Formula One Japanese Grand Prix: Sebastian Vettel sizzles in Suzuka sun
Sebastian Vettel secured the victory he desperately needed in Japan. Not just to help boost his world championship chances, but also his credibility after eight pole positions this season had yielded just two wins.
And at the end of a gripping race he duly delivered, having controlled it throughout even when Jenson Button had a 12-lap spell in the lead.
Making it a good day for Red Bull, Mark Webber steered to a strong second place in Vettel's shadow, boosting his leading points tally to 220 as Vettel's success brought him level on 206 with third place finisher Fernando Alonso.
Even though Button finished fourth and a troubled Lewis Hamilton fifth after more gearbox woes, a tough event saw McLaren's drivers slipping further adrift and may have ended their title thrust.
While Hamilton in particular was left to rue a “weekend from hell” in which mechanical woes combined with a persistent ear infection to blight his mood, Vettel and Webber left with their tails well up.
The race began with a bang — several of them. Vitaly Petrov collided with Nico Hulkenberg's Williams, and the Renault was pitched hard into the wall on the left-hand side. For causing the accident, the Russian will get a five place grid penalty in Korea in a fortnight's time.
Then in the first corner Felipe Massa was forced on to the grass as everyone fanned out to avoid tardy Nico Rosberg, was launched over a kerb, and smashed hard into Tonio Liuzzi's Force India on the outside.
Hulkenberg was also involved, making it four cars damaged within the first few seconds.
Five, if you counted Lucas di Grassi's Virgin which didn't even make the start after the Brazilian crashed heavily, but without injury, in the infamous 130R corner on the grid formation laps.
Webber was then handed the sort of luck that can make a championship when Robert Kubica, who had started third but sprinted up to second between the Red Bulls, pulled off on the second lap while the field was under the safety car, as his Renault lost its right rear wheel.
Apart from Button's intervention in the lead, which came about because he qualified on the harder Bridgestone tyre and was thus able to run until the 38th lap before changing tyres, whereas his rivals on their softer rubber stopped on laps 22 (Hamilton), 24 (Vettel and Alonso) and 25 (Webber), Vettel had complete control of the race.
Though Webber pushed hard enough to set fastest laps, as the gap between them fluctuated between one and a half and four and a half seconds depending on traffic, the German had no problem keeping his team-mate under control.
“Seb did a great job in qualifying and we know how important pole position is round here,” Webber said philosophically, and that pretty much said it all.
Alonso kept them honest in his Ferrari, but didn't have the speed to challenge.
“After the safety car stayed out quite long with the incident with Kubica, both of us were able to pull away from the field and were then just controlling the pace until the end,” Vettel said.
“There was a little bit of a rest behind Jenson as we couldn't really go through him, so we had to wait until he pits.
“But after that, it was just incredible. I'm so really, really happy — it's about time!”
While Button was leading and backing Vettel up, both Webber and Alonso had their best chances to put the winner into a difficult situation, but for the Australian it was a matter of maintaining a balance in pushing too hard and not pushing hard enough.
“This is a beautiful track but it was basically a formation finish,” he said.
“Both Sebastian and I were just following each other around and it's very difficult to get much closer.
“Anything around a second or second-and-a-half is about as good as it's going to get around here, so I'm very happy with how I drove this weekend. Congratulations to Seb. He deserves the victory as he did a good job and Fernando didn't drive too bad either.
“I needed to make sure that if JB stayed out a long, long time, that I didn't kill my tyres trying to put pressure on Sebastian.
“Even though Jenson wasn't really in the race, for the lead, he was potentially going to play a role in backing us up against Fernando, so I needed to get the balance right.
It was fun to bring the gap back down to Seb, and after that track position was king.
“I know the rules and that's how it is.”
Further back the race was enlivened by a tense duel between the Mercedes drivers that went Michael Schumacher's way after Rosberg, who had him beaten, lost a rear wheel.
And by another spectacular, overtaking drive from Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi, who delighted the crowd every bit as much as did HRT driver Sakon Yamamoto as for many laps he kept ahead of Jarno Trulli's Lotus and Timo Glock's Virgin.
The day, however, belonged to Vettel.
Only Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher have been back-to-back winners at Suzuka, and each went on to win the world championship.
“It's the first time I've won a grand prix for the second time so you have to fall in love with this track,” Vettel smirked.
“And if that's a good omen, I certainly wouldn't mind!”
Formula One Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka
Leading positions after race (53 Laps): 1 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1hr 30mins 27.323secs, 2 Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:30:28.228, 3 Fernando Alonso (Spa) Ferrari 1:30:30.044, 4 Jenson Button (Gbr) McLaren 1:30:40.845, 5 Lewis Hamilton (Gbr) McLaren 1:31:06.918, 6 Michael Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:31:27.256, 7 Kamui Kobayashi (Jpn) BMW Sauber 1:31:31.361, 8 Nick Heidfeld Ger BMW Sauber 1:31:36.971, 9 Rubens Barrichello (Bra) Williams 1:31:38.136, 10 Sebastien Buemi (Swi) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:31:40.187, 11 Jaime Alguersuari (Spa) Scuderia Toro Rosso at 1 lap, 12 Heikki Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus F1 at 1 lap, 13 Jarno Trulli (Ita) Lotus F1 at 2 laps, 14 Timo Glock (Ger) Virgin Racing at 2 laps, 15 Bruno Senna (Bra) HRT-F1 at 2 laps, 16 Sakon Yamamoto (Jpn) HRT-F1 at 3 laps, 17 Nico Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP at 6 laps Not classified: 18 Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India 44 laps completed, 19 Robert Kubica (Pol) Renault 2 laps completed, 20 Nico Hulkenberg (Ger) Williams 0 laps completed, 21 Felipe Massa (Bra) Ferrari 0 laps completed, 22 Vitaly Petrov (Rus) Renault 0 laps completed, 23 Vitantonio Liuzzi (Ita) Force India 0 laps completed, 24 Lucas di Grassi (Bra) Virgin Racing did not start race
World Championship standings
Drivers: 1 Mark Webber (Aus) Red Bull 220pts, 2 Fernando Alonso (Spa) Ferrari 206, 3 Sebastian Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 206, 4 Lewis Hamilton (Gbr) McLaren 192, 5 Jenson Button (Gbr) McLaren 189, 6 Felipe Massa (Bra) Ferrari 128, 7 Nico Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 122, 8 Robert Kubica (Pol) Renault 114, 9 Michael Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 54, 10 Adrian Sutil (Ger) Force India 47.
Manufacturers: 1 Red Bull 426pts, 2 McLaren 381, 3 Ferrari 334, 4 Mercedes GP 176, 5 Renault 133, 6 Force India 60, 7 Williams 58, 8 BMW Sauber 37, 9 Scuderia Toro Rosso 11, 10 Lotus F1 0, 11 Virgin Racing 0, 12 HRT-F1 0