As the “youngest” of all races on the calendar this year (with the exception of next week’s inaugural Indian Grand Prix), the Korean Grand Prix is still a bit of a question mark for the teams when it comes to set-up and how to approach the weekend. Last year’s race was marked by quickly changing and challenging weather conditions (with nearly half of the race taking place behind the Safety Car!) and this year, it pretty much started where we left off a year ago…
The limited amount of dry running on Friday meant all teams went into qualifying with little knowledge of what to expect in terms of tyre degradation, especially as most talks focused on Pirelli “aggressive” decision to bring the soft and supersoft tyres for this event. As it turned out, this choice didn’t prove as delicate to handle as expected and by Saturday, it was pretty clear that the race would boil down to a decision between two and three stops…
Nico had a pretty straightforward qualifying session on Saturday with his seventh place reflecting the current pace of the car. His Q3 time of 1.37.754, managed in only three laps, ended-up being only 0.9s shy of Massa’s fifth placec time. Not bad considering Massa did three more laps than Nico.
Starting on used option tyres, Nico had a clean getaway and managed to stay pretty close to Jenson Button most of his first stint (the two drivers were running in the mid-1.45’s). Once again, Nico’s good pace, complemented by a great work from the boys in the pits meant that when Nico followed Jenson in the pits for their first stop, it was Nico who emerged first from the end of the pit lane, thanks to the second fastest pitstop of the race – 20.091s. A small mistake from Nico in the tight first corner exiting the pit lane meant that Jenson overtook him but in fact placed Nico in a better position, as it was he who benefited from the DRS use in the following straight… Nico overtook Jenson again, until the McLaren driver found a way past two laps later.
A key strategic decision for the race came at that stop, as the team fitted prime tyres (the soft compound), rather than options (supersofts). The thinking was that with the options lasting a maximum of 15 laps, the team might be forced to three stop if things didn’t pan out; by running the prime in the second stint, it locked us into a two-stop – and left us well placed to take advantage of any other cars doing the opposite, and running out of grip later in the race.
The good pit stop meant that Nico was at this point racing in front of the two Ferraris, and his pace was pretty good. The Safety Car procedure, following the crash between Michael and Petrov, didn’t play in Nico’s favour as it meant the option tyres on his competitor cars could cool off and this probably helped them last longer than expected.
Nico defended well against Felipe and Fernando until lap 27, when he flat-spotted his tyre in an attempt to defend his position. This allowed the two Ferrari drivers to overtake on the exit of turn three and forced Nico to pit out of sequence for a new set of primes. The only option to salvage a points finish was to stick to a two-stopper – but this meant making the prime tyres last for just over half the race distance, and set Nico the tricky challenge of recovering through the field while looking after his tyres…
After the second stop, his pace was pretty good, and Nico managed to climb from 14th to seventh place in less than 10 laps as other cars cycled through their stops. When Alguersurari pitted on lap 37, he emerged less than two seconds behind Nico and, on ten-lap fresher tyres, was able to run a similar pace. At this point, Nico’s only worry was to keep the Toro Rosso driver more than a second behind to prevent him from using his DRS. Nico did this flawlessly until Alguersuari finally found a way passed him in the DRS zone on the final lap… in hindsight, with Nico’s tyres falling away, he did a valiant job to delay the almost inevitable for so long.
After the race, Nico was left frustrated as he felt the combination of the safety car procedure and his flat-spotted tyre didn’t allow him to maximise the potential of the car. But there were positives too: great pace to stay in touch with the top six in the first stint, then take advantage at the stops to run in fifth place on merit and good tyre management towards the end.
Sadly for Michael, his qualifying session didn’t go as well as Nico’s, even though his time in Q1 was pretty competitive. Heading into his only planned run of Q2, Michael felt a vibration from the car but, in consultation with the pit wall, decided to complete the lap. As he was running later in the session than Nico, this meant there would be no time to complete a second run, but his time was half a second off that of his team mate (1:38.354 compared to 1:37.892). Once he returned to the garage, it was just a question of sitting, waiting and hoping it would be enough. It wasn’t – he missed out on Q3 by a tenth of a second. But Michael remained positive, knowing he had also saved two fresh sets of option tyres for the race.
Starting from 12th on the grid, Michael once again made a great start, gaining two positions by the end of the first lap. His pace during the opening stint was strong and he was clearly on course for points. After his first stop on lap 14, Michael was already in front of the two Ferraris, thanks to yet another great pit stop (20.238s, fourth fastest of the race).
But later that lap, Petrov missed his braking point into turn three and ran into the back of Michael. A disappointing end for Michael’s weekend, but as he later described it, the accident was just a typical “racing incident” – “things happen when you fight hard - that's racing."
From the pits, the team had another pretty good weekend - all three of the team's pit stops were under 21 seconds, including two of the race's four fastest stops. The boys have been pretty consistent this year, another proof that dedication, passion and hard work always pay – and we can imagine the smiles on the guy’s faces when Nico overtook Jenson after his first stop. Well done lads.
In terms of pace, although as mentioned earlier, we didn’t really score points to our full potential, Ross saw some “encouraging signs of our competitiveness”, signs that we will carry into the remaining three races of the season. Another good point came from our pace at the beginning of the race with heavy fuel loads on the softest tyre. It was pretty good, allowing Nico to stay close to Button. Being an area we struggled with earlier this season, the team took some positives when looking at the numbers…
The adventure continues and will now take us to unexplored territory for Formula One – India. Everyone in the team is pretty excited to discover the track and hope for a good result there… Namaste!