Sebastian Vettel has put a major dent in Fernando Alonso’s championship lead after cruising to a comfortable victory at the Japanese Grand Prix, a race in which Alonso was taken out of contention on the opening lap.
The defending champion now lies just four points behind Alonso with five rounds of the championship left, and he now heads to next weekend’s Korean Grand Prix with plenty of momentum – and a barrage of new parts – to put him in prime position to become the third driver in F1 history to claim three consecutive championship titles.
He stayed ahead of the first corner contretemps that took out Alonso, Mark Webber and Nico Rosberg, he was untroubled on his run to the chequered flag.
His success also owed plenty to a heavily updated RB8 chassis, which featured the team’s first attempt at its own ‘double DRS’ design, a concept piloted with varying success by the Mercedes and Lotus squads.
The German was simply untouchable through Suzuka’s high-speed sweeps, and after opening up an early lead, it would only be a mechanical failure that could rob him of a win.
And while he may have been celebrating a 24th career win (placing him equal with Juan Manuel Fangio on the all-time victors’ list), the celebrations were even more raucous either side of him on the podium, with Felipe Massa taking a long-awaited podium finish, while Kamui Kobayashi delighted his fans with his first ever F1 podium, on home soil to boot.
Starting from third place, the Japanese driver ran second in his Sauber until the first round of pit stops – at which point he was jumped by Massa – and fended off a fast-closing Jenson Button for the final place on the rostrum.
The Suzuka crowd went into meltdown, and Kobayashi became just the third Japanese driver to ever stand on an F1 podium, and the first since Aguri Suzuki in 1990 to achieve the honour on home soil.
Up at the front, there was plenty of action as the pack of 24 cars funneled its way into the opening corners on the first lap.
Fernando Alonso found himself squeezed by Jenson Button’s McLaren on the run into Turn 1, causing the Spaniard to jink left and tag his left-rear wheel on Kimi Raikkonen’s front wing.
The contact caused an immediate deflation of the Ferrari’s driver’s tyre, sending him spinning helplessly into the gravel before he slewed back onto the track, amazingly not getting hit by and of the cars behind him.
There was more drama at Turn 2 when Formula 1’s opening lap enfant terrible, Romain Grosjean, completely missed his braking point and tipped Mark Webber into a spin. Further behind, Nico Rosberg was eliminated on the spot when he was rammed from behind by Bruno Senna.
The chain reaction triggered an immediate Safety Car interruption while Alonso and Rosberg’s cars were craned away, giving the likes of Grosjean, Webber and Senna the chance to limp back to the pits for repairs on the run.
Grosjean – having only just served a one-race ban for triggering the first corner shunt at the Belgian Grand Prix – was again in the Stewards’ spotlight, and it was little surprise to see him hit with an in-race penalty for his troubles. Interestingly, the Stewards took the more severe action of a ten-second stop/go penalty rather than the customary drive-through tour usually awarded for such indiscretions.
Webber, having switched to an effective on-stop strategy, tigered through the field to finish an impressive ninth to salvage two points. But another low-scoring round has effectively consigned him to the role of championship ‘also-ran’, and it was little surprise that he was very critical of Grosjean’s antics in the post-race media rounds, calling the Frenchman “a nutcase”.
The resumption of racing let Vettel cruise untroubled to another victory, while Kobayashi, Massa and the two McLarens were left to juke it out for the minor placings.
Kobayashi ran second until the first round of pit stops, when both he and Button were overtaken by Felipe Massa, who delivered easily his most competitive showing of the season. Once clear, the Brazilian finished an assured (and no doubt, relieved) second place, but it remains to be seen whether this performance will be enough to see his F1 future saved.
Kobayashi managed to fend off Button in the final stages, with the McLaren driver’s cause not helped by a slower final pit stop. He finished right in the Japanese driver’s wheeltracks as the pair crossed the finish line.
Lewis Hamilton had a quiet run to fifth place, struggling with the same understeer that had befallen him in qualifying. He fell victim to am excellent overtaking move by Sergio Perez at the hairpin, before overtaking the Mexican in the first round of pit stops.
Perez – set to replace Hamilton in McLaren’s line-up next year – then made a rare error, trying to retaliate against Hamilton once again at the hairpin, only to lose it under braking and spin into retirement.
Hamilton was able to jump Raikkonen in the second round of pit stops to finish fifth, emerging alongside the Finn as he exited the pit lane, before using his superior momentum to claim the position.
That left Raikkonen to claim a handful of points for sixth place, and having to keep his attention on his mirrors as he came under increasing attack from Nico Hulkenberg and Pastor Maldonado, with the latter claiming his first points finish since his win at the Spanish Grand Prix.
Webber finished the race in ninth place, with his compatriot Daniel Ricciardo similarly resisting the hard-charging Michael Schumacher – who had made up plenty of ground from his 23rd-placed starting position – to claim the final point for tenth place.
2012 Japanese Formula 1 Grand Prix – Final Classification (53 laps):
|1.||Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing Renault RB8||53||1:28:56.242|
|2.||Felipe Massa||Scuderia Ferrari F2012||53||+ 20.639|
|3.||Kamui Kobayashi||Sauber Ferrari C31||53||+ 24.538|
|4.||Jenson Button||McLaren Mercedes MP4-27||53||+ 25.098|
|5.||Lewis Hamilton||McLaren Mercedes MP4-27||53||+ 46.490|
|6.||Kimi Räikkönen||Lotus F1 Renault E20||53||+ 50.424|
|7.||Nico Hülkenberg||Force India Mercedes VJM05||53||+ 51.159|
|8.||Pastor Maldonado||Williams Renault FW34||53||+ 52.364|
|9.||Mark Webber||Red Bull Racing Renault RB8||53||+ 54.675|
|10.||Daniel Ricciardo||Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari STR7||53||+ 1:06.919|
|11.||Michael Schumacher||Mercedes AMG F1 W03||53||+ 1:07.769|
|12.||Paul di Resta||Force India Mercedes VJM05||53||+ 1:23.460|
|13.||Jean-Éric Vergne||Scuderia Toro Rosso Ferrari STR7||53||+ 1:28.645|
|14.||Bruno Senna||Williams Renault FW34||53||+ 1:28.709|
|15.||Heikki Kovalainen||Caterham Renault CT01||52||1 lap behind|
|16.||Timo Glock||Marussia Racing Cosworth MR01||52||1 lap behind|
|17.||Vitaly Petrov||Caterham Renault CT01||52||1 lap behind|
|18.||Pedro de la Rosa||HRTF1 Cosworth F112||52||1 lap behind|
|19.||Romain Grosjean||Lotus F1 Renault E20||51||Withdrew|
|DNF.||Charles Pic||Marussia Racing Cosworth MR01||37||Engine|
|DNF.||Narain Karthikeyan||HRTF1 Cosworth F112||32||Handling|
|DNF.||Sergio Pérez||Sauber Ferrari C31||18||Spin|
|DNF.||Fernando Alonso||Scuderia Ferrari F2012||0||Puncture / Spin|
|DNF.||Nico Rosberg||Mercedes AMG F1 W03||0||Collision|
|Sebastian Vettel||Red Bull Racing Renault RB8||52||1:35.774|