This weekend’s Korean Grand Prix is not one of the favourites on the F1 calendar – but the Yeongam track is actually a real test of driver and engineer skill and it will reward the team closest to perfection.
There are many tracks during the Grand Prix season where a driver can lift the level of a poor performing car by his commitment to push to the limit, whether that means changing braking points, cornering techniques or racing lines to make the most of the imperfect situation.
In Korea, however, that is not the case.
Yeongam runs anti-clockwise and offers a combination of many different types of track – with a very long straight in the first sector, some high and medium speed corners in the second and a tight street course style feel to the third.
Setting a car up to cope with this many different demands requires a more challenging compromise than at many circuits, and getting the perfect balance between all the elements can lead to massive gains.
The ideal solution will be a car with strong straight-line speed and stability, good traction and balance when changing direction and good low-speed performance too.
That could make things interesting, because the top teams all seem to currently have different specialities – and over the course of the season each car has shown advantages on different styles of track.
Red Bull are best on the high-speed twisty sections, Mercedes strong in a straight line and Lotus confident when running medium to high levels of downforce. Ferrari, meanwhile, have a bit of an all-rounder but it is being raised a level by Fernando Alonso – and that is something he may struggle to do if they don’t get the set-up nailed here.
The track surface, being part permanent circuit and part temporary road, will also increase in grip levels every day, making it even harder to find that perfect set-up.
For many teams, the focus will be on developing a solution that allows them to maximise the main overtaking spots, with Korea offering more clear and potentially easy opportunities than most tracks.
They come on the start-finish straight into turn one and the giant 1.2km straight that leads into turn three. So most teams should sway towards a lower downforce level to gain a higher top speed.
Indeed, if there were any race where Lotus could benefit significantly from running their long-developed passive DRS system, this is it. And if they use it, that could prove a crucial factor.
But once again, Red Bull look favourites due to the relative speed that they usually gain in the high speed cornering sections compared to their rivals.
As has often been the case, their strategy will be to create a car that can start at the front and stay there. And that could make this weekend’s race a turn-off from the start.
It would be a surprise to see them do anything other than aim for a medium to high downforce level for the high-speed corners and take the hit on speed along the straights – just as they did with great success on Sebastian Vettel’s car at the last race in Singapore.
There, a perfect combination of factors enabled Vettel to dominate, but Red Bull have insisted they will not achieve the same level of superiority here unless outside factors play in their favour again.
That said, if the higher downforce approach allows Vettel to claim pole on Saturday, it will be very hard for anyone to recover on Sunday...