The world championship somersaulted once more here today to leave its supporters in a state of nervous exhaustion. A race which was dominated first by rain and then by encroaching darkness and which had, for most of the time, the safety car as the dullest of star performers, seemed to threaten little more than anti-climax.
When it was all over, however, most people agreed that this was just about as much fun as one could possibly have on a wet Sunday afternoon in Yeongam.
For Ferrari and Fernando Alonso, who won for the third time in four races, this was another stunning triumph, the Spaniard opening up an 11-point gap at the top of the drivers’ championship. For Red Bull, who had locked out the front row for the eighth time this season only to see both their cars fail to finish, this was an eviscerating experience, a day even darker than the tenebrous skies that lurked over the Yellow Sea beside Jeollanam-do.
For McLaren, meanwhile, it was something in between. On the one hand Lewis Hamilton revived his fading chances of a second title by finishing runner-up to Alonso, a result all the more heartening because it made a vivid contrast to the cruelties that had befallen him in recent races, and now lies third-placed and 21 points behind the Spaniard. “I think this is a wonderful day,” Hamilton said. “In terms of finishing and scoring points it was better than the last few races, which have been very, very tricky. We’ve got Monza where we didn’t score, Singapore where we didn’t score. It was great to compete for the win.
“It was good for the team. But it still wasn’t perfect. We still had things we struggled with. We are clearly the third fastest car. But that doesn’t mean we can’t step forward in the next two. I’ve got good memories of Brazil.”
But for Jenson Button this was the day he lost his chance to retain the world title. True, there are still a total of 50 points to be won in Brazil and Abu Dhabi, and he is 42 behind the leader. “I’m not really [still in the championship]. People would need to have massive problems for me to win. I am not really in it any more.”
But when asked later whether he would play second fiddle to Hamilton to help his team-mate win the title, he said: “If mathematically I couldn’t win the championship then yes, I would help Lewis. I said that the championship was over – we say a lot of things in the heat of the moment and I don’t stand by that now.
“You don’t win world championships by conceding defeat before it is all over. If I couldn’t win the championship, I would help the team in whatever way I can. Until then I’ll fight and you have seen today how things can change fast. Mark was leading by 14 points and now Fernando leads by 11.”
If Spa in August was wet, this was wet, wet, wet. “If it rains,” said the admirable BBC pundit Martin Brundle three days before the race, calling upon all the knowledge and experience that made him such a competitive driver “the surface will be like oiled snot”. Those at home who might have recorded events, however, would have been disappointed because the delay meant that coverage was switched from BBC1 to BBC2 before most of the vital moments.
The track, and its surrounds, looked unready to stage its inaugural grand prix. The start was delayed 10 minutes and then the grand prix led by the flashing safety car. Only three laps were possible before the race was stopped.
And then there was another tedious series of what looked like formation laps until the safety car came in on the 17th lap, allowing real racing for the first time in the hour and three-quarters that had elapsed since the scheduled start.
Red Bull, though, were soon to suffer the first of their two huge setbacks. Webber, the championship leader at the start, was running second behind his team-mate Sebastian Vettel when he lost control and crashed out on the 19th lap.
Vettel now opened up a lead over Alonso, with Hamilton moving up to third. Hamilton did pass the Spaniard but surrendered the advantage almost immediately when he ran wide on turn one.
Vettel, though, appeared in no danger from either driver until, at the start of the 46th lap, his engine blew up as if an incendiary device had been planted there. The Red Bull garage looked devastated as the German traipsed dejectedly from his vehicle. They have had the best car all year but have now lost the lead in the drivers’ championship and had it slashed in the constructors’ table.
Alonso, though, is now the main man, until Brazil at least. This was his fourth win in seven races. His challenge for a third world title may have faltered in the summer but his car has been big, red and dangerously fast all season. He has always looked a potential champion; it seems so obvious now.
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