Unpredictable Korea may be McLaren’s last chance (Korean Grand Prix preview)

Posted on | Author Keith Collantine

F1 heads to the brand new and hastily-completed Korean International Circuit with question marks over the state of the track and facilities.

But the situation for the McLaren drivers is clear. With three races to go Lewis Hamilton and Jenson Button may have to give up on their championship chances if they fail to get a result in this weekend’s Korean Grand Prix.

The last new addition to the F1 calendar, Yas Marina, raised the bar for standards of preparation expected of new circuits very high. Coming anywhere close to that was always going to be a challenge for the Korean Grand Prix organisers.

But by the standards of any event Korea have cut things very fine indeed. The FIA’s much-delayed official inspection came just ten days before practice was due to start, and the track surface was only completed three days before that.

Korea International Circuit, 2010 Korean Grand Prix
Korea International Circuit track data

Happily, the race is on, and that’s good news for the championship. Scrapping a round this late in the year would have had complicated repercussions for the drivers’ and teams’ title battles.

Already the talk of the race weekend is what condition the track surface will be in. Any circuit that is being used for the first time will be slippery, but a track laid just ten days ago is likely to be slick with oils from the tarmac-laying process.

As construction work continues at the track right up to the start of practice there is likely to be dust in the air which will then fall onto the track, potentially making the surface even more treacherous.

The drivers will also have to beware of the limited amount of run-off in the later stages of the lap. Unusually for a modern track not every corner is bordered by acres of tarmac – there are some unforgiving walls quite close to the track in the final sector.

So the latest twists and turns in the 2010 world championship will be played out on an unknown track with an unpredictable surface. That could be a recipe for an exciting weekend’s racing.

For the McLaren pair, failure to score here could end their world championship hopes completely. If either driver leaves Korea 50 points or more behind Mark Webber it’s game over for them.

A couple of smart gambles at Melbourne and Shanghai put Jenson Button into championship contention to begin with. He continued that habit at Monza at Suzuka and he may be minded to do the same this weekend. He seems to have realised that using a different strategy to his team mate represents his best chance of beating him.

Lewis Hamilton is crying out for a trouble-free weekend having lost fistfuls of points in the last three races.

While the MP4-25 drivers have Korea’s first sector straights to look forward to, on paper this track does not seem to offer as good opportunities for the F10. But the Ferrari has proved a solid all-rounder and Fernando Alonso is in the best form he’s seen since his championship days.

If the expectations of an unpredictable track surface and a mixed-up race are realised, Alonso is exactly the kind of driver you’d expect to stay out of trouble and bag a vital win against the run of play.

As ever, Red Bull are instant favourites. They’ve got downforce to throw away and are addressing their car’s weaknesses. A revised F-duct introduced at Suzuka may reduce their top speed deficit on Korea’s three straights.

The inter-team battle at Red Bull is fascinating. With the title in sight Webber is perhaps starting to show signs of the strain of expectation. He’s been beaten by Vettel in all of the last three races, and by Alonso in two of them.

If anyone would have welcomed the cancellation of this race it might well have been him. It’s easier to protect a 14-point lead over two races than three.

Drivers to watch

Four driver to keep an eye on this weekend. Name your top picks in the comments.

Jenson Button – His hopes of retaining his 2009 crown are fading. Will he make another gamble in a bid to stay in touch with the leaders?

Mark Webber – Needs to arrest Vettel and Alonso’s inroads into his championship lead.

Robert Kubica – In excellent form at Suzuka before the wheels (literally) fell off. Will the R30 be competitive enough to bring him into play among the championship front-runners?

Nico H???lkenberg – Rumours surround the future of Williams’ steadily improving rookie driver. A track that’s new to everyone will provide a more level playing field on which to observe his progress compared to his experienced team mate.

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Image ?? Bridgestone/Ercole Colombo