Sebastian Vettel dominated the Japanese Grand Prix from start to finish, even a late safety car period caused by Jaime Alguersuari’s big crash on the exit of 130R was unable to trouble the cool German in achieving his third victory of the season.
By winning at Suzuka, Vettel and Red Bull Racing still have the opportunity to win the drivers’ championship, following a challenging race for Jenson Button and the Brawn GP team’s grid penalties.
Jarno Trulli gave home team Toyota its second runner-up finish in a week by beating Lewis Hamilton’s McLaren to second, with the world champion just resisting Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen for third.
Nico Rosberg finished fifth for Williams with fellow countryman Nick Heidfeld taking sixth for BMW Sauber.
As for the Brawn GP pair, the championship battle between Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button advances to the next race following a difficult Grand Prix. By finishing in seventh and eighth respectively, this was not enough to wrap up the constructors’ title and with only 14 points between the Brazilian and the Briton, the fight for top honours moves on to Sao Paulo in two weeks time.
As the five red lights went out, Vettel managed to fend off the KERS-assisted Hamilton at the start. The Red Bull stuck to the racing line, while the McLaren was forced to take the outside route, but at least Lewis was ahead of Jarno Trulli.
This trio pulled away from the rest of the field, with Nick Heidfeld’s BMW in a lonely fourth. At this point, Barrichello was trapped behind Raikkonen in sixth position.
Button fell to P12 at the start, but managed to overtake Giancarlo Fisichella’s Ferrari further around the first lap and then outbraked Robert Kubica’s BMW at the chicane on lap three.
The championship leader was then stuck behind the battling Mercedes-powered pair of Heikki Kovalainen and Adrian Sutil. Jenson needed to get by as soon as possible or risk losing ground to the top eight.
Fortunately for Button, the McLaren and the Force India ahead tangled at the chicane on lap 13 as Kovalainen tried to fight back on the exit after losing the place under braking.
While Sutil spun and Kovalainen lost momentum, Button cruised through to eighth – and the race continued to unfold in his favour through the middle stint. Rather than managing to jump Raikkonen and challenge for a podium, Barrichello stayed behind the Ferrari in the first stops and then lost ground on his second set of tyres, falling 15 seconds behind Raikkonen.
The threat from the fast-closing Kubica behind was then neutralised when Heidfeld emerged from his final stop right in front of his team-mate, and by the time Kubica had got ahead after several laps of frantic efforts, he was too far adrift to steal the point from the Brawn.
Up front, Vettel controlled the race with ease, while Hamilton looked to be secure in second, 2 to 3 seconds clear of Trulli, until the Toyota ran two laps further at the second stops and jumped ahead to claim the runner-up spot.
Raikkonen charged up behind Heidfeld in the middle of the race and then vaulted the BMW Sauber for fourth in the pits, with Nico Rosberg then pushing his countryman back to sixth by running very long in his second stint.
A huge crash for Jaime Alguersuari brought out the safety car with nine laps to go. The Scuderia Toro Rosso driver lost control of his car at the exit of 130R and slammed into the barriers at scarcely diminished speed. He climbed from the car unaided but was taken away on a stretcher for medical checks. His team-mate Sebastien Buemi retired early with a clutch problem.
The appearance of the safety car allowed Nico Rosberg to stay ahead of both Brawns with his last pit stop. After the race Button claimed Rosberg had gained four seconds under the safety car, allowing him to stay ahead. If Rosberg got a standard 25-second penalty, it would give Brawn two more points and make them constructors’ champions.
Vettel stormed away with ease in the final four-lap sprint, with Trulli safe in second as Hamilton held off Raikkonen despite KERS malfunctions.
All eyes were on the championship contenders as Button mounted a final attack on Barrichello, but then Jenson was under huge pressure from Kubica instead. The Polish driver tried several attempts to get by but it did not pay off, and Button was able to take the remaining point with eighth.
Fernando Alonso used a one-stop strategy to come through from the back of the grid to tenth for Renault, ahead of Kovalainen and Fisichella, who had a dramatic moment after their final pit stops. The Ferrari jumped ahead in the pits but the McLaren retaliated with a bold wheel-banging move into the first corner.
While Vettel dominated, Mark Webber’s bad luck continued and after making three early pit stops – two to secure a loose headrest, and the third to attend to a puncture. Fastest lap showed what might have been for the Red Bull driver.
Vettel’s stunning victory aside, the German’s hopes of winning the title may appear slim, especially given his engine situation, but Sebastian knows how Kimi Raikkonen won the title back in 2007 and will remember that anything is possible in Formula One.
Race results from the Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka. 67 laps:
1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1h28:20.443
2. Trulli Toyota +4.877
3. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes +6.472
4. Raikkonen Ferrari +7.940
5. Rosberg Williams-Toyota +8.793
6. Heidfeld BMW Sauber +9.509
7. Barrichello Brawn-Mercedes +10.641
8. Button Brawn-Mercedes +11.474
9. Kubica BMW Sauber +11.777
10. Alonso Renault +13.065
11. Kovalainen McLaren-Mercedes +13.735
12. Fisichella Ferrari +14.596
13. Sutil Force India-Mercedes +14.959
14. Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes +15.734
15. Nakajima Williams-Toyota +17.973
16. Grosjean Renault +1 lap
17. Webber Red Bull-Renault +2 laps
Fastest lap: Webber, 1:32.569
Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari 58 laps
Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari 26 laps
Glock Toyota 15 laps
World Championship standings, round 15:
1. Button 85
2. Barrichello 71
3. Vettel 69
4. Webber 51.5
5. Raikkonen 45
6. Hamilton 43
7. Rosberg 34.5
8. Trulli 30.5
9. Alonso 26
10. Glock 24
11. Kovalainen 22
12. Massa 22
13. Heidfeld 15
14. Kubica 9
15. Fisichella 8
16. Sutil 5
17. Buemi 3
18. Bourdais 2
1. Brawn-Mercedes 156
2. Red Bull-Renault 120.5
3. Ferrari 67
4. McLaren-Mercedes 65
5. Toyota 54.5
6. Williams-Toyota 34.5
7. Renault 26
8. BMW Sauber 24
9. Force India-Mercedes 13
10. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 5
Next race: Brazilian Grand Prix, Interlagos. October 16-18.