October 2, 2013 (F1plus/G Keilloh).- It's all a pity in a sense, that the Korean circuit itself is by no means the worst eventhough many think so. While it hasn't yet produced a classic race, which is something that probably can be attributed to things other than the layout.
It has many of Hermann Tilke's fingerprints, such as lengthy straights book-ended by tight slow corners, and more of a variety of corners elsewhere. The lap is roughly divided into thirds, with the first part dominated by the straights, then there are a few quick turns and the lap is ended with rather busy and more technical (i.e. slow speed) changes of direction. This split makes it quite a tricky track to set up cars for, with a teams facing a conundrum over which to prioritise between straightline speed and downforce for the corners later. It's a track with a bit of everything, so it will reward cars that are good at everything.
And good at everything usually means Red Bull. Which usually means Sebastian Vettel. And it does even more so this time as Mark Webber will add ten places to whatever starting slot he earns following his third reprimand of the year picked up in Singapore, presumably scratching one of the more likely - a relative term of course - interruptions to the Vettel demonstration run (here last year Webber every-so-briefly threatened that version by claiming pole).
Seb, as we know, won comfortably at Spa and Monza, two tracks that were supposed to be the weakest for his RB9. Then came Singapore, and when the downforce increased his superiority over the rest did so in turn, indeed it bordered on the insulting. There seems little reason for him not to be ahead again this time too: the Korean track makes similar demands to Singapore, particularly in its final sector, and the Singapore weekend was also the scene of the last major technical upgrade of the campaign for most - and if the events of that race didn't convince any team to call off the 2013 fight then you suspect that nothing will. And, oh yeah, Vettel's won on his last two Korean visits, and would have a three-from-three full house (probably) but for a late engine failure in the other race in 2010. And he always seems to dominate this part of the campaign.
The season therefore is entering an unmistakable sense of drift, with Vettel's advantage frozen. Cars haven't even set wheel on track yet, but it already seems the case that only the unusual will deprive Sebastian Vettel of victory this weekend.
As for possible challengers, those with the greatest proximity to Seb could be painted silver. The Mercedes was the closest to him on pace at Singapore, and the Yeongam track characteristics should suit it. And it was at a similar track at Hungary that the haughty Vettel was last beaten, and in fine style by Lewis Hamilton. Whether it's enough to bridge the chasm of Singapore remains to be seen however.
Vettel and Alonso met atthe podium last year in Korea (LAT Photo)
For Ferrari the chasm seems even wider, even if Fernando Alonso salvaged the best-of-the-rest-behind-Seb's-race-of-one prize in Singapore. That result owed a lot to a stunning move at turn one by Alonso to claim several places as well as an inspired team strategy selection when a mid-race safety car appeared (helped by the Ferrari's gentle touch on the tyres). Expecting the cards to fall again for the effort thus may be excepting too much, but with Alonso aboard and his indomitable fighting spirit not yet diminished few things can be ruled out entirely.
Lotus too appeared to have the legs of Ferrari in Singapore on pace. Unreliability deprived Romain Grosjean of a good result on a weekend where he was running at the sharp end (Vettel aside, like everyone else), while Kimi Raikkonen ghosted into a podium position via a similar path to Alonso's. And the various changes of direction around the Yeongam track should suit the E21. Much attention will be on Kimi's back of course, though the surface here should aggravate it less than Singapore did.
Strategy variation looks unlikely, with two-stoppers for most probable. As is Pirelli's way (understandably) right now compounds again are slightly more conservative than at the same venue last year: the supersoft and medium are the compounds available (as they were at Singapore) which compares with the supersofts and soft brought for the last Korea visit. Last time out in Singapore with the same compounds though there was close to a two second per lap difference between the two compounds, which nudged strategists towards more stops, and created headaches particularly in qualifying wherein teams struggled to cruise through the early stages using the prime tyres.
At Yeongam, the track is fairly abrasive on the tyres but this has tended to be offset by rather cool temperatures; in both of the last two years the rubber has turned out to be more durable than anticipated at this venue. And the pit lane is a relatively long one. Whether this is all enough for someone to try a one-stopper remains to be seen: Pastor Maldonado tried it last year but it didn't appear outwardly to do much for him.
Perhaps the most likely strategy variation though will happen via the weather, as we all can recall the heavy rain that dominated, and delayed the race start, in 2010. Furthermore the track's geographical location near the coast means that sudden showers are a relatively frequent feature.
But equally there seems a risk that the competitive fight over first place this weekend will be about as tepid as the surroundings.