Formula one: Alonso weathers storm to grab pole in title race
It was so nearly the perfect storm for Lewis Hamilton as McLaren's embattled young driver shrugged off some treacherous conditions to breathe new life into his campaign.
It might have been even better than that. It looked as if Hamilton might just escape this sinking swamp in South Korea with a miracle. As the rain fell, the waters appeared to part for him as if controlled by divine will.
First, Mark Webber ploughed his Red Bull into a wall to give up second place, not to mention the championship lead. Then, with just nine laps remaining, race leader Sebastian Vettel's engine blew to deny him the chance to usurp his team-mate at the top of the standings. From fourth on the grid, Hamilton was suddenly up to second.
There was just one problem -- Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard does not do destiny. He does relentlessness. Keeping his head amid the pandemonium, Alonso claimed his fourth win in seven races, and an 11-point lead in the title race. The Ferrari driver must now be considered favourite, despite Red Bull's faster car. He is in championship-winning form.
As he crossed the line in near darkness, nearly three hours and four safety cars after the race began, Alonso emitted an evil-sounding cackle that appeared to spell doom for his challengers. The master of the dark arts is now the master of his own fate. A win and a second place in Brazil and Abu Dhabi will suffice. "Avanti, avanti," he screamed down his team radio.
Afterwards, Alonso was typically controlled, focused. "Nothing has changed really," he said. "We know, with the new points system, anything can happen in one race. If you don't score, you lose 25 points to one of your main opponents. It was bad luck for Mark and Seb, but anything can happen and there are still four or five contenders."
Four really. Jenson Button's 12th place, after a miserable race in which he admitted he was just "too slow", has left him with too much to do.
Hamilton, though, can still dream. As he mounted the podium, the filling in a Ferrari sandwich with Felipe Massa claiming third, the Briton looked drained but defiant. "It has been a wonderful day," he said. "We haven't had the quickest car this weekend and it has not been the easiest. But we will keep pushing -- anything can happen."
It certainly can. Red Bull will not believe their failure to take a single point from a circuit where once again they had the quickest car.
Lady luck was not with them and neither was the weather. After heavy rain overnight, the track -- already oily with the final layer of asphalt laid just two weeks before -- was treacherous. Massa spun on his way to the grid and race control delayed the start by 10 minutes.
Even when it did get going, behind a safety car, they managed just three laps before the race was red flagged. There followed a period of 48 minutes in which the race was in the balance. Even though the rain was easing, light levels now became a concern.
Hamilton made it abundantly clear he wanted to race. Webber was dead against it. Of course, there were ulterior motives at play here. Hamilton desperately needed points, Webber wanted to maintain the status quo.
All the same, Hamilton's incessant badgering of race control, even after they restarted behind a second safety car, seemed to sum up his battling qualities.
Finally, after 18 laps, the safety car came in and immediately Hamilton was overtaken by Mercedes' Nico Rosberg down the long straight to turn three. But that seemingly costly switch of places was to prove fortuitous, as the German's race ended when he picked up Webber going into Turn 13. It could so easily have been Hamilton.
The Australian ran wide out of Turn 12, lost control, and crashed into the opposite wall before rolling onto the track. He took the setback on the chin, admitting he had only himself to blame. Rosberg was less measured. "Sucks," he tweeted. "Don't understand why Webber didn't hit the brakes. Was crazy (evidently) to roll back over the track."
That incident brought out a third safety car, which lasted five laps, during which time Hamilton managed to pass Alonso thanks to a quicker pit stop. When it departed on lap 35, the Spaniard reclaimed second place when Hamilton hit the brakes too hard into Turn One.
"I don't think I could have kept him behind me, anyway," Hamilton claimed.
It looked as if that was how things would stay, with Vettel leading serenely from Alonso and Hamilton, but there was to be one further twist. With nine laps left, and the light fading, the Red Bull's engine began to smoke, then spit flames. From first to fourth in the championship at a stroke.
"Sebastian and the team had done everything right," team principal Christian Horner said. "To lose a guaranteed victory right now is tough."
So tough. And so to Brazil, where Alonso won his second world crown back in 2006. Could a third be in the offing? One just hopes it will not boil down to those seven points he won at Hockenheim when Ferrari implemented banned team orders. That really would be tough on the rest. (© Daily Telegraph, London)