Yesterday in Japan, Fernando Alonso watched helplessly from the paddock as Sebastian Vettel cut his lead in the championship from 29 points to just four.
Alonso need not dwell on this disappointing result for long though. By Friday he will back in the car for the first practice sessions of the Korean Grand Prix, from where he will hope to regain a foothold in this championship battle.
However, it will not be an easy task for the Spaniard. In the past couple of races, Vettel has returned to the kind of dominant performances that characterised 2011.
Just over two weeks ago, Vettel needed a gearbox problem for Lewis Hamilton to take victory in Singapore, but yesterday he needed no favours. The Red Bull was clearly the quickest car around Suzuka, and the German comfortably managed the F1 holy trinity of pole, victory and fastest lap at the Japanese circuit.
And in Korea, Vettel could score another emphatic victory. Only an engine failure at the inaugural event has denied him a 100% record at this new track, and it will be difficult to bet against him to make it two victories in three appearances at Yeongam this Sunday.
Even if the Red Bull does not reach the same heights of competitiveness as it did in Suzuka at the weekend, and McLaren, for example, return to winning ways, the RB8 is still likely to be a better performer than the Ferrari, based on current form.
Alonso has not won a race since Germany, way back in July, and apart from in Monza, has not really looked close to winning one either. Vettel is likely to go away from this double-header in the Far East as leader of championship.
In addition to Alonso, Romain Grosjean will be eager to get out of Japan and get racing in Korea. He had another nightmare start to a race in Suzuka, taking out Mark Webber going through the opening corner. The ten-second stop/go penalty he received from the stewards – a tough punishment in itself – will probably not hurt the Frenchman as much as the vast amount of criticism he attracted post-race.
Webber himself, speaking to Sky, described Grosjean as a “first-lap nutcase” and suggested that the Lotus driver “maybe needs another holiday” – a reference to the one-race ban Grosjean received for causing the big first-corner crash in Belgium last month. Sky pundit Johnny Herbert went one step further, arguing that Lotus should show him the door.
Plenty of eyes will be on Grosjean this Sunday then, especially through the opening corners of the Korean Grand Prix. Despite scoring three podiums for his team already this season, he now in real danger of being stereotyped as some sort of opening-lap menace and remembered for the numerous points that he has lost his team through accidents rather than the impressive speed he has shown in other races.
Unlike the fantastic night-race in Singapore, which attracts numerous fans from all over the world, Korea is one of the new Asian grand prix that has failed to take off. Although the Herman Tilke-designed circuit has an interesting lay-out and gets a tentative thumbs-up from most drivers, it is located in the middle-of-nowhere, far from any of the big Korean cities, and has failed to attract much local interest.
Furthermore, the promoters of the race are reported to be making huge losses on the staging the race, partly thanks to the fees charged by FOM and Bernie Ecclestone. This Sunday’s race is the third of a five-year deal, but it is unlikely that there will be many races in Korea after that.
The event has been mixed in terms of entertainment value. The first race, in 2010, was packed with drama. In fact, it was arguably one of the races of that year. It started under a safety car because of heavy rain, was then suspended for forty minutes, and was eventually restarted again under the safety car.
Once the race started properly there was chaos. Both Red Bull cars failed to finish – Mark Webber crashed into a wall and then Nico Rosberg and Vettel suffered that engine failure – and Alonso eventually took the chequered flag, but not after seeing of a challenge from Lewis Hamilton and negotiating more safety car periods.
Last year’s race was not such an exciting affair. It was notable by the fact that, for the only time last season, there was not a Red Bull on pole position – Lewis Hamilton broke the perfect record. However, it was a familiar face on the top step of the podium as Sebastian Vettel, who had already been crowned world champion by this stage, helped his team claim their second consecutive Constructors’ Championship.
We head into this year’s Korean Grand Prix with the title race looking much more like the 2010 situation than the one in 2011. Everything is to play for, so let’s hope that Korea gives us another race to remember.
- It will be another early start for UK viewers this weekend: Qualifying for the Korean Grand Prix begins at 06:00 BST on Saturday and the race starts at 07:00 BST on Sunday
- Live coverage in the UK is available on Sky Sports F1 HD, BBC One (HD) and BBC Radio 5 Live