Hamilton on path to redemption
Lewis Hamilton talked about using the Korean Grand Prix to "redeem" himself after a turbulent series of races. It was a strong choice of word, reflective it seems of a man somewhat battle-weary after a long, trying season. But if redemption was what he was after, he went a long way towards achieving it in Yeongam.
His one mistake came on the first lap, when after converting pole position into a lead at the first corner, Hamilton admitted that he "didn't position my car very well" on the run down to Turn Four. "I didn't realise there was a car-length gap on the side," he said.
It was all the invitation Vettel needed to take the lead and drive off into a race of his own, taking his 10th win of the season to keep alive the possibility of equalling Michael Schumacher's all-time record of 13 wins in a season. Red Bull's one-three sealed a constructors' title that was as inevitable as the drivers' crown Vettel won in Japan a week ago.
After a taking a superb pole position on Saturday, Hamilton had hopes of winning in Korea. But the context of Sunday afternoon suggests that he achieved that position at the front of the grid more through sheer driving bravado than any car advantage.
It was certainly a stunning lap - the car dancing on the edge, alive in Hamilton's hands, in a way it has not been in recent races.
But come race day, Vettel's Red Bull was untouchable. He drove it like he has so many others this year, using just enough of the car's pace to pull out a comfortable gap without stressing the tyres and controlling the race from there.
Just how much pace Vettel had in hand became clear on the last lap when, just for fun, he went for the fastest lap of the race. The result was a time a massive 0.854 seconds faster than the mark Hamilton had set the lap before.
As Hamilton himself said ruefully: "Either way, he was going to overtake me." The other Red Bull, though, did not.
McLaren team boss Martin Whitmarsh described Hamilton's performance as "one of his great, great drives".
"When you have a car behind you which is frankly quicker and has DRS," Whitmarsh said, "to be able to hold on and hold on like that was a truly brilliant drive."
In truth, it is unlikely to be remembered alongside some of Hamilton's true landmark performances - among which are his two wins this season. Whitmarsh, it should be remembered, is trying to boost the confidence of a man going through a difficult period. But it was certainly of the highest calibre.
Struggling with understeer - the handling characteristic Hamilton dislikes most - he did not put a foot wrong in defending from Webber for the entire 55 laps.
The closest it got was after their second pit stops on lap 34, when Webber made a determined challenge into Turn Four, and the two diced it out for the remainder of the lap. Hamilton used all his peerless race craft to hang on.
Hamilton's subdued mood after qualifying caused much comment and although he was not exactly jumping around after the race, he did at least afford himself a smile.
"Especially with the amount of pressure I was being put under," he said, "it's very easy to lock up and make mistakes, to go wide but I didn't do that once so I'm very, very happy in terms of that performance.
"The last six races I've not been anywhere near that position so it feels good to be back."
It has, as has been well documented, been a difficult season for Hamilton, but the last few races have been particularly tough for him.
After his victory in Germany, hard-won in a race-long battle with Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and Webber, Hamilton again led for much of the Hungarian Grand Prix a week later, only for two incorrect tyre choices to leave him down in fourth at the flag, as his team-mate Jenson Button won.
But it was after the summer break that things really began to unravel.
In Belgium, he tangled with Williams's Pastor Maldonado in qualifying and then crashed out of the race after colliding with Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi when, in hindsight, he could have got at least a podium finish, and perhaps even won.
That led to a subdued performance in Italy, in which he spent a harrowing time trying to break Schumacher's aggressive defence after making a mistake in letting the German pass him at a restart.
In this period, Button had driven consistently superbly, and Hamilton's team-mate left Singapore having finished second to Vettel and as the only one of the Red Bull driver's rivals still in with a mathematical chance of stopping him winning the title.
And then came Japan. McLaren had the fastest car at Suzuka and Hamilton missed a chance to take pole when he failed to get round in time to start a second qualifying lap before the session ended and he lined up third, behind Vettel and Button.
Hamilton was quickly up to second behind Vettel on the first lap, but from there he went backwards, his race ruined by high tyre wear, and he finished fifth as Button won.
The suspicion is that this disparity between the McLaren drivers' performances in Japan is what explains Hamilton's behaviour in Korea, particularly after qualifying.
This is a man who believes strongly that he is the fastest driver in the world - and also that both he and Alonso are better than Vettel.
Already he has had to watch Vettel win two world titles in the fastest car - titles Hamilton believes he would have won had he been in that car.
Yet at Suzuka, Button, it could be said, was conclusively, out-and-out faster than Hamilton for the first time ever in a fully dry race - at arguably the world's greatest drivers' circuit. That will have taken some swallowing.
In that context, Hamilton's remarks about "redeeming myself" make more sense. And the seemingly innocuous comment after the race that he was "happy to be the one who got the most points for the team" takes on more meaning.
With the drivers' title settled, some have said, this season is effectively dead with three races still to go.
In fact, it's quite the reverse - out there on the race track, there remains an awful lot at stake.