Sebastian Vettel stands on the brink of a fourth world title in succession after he powered away from pole position to win a fiery Korean Grand Prix yesterday.
The unstoppable German, 26, could retain the title in Japan next weekend if he wins and Ferrari rival Fernando Alonso finishes outside the top eight.
Not even two appearances by the safety car, or the worrying sight of his teammate Mark Webber climbing out of his burning Red Bull, were enough to stop Vettel’s fourth win on the bounce.
He took the checkered flag 4.224 seconds ahead of Kimi Raikkonen of Lotus, who just beat teammate Romain Grosjean to the line for second.
Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, who started second on the grid, were fourth and fifth.
Vettel’s third win on the trot in Korea means he has racked up 272 points, a mammoth 77-point lead over nearest challenger Alonso, who came home sixth at Yeongam.
“I’m trying not to think about it to be honest,” Vettel told a post-race press conference, flanked by Raikkonen and Grosjean, when reminded he could win the title next weekend.
“There are still a lot of points to get even though it looks very good for us. There is a chance for Fernando [Alonso] so we need to stay on top of our game,” he said.
The real battle on an overcast, but dry afternoon next to the Yellow Sea was behind the German, with Hamilton and Grosjean duelling for long periods for second.
Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg was also in the mix before a problem saw sparks dance spectacularly from the front of his car as he overtook Hamilton on lap 28.
An extended pit stop saw the German rejoin in midfield and he had to settle for seventh, with McLaren’s Jenson Button eighth.
Felipe Massa of Ferrari and Sergio Perez of McLaren rounded out the top 10.
Ferrari-bound Raikkonen, who started back on ninth on the grid, but battled his way through with a superb exhibition of aggressive racing, said: “I think I lost a place on the first straight. The car has been under-steering this weekend and was doing it today and I had to look after my front tires.”
“I got stuck in traffic, but even without the safety car we could have finished on the podium,” he said.
Vettel was already streaking away at the first hairpin, where there was early drama when Massa spun around, causing his teammate Alonso to run wide with Button and the Force India of Adrian Sutil suffering minor damage.
The Brazilian Massa, who started sixth on the grid, found himself dumped down to the back of the field.
There was another hair-raising incident on lap 31, when Perez saw a front-right wheel explode on the straight, catapulting rubber dangerously over the track and bringing out the safety car.
No sooner had the safety car departed than it was back out on lap 38 when Sutil was again in the thick of it, appearing to spin and take out Webber.
The Australian’s Red Bull glided off the circuit and went up in flames, but Webber — who qualified third, but started 13th on the grid because of a penalty — clambered out safely.
“It’s not great getting stuck behind the safety car, but I’m really pleased with the result and great by the team,” said a delighted Vettel, who never looked in danger of relinquishing his spot at the front.
“Fortunately we had enough pace to get ahead after both safety cars, but both Kimi and Romain were very competitive and did better with their tires,” he said.