Korean GP: perfection from Vettel, less so from the tyres

 

Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull produced the latest in a series of displays of sporting perfection to win the Korean Grand Prix.

The German's fourth win in a row, his eighth this season and the 34th of a short but stellar career means that if he wins again in Japan next Sunday - as he has in three of the last four years - he will be world champion if his closest rival Fernando Alonso finishes lower than eighth.

That might not seem likely - Alonso has only once finished a race that low down all year, and that was when his car had problems - but Ferrari's form has been heading the wrong way in recent races and there was a point in Korea on Sunday when it looked like the Spaniard might finish eighth on merit.

Indeed, had the front wing of Nico Rosberg's Mercedes not failed, and had Mark Webber's Red Bull not been punted into retirement by Adrian Sutil's Force India at the first of two safety-car re-starts, that's where Alonso would have ended up.

Webber's Red Bull catches fire

As it was, Alonso survived to fight another day, but it is clearly only a matter of time before his mathematical hopes are over. His realistic ones died some time ago, as he himself admits.

Vettel and Red Bull's sheer, remorseless crushing of their rivals over the last few years may be painful to watch for many fans but it has to be admired. This is excellence of a level that is only rarely seen in sport.

It's certainly painful for their rivals, though, and the frustration of some is beginning to show.

Lewis Hamilton - stuck in the closing part of the race behind the vastly impressive Nico Hulkenberg's Sauber and fighting off a challenge from Alonso behind - opined afterwards that he and his old rival were too good to be scrapping for minor placings.

Alonso, meanwhile, was in spiky mood after qualifying, pointing out for the umpteenth time that "we have a deficit of half to one second with our main rival, exactly the same as the last four years" and criticising Pirelli's tyres publicly for the first time.

Alonso made it abundantly clear that he was not blaming the tyres for Ferrari's lack of performance. Simply, he said, "the quality of the tyres is very on the limit" - polite-ish code for not up to the job.

"If all the cars push 100% from the start of the lap the tyres will not do 5km," Alonso said. "It is not very helpful and not very nice to drive like this at 95% all the lap."

It was a reasonable point and hardly a unique one - Michael Schumacher made it early last year before his retirement; Red Bull made it at the start of this season; Webber has been doing so for three years.

But for some reason this time Pirelli motorsport director Paul Hembery decided to bite.

He could have said - as would have been reasonable in the circumstances; as he has in the past - that Pirelli was merely doing what F1 boss Bernie Ecclestone had asked, namely providing deliberately fragile tyres that promoted more pit stops, with the idea of creating unpredictable racing.

Instead, he chose to call Alonso's reaction "disappointing" and then added: "I can only suggest he goes to ask the soon-to-be four-times champion how to get the best from the same tyres."

The remark was not only inaccurate - Alonso's performances over the last three years have proved he is as good as anyone at handling the awkward demands of Pirelli tyres - it was also a cheap shot and well below the belt, almost as if it was aimed at hitting where it hurt most.

Everyone in F1 knows that Alonso is finding it painful watching Vettel win so much - it's why he approached Red Bull this summer asking if he could drive for them in 2014.

But it ill behoves a monopoly supplier, which is required to be even-handed, to behave in this way.

Alonso revealed after the race that Hembery had come to him to apologise for his remarks. And the race provided yet further ammunition for the drivers' arguments.

Sergio Perez locked a front tyre heavily on his McLaren and then suffered a dramatic failure on the subsequent long straight, an incident worryingly reminiscent of the multiple failures suffered at the British Grand Prix that led to Pirelli having to change the design of its tyres for subsequent races.

F1 people - drivers, engineers and team bosses alike - have grown tired this season of Pirelli blaming outside causes for their tyres failures, when everyone knows the fundamental problem is the tyres themselves. Many believe they are not of a standard suitable for F1.

As Webber said after the race: "Pirelli will put the tyre puncture of Perez down to a lock-up but the reason the drivers are locking up is because there's no tread left."

F1 finds itself in this situation because of a decision made by commercial boss Bernie Ecclestone after the 2010 Canadian Grand Prix.

Back then, Japan's Bridgestone was in its last year in F1 and its durable tyres had led some to conclude many of the races had become a little dull.

Dramatic tyre failures hit British Grand Prix

In Canada, though, the Bridgestones did not respond well to the track surface and the result was a topsy-turvy race with lots of pit stops and plenty of action.

Ecclestone either ignored or did not see that the idea of the racing being dull was a false premise based on only one boring grand prix, the first of the season in Bahrain, in a season in which refuelling was banned for the first time in 16 years.

He decided he wanted Canada as the model for F1 in the future and asked Pirelli to design deliberately fragile tyres when it entered the sport in 2011.

The result has been three seasons of tyre management for everyone from Vettel down.

Many of Vettel's victories have followed a trend - one that he employed again in Korea. He has built a quick lead in the opening lap or two and then measured his pace, careful not to use his tyres too much while ensuring he is out of reach of his rivals.

Were he able to push hard throughout the winning margin would be higher, but the result would be the same.

Would that matter? Almost certainly not. People aren't stupid. It has taken a while, but everyone watching is now well aware of what F1 has become, and many don't like it.

If the tyres were more durable, there might be fewer pit stops. But at least then people would be watching what F1 is meant to be - the best racing drivers pushing to the limit in the fastest and most demanding cars in the world.

Or, as Alonso put it, "at least you could drive".

After the race, Alonso was asked about Hembery's comments.

"We speak with facts and they [Pirelli] just use words," he said. "Everybody can see that. It seemed weird that given the season Pirelli is having they decide to speak out. But he apologised and it's all good [between us]."

Perhaps, after another race in which the tyres have once again been a focal point for all the wrong reasons, it might be time for Pirelli - and Ecclestone - to listen to him. And Webber, and Hamilton, and countless others behind the scenes.

Korean Grand Prix, day three

  • Sunday 6 October: Race highlights, 14:00 BST on BBC One.