Sebastian Vettel took his third Japanese Grand Prix victory in four years today at Suzuka and edged himself closer to a third drivers’ championship after Fernando Alonso retired on the opening lap of the race.
The Spaniard was given a right-rear puncture in collision with Kimi Raikkonen of the line and could only watch from the garage as his championship lead was whittled down from 29 points to just four.
Felipe Massa took advantage of his team-mate’s retirement to finish second claim his first podium in nearly two years and Kamui Kobayashi delighted the home fans holding off Jenson Button in the closing stages of the race to claim his first F1 podium.
Jenson Button finished just ahead of out-going McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton, whilst Kimi Raikkonen was six.
Nico Hulkenberg and Pastor Maldonado finished seventh and eighth whilst Mark Webber, who was also involved in an opening lap incident, recovered to finish ninth. Daniel Ricciardo was tenth.
Vettel was completely dominant this afternoon, right from lights-out when he took the lead into the first corner. Kamui Kobayashi jumped from third to second, and behind them the championship story was getting re-written.
Kimi Raikkonen was squeezed by Fernando Alonso as the pair headed towards the first corner. The Finn, who had nowhere to go, tagged the back of Alonso’s Ferrari, giving the Spaniard and right-rear puncture. This spun him around, and ultimately ended his race.
Romain Grosjean, who has been no stranger to first-lap incidents this season, tagged Mark Webber in a separate incident while heading into Turn One. The Frenchman lost his front wing in the incident, and the resulting pit stop Webber required dropped him down to the back of the field. Grosjean was given a ten-second stop/go penalty for causing a collision.
Nico Rosberg also lost out in the opening melee, through no fault of his own, and joined Alonso on the list of retirements. Bruno Senna was given a drive-through penalty for his part in the German’s retirement.
These accidents brought out the safety car for a couple of laps. During this period, Vettel was leading from Kobayashi. Jenson Button was up to third after starting eighth, and Felipe Massa fourth.
Sergio Perez was in the wars on the restart, losing a few positions when an ambitious attempt to overtake Raikkonen caused him to fall off the track. He redeemed himself slightly a few laps later though, by taking sixth position back from Lewis Hamilton, the man he will be replacing at McLaren next season.
Perez’s luck ran out a few laps later though, when he made a mistake around the outside of the hairpin on Lap 19. He lost control of his Sauber and spun off into the gravel. The car was beached, and the Mexican became the third retirement of the afternoon.
Button and Raikkonen were the first drivers to make a scheduled pit stop, coming in at the end of Lap 13. Button re-joined the circuit in eighth place, and Raikkonen came out in eleventh. Kobayashi made his first stop on the following lap, emerging ahead of Button to retain that net second place.
The race leader pitted at the end of Lap 17. He had a 10.8-second lead by this point, and had no problems re-emerging in the lead.
Felipe Massa, who made his first stop on the same lap as Vettel, had put in some good laps beforehand, and came out of the pits in second, having leap-frogged both Kobayashi and Button.
Apart from Perez’s retirement, there was little drama during the second stint of the race. Jenson Button complained over his radio about a gearbox problem. A failure would have been particularly galling given the Brit took a five-place grid penalty this weekend to get that gearbox into his car. However, a couple of laps later, Button was setting a new fastest lap of the race, indicating a likely false alarm.
Raikkonen was the first to blink or a second scheduled stop, pitting from sixth at the end of Lap 30. Meanwhile, Vettel had a comfortable 12.7-second lead over Massa at the front of the field, and was starting to put in fastest laps.
Kobayashi and Hamilton reacted to that stop of Raikkonen by coming into the pits on the following lap. Hamilton only just emerged from the pit lane ahead of Raikkonen, and the two almost collided into the first corner. Hamilton kept the position though.
Button was in at the end of Lap 35, but could not get out ahead of Kobayashi, who he was racing for fourth place.
Massa made his second stop of the afternoon one lap later, pitting from second. He was comfortably out ahead of Kobayashi to retain that position.
With the pit stops over, it was time for the few remaining places to be decided. Button started to trouble Kobayashi for the final podium position and Michael Schumacher, who started from P23, was on a different strategy to everybody else and was fighting for a few consolation points.
The only person standing between Schumacher and a point was Daniel Ricciardo. With five laps to go, the seven-time world champion was all over the back of the Toro Rosso, but unable to find a way past and eventually had to settle for eleventh.
Romain Grosjean completed a miserable afternoon by driving in the pits two laps from the end of the race to retire his Lotus.