Sebastian Vettel became the first back to back race winner in 2012 at the Japanese Grand Prix, cruising to an easy win after a start line accident eliminated championship leader Fernando Alonso for the second time in four races.
A separate incident also dropped Mark Webber down the order, Romain Grosjean once again the culprit in triggering an accident at the start. Webber recovered to finish 9th.
Felipe Massa scored a potentially vital second place, as far as his Ferrari career is concerned, from 10th place. It was his first podium for two years, although Ferrari celebrations will be muted as their hopes of winning the drivers’ championship took a massive blow today.
Kamui Kobayashi finished third, his first F1 podium, to the delight of the Japanese fans, the first home podium for a Japanese driver for 22 years.
It was Vettel’s third win of the season and the 24th of his career. It was also his third Japanese GP in the last four years and it means that he cut Alonso’s championship lead to just four points with five races to go. His winning margin was a massive 20 seconds and several times he had to be told to slow down by his engineer.
And with Red Bull hitting peak form in its car development and rumours of a double DRS device on the car this weekend, there is a momentum about Vettel’s campaign which Alonso will find extremely hard to halt.
“We had a good start which was important because there was a crash,” said Vettel. “I saw a Ferrari was out and I worked out it must have been Fernando. When you dream at night you dream about being able to drive a car like this.
“It was an important step today. We don’t know what happens in the next race, but it was good to take the points today.”
Kimi Raikkonen moved into third place in the championship on 157 points, amazingly just 37 off the front, thanks to his sixth place, with Hamilton five points behind the Finn.
Pre-race expectations were that tyre degradation could be a decisive factor, with the front tyres the limitation. In the end everyone was able to make it in a conventional two stop strategy, although Webber effectively did a one-stop after pitting on the first lap.
The start was explosive; Fernando Alonso was eliminated by an incident into Turn 1, as he squeezed across to the left and tagged Raikkonen, getting a puncture which put him into a spin. He was out for the second time in four races, so too Nico Rosberg.
Alonso questioned why Raikkonen had not lifted off, but accepted that it was a racing incident. Raikkonen had been involved in hurting him for the second time in the weekend, after the Lotus driver’s spin in qualifying had ruined his chances of starting on the front two rows.
Meanwhile Webber’s race was ruined by Grosjean driving into the back of him into Turn 2. Webber had to pit on the first lap and switched to the hard tyre and a one-stop strategy from there, as a Safety Car was sent out.
The race was restarted before Webber had rejoined the tail of the pack, he was 20 seconds off the back of them at the restart.
Grosjean was given a 10 second stop/go penalty by the stewards, which he served on lap 8. It was a suitably tough penalty for Grosjean, the stewards clearly sending him a message that they were unhappy he had not learned from the one race ban after Spa.
Webber called Grosjean a “first lap nutcase” and added, “The rest of us are trying to fight for decent results. Maybe he needs another holiday. He needs to have a look at himself, how many times can you make the same error. It’s embarrassing at this level.”
It was a dream scenario for Vettel from a race and championship point of view, with two of his main rivals taken out of contention and Kobayashi in second place as a buffer to hold up the cars behind him.
At the restart Raikkonen made a bold pass on Perez into Turn 1, for fifth place.
Perez and Hamilton battled, with the Mexican ambushing the man he will replace at McLaren next season.
After 10 laps Vettel led by almost 6 seconds from Kobayashi, with Button up to third from 8th on the grid, Massa fourth, Raikkonen fifth, Perez sixth, Hamilton seventh, Hulkenberg eighth, Maldonado ninth and Riccardo 10th. Heikki Kovalainen was up to 11th.
The first stops came on lap 14 with Raikkonen, Hulkenberg and Button pitting for hard tyres. Kobayashi came in a lap later.
Kobayashi and Button were held up by Riccardo, as Massa took his chance to pit and rejoined ahead of the pair of them, up to second place, clever strategy giving him a chance to make a big gain.
Sergio Perez was eliminated on lap 20, as he came out of the kink too quickly and almost collided with Hamilton in sixth place. Hamilton had got ahead in the pit stops.
Button meanwhile was struggling with a gearbox issue, ironic given that he had been forced into a change before this race and a 5 place penalty as a result. It stabilised and he was able to continue pushing.
At the half way stage the order was Vettel ten seconds clear of Massa, with Kobayashi third four seconds ahead of Button, Raikkonen, Hamilton, Hulkenberg, Maldonado, Webber in ninth and Ricciardo 10th.
Webber had done 25 laps on a set of hard tyres when he pitted on lap 26, taking a second set of hards. This told all the strategists that the hard tyres were easily good for a two stop strategy.
Raikkonen pitted on lap 31, Hamilton a lap later and he rejoined alongside the Lotus, holding his line into Turn 1 and taking the seventh place.
Button stayed out longer than Kobayashi trying to jump him, but his pitstop wasn’t fast enough due to the right rear wheel taking longer than usual to go on, so Button came out behind Kobayashi.
Massa pitted on lap 37, with Vettel a lap later, the race completely under control.
Vettel had a 17 second lead over Massa by lap 40 but had to be told to slow down by his engineer, who was worried about him overheating his tyres.
The main interest of the end of the race was whether Jenson Button could catch and pass Kobayashi. McLaren had managed the strategy so that Button would have the fresher tyres for the end of the race. He closed right up on the final lap but couldn’t pass him. It was Sauber’s fourth podium of the season.
Lewis Hamilton was fifth, ahead of Raikkonen and Hulkenberg.
Mercedes ended up without any points again, Rosberg out at the start and Schumacher unable to pass Ricciardo for tenth place at the end of the race.
JAPANESE GRAND PRIX, Suzuka, 53 laps
1. Vettel Red Bull 1h28:56.242
2. Massa Ferrari + 20.639
3. Kobayashi Sauber + 24.538
4. Button McLaren + 25.098
5. Hamilton McLaren + 46.490
6. Raikkonen Lotus + 50.424
7. Hulkenberg Force India + 51.159
8. Maldonado Williams + 52.364
9. Webber Red Bull + 54.675
10. Ricciardo Toro Rosso + 1:06.919
11. Schumacher Mercedes + 1:07.769
12. Di Resta Force India + 1:23.400
13. Vergne Toro Rosso + 1:28.600
14. Senna Williams + 1:28.700
15. Grosjean Lotus + 1 lap
16. Kovalainen Caterham + 1 lap
17. Glock Marussia + 1 lap
18. Petrov Caterham + 1 lap
19. De la Rosa HRT + 1 lap