo followed him through on the Brazilian half a lap later.

End L10:
As Vettel ended lap ten, he had just under a two second lead over Webber. Alonso, Hamilton, Massa, Raikkonen, Hulkenberg, Grosjean, Perez, and Schumacher completed the top ten. Only Grosjean, behind Hulkenberg, was within the DRS window to the driver ahead. After his two sequential position drops, Senna complained of his front wing on the radio to Williams, who suggested that the pit stop window would soon be open. The fight for tenth, eleventh, and twelfth was hot, as Di Resta looked hard at taking the final points position from Schumacher. The first two spent a few turns side-by-side, only for Schumacher to gently suggest Di Resta go wide, ending the fight for the moment.

Pit Stops Begin (L14):
Hamilton, Hulkenberg, Grosjean, Schumacher, Vergne, and Kovalainen all dove into the pits for their first stops a quarter of the way through the race. Force India left Hulkenberg go fractions after Lotus left Grosjean go in the pit stall just behind. On the next lap, Webber, Massa, Raikkonen, Ricciardo, Senna, Petrov, and Glock all pitted. Vettel and Alonso both pitted on the next lap, as did Di Resta. Alonso made it back out just as Perez came around. Perez attempted to take the slipstream by Alonso, but the Spaniard made the position stick into Turn 3. Hamilton just behind nearly ruined his front wing, coming close to running into Perez’s right rear. On the next turn, Hamilton made his way through on Perez.

After most of the stops had shaken through, Vettel led Webber, Alonso, Hamilton, Perez, Massa, Raikkonen, Maldonado, Hulkenberg, and Grosjean at the end of L16. Massa soon overtook Perez, who had yet to stop. Maldonado, Pic, and Karthikeyan had all yet to stop as well at that point. At the front, Vettel began pulling a larger gap on his teammate on fresh tyres. Kobayashi pitted after leaving a stream of cars go by, being pushed into the garage on a planned retirement. Meanwhile, de la Rosa had been in the garage for quite a while and he was then listed as retired as well. Perez made his scheduled stop on L19, rather a slow one as the team attempted a one-stop strategy.

After Karthikeyan pitted on just before L20 began, only Maldonado had yet to pit for a new set of tyres. Hamilton was unhappy with his fresh set, radioing McLaren that his current set would not last long and adding that he’d lost front end downforce. McLaren asked him to gently use his tyres to make them last. Through the DRS, Grosjean took eighth from Maldonado. Hamilton continued to have issues, as Massa neatly took fourth from him at Turn 3 under DRS at the urging of engineer Rob Smedley. He encouraged Massa to pull away, as he was “sure it’s just graining.”

Maldonado made the final first stop of the field on L22. Back on the radio, McLaren told Hamilton that they thought it was a mechanical balance problem, but “safe.” It might have been safe, but he was about to continue dropping positions as Raikkonen had a go for fifth. He could not quite make the pass as Hamilton rallied to keep the Finn behind. Raikkonen made the next pass stick on the front straight, only to lose the position as Hamilton saved KERS and dropped back into fourth as they entered Turn 4.

Meanwhile, Alonso continued to catch up Webber as halfway approached, dropping the gap to Webber ahead down to less than a second and a half. The Australian radioed Red Bull about lock-up issues as he stabilized the dwindling gap.The Hamilton-Raikkonen scrap continued, as Raikkonen pressured the younger driver for position. On L26, Raikkonen attempted an over-under, but could not get it halfway done. They continued to lost pace to Massa ahead while testing each other.

Halfway (End L28):
Hamilton had to stop, nipping into the garage on L27. The right front tyre man couldn’t quite get the wheel nut back together, leading to a slower stop. Upon his return to the track, Hamilton apologized, noting nervously that the car felt nervous. Vettel led Webber by 8.5s, with Alonso, Massa, Raikkonen, Hulknberg, Grosjean, Hamilton, Ricciardo, and Vergne the top ten. Schumacher, Perez, Senna, Di Resta, Maldonado, Kovalainen, Petrov, Glock, Pic, and Karthikeyan completed the running order at halfway. No one was closer than Hulkenberg and Grosjean, the Frenchman looked to make his way around the Force India. He continued to attempt a pass, but also continued to fail. At the front, Webber had begun taking a bit more of time out if his teammate, stabilizing the gap back to Alonso at just over two seconds. Massa, meanwhile, was closing on his own teammate, with a healthy gap of eleven seconds back to Raikkonen.

Second Pit Stops Begin (L32):
Webber, Hulkenberg, and Glock all pitted on L33. Grosjean pitted on L32, just after McLaren told Hamilton that if he were to finish the race on his current set of tyres he would be sixth. Hulkenberg, Schumacher, Senna, and Petrov all pitted the next time around. After rejoining, Hulkenberg finally lost position to Grosjean as the Frenchman made his way neatly around the German. Perez and Kovalainen both pitted on L34, while Alonso dropped into the garage for fresh tyres. That released Massa to make some time on Webber. Alonso rejoined just behind Glock, after Webber had already made his way past Alonso. Ricciardo pitted as well, leaving just Vettel, Massa, Raikkonen, Vergne, Maldonado, and Pic not yet having pitted.

Grosjean lost control out of the final turn, taking to the grass and nearly clipping the wall. He managed to keep from smashing into anything and continued on. Vettel, Massa, and Raikkonen all pitted on L36, as did Pic. The frontrunners stayed in order, with each team completing solidly quick stops. After those stops put the running order back together, Vettel still led Webber, Alonso, Massa, and Raikkonen as the top five. Hamilton, Vergne, Grosjean, Hulkenberg, and Ricciardo completed the top ten at the end of L37. Webber sat nearly seven seconds behind his teammate, while Alonso was another 4.5s back. Massa continued to catch Alonso, as the gap dropped down to a second and a half between the teammates.

Vergne pitted on L39, leaving only Maldonado yet to pit for the second time. Around this time, Smedley radioed Massa to tell him that he could back off a bit as he was “too close,” and maintain a two or three second gap on Alonso, as “that’s no problem.”

In something a bit more scrappy, Hamilton lost position to Hulkenberg as the German capitalized on Grosjean attacking Hamilton as the Lotus driver was forced slightly off the track, which left room for Hulkenberg to move up to sixth in the matter of a couple of turns. McLaren, around that time, told Hamilton that he would be pitting again and needed to push immediately. Hamilton pitted for the third time on L43, just as Perez slid by Schumacher in the DRS zone. Close up shots showed Alonso’s right front with a lot of marbles and possibly some blisters on the inside with eleven laps to go.

10 Laps Remaining:
Webber also had some right front issues, as his race engineer reminded him of the tyre’s wearing condition. Few drivers were particularly close to any others as they crossed the line to begin the final ten laps. Vettel still led over Webber (by ten seconds), Alonso, Massa, Raikkonen, Hulkenberg, Grosjean, Ricciardo, Vergne, and Hamilton. The last was closest to anyone, less than a second behind Vergne and looking to use his fresh tyres to make up position and points. He sat there for three laps, unable to actually make his way around the Toro Rosso. At the front, Vettel continued to have issues with his right front, either unable or unwilling to drop pace to save the tyres more. Both Ferraris were attempting to catch the Red Bulls as the pace dropped.

Meanwhile, Astroturf began kicking up and coming onto the track in strips and chunks at T13. For the final five laps, Vettel had ten seconds on Webber, who was barely less than four seconds ahead of Alonso who seemed to be the only driver not receiving frantic “save your tyres” messages from his team. Further back, Hamilton continued to lockup in his push to get around Vergne, who would catch and pass his ailing teammate on L53. Though Alonso had gained a tenth or two on Webber with four to go, it seemed unlikely that the Spaniard would catch the Australian. Meanwhile, Red Bull told Vettel that he was likely down to the core on his right front and to be very careful.

Alonso continued to gain on Webber, but only incrementally, even as Webber took chunks of time out of his leading teammate. Vettel continued to hear frantic messages from his engineer about a lack of warning if the tyre were to let go, just as Hamilton picked up a huge piece of the Astroturf on his right sidepod with two laps to go. He had gone a bit wide and picked up the feet of debris. On the second to last lap, Red Bull continued to push Vettel to just slow down for his own safety. Alonso, meanwhile, had begun to drop back from Webber, losing seconds at a time. On the final lap, Vettel stilled seemed to be flying along, coming across the line safely to take over the championship lead. Webber and Alonso completed the podium, while Hamilton nearly lost all championship points but managed to keep Perez behind and finish tenth.

Final Positions, 2012 Korean Grand Prix:

1. Sebastian VettelRed Bull 2
2. Mark WebberRed Bull8.22
3. Fernando AlonsoFerrari13.92
4. Felipe MassaFerrari20.2
5. Kimi RaikkonenLotus36.72
6. Nico HulkenbergForce India45.32
7. Romain GrosjeanLotus54.82
8. Jean-Eric VergneToro Rosso69.52
9. Daniel RicciardoToro Rosso71.72
10. Lewis HamiltonMcLaren79.63
11. Sergio PerezSauber80.02
12. Paul Di RestaForce India84.42
13. Michael SchumacherMercedes89.22
14. Pastor MaldonadoWilliams94.91
15. Bruno SennaWilliams96.92
16. Vitaly PetrovCaterham1 Lap2
17. Heikki KovalainenCaterham1 Lap2
18. Timo GlockMarussia1 Lap2
19. Charles PicMarussia2 Laps2
20. Narain KarthikeyanHRT2 Laps1
 Pedro de la RosaHRT39 Laps1
 Kamui KobayashiSauber39 Laps3
 Nico RosbergMercedes54 Laps 
 Jenson ButtonMcLaren  
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