Crunch time in Korea for McLaren drivers
Lewis Hamilton heads to South Korea for the country's inaugural grand prix this weekend predicting that the new circuit "should suit our car quite well". For the sake of his rapidly dwindling hopes of winning the drivers' world championship, he had better be right.
Hamilton's title challenge, like that of team-mate and fellow Englishman Jenson Button, has reached a critical point. Basically, they need to beat their championship rivals at the new Korea International Circuit in Yeongam on Sunday to get properly back into contention. The team have admitted as much themselves, in fact.
Mathematically, it's not all over for Hamilton and Button if they do not win, but realistically it probably would be, a situation that only increases the pressure and anticipation ahead of Formula 1's biggest step into the unknown for years.
Let's get the mathematics out of the way first.
Our graphic shows how the McLaren drivers have dropped back in recent races
After he won the Belgian Grand Prix at the end of August, Hamilton was leading the championship by three points from Red Bull's Mark Webber. The two had pulled out a substantial lead over the other three contenders - Webber's team-mate Sebastian Vettel, Button and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso - to the point that it was beginning to look like a two-horse race.
Six weeks later - after three torrid weekends for Hamilton and, to a lesser extent, McLaren - Hamilton is 28 points adrift of the Australian, and Button 31, with a maximum of 75 points available in the remaining three races. Webber, meanwhile, retains the lead, with Alonso and Vettel tied 14 points behind him.
After Korea, the available points will go down to 50 - hence the urgent need for Hamilton and Button to make up serious ground this weekend. It is not necessarily all over if they don't - but, alone among the title contenders, both Hamilton and Button could drop out of contention this weekend.
If Webber wins, Hamilton must finish at least eighth to keep alive any mathematical hope of winning the championship and Button cannot be lower than sixth.
It is a discouraging picture but, as you would expect of world-class sportsmen, both McLaren drivers are looking only at the positives.
The track, they believe, should suit their car more than Japan did two weeks ago. The team have two new developments to fit to their car, which - if they work as planned - could make them not only contenders, but front-runners. New tracks throw up variables that make for unpredictable weekends, and McLaren's meticulous preparation could give them an advantage.
There is merit - and holes - in all those arguments.
Korea will undoubtedly suit the McLaren more than Japan, where the Suzuka track - as Vettel himself admitted after he led Webber to a dominant one-two - might have been made for the overwhelming aerodynamic superiority of the Red Bull.
Yes, the new Korean track features an infield section featuring a sequence of long- and short-duration corners that will play into the hands of Red Bull, but it also features two very long straights, one of them 1.2km, where the Red Bull will struggle. In theory, the layout should even things out nicely among the three teams.
As well as a new front wing, McLaren have further developed the 'F-duct' aerodynamic device they pioneered at the start of the season and which has since been adopted by all the major teams, and this could further tilt the balance.
Korea could be a crucial weekend for the five title contenders. Photo: Reuters
This device works by 'stalling' the rear wing on the straights - reducing drag and therefore increasing straight-line speed. As such, it enables teams to run more downforce in the corners, thereby making the car faster through them, without the normally attendant penalty on the straights. Alternatively, it allows them to keep the cornering downforce where it would normally be, and simply be faster down the straight.
McLaren introduced a new version of the F-duct in Japan which changed the part of the wing that was stalled - previously it was the flap; the new one stalls the main plane, in theory increasing its effectiveness - but they abandoned it because it was not working as well as expected.
It therefore became the latest in a series of advances introduced by McLaren that did not work - at least at first. By contrast, new parts introduced by rivals Red Bull and Ferrari have generally gone on their cars without problems and made them faster.
Equally, it is fair to say that McLaren's meticulous preparations do not always necessarily mean they respond better than their rivals to the unexpected. On the contrary, in fact, there are many people in the F1 pit lane who will tell you that there have been times when what some regard as McLaren's excessively data-driven approach has worked to their disadvantage.
It will be interesting, then, to see how all the title contenders respond to the avalanche of uncertainties that will greet them in Korea.
Usually, F1 teams turn up at a circuit for a grand prix weekend with mountains of data from computer simulations so that when the cars go out on the track, the fundamental set-up work is complete, leaving just fine-tuning to do.
The new Korean F1 track has only just been finished in time for the race race. Photo: Reuters
They will have almost none of that in Korea. The final layer of asphalt was laid only a fortnight ago, and the track passed fit for competition on 12 October. The teams know the layout, but virtually nothing else.
As a result, the speed of the corners, the gears they are taken in, the optimum downforce level for the track, all these things will become apparent only during practice, the first session of which starts at 0200 BST on Friday.
It is then, impossible to predict how the teams will compare. And much more than usual the success or failure of the teams' weekends will be determined by the quality of their work and the decisions they make on Friday and into Saturday.
As one McLaren man told me: "If the new rear wing developments work, and we work well on Friday, we could finish one-two. If they don't and we don't..."
If they don't, well, it could be all over for Hamilton and Button by Sunday night.