There are times when Formula One is anything but exciting. During the first half of the 2009 season, it seemed almost pointless to tune in because Jenson Button and his Brawn were untouchable. Week after week, there was nothing anybody could do to stop the inevitable, and pole-to-pole victories became, whichever way you looked at it, a bit dull. At the beginning of this season, the Bahrain Grand Prix proved one of the blandest openers in years. The truth is that some circuits, and some seasons, just don’t take your breath away. It takes a perfect combination of factors to inject magic into Formula One, and during the inaugural Korean Grand Prix on Sunday, viewers tuned in to watch a simply unforgettable race unfold. It was a race that reminded the fans, whether sitting in their rain ponchos in the grandstands or nursing a cup of tea at 6am on the sofa, why they fell in love with Formula one.
It was the rain, known in F1 as the “great equaliser,” that was responsible for most of the thrills, but huge credit must be given to Hermann Tilke and circuit organisers for building a track that, although it’s still early days, looks to become a classic. Arguably the best of Tilke’s recent creations, a tight first corner, long straights, a nerve-wracking pit entry and plenty of overtaking points all make for a circuit that should provide wheel-to-wheel drama in dry races, as well as in the rain, and the decent crowd turn-out on Sunday will only grow and grow. There were questions of whether the track was really ready, though, when the rain fell, the red flags came out and the drivers complained of “the worst conditions” they had ever driven in. Poor drainage and a track yet to be rubbered-in were to blame during the hour-long delay, but all complaints were abruptly silenced once the race finally, mercifully, got underway.
It soon became clear that it would not be the circuit, but the five remaining title contenders that would steal the show. Mark Webber put in an early bid for a Best Drama award with an agonising slide into the wall on just the 2nd lap of the race proper. Any hope of him recovering from the slide were ended when Rosberg, who had overtaken Lewis Hamilton for fourth, slammed hard into the side of Webber’s Red Bull, finishing the race for the both of them. Though it was surely a nightmare scene for Webber fans, for everyone else it was a thrilling sign that the championship had been blown wide open.
This breathtaking prospect hit home when Sebastian Vettel’s engine blew up in the middle of a battle for first with Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. Flames burst from the car, and the battle for the title was re-ignited. Alonso and Hamilton kept their heads in the final laps, treating the tyres gently, tip-toeing around corners, and cruising peacefully over the line. Alonso’s hoots of laughter on the radio summarised it all; Red Bull had messed up big-time, Lewis had run wide and given Alonso his second place back after it was lost in a fumbled pit-stop, Button struggled just to stay on the road. Everyone but Alonso had made mistakes and now he was on top again, against all odds.
Though Jenson Button, now 42 points behind with only 50 points available in the last two races, is probably out of the fight, there are only 25 points, one race win, separating the top four drivers. The Brazilian Grand Prix, a classic every year, has huge potential to become one of the best races in Formula One history on November 7th. Webber, Vettel and Hamilton claim to be calm about what lies ahead, but don’t believe them for a second. Webber and Vettel in particular accidentally let some of their anxiety show at Korea with their desperate pleas for the safety car to remain out and preserve their positions. It was too slippery and then too dark, they claimed over the radio, knowing race directors were listening, while Hamilton begged for the race to begin and be fully run, stating that conditions were absolutely fine. All of the drivers clearly are thinking about the title, then, but it is Webber and Vettel that have been expecting to be at the head of the battle all year, possibly even since pre-season testing. For the McLaren drivers and Alonso, there has seemingly been less pressure, and that they are still in the fight now with lesser cars is something of a pleasant surprise. If they win, they will be thrilled, but to lose is not a disaster. For Red Bull, it is different. To see how their drivers handle the pressure in Brazil will be fascinating. This is what Formula One is all about.