Vettel takes Japan honours as Hamilton hits yet more problems
Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel did all he needed to do at Suzuka this afternoon to take his second consecutive Japanese Grand Prix victory and reinvigorate his championship challenge ahead of the final trio of races, after leading from pole position to take a slender 1-second win ahead of team-mate and championship leader Mark Webber. Although he never built a convincing lead, the German stayed in control throughout and emerged victorious for his eighth career win.
Vettel kept his lead at the start but was followed into turn one by Renault's Robert Kubica, who had got past Webber from third of the grid. However, two incidents at the start involving Vitaly Petrov and Nico Hulkenberg, and Felipe Massa and Tonio Liuzzi brought out the safety car for the first six laps, during which Kubica was forced to retire when his left-rear wheel parted company with the car.
Once the action resumed, Vettel and Webber began to build a lead to third-placed man Fernando Alonso, growing it to over five seconds by lap 19. After pitting on laps 24 and 25 respectively, the Red Bull team-mates emerged behind McLaren's Jenson Button who had started the race on the harder tyre and opted not to pit until lap 38. When he did peel off into the pits, Vettel and Webber immediately upped the pace again albeit tracked all the way by Alonso.
Although Alonso did all he could to mount the pressure on Webber for second, the Bulls kept him at a safe distance and crossed the line in formation, with Webber nabbing the race's fastest lap from Vettel on the final tour. Alonso kept his title hopes alive with a solid third, after an untroubled race from fourth on the grid.
Lewis Hamilton should have taken a comfortable fourth place in his McLaren after passing both Barrichello and Rosberg at the start from eighth on the grid, before emerging ahead of Button after his team-mate's stop. However, after losing third gear with 13 laps to go, he began to lose time hand over fist and ultimately had to yield to Button four laps later, with the reigning champion pulling 26 seconds clear at the flag.
Mercedes' Michael Schumacher produced one of his best races this year to finish sixth from tenth on the grid, while Kamui Kobayashi delighted the home crowd with a typically exciting drive from 14th. He pitted late in the race and re-emerged in 12th place, before pulling off three overtaking manoeuvres on Alguersuari, Barrichello and Heidfeld, all at the hairpin, as two retirements aided his rise to an impressive seventh. Rounding out the points scorers were Heidfeld, Barrichello and Sebastien Buemi.
Of the 24 starters, eight drivers failed to make the finish. Lucas di Grassi bit the dust even before the action got underway when he spun into the barriers at 130R on the lap to the grid. Then on the first lap, Petrov, Hulkenberg, Massa and Liuzzi all had to retire after two separate collisions, soon followed by Kubica's wheel problem.
Adrian Sutil added his name to the list on lap 44 when his Mercedes engine seemingly expired on the exit of Spoon, before Nico Rosberg ended his race in the barriers on the outside of Dunlop when his left-rear tyre detached, handing sixth place to team-mate Schumacher after a 20-lap battle.
Today's result sees Webber extend his advantage at the top of the championship to 14 points, with Alonso and Vettel now level at 206 points apiece in second and third. Hamilton's disastrous weekend drops him to fourth 28 points behind, while Button lies fifth 31 points off Webber.