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Formula One drivers prepare for inaugural Korean Grand Prix

JIM PELTZ / ON MOTOR RACING

Sunday's race will be held on a newly built track in Yeongam in the southwestern region of South Korea. Australia's Mark Webber holds a 14-point lead in the series' championship standings.

October 22, 2010|By Jim Peltz

A close battle in Formula One's driver championship resumes this weekend at a new venue for the international racing series: South Korea.

Australia's Mark Webber, a four-time winner this season for the Red Bull team, holds a 14-point lead over Fernando Alonso of Ferrari and Webber teammate Sebastian Vettel ahead of Sunday's inaugural Korean Grand Prix.

Former champion Lewis Hamilton of McLaren-Mercedes is fourth in the standings, 28 points back, and his teammate, reigning titleholder Jenson Button, is 31 points behind Webber in fifth.

After South Korea there are only two races left on the Formula One schedule, in Brazil and Abu Dhabi.

Sunday's race, which will start late Saturday night in the Pacific time zone, will be held on a newly built track in Yeongam in the southwestern region of South Korea.

Drivers generally praised the facility Friday after their first two practices, though they noted that the track was slippery because of its new pavement. That should improve through the weekend as the cars continue to lay down more rubber on the surface during practices and qualifying.

"I'm clutching at straws to criticize anything" about the track, said Webber, 34, who's seeking his first championship. "It's always a challenge for a driver to get into a new venue, [but] it's enjoyable to drive here."

Michael Schumacher, the seven-time champion who's struggling this year with the Mercedes GP team after emerging from retirement, said he was "very pleasantly surprised" with the track.

"It is very demanding, challenging and tricky, which provides a challenge that I like a lot," said Schumacher, who's ninth in the driver standings.

Hamilton had the quickest car in the opening practice, while Webber topped the speed chart in the second practice.

Alonso, a two-time champion from Spain who moved to Ferrari this year, also has four victories this season. Vettel, a 23-year-old German, has won three times, including the most recent race in Japan.

"As for the championship, I am trying not to think about it too much," Vettel wrote on his personal blog Thursday. "It doesn't do you any good to think about all the different scenarios and things that can happen."

Chasing Jimmie

The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series arrived in Martinsville, Va., for Sunday's race with the main question being whether Denny Hamlin or Kevin Harvick can stop Jimmie Johnson from winning an unprecedented fifth championship in stock car racing's premier series.

Hamlin, a Virginian who drives for Joe Gibbs Racing, is 41 points behind Johnson with five races remaining, while Harvick, a Bakersfield native who drives the No. 29 Chevrolet prepared by Richard Childress Racing, is 77 points back.

The other nine drivers in NASCAR's 12-driver Chase for the Cup playoff are considered too far behind to have much of a shot at the title. Jeff Gordon, in fourth, trails Johnson by 156 points.

Hamlin on Friday won the pole position for Sunday's race at the half-mile Martinsville Speedway, while Johnson qualified 19th. Harvick struggled and will start 36th in the 43-car field.

Before qualifying, Hamlin was asked whether he thought the Chase had come down to only him and Johnson, especially because those two drivers have won the last eight races at Martinsville.

"This is by no means just between me and Jimmie," Hamlin replied. "I feel like [Harvick] showed enough consistency through the whole year that I considered him the favorite this whole Chase, and we're only five races in and he's still right there."

Harvick, in turn, said, "I feel like we need to win a race in the next five to make it happen, but when you start forcing things to happen, you'll wind up with a 35th [place finish] and then you'll be done."

james.peltz@latimes.com

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