The Korean Grand Prix provided another race full of entertainment and tactical battles, but it wasn’t always looking like shaping up that way.
The predicted wet weather never arrived on Sunday and with one pretty clear favorite in terms of race strategy for the teams, it could have easily turned into a somewhat processional event.
As it happened, higher than expected front right tire wear and two safety car periods forced the race into a very close and strategic affair.
The sums done by the teams on Saturday night had a two-stop race being the fastest way to the checkered flag, but it looked like the first stint on the supersoft, option tire needed to run for around 19 or 20 laps to be able to get the best out of the medium, primes, for the two remaining spells to the end of the race. In reality, a forced early stop for Jenson Button’s McLaren saw him change his front wing, but also discard the supersoft tires and move onto the medium.
His pace was so good on the prime tire that it triggered a flurry of early stops to do the same and everyone reacted to each other, with even race leader, Sebastian Vettel, stopping to make the switch on lap 11.
The circuit in Korea is a front limited one, meaning the pace and stint length are determined by the car and driver’s ability to look after the front tires. Wear, as well as degradation, were the limiting factors around this track and so it was important for teams to set the cars up in a way that controls understeer and drivers to manage their own pace, using the guidance of their teams, to make them last. The work put in during Friday’s free practice sessions is all about trying to understand the wear rates and generate the ideal laptimes to keep pace, but ensure the right front isn’t destroyed in the process, forcing an early, or extra, pitstop in the race.
Sunday, the two safety car periods closed the field up, meaning some great, close racing, but also and crucially for some, increased understeer from following in the aerodynamic wake of the cars in front. Fernando Alonso and then Lewis Hamilton both noticeably looked to struggle with the loss of front downforce when trying to follow Nico Hulkenburg and the reduced front grip meant more sliding and consequently hurt the fragile right front tires. Being in front after each safety car spell today was a big advantage and one that Sebastian Vettel used flawlessly once again.
Once again the Lotus, particularly in the hands of Kimi Raikkonen, used its tires well and managed to exploit that advantage over the others in a brave, but inspired strategy call and a bit of good luck with the safety car.
Kimi stopped earlier than most for his second set of new medium tires on lap 25 and managed to undercut some of the cars around him with some very fast early laps in clean air. When the safety car was deployed on lap 31, he stayed out, while many made their stops and found himself catapulted up the field. The fact that the Lotus E21 and Kimi are so good at looking after the tires, meant that, despite finishing the race on a set that had run for 30 laps, he still had pace to challenge, pounce on, and then hold off teammate, Romain Grosjean for a brilliant second place finish, having started the Grand Prix ninth on the grid.
Strategy was a mixture of meticulous team preparation, as always, but perhaps more than at some other events, the patience, intelligence and skill of the drivers played a big role in coping with a difficult tire challenge in Korea.