Sebastian Vettel moved to within four points of Fernando Alonso in the fight for the world championship, after Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix saw Red Bull dominate and Ferrari’s leader meet with another first-corner disaster.
As Vettel sped into a lead he never relinquished, Alonso had a brush with Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen and spun with a punctured left-rear tyre in the first corner. At the same time, Raikkonen’s team mate Romain Grosjean hit Red Bull’s Mark Webber and Williams’ Bruno Senna collided with Mercedes’ Nico Rosberg.
The safety car was deployed for just two laps, and thereafter Vettel picked up where he left off to score a win that brought his points tally to 190 compared to Alonso’s 194. He was simply untouchable.
Behind him, Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi valiantly held on to second place ahead of McLaren’s Jenson Button and Ferrari’s Felipe Massa, but the Brazilian leap-frogged both rivals during the first pit stops to snatch a second place that he kept without challenge to salvage something for Ferrari. It was his first podium since Korea 2010, and the performance may well cement Ferrari’s decision to retain him for 2013.
It was thus left to Kobayashi and Button to stage a duel for the final podium slot, and though the McLaren driver pushed to within half a second by the flag, Sauber’s local hero managed his tyres and held on to become only the third Japanese driver to finish on the podium, 22 years after Aguri Suzuki had done so here.
Lewis Hamilton benefited from the early mayhem, but his McLaren’s set-up issues from qualifying precluded a significant challenge from him and he had to be content with fifth place, after brilliantly forcing by Raikkonen as the Finn dived ahead momentarily into the first corner when the McLaren exited the pits following its second stop. The Finn took sixth to maintain his third place in the title chase with 157 points to Hamilton’s 152.
Nico Hulkenberg had a strong race for Force India and was only seven-tenths of a second adrift of the Lotus by the finish, while Pastor Maldonado kept it on the island for Williams to grab four points for eighth place. Webber recovered well from a first-lap pit stop for a new nose to take ninth, while a brutal battle between Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo and Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher for the final point went in the Australian’s favour by eight-tenths.
Paul di Resta’s Force India wasn’t quick enough for better than 12th place, after he lost out at the start, while Jean-Eric Vergne was fast early on for Toro Rosso but was unable to improve on 13th. Behind them, Bruno Senna survived that first-lap collision with Rosberg and a resultant drive-through penalty, and set some fastest laps as he closed in on the Frenchman. They crossed the finish line side-by-side, officially separated by 0.0s.
Heikki Kovalainen ran 11th for a while after taking advantage of the first-corner melee, but his Caterham lacked the pace to stay ahead of the likes of Vergne and Di Resta and he finished 15th, 8.5s clear of ‘new team’ rival Timo Glock’s Marussia. Vitaly Petrov was 17th after a drive-through penalty for ignoring blue flags, and Pedro de la Rosa was the final classified finisher for HRT in 18th place.
Grosjean retired late in the race while running well down after a 10-second stop/go penalty for his collision with Webber. He joined Marussia’s Charles Pic, HRT’s Narain Karthikeyan, Alonso and Rosberg on the retirement list. The final non-finisher was Sauber’s Sergio Perez, who looked racey passing a tyre-troubled Hamilton for sixth early on, but then spun off at the hairpin while trying to do the same thing later in the race.
In the constructor stakes, Red Bull continue to lead on 324 points to McLaren’s 283, Ferrari’s 263 and Lotus’s 239.