Sebastian Vettel is on the verge of taking this season’s world championship following his fifth consecutive victory, as different race strategies produced a thrilling contest to a three-way battle for Japanese Grand Prix honours at Suzuka.
Polesitter Mark Webber passed Romain Grosjean in the final stages of the race to secure a Red Bull Racing one-two, but was seven seconds adrift of denying Vettel and securing what would have been a first victory of his farewell Formula 1 campaign.
As for Fernando Alonso, he recovered well from eighth to keep the championship alive. Vettel will have to wait until India to be crowned a four-time champion.
It was Grosjean’s Lotus that captured the lead at the start, jumping from fourth on the grid as both Red Bulls got away poorly.
The Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton also got the jump on the Red Bulls, but as he squeezed in between the RB9s he and Vettel made light contact, which punctured Hamilton’s rear right and causing floor damage which would ultimately lead to his retirement after just nine laps.
In the background, Giedo van der Garde and Jules Bianchi collided at Turn 1. Both retiring in the gravel trap.
For the first half of the Japanese Grand Prix Grosjean was able to maintain his advantage over Webber and Vettel, with the trio easing away from a chasing pack led by Nico Rosberg and the Scuderia of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso.
The group lost massive time through the first round of pit-stops when Daniel Ricciardo, who started on the hard compound and ran a deep first stint, managed to jump into fourth and hold a string of quicker cars at bay for several laps.
It was Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg – who jumped the Ferraris through the first round of stops – who eventually managed to break Ricciardo’s resistance, but by then the top trio were 27 seconds down the road and out of touch.
That allowed Vettel, Grosjean and Webber to adopt different strategies, with the latter opting for a three-stop route in contrast to the two-stops of Vettel and Grosjean.
Webber therefore held track position heading into the final ten laps, while Vettel was able to go far deeper than Grosjean in his middle stint, and therefore had much fresher set of tyres on which to close a two-second gap to the Lotus driver.
The crucial pass came on lap 41 when Vettel attacked at Casio chicane and then dived down Grosjean’s inside at Turn 1 for second thanks to DRS.
With Webber pitting one lap later, Vettel duly hit the front and was able to cruise home to extend his winning form.
That he did so owed much to Grosjean however, whose spirited defence kept Webber – now on the option tyre for a final ten lap charge – at bay until the final laps, when Webber picked him off at Turn 1 to grab second.
Behind, Alonso executed a great pass around the outside of Hulkenberg heading into Turn 1 to clinch fourth and keep the title race technically open.
Kimi Raikkonen also picked off Hulkenberg’s Sauber to seal fifth position ahead of the German.
Esteban Gutierrez held on to deny Rosberg in a fight for seventh, while Jenson Button and Felipe Massa rounded out the top ten at Suzuka.
Massa also had to fight back from a drive-through for speeding in the pitlane, although his cause was also aided when Sergio Perez and Rosberg collided while fighting for tenth, sending the former to the pits with damage.
Paul di Resta beat Jean-Eric Vergne to P11, while a third drive-through – this time for Ricciardo after he went off-track passing di Resta at 130R – meant the Australian was restricted to P13 ahead of Adrian Sutil, Perez and the Williams of Pastor Maldonado and Valtteri Bottas.
Vettel’s fourth win in Japan brings him to 297 points in the standings to Alonso’s 207, which means he can clinch the title at the next round in India by finishing fifth or higher, regardless of what the Spaniard does. Raikkonen pulled further away from Hamilton in third place with 177 to 161, while Webber is moving back into contention with them on 148.
The result gave Red Bull another 43 points, bringing their total to 445. Ferrari’s run pulled them further ahead of Mercedes, the gap going out to 10 points with 297 to 287, while Lotus are back in the fight for second place with 264. Much further back McLaren have 83 to Force India’s 62.
Japanese Grand Prix race results after 53 laps
1. Sebatian Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1h37.410s
2. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault +7.129s
3. Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault +9.910s
4. Fernando Alonso Ferrari +45.605s
5. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus-Renault +47.325s
6. Nico Hulkenberg Sauber-Ferrari +51.615s
7. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber-Ferrari +1m11.630s
8. Nico Rosberg Mercedes +1m12.023s
9. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes +1m20.821s
10. Felipe Massa Ferrari +1m29.263s
11. Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes +1m38.572s
12. Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari +1 lap
13. Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari +1 lap
14. Adrian Sutil Force India-Mercedes +1 lap
15. Sergio Perez McLaren-Mercedes +1 lap
16. Pastor Maldonado Williams-Renault +1 lap
17. Valtteri Bottas Williams-Renault +1 lap
18. Charlies Pic Caterham-Renault +1 lap
19. Max Chilton Marussia-Cosworth +1 lap
Fastest lap: Mark Webber, 1m34.587s
Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 9 laps
Giedo van der Garde Caterham-Renault 0 laps
Jules Bianchi Marussia-Cosworth 0 laps
World Championship standings, round 15:
1. Vettel 297
2. Alonso 207
3. Raikkonen 177
4. Hamilton 151
5. Webber 148
6. Rosberg 126
7. Massa 90
8. Grosjean 87
9. Button 60
10. Hulkenberg 49
11. Di Resta 36
12. Sutil 26
13. Perez 23
14. Ricciardo 18
15. Vergne 13
16. Gutierrez 6
17. Maldonado 1
1. Red Bull-Renault 445
2. Ferrari 297
3. Mercedes 277
4. Lotus-Renault 264
5. McLaren-Mercedes 83
6. Force India-Mercedes 62
7. Sauber-Ferrari 55
8. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 31
9. Williams-Renault 1
Next race: Indian Grand Prix, Buddh International Circuit. October 25-27.