Sebastian Vettel won his third straight Korean Grand Prix to move to the brink of a fourth Formula One world championship in a row.
The Red Bull driver kept his composure after two safety-car restarts and preserved his wearing tires to finish ahead of Lotus pair Kimi Raikkonen and Romain Grosjean yesterday at the Korea International Circuit in Yeongam.
Vettel’s fourth straight victory and eighth in 14 events this season lifted him 77 points clear of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso atop the drivers’ standings with five races remaining. Vettel could take the title as early as next week if he wins in Japan and Alonso finishes out of the top eight.
“There are still a lot of points to get, even though it looks very good for us,” Vettel said in a news conference. “There’s still a chance for Fernando, so we have to stay on top of our game, but to be honest, I think I said on the podium, we’re just having a good time.”
Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg fended off Lewis Hamilton of Mercedes for fourth place in a race during which the field twice bunched up following safety-car periods.
Vettel, who started from pole position, twice had to restart from the front after the safety car was called onto the track in quick succession. Each time he managed to pull away from Raikkonen to finish 4.2 seconds ahead of the Finn and claim his third win in the four editions of the Korea race.
“It’s not great getting stuck behind the safety car,” Vettel added. “Fortunately we had enough pace to always open up a little bit of a gap.”
The right-front tire on Sergio Perez’s McLaren unraveled on lap 32, throwing out debris that needed clearing from the track. Racing resumed with 19 laps left before the safety car was out again two laps later after Mark Webber’s Red Bull was taken out by Adrian Sutil’s spinning Force India and burst into flames, billowing out thick black smoke.
Vettel took a 1.4-second lead over Raikkonen following the second restart and extended his advantage over the closing laps even after being told by his race engineer to ease up to avoid wearing out his right-front tire.
“Well done Seb, that was a very disciplined drive, but a very, very good drive,” Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner said over the team radio as Vettel punched the air after taking the checkered flag.
Following his collision with Sutil, Webber climbed out unharmed and was left staring at his burning car while race marshals tried to reach the wreckage with fire extinguishers. The Australian driver also had to contend with a puncture picked up from the debris from the Perez incident.
“It was somewhat frustrating to see our car on fire for what seemed to be an age,” Horner added.
Raikkonen’s runner-up spot, his eighth podium finish of the year, lifted him above Hamilton into third place in the standings. Vettel leads with 272 points ahead of Alonso (195), Raikkonen (167) and Hamilton (161).
Alonso finished sixth yesterday to pick up eight championship points. Nico Rosberg of Mercedes was seventh ahead of McLaren’s Jenson Button. Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and Perez rounded out the point-scoring positions.
Red Bull heads the constructors’ standings with 402 points, 118 more than Ferrari, and requires seven more to guarantee a fourth straight team title. Mercedes is one point further back.
The Japanese Grand Prix, held at a Suzuka track Vettel described as one of the highlights on the 19-race calendar, is scheduled for Oct. 13.
“I think it’s the best track in the world,” said Vettel, who’s won three of the past four races at the Japanese circuit “The fans are crazy, completely crazy in a positive way, so I’m really looking forward to Japan.”