Sebastian Vettel won the Japanese Grand Prix, after a race long challenge from Lotus’ Romain Grosjean, who led for most of the race. Pole sitter Mark Webber passed Grosjean for second place two laps from the end to make it a Red Bull 1-2.
Fernando Alonso finished fourth, ahead of Kimi Raikkonen and Nico Hulkenberg, who put in another strong performance.
It was Vettel’s fourth win in five years at Suzuka and his ninth win of 2013 and the 35th win of his career. It was also the first time he has won five consecutive races.
Vettel now has a 90 point lead over Fernando Alonso, who finished fourth today, which means that he is likely to clinch his fourth world title in India in two weeks time. He needs to finish fifth or higher in Delhi to finish the job off.
After three consecutive second places in Spa, Monza and Singapore, the Korea/Japan leg has not been kind to Ferrari, which has lost ground to Lotus in particular.
“I’d like to thank the fans, for the appreciation and respect they show the drivers,” said Vettel. “I had a very poor start. We were patient and looked after the tyres and had incredible pace in the end. I’m blown away. It (the championship) looks very good at this stage, but it’s not over until it’s over.”
It was a different kind of race from what we have seen recently in as much as Vettel didn’t drive away at the front; rather it was Grosjean, who controlled things in the first part of the race, with Webber behind him and Vettel in third.
Strategy was decisive; Red Bull split the strategies with Webber on a three stop and Vettel on a two. Vettel’s second stint was decisive; he was able to run a long middle stint and that gave him fresher tyres in the closing stages to pass Grosjean for the lead. Webber struggled to do the same on medium tyres in the final laps.
Teams were aware that a two stop strategy was around 8-10 seconds faster than three stops on paper, but there would be some teams possibly struggling to make the tyres last for a two stop.
Grosjean did a superb job throughout the race, but didn’t quite have enough pace on the strategy he was on to make it stick and take the victory. Another driver who excelled again was Nico Hulkenberg, who kept the Ferraris behind him for most of the race, but lost out to Alonso and Raikkonen in the final laps as his tyres faded.
At the start, Grosjean jumped into the lead, ahead of pole man Webber, while Hamilton and Vettel touched, Hamilton getting a rear puncture. Alonso moved ahead of Hulkenberg into 6th place, with Massa and Rosberg ahead of him.
At the back Van der Garde and Bianchi crashed in Turn 1, the Caterham suffering heavy front damage.
The order on the opening lap was: Grosjean, Webber, Vettel, Rosberg, Massa, Alonso, Hulkenberg, Perez, Gutierrez, Button.
Hamilton pitted on lap one and took on a set of new hard tyres, but he also had problems with aerodynamic loss from bodywork damage, up to one second per lap.
Vettel found himself third, obliged to drop back two seconds to protect his tyres, as was Webber.
Alonso was desperate to pass Massa in the opening stint, while on lap 9 Hamilton retired from the race. The opening stint was uneventful, little changing at the front through the first round of pit stops.
Button pitted on lap 9, Hulkenberg and Di Resta a couple of laps later. All moved onto the harder Pirelli tyre. On lap 12, Webber, Raikkonen and Massa pitted.
Lotus reacted and brought Grosjean into the pits on lap 13, retaining position ahead of Webber. This left Vettel leading on the medium tyres, trying to build a 22 second gap over Webber to jump him at his stop. He didn’t manage it and remained behind Grosjean and Webber.
Nico Rosberg was given a drive through penalty for unsafe release from a pit stop, he came out of his pit box into the path of Sergio Perez. Mercedes’ miserable race was compounded by Rosberg losing seven places, dropping down to 12th.
In the train which had formed behind Ricciardo, Alonso passed Massa, then a lap later Hulkenberg and Alonso both passed Ricciardo.
The Australian had started on hard tyres and this showed the others that they were good for at least 20 laps, which helped them to plan their strategy for the remainder of the race.
Grosjean maintained a 2.2 second gap over Webber, with Vettel a similar margin behind.
Webber pitted for the second time on lap 26, as Red Bull split strategies with Webber moving to three stops and Vettel on two stops. Grosjean kept going until lap 30 the pitted with 23 laps to the finish. He dropped in third behind Webber. Vettel pushed hard in the lead.
But Grosjean had it covered and maintained the gap below 20 seconds, not enough for Vettel to pit and rejoin before the finish. Vettel’s tactic was to have fresher tyres at the end of the race to challenge Grosjean in the closing stages.
Vettel pitted on lap 37 and rejoined on fresh tyres less than two seconds behind the Frenchman. He passed him four laps later for second place.
Webber pitted on lap 43, losing the lead to Vettel; he put on a set of medium tyres for the final stint. He attacked Grosjean on lap 47 and lap 48 into Turn 1 but couldn’t get through and that cost him the momentum he’d built up to potentially challenge Vettel for the win in the closing laps.
He passed Grosjean with two laps to go to the end.
The sixth place for Hulkenberg and seventh for Gutierrez (his first points in F1) meant that Sauber closed on Force India for sixth place in the constructors’ championship, the gap is now just seven points. Hulkenberg has scored points in the last four races.
JAPANESE GRAND PRIX, 53 laps
1. Vettel Red Bull 1h37.410s
2. Webber Red Bull +7.1s
3. Grosjean Lotus +9.9s
4. Alonso Ferrari +45.6s
5. Raikkonen Lotus +47.3s
6. Hulkenberg Sauber +51.6s
7. Gutierrez Sauber +1m11.6s
8. Rosberg Mercedes +1m12.0s
9. Button McLaren +1m20.8s
10. Massa Ferrari +1m29.2s
11. Di Resta Force India +1m38.5s
12. Vergne Toro Rosso +1 lap
13. Ricciardo Toro Rosso +1 lap
14. Sutil Force India +1 lap
15. Perez McLaren +1 lap
16. Maldonado Williams +1 lap
17. Bottas Williams +1 lap
18. Pic Caterham +1 lap
19. Chilton Marussia +1 lap
1. Vettel 297 points
2. Alonso 207
3. Raikkonen 177
4. Hamilton 151
5. Webber 148
1. Red Bull-Renault 445 points
2. Ferrari 297
3. Mercedes 277
4. Lotus-Renault 264
5. McLaren-Mercedes 83