Sebastian Vettel took the win and with his team-mate, Mark Webber, a Red Bull one-two at the Korean Grand Prix – a result that moved the German driver six points ahead of Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso with four races to go.
Such was Red Bull’s dominance that, having stretched their legs early, neither driver was troubled for the rest of the race. Not so for McLaren’s drivers, who endured a torrid afternoon to squeeze out a point from 10th place. Yet their race had it all too, drama, a triumph of sorts and by the end, for the team’s title hopes, disaster.
Jenson Button lasted only to turn three before being rudely shunted out by a late-breaking Kamui Kobayashi, who ploughed through Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes. It left Lewis Hamilton as McLaren’s sole hope to score the constructors’ points the team desperately needed to stay in touch with Red Bull. It soon became clear that even this might be too much, as Hamilton complained of a lack of grip and that the car was difficult to control, resulting in much heavier tyre degradation than expected.
He had to make three stops, beginning his battle with the leaders and then moving down the grid through Kimi Raikkonnen, Felipe Massa, Nico Hülkenberg, and onwards until he faced the spectre of his replacement at McLaren next year, Sergio Pérez, looming in his mirrors in the last laps looking to steal that final point.
Yet there he was at the end, still fighting against the odds. Hamilton’s car had suffered a rear rollbar failure that destroyed its balance and ability to conserve its rubber. It had been a mighty drive that McLaren’s team principal, Martin Whitmarsh, acknowledged.
“It was probably the most hard fought for championship point that I can remember in the history of this team. Lewis did a fantastic job. He was incredibly tenacious and heroic,” he said.
“We did what we could at stops but it must have been horrendous to drive. That was truly remarkable. My instinct was that we would not get to the end of the race because it would eat all the tyres and if we did reach the end we wouldn’t be near points.
“I’m bitterly disappointed with the afternoon but I am immensely proud of his job because in those circumstances it is very easy to not fight like he did.”
Hamilton, who had a difficult weekend, with talk in the paddock alleging a deteriorating relationship with McLaren, initially felt only disappointment at the end of his title challenge. “It is not easy to deal with because I started training in December and every thought and every day I have woken up has been about winning this championship and how I can do it,” he said.
He did agree that it had been worth seeing the race through. “It was a struggle. Pure struggle,” he said. “You try not to lock up or lose any more than you are already losing. I feel pretty good because I remained strong throughout that struggle.”
Button had less time to deal with his car. He took a knock from Pérez at turn one about which he was blunt although unconcerned that his team-mate next year may be a handful when he lines up alongside him on a regular basis. “He brakes so late, he misjudged it,” Button said. “I haven’t seen that a lot with him. I am just as annoyed as I would be about anyone chucking it up the inside.”
The incident put him out of position heading into turn three, where he was hit by Kobayashi. Button branded him an idiot over the team radio and the Japanese driver apologised, saying: “I feel very sorry for ruining someone else’s race and certainly this was not my intention.”
Button was more sanguine later and accepted the apology, while gently referring to the Sauber driver as “Kobacrashi”. “We move on,” Button said. “We all have incidents, you just have to hope that you learn from it.”
It was a generous response in the circumstances, especially for the team. McLaren are behind Red Bull and Ferrari in the constructors’ championship. Trailing the former by 41 points going into this race the gap has more than doubled to 83 and with Ferrari six points ahead, it is a huge blow.
Christian Horner, despite the form of his Red Bull cars, was still circumspect about the remaining races. “None of us are taking anything for granted,” the team principal said. “We have only moved ahead of Fernando by six points. I am sure this title will go all the way down to the wire and we are going to need to extract the most we can out of every single weekend.”
No doubt that is McLaren’s goal too but no longer to the same purpose – 10th-place finishes, no matter how heroic, do not win championships. “In motor racing you have some good days and bad days although I can’t remember them going much worse than this one,” Whitmarsh said.
He will not admit it yet but, despite all the effort in South Korea, McLaren’s fight for both titles is over, barring extraordinary circumstances.