British drivers Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton face an uphill battle at the inaugural Korean Grand Prix to hang on to McLaren’s hopes of winning this year’s Formula One world championship.
That’s the view of Indian Karun Chandhok, the only man to have driven the new Yeongam circuit in a Formula One car ahead of the first Grand Prix to be held in the country on Sunday.
Chandhok, who has competed in 10 races for the Hispania Racing Team this season, took part in a demonstration event at the Korean circuit in early September.
He believes the characteristics of the track play into the hands of Australian Mark Webber and German Sebastian Vettel, who sit first and third in the championship standings for Red Bull Racing.
Sharp bends: Red Bull may find the Korean circuit favourable. Reuters
“I think Korea is another Red Bull circuit,” says Chandhok. “They proved by the end of (the last race in) Japan that they were a good half a second clear of the McLarens and Ferraris, (and) in two weeks, that is impossible to catch up.
“(The Korean circuit) does have three long straights, which will help McLaren, but from turn four it’s basically just left-handers all the way home and gets a bit more fiddly, which will play more into Red Bull’s hands.”
With races in Brazil and Abu Dhabi to come after this weekend’s maiden Grand Prix in Korea, 2008 world champion Hamilton trails Webber by 28 points in the standings.
Button, the defending champion, is a further three points in arrears. With 25 points on offer for a win, both McLaren drivers will be desperate for a victory to keep themselves in title contention.
McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh says his drivers will be “ready for this battle” after Button and Hamilton managed to finish just fourth and fifth, respectively, in Japan on 10 October after being outpaced by Red Bull all weekend.
“With 75 points on the table for the drivers, it would be unwise to write off Jenson (or) Lewis,” says Whitmarsh.
“Both drivers have won world championships before. They understand the difficulties of such a unique situation, and both have learned how to deliver their best under high pressure.”
Button says Vettel, who closed to within 14 points of Webber after winning last time out in Japan, is upping the pressure on his Australian teammate. “Vettel has to beat Mark twice more to be on the same points,” Button said after the race in Japan. “I would say Vettel has the legs in qualifying, and over three races would have the advantage over Mark. If those two cars have the advantage over everyone else, there won’t be pressure on Vettel, and he will do it.”
For his part, Webber is keeping his cool, taking a chartered helicopter from the Suzuka circuit to Tokyo’s Narita airport and a flight back to his native Australia just half an hour after the Japanese Grand Prix to escape the spotlight.
The 34-year-old, who is bidding to become Australia’s first world champion since Alan Jones in 1980, spent the lead-up to the Korean race at a beachside resort in Queensland. Webber remains confident after extending his championship lead when he finished second to Vettel in Japan, and isn’t overly concerned about any of his fellow title aspirants.
“Two weeks ago it was Lewis (Hamilton), then it was (Ferrari’s) Fernando (Alonso),” he says of the biggest threat to his first world championship. “It’s chopping and changing, but the most important thing is that the gap is going the right way. I need to keep it like that.”
Alonso, who finished third at Suzuka and joined Vettel on 206 points to trail Webber on 220, has promised to take an aggressive approach in Korea after the Japanese Grand Prix became an exercise in damage limitation thanks to the pace of the Red Bull pair. “In Korea we will have to attack, because now we must close the gap to Webber. To lose any more ground would make the situation more complicated,” the Spaniard says.
The 5.621km Yeongam circuit, located in the province of South Jeolla, 400km from Seoul, was only given the go-ahead to host the race last week after a series of weather interruptions and construction delays affected its completion.
The FIA (Federation Internationale de l’Automobile), the sport’s governing body, was quoted in a statement issued by race organizers as saying the venue was “satisfactory”.
The final layer of asphalt was laid just two weeks ago, and several drivers have expressed concerns that the track may break up or be slippery this weekend.
German Nick Heidfeld, who drives for Sauber, says: “If the final layer is laid a short time before, it can be oily, which would be extremely problematic.”
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