Monday 19 March 2018

Title contenders are lining up to clip Red Bull's wings

Korea's first grand prix will have a major say in the title race, says David Kennedy

I t's fair to say that Koreans generally like nothing better than getting one up on Japan. In this the 'Land of Morning Calm' they have a great opportunity to do so next weekend, always assuming that the rains hold off and -- given the recent hiccups -- the stands don't fall down.

After last week's 'two days in one' race at a rain-lashed Suzuka circuit, the F1 squads have repaired to Yeongam County for the on again-off again inaugural Grand Prix of South Korea.

It's been a tough gestation process for the bosses of the Korean International Circuit but it looks as if just about enough of the infrastructure is in place to run a car race there next Sunday.

However, the FIA's race director Charlie Whiting has passed the circuit's facilities with a less-than-resounding "it is satisfactory" which is a green light tinged with a dollop of doubt. Nevertheless, one of Asia's most welcoming nations finally gets the thumbs up.

Aerial photographs suggest that those fans who do venture out for the first race will need Wellington boots and a Higgins boat, if it does rain. The race track itself looks very impressive, judging by Mark Webber's computer-simulated lap.

Speaking of the man from Oz, his 14-point lead in the drivers' championship would look a lot more convincing if there were only two more races to go rather than three and, while his lead in the series increased in Japan, he is only too aware that his margin over his new second-placed team-mate, Sebastian Vettel, actually shrunk by five points.

Webber cannot cruise. He just doesn't have enough of a buffer over his Red Bull team-mate to simply shadow him in the remaining races as he did in Japan, should the young German win them all.

Given Vettel's pace and the complete nature of his performance in Suzuka, a run of four successive wins to the end is certainly a possibility. Webber really needs to win at least once in the remaining races if he is to take a maiden F1 title. Korea is one they all need to desperately put in the bag.

Webber has never won a championship of any sort since he moved into car racing from karts, and his broad shoulders will be creaking under the weight of expectation in the coming weeks. Although he appears strong mentally there is something about his fragile lead that makes you feel insecure about his chances.

Vettel on the other hand is on a charge. By converting his impressive eighth pole position of the season into victory for just the second time, he provided a flawless performance befitting of a champion-in-waiting. It's easy to forget his is just 22 years old. Alongside Vettel on 206 points is Fernando Alonso, a latecomer to this battle who is displaying all the fighting qualities that persuaded Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo to cast Kimi Raikkonen adrift.

Alonso slipped three points further behind Webber in Suzuka but emerged from the cockpit of his F10 thrilled to have finished within three seconds of race winner Vettel at a track that couldn't have been better suited to Red Bull if it had been doodled on Adrian Newey's drawing board in Milton Keynes.

While Red Bull still have the better package, Alonso and Ferrari will force a wedge in the slightest crack in their armoury and the Spaniard has vowed to attack to get the win he needs from the next couple of races to play a part in a title decider.

Is Alonso as fast over one lap as Vettel or even Hamilton? He certainly is currently the most complete Grand Prix driver and the way he drives the team tactics from the cockpit during a race is impressive.

Hamilton is also an inspiring leader for the McLaren workforce but a third crash in three race weekends and a gearbox failure grid penalty at Suzuka could well have wounded their challenge irretrievably.

Friday's shunt at the Degner curve put Hamilton on the back foot and, crucially, reduced him to using an older spec rear wing for the rest of the weekend. Another gearbox malfunction in the race restricted him to fifth place, a meagre result for a car with so much more potential.

Hamilton's attacking style is a joy to behold and if he avoids gravel traps and keeps his nose clean, he will surely serve up a few tantalising drives in the last three races.

Like Alonso, his one-time nemesis, Hamilton is a fighter and, as he himself pointed out, there are still a total of 75 points on offer so his deficit of just over a single win is far from insurmountable. And let's not forget that as recently as 2007, when there were ten points for a win, Kimi Raikkonen came from 17 points behind to snatch the title from Hamilton and Alonso on the final day.

For reigning champion Jenson Button, though, the writing is surely on the wall. Now 31 points in arrears, there was some evidence in Suzuka to suggest that McLaren team may have switched Button's race day strategy to aid his better-placed team-mate. And indeed they have too. Neutrality is one thing but championships are not won without military precision and now the calculator is king.

Red Bull is once again favourite but Hamilton is a master of the virgin track territory and he will not go out of this championship quietly. Felipe Massa has publicly pledged to up his game for the benefit of Alonso and the McLaren and Ferrari squads know they must pool resources to bring the flying Red Bulls back to earth.

The best F1 season in years continues to enthrall and with the great imponderable that is the South Korean International Circuit, who would bet against another points upheaval come Sunday afternoon? It might be the 'land of Morning Calm' but South Korea will be Land of the Afternoon Crescendo a week from now.

David Kennedy is Setanta's

Formula 1 analyst

Sunday Independent

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