Questions for Korea
Can anyone or anything stop Vettel? Will the dirty side of the grid be the new clean side? And will this be the final Korean GP?
By Pete Gill, William Esler and James Galloway. Last Updated: 03/10/13 5:04pm
Will there be a change in the 2013 narrative to re-engage the distracted?
Memo to 2013: There's a season still on.
With so much chatter focused on 2014 during recent weeks, the casual passer-by could be forgiven for surveying the F1 scene without noticing that six events - almost a third of the entire campaign - are still to be held. Don't be fooled: There is still a long, long way to go before the year reaches its final conclusion.
The persuasion for fast-forward is obvious: Sebastian Vettel's recent crushing domination and the mounting inevitability of a fourth successive World Championship for a driver currently operating in an exclusive race of his own.
Even with the mid-race interruption of slate-cleaning Safety Car, Vettel's emphatic victory of last week's Singapore GP was the largest by any driver in dry conditions for almost a decade. He's just a speck in the distance at present.
And yet, at the risk at being labelled a straw clutcher, there is still a long way to go. Six races means 150 points, means Vettel's 60-point advantage is far from insurmountable. It would require a gargantuan reversal in fortunes and form for Alonso - or anyone else for that matter - to prevail from here, but, hey, this is sport, and strange things happen in sport. Plenty of stranger things have happened, too.
So let's not switch focus to 2014 just yet, beguiling as the rules revolution and the prospect of Kimi v Fernando might be. Put the fat lady on alert by all means, but let 2013 finish its story first before closing the book and starting on next year's tale.
Are F1's top two poised to set a new record?
While those who have been complaining about the 'predictable' nature of recent races have squarely been referring to the recurring destination of the winners' trophies, it's also worth pointing out that we've actually had the same top two order for each of the last three grands prix - Sebastian Vettel the hat-trick victor and Fernando Alonso the second-placed bridesmaid since the sport returned from its summer holidays.
So how unusual is such an identical one-two sequence? Well, given F1 is in its 64th season, the answer is that it is indeed rather rare: only three times during the same season (Schumacher/Barrichello 2004; Mansell/Patrese 1992; Senna/Prost 1988), and across campaigns in two more instances (Hakkinen/Coulthard 1997/98; Jones/Reutemann 1980/81), had the exact same top two finishing order previously been replicated at three successive grands prix. However, the Vettel/Alonso sequence is the first time that this has happened with two drivers from different teams, thus already making the current run unique.
Now, while the same two drivers have monopolised the top two podium positions four or more times in a row in the past - Schumacher and Barrichello doing so five times for Ferrari at the end of 2002, and Senna and Prost four with McLaren in 1988, for example - on each of those runs the exact one-two order was never repeated for more than three straight races. Should Vettel therefore win from Alonso for the fourth consecutive race weekend in Korea then F1 would duly have itself a new one-two driver finishing record.
Given the fact the ongoing sequence basically is the F1 formbook, the chances are unsurprisingly rather high that the record run will be achieved. If you then consider than Vettel would have had a clean sweep of Korean wins but for a late engine failure in the inaugural 2010 event, and Alonso has two podiums from three attempts, the fans who love a statistical quirk may well be more than satisfied come the chequered flag on Sunday.
Will this be the final Korean GP at Yeongam?
Is there a more perplexing presence on the F1 calendar than the Korean Grand Prix?
While the circuit itself is very arguably the most under-rated on the calendar, the race itself continues to feel like an inexplicable anomaly. Built on swampland 400km south of Seoul, what was supposed to be a city race has turned out to be an unengaging study of isolation. Bereft of soul, support or supporters, the Korean GP is an event that, in its current fan-forsaken location, defies adequate explanation.
"What are we doing here?" asked one seasoned F1 protagonist asked loudly upon arriving at a typically-deserted Yeongam paddock twelve months ago. And answers there came none. It's a blot on the F1 landscape.
Given that the 2012 event recorded losses of £23m, the pertinent corollary is that the race must pay well. "In the long-term the F1 event will bring more benefits to the country. It will not only pave the way for South Korean car industries in the future but also help foster new industries," an unnamed race organiser told Reuters in December as Yeongam authorities sought to make sense and purpose of such eye-watering losses.
But they are surely fighting a losing battle. Despite its inclusion on the 2014 calendar, there are plenty who believe this will be the final Korean GP - at least at Yeongam. Its slot on next year's calendar is scheduled for April 27th and conferred with an asterisk to designate provisional status. It would be to nobody's great surprise if Korea was quietly dropped, alleviating the strain on the teams contemplating the record-breaking grind of a 22-race calendar and providing the welcome relief of a three-week between China and Spain after a month on the road.
Perhaps this weekend will dawn a dramatic rebirth of the Yeongam Korean GP, provide a compelling case for its continuation, attract fans in their droves, and finally answer that long-asked question of what precisely the world's most global sport is doing in such a distant backwater that, according to Red Bull, 'is more Margate than Monaco'.
But all things considered, perhaps not.
Will dirty be the new clean side?
The Korean International Circuit is an odd circuit; far better than its reputation, but a little odd all the same. It is essentially three different configurations bolted together: a flat-out speedfest of long straights for the first sector, sweeping fast turns in the second, and then a street-circuit equivalent in the third. If only it wasn't built on swampland slap-bang in the middle of nowhere, the KIC might actually gain a vestige of popularity.
Yet while the sum of the track's three various parts makes it one of the under-rated destinations on the calendar, it does contain a peculiarity that is beyond mitigation. Watch a re-run of last year's race and the flaw is glaringly apparent with the inside line for the first corner afforded to cars starting on the dirty side of the grid. It's for precisely this reason that Sebastian Vettel, starting from second place alongside Mark Webber, took the lead of the race despite making what appeared to be a rather average start (see above), and it's precisely for this reason that by lap five every top-ten qualifying car starting on the right-hand side of the grid had lost position to the car which had lined up to its left.
Twelve months later, will race organisers respond by placing the pole-sitter on the dirty side of the grid?
Can Paul Di Resta find form?
Di Resta has failed to finish any of the last four races and has not scored a point since the British Grand Prix in late June. With Force India CEO Otmar Szafnauer admitting "they have some options" for next year and that if "Nico [Hulkenberg] came back I certainly wouldn't be upset," the Scot needs to find form soon if he wants to ensure he has a seat with the team in 2014.
It is not just in the races, though, that Di Resta is struggling. At the last eight events his Saturday participation has ended with Q1 four times - take out the abnormalities of the Silverstone disqualification and a wet session at Spa and that record becomes even worse with a 67% exit rate.
It seems the VJM06 does not work its tyres hard enough to generate sufficient heat and a Force India has not made it into the final part of qualifying in a dry session since the more durable Pirelli tyre was introduced from the German GP onwards. Compare this to the Bahrain GP earlier in the season - high temperatures and an abrasive surface meant the tyres were worked hard, generating heat and Di Resta started 5th with Adrian Sutil in 6th.
With Force India switching their focus to 2014 development, this is a situation that does not look like changing anytime soon and, with Sauber in particular showing improved form, Di Resta faces a battle in Korea this Saturday not to go out in Q1. "We switched our focus to 2014 quite a while ago, whilst I think some of our rivals brought updates to Singapore and that has not helped us with understanding the tyres," Szafnauer confessed.
But, to place all the blame on the tyres is too simplistic. Sutil is qualifying on average two spots higher than his team-mate and scored points in Belgium and Singapore. With the 2014 driver market looking fiercely competitive, Di Resta needs to shape up. If not, he could be making an early exit from F1 and not just qualifying.