Preview of the Korean Grand Prix
After a solid first half of the year, Fernando Alonso’s luck has changed for the worst and two retirements since the summer break have seen his Championship lead cut to just four points. Perhaps more significantly, Red Bull are looking stronger and the momentum now seems to be with Sebastian Vettel in what appears to have boiled down to a two-horse race. Still, with a quarter of the season still to go, there’s time for all that to yet change.
So what should you expect this weekend?
Track and Conditions
Built on 425 acres of reclaimed land beside an artificial seaside lake, the rural location of the Korean International Circuit sets it apart from the busy, metropolis locations of the majority of its Far Eastern counterparts.
The lap features three straights in quick succession – the longest at 1.2km – before completely changing character with a series of twisting turns switching left and right and presenting drivers a conundrum as to the quickest way to tackle them. A a lot of time can be gained or lost in this section.
The circuit then shifts personalities yet again as it suddenly turn into a tight street circuit with walls pressing in on both sides. The change is abrupt and caught Mark Webber out in spectacular style in 2010. One day, maybe, the circuit will sprout the long-promised buildings that will finish off the street section.
The changing character makes the circuit demanding on both drivers and teams, with compromises to be made between downforce and straight-line speed with good traction also being extremely important. Several corners are off-camber, unsettling the drivers.
The climate in Mokpo at this time of year can just about throw up anything and two the previous races have reflected that. This year, the forecast is leaning towards warm and sunny but there is still time for that to change.
Korea presents a particular conundrum for the teams in terms of set-up as they try to balance the differing demands of the circuit. Suspension is a compromise between a stiffer set-up to give good change of direction through the sweeping bends and a softer set-up for the slower corners that separate the straights. The smooth track and lack of kerbs does allow the teams to run the car very low, however. To deal with the sweeping curves and to maximise traction out of the slow corners, downforce levels lean towards the high side, similar to Suzuka. This tends to leave the drivers drag restricted by the ends of the straights. They’ll also be short of gearing as the corners dictate the gear ratios and leaves them hitting the rev limit, which in turn hampers overtaking.
Engine power is useful for the straights but good traction and smooth power delivery is just as important.
Once again Pirelli bring their soft and supersoft compounds to Korea. Even though the tyres are changed from last year, two-stop strategies should once again by the norm. The only question surrounds how the compounds are used as the teams negotiate the trade-off between and pace and durability of the two tyres.
Having only appeared on the calendar twice before, and with one of those dominated by heavy rain, it’s difficult to ascertain any patterns for the likelihood of accidents or safety car periods. However, the circuit has seen the second lowest incidence of mechanical retirements after Valencia.
Korea was made to wait for its first ever Grand Prix as torrential rain saw the first attempt to start the race behind the safety car abandoned after three laps. On the restart, there was another 14 laps of safety car but when it finally got going in earnest it produced a dramatic race. Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg must have wished the safety car had stayed out as the former spun out and collected the latter. More spins and accidents were to follow but Sebastian Vettel remained unruffled out front. However, with the race running behind schedule, darkness began to fall. Suddenly, Vettel’s engine blew up and Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso inherited the victory and the lead in the World Championship with it.
Ones To Watch
With the track’s widely differing sectors, the teams’ various strengths have an opportunity to shine at least somewhere and Red Bull, McLaren and Ferrari have been quite closely matched on the two previous visits. With the field less spread out this year, that could add up to an even closer contest with some of the less obvious names in the mix. All-in-all, it’s a recipe for a potential title race-changing weekend.
Food for Thought
Who do you think will win in Korea? Can one of the ‘mid-field teams’ challenge for victory? What will Lewis Hamilton tweet about this weekend?
Circuit Profile – Korean International Circuit
2011 Korean Grand Prix – Elated Vettel Conquers Korea
Photos: Williams F1/Andrew Ferraro/LAT Photographic, Williams F1/Andrew Ferraro/LAT Photographic, Sauber Motorsport AG, Lotus F1 Team/Glenn Dunbar/LAT Photographic