Sebastian Vettel took the top step of the podium for the first time since July’s European Grand Prix, courtesy of a flawless lights-to-flag victory at the Japanese Grand Prix. With back-to-back victories in Suzuka, the German becomes the third man after Mika Häkkinen (1998-9) and Michael Schumacher (2000-2) to win back-to-back on the Japanese circuit.
The Red Bull driver finished ahead of – and was never threatened by – his team-mate Mark Webber, who finished in second place, and extended his championship lead over third-placegetter Fernando Alonso to 14 points in doing so. Vettel’s win puts him on equal footing with the Spaniard in the championship chase, although behind the double World Champion, who has four wins to Vettel’s three.
Vettel would make a great start from pole position, while Webber was jumped by Robert Kubica, who vaulted into second place.
Behind them there was chaos, as no less than four cars were eliminated by the second turn. Vitaly Petrov came to grief along the pit straight by dint of chopping across Nico Hülkenberg’s Williams on the run down to Turn 1. Further along, Felipe Massa was forced onto the inside of Turn 1, bouncing across the kerbs and spearing into Vitantonio Liuzzi, putting both into the outside barriers and an early bath.
The Safety Car was called out for six laps to clear up the mess, and it was while running behind the group that Kubica’s Renault shed its right-rear wheel, putting the Pole out of what could have been an impressive race.
When the Safety Car pulled in, Vettel and Webber set about showing off their pace, and proceeded to pull away from third-placed Alonso at the rate of close to a second a lap.
The only time Vettel didn’t lead was during the pit stop sequence between laps 28 and 35, when Jenson Button held P1 by dint of his alternative tyre strategy, electing to start on the hard compound Bridgestone tyres before switching to the soft tyres later in the race.
The McLarens of Button and Lewis Hamilton would finish fourth and fifth at the chequered flag, with Hamilton losing ground after being struck by the loss of third gear mid-race. This allowed Button to move up the order, and the Briton set about an unsuccessful chase of Alonso’s third place.
Behind the McLarens came Michael Schumacher, who took his best finish since the Turkish Grand Prix in what was arguably one of his best races of the season. Starting from 10th, the German made a now-customary (for 2010) good start, and drove with great pace to move up the order, including an excellent pass on Rubens Barrichello at the Casio chicane. He had looked set to finish behind his team-mate Nico Rosberg – who had pitted during an early Safety Car interruption – but the younger German shed a wheel and crashed heavily in the S-bends.
The award for the most entertaining drive of the day went to home crowd favourite Kamui Kobayashi, who – running an identical tyre strategy to Button – set about overtaking his rivals at the most unlikely of places: the hairpin after the flyover. Having passes Adrian Sutil and Jaime Alguersuari at that point before pitting, he used his fresher tyres to repeat the move on other drivers.
The second time around, Alguersuari proved unnecessarily vigorous in his defence of 10th place as Kobayashi went around the outside, and the Spaniard simply succeeded in damaging his own front wing in his fit of wheel-banging with the Sauber. Kobayashi then repeated the same lunge up the inside on Rubens Barrichello and Nick Heidfeld, in a drive that reminded many of his equally combative performance at Valencia earlier this season.
It was a steady drive from Heidfeld who picked up his first points of the season with a good drive to eighth, fending off Barrichello’s Williams in the closing stages of the race.
By dint of Rosberg’s late retirement, Sébastien Buemi finished in tenth place to take his (and Toro Rosso’s) first points since the European Grand Prix. After his wheel-banging exercise with Kobayashi, Alguersuari finished in 11th.
Lotus all but cemented tenth place in the Constructors’ Championship with Heikki Kovalainen taking 12th place at the end of the race, following home by team-mate Jarno Trulli, who pitted early with a radiator problem and spent a lengthy part of the race embroiled in a battle with Sakon Yamamoto.
Timo Glock finished just behind the Italian driver and Virgin’s sole representative on the grid, after team-mate Lucas di Grassi crashed heavily at the 130R on his recognisance lap to the grid before the race!
As expected, the two HRT cars brought up the rear, but achieved their stated aim of getting both cars to the finish, the sixth time they have achieved this in their maiden season.