x Abu Dhabi, UAESunday 23 July 2017

Sebastian Vettel is in bullish mood for Korean Grand Prix

German is four points behind Alonso, and while Lewis Hamilton was fastest in the morning the Red Bull team dominated the afternoon session.

Red Bull Formula One drivers Sebastian Vettel, left, and Mark Webber during a practice session at the Korea International Circuit in the Yeongam province. Woohae Cho / Reuters
Red Bull Formula One drivers Sebastian Vettel, left, and Mark Webber during a practice session at the Korea International Circuit in the Yeongam province. Woohae Cho / Reuters

MOKPO, SOUTH KOREA // Red Bull Racing's ominous pace looks to have successfully made its way across the Korea Strait from Japan, but the intoxicating atmosphere and fervent supporters that greeted the Formula One fraternity in Suzuka last week were, as expected, nowhere to be seen.

Sebastian Vettel clocked the fastest lap of practice ahead of his teammate Mark Webber as the tight tarpaulin sheets that fill the barren grandstands here at Korea International Circuit watched on in silence.

It is not an exaggeration to suggest there were more people in the paddock than there were in the 150,000 seats that line this modern racetrack-cum-white elephant.

Vettel won here last year to secure the constructors' championship having snared a second successive drivers' championship the previous week.

This season has proved far more competitive, but it is the German who again heads into tomorrow's race in sleepy southern South Korea as the man in form.

Two wins from the previous two races have seen Vettel climb to within four points of Ferrari's Fernando Alonso and he knows if he completes his hat-trick with a win this weekend, he will take the lead in the standings for the first time this season.

The fact there could be nobody in the crowd to cheer him on atop the podium is unlikely to deter him.

"All in all we can be quite happy, but I think it looks extremely tight," Vettel said after finishing 0.032 seconds ahead of Webber, who led Alonso by a further 0.296 seconds.

"I'm not happy with every run we had, but I think the track was changing quite a lot this morning. This afternoon it was quite slippery to start with, but then I think it got a little bit better so, all in all the car felt all right and now we see what we can do for qualifying.

"I think we have to improve ourselves to match the others."

Precisely why F1 continues to persevere in this rural port city is becoming more unclear by the year.

South Korea has a contract until 2016, but if it remains on the calendar that long, there will be much surprise.

This weekend's race could provide a key indicator as to the destination of this year's trophy, yet there is as much chance of a full-house in Yeongam as there is of being served a Korean meal without the staple side dish kimchi, a spicy and delectable seasoned cabbage.

The circuit, which cost $500 million (Dh1.83 billion) to construct and was sold as the focal point of an integrated new city, appears to have seen minimal action since last year's grand prix.

Certainly little of the planned surrounding marina and high-rise residence has progressed.

As a result much of the opening practice session of the day was spent by drivers using their cars to sweep the track clean while those not driving admired the all-encompassing fields of reed and distant Mount Wolchul.

Lewis Hamilton proved fastest in the morning, but the afternoon provided what appears a more realistic indicator of what can be expected for today's qualifying.

Vettel and Webber passed around the fastest time like a hot stone before Vettel pulled everything together on the super-soft tyres to set his one minute, 38.864 seconds.

The performance will have made for uncomfortable viewing for those in Alonso's garage, but the Spaniard says Ferrari are not concerning themselves with their rivals' pace.

The 31 year old endured a nightmare scenario last week as his race was ended on the first turn while his closest competitor for the title took maximum points.

Yet he remains confident.

"It's hard to say where we are compared to the others. We must wait to have a more precise picture of the situation.

"The track improved a great deal from one session to the next: it's a phenomenon that's particularly accentuated here, because there's hardly any racing on this track and this morning, it was particularly dirty.

"Let's hope the situation improves because it's always more fun driving when the track offers at least some grip."

And some fans.

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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