Well, that’s that then. Sebastian Vettel only needs to drive half as fast as he did in Singapore and four world titles will be his. That’s over half as many as Michael Schumacher and he hasn’t even started yet. Think about the fact Seb is currently 26; by the time Schumacher was 26 he’d won two world titles, Vettel is on his way to four. And there was a five-year gap between Schumacher’s second and third title. It took him that long to get Ferrari where he needed it to be, which is exactly where Vettel has Red Bull.
Yesterday’s drive is a case in point. When the pace car came out around lap 25 following Daniel Ricciardo’s embarrassing accident he’d long ago backed off from a 22 second lead over Nico Rosberg. With the SLS parked and Rosberg nobbled by an over-cautious tyre strategy, Vettel was comfortably half a minute ahead of Fernando Alonso. Hard not to imagine then, had Vettel wanted it so, he could have won by a lap. He could have it wrapped up in Japan by the middle of October. This could make the Schumacher era look brief and richly textured.
A challenging two hours watching then, but for the last two minutes when McLaren’s optimism was swallowed up by Mercedes’ caution, Mark Webber’s engine joined the victory fireworks and fingers were crossed at Ferrari and Lotus. Like Alonso, Kimi Räikkonen had scarpered for the pits at lap 25 so it was always going to be touch and go whether either car would make it. Eventually getting caught by the shooting Silver Arrows was the issue, as catching Vettel was never on the cards. So quality driving then from Ferrari’s class of 2014, if indeed Alonso stays. The rumours of a switch to McLaren don’t seem to be abating. It might be next year, it more likely will be 2015 when McLaren seems a lot more bullish about the state of its current account.
McLaren-Honda as it will be known needs a real star in the team or seasons like this one will become its level. And while you can’t doubt the efforts of Jenson Button and Checo Perez they don’t have superstar quality (seventh and eighth today running on Pirelli carcasses at the end, Button had been heading for third with just ten laps to go). Alonso does however have that star quality and reminded everyone of that this evening with an astonishing start that took him from seventh on the grid to third after the first corner. In normal circumstances that would have put him in competition, but not in a race where the leading margin after one lap was over three seconds.
Everyone then was in the support show. Romain Grosjean wasn’t able to make anything of third place on the grid, but kept out of trouble. After the safety car he looked like he might be in position to steal second from Alonso, but it wasn’t to work out that way. The strategy was right, Grosjean was fast and clean, but the Lotus had problems. A year ago Grosjean was just coming back from his one race ban. A year on he looks the real deal, grown-up enough to lead the Lotus team in 2014.
Nico Rosberg briefly got his Merc ahead of Vettel at the start. But it was a one-corner wonder as the W04 (looking stunning under the floodlights) ran wide over the Sing-Tel logos on the outside of turn two and that was that. Vettel just drove away from him. Behind him, with traffic, Lewis Hamilton didn’t quite have the pace, but was right there at then end, taking fifth behind his team-mate and making noises about passing him, yet oddly never looking quite like he might. Lewis is either not quite back at his best, or Nico Rosberg is better than we ever thought he was. Either way Lewis must have – again – breathed out a little as he passed both Perez and then Button’s McLaren late in the race.
Rosberg, maybe like Grosjean, certainly like Nico Hulkenberg — again in the points for Sauber — is certainly part of a group of new-generation drivers beginning to show they have the right stuff. Does Daniel Ricciardo, who – barring some kind of creative outage in the mind of Adrian Newey – will step in to the best car on the grid next year? Not on the basis of this weekend. Christian Horner will not accept mistakes like that. We still remain to be convinced if DR’s talent is as persuasive as his personality.
Still, we hope he succeeds as we hope they all will, but they will have to be patient. Vettel, don’t forget, made his full-season debut two years after Rosberg. He is much more part of the new generation than he is of the generation Alonso and Raikkonen who followed him home this evening. This is his era, and it has a long way to go yet.
Can’t sign off without grumbling at the misery of the stewards who have handed Mark Webber a ten-place grid penalty in Korea for getting a ride home with Fernando Alonso. For a crowd whose attention had been tested it was something of a highlight and got a huge cheer. We know, because we were there and we’ll back with some thoughts on that fact soon.