YEONGAM, South Korea (Reuters) - Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso won a rain-hit and chaotic Korean Grand Prix to seize back the Formula One world championship lead on a nightmare Sunday for his Red Bull rivals.
In an inaugural race that turned out to be one of the longest in Formula One history -- delayed by a downpour, started, stopped and then re-started behind the safety car after a 48 minute wait before ending almost in the twilight -- the Spaniard could scarcely believe his good fortune.
With two races to go, and a maximum 50 points to be won under the new 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 scoring system, Alonso celebrated his fifth win of the year to turn a 14-point deficit into an 11-point lead over Red Bull’s Australian Mark Webber.
Webber crashed out early on, handing the championship baton to team mate Sebastian Vettel before the German suffered an agonising engine failure nine laps from the end while leading.
McLaren’s 2008 champion Lewis Hamilton finished second, 14.9 seconds behind, and moved up to third overall with 210 points, 21 behind Alonso. Brazilian Felipe Massa took the final podium place for Ferrari.
Vettel fell to fourth on 206 points with McLaren’s reigning champion Jenson Button finishing 12th. The Briton is now 42 points off the lead and effectively, if not mathematically, out of the title equation.
If events again fall into Alonso’s lap, in the most unpredictable of seasons, he could even wrap up his third title in Brazil in two weeks’ time at the same Sao Paulo circuit where he won the other two for Renault in 2005 and 2006.
“Beautiful, beautiful. You and the whole team deserved this. Grande!” declared Ferrari team boss Stefano Domenicali over the radio to Alonso.
The Asturian, now with three victories in the last four races and a career 26 wins, cackled and whooped wildly in reply after taking the chequered flag a full three hours after the race had been due to start.
The official winning time was two hours 48 minutes 20.810 seconds.
“This is the best race of the year for the team,” he said.
“But nothing has changed really. We all know the new points system. Anything can happen.”
Webber, who had started in second place behind Vettel on pole, could testify to that.
He skidded on the wet and slippery track, hit the wall and then collided with Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes with the race proper barely started after what seemed an eternity behind the silver safety car.
“Totally my fault,” the Australian, winner of four races this season, told the BBC after making his way back to the paddock. It was only his second retirement in 17 races.
”I got on the kerb on the exit of Turn 12 and it was a very slow-motion moment off the back of that kerb. Totally my mistake. Wasn’t my day.
“Today didn’t help me with the championship, but I can absolutely still win it,” he added.
He was one of many to feel the pain, with only 15 of the 24 cars still running at the finish.
Vettel’s failure came with the championship lead in his grasp for the first time this year, and with the fast-approaching dusk threatening to end the race before the full distance.
It also allowed McLaren to cut Red Bull’s lead in the constructors’ standings to 27 points.
“To be on top all the time and controlling the race, there was nothing we could have done better. We did more or less, a perfect job. The race is still on,” said the 23-year-old.
Webber must surely have had to suppress an inner whoop of joy, despite the blow for his team, even if Alonso is now the man to beat.
Seven times world champion Michael Schumacher finished fourth for Mercedes, equalling the best result of his difficult comeback season, with Poland’s Robert Kubica fifth for Renault.
Italian Vitantonio Liuzzi was sixth for Force India.
Editing by Justin Palmer