The first day of practice for the Korean Grand Prix gave every indication that Red Bull’s performance advantage in Suzuka was not a one-off. Yes, Lewis Hamilton was quickest in the first practice session. But as the dusty, little-used Korea International Circuit gradually became cleaner and yielded more grip, Red Bull moved ahead.
Red Bull’s advantage
Here’s an illustration of Red Bull’s performance advantage. The fastest times on Friday are usually set in the second practice session, when the teams do their first run on the softest available tyres in preparation for qualifying. The super-soft tyres being used this weekend give the best grip on the first lap, then tend to fade quite quickly.
Vettel spoiled his first two laps by running wide at the first corner, but his third effort on the tyres was still good enough to put him at the head of the times sheet. Given that, it’s possible that the 0.328-second margin Vettel enjoyed over his closest rival in a different car – Fernando Alonso – could actually be even greater. It looks very much like the recent upgrades to the RB8 are paying dividends.
The odds on Vettel taking pole position have shrunk to a less-than-appealing 1.8, and likewise the odds on him winning the race are already very short at 2.0.
Odds of 3.75 on Hamilton to take pole position are if anything on the short side for a driver who was left scratching his after the second practice session, when he never looked like challenging for top time.
The only worthwhile pick for qualifying at this stage might be Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber (6.0). He may be unlikely to beat Vettel in a straight fight but he came close at Suzuka.
Drivers in the doghouse
Romain Grosjean arrived in Korea under a cloud after triggering a first-lap crash with Webber in Japan. It’s not the first time he’s been involved in such as incident: Grosjean was banned for one race after causing the huge pile-up on lap one at Spa which ended the races of Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton and Sergio Perez.
A contrite Grosjean and a stony-faced Webber faced the F1 media during yesterday’s press conference. Webber, who dubbed Grosjean a “first-lap nutcase” following the crash, seemed content to draw a line under the incident, having accepted Grosjean’s apology.
Grosjean was at pains to stress he had learned from the past and tried to avoid a crash: “I said I was very sorry. I’m not stupid, I was conscious of the risk and hopefully by now it will be a different story and [I will] not make the mistake of focussing on the wrong target.”
As noted here previously, Grosjean has out-qualified team mate and world champion Kimi Raikkonen more often than not this year. He has great potential and raw speed. But he simply must get a grip on his careless approach to starts. The pressure on him to keep out of trouble will be greater than ever on Sunday. He was already under the microscope following his ban, the first served by an F1 driver since Michael Schumacher 18 years ago.
Speaking of Schumacher, he’s in the doghouse too after picking up his second reprimand of the year during practice. Surprisingly, he managed to hold up both of the perennial tail-enders HRT. Should he transgress again he will become the first driver to pick up an automatic ten-place grid penalty for collecting three reprimands. That’s surely not the kind of landmark he wants to set in the twilight of his F1 career.
Keith Collantine is the editor of Formula One blog F1 Fanatic.