Vettel wins the Japanese GP, but the championship battle remains alive

Sebastian Vettel; Romain Grosjean; Mark Webber; Remi Taffin (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images) From one of the newest circuits on the calendar in Korea, we move to one of the oldest – and a favourite among both the drivers and fans.

The first Japanese Grand Prix to be held at Suzuka was in 1987, and its figure of eight layout offers a unique challenge to those driving the twisty-turny 18-corner track.

It wasn’t just the electric atmosphere that had drivers and fans excited this weekend, though. Theoretically, Vettel could be walking away from today’s race with his fourth drivers’ championship, should he finish in first place and his closest rival Alonso fail to score any points.

But since Vettel’s team mate Webber had out-qualified him for pole, the scene was set for a thrilling opening lap as both fought for supremacy within Red Bull.

Webber may be out of contention for the championship now, but it’s his final season in F1 – and he desperately wants to win another race before he bows out of the sport for good next month.

Sebastian Vettel; Mark Webber (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

All eyes were on the Red Bull duo as the lights went out. But it was to be Grosjean who lead the pair by the time they reached the first corner, with Webber in second and Vettel in third. And Vettel soon radioed his engineer with the concern that he could have some front wing damage to his car after opening lap contact with Hamilton.

The Mercedes driver had started from third on the grid, and made a great start, shooting straight past Vettel off the line. But as the Red Bulls closed in on him, there was nowhere for Hamilton to go. He had contact with Vettel – leading to a puncture on the Mercedes. This forced him to pit for new rubber at the end of the first lap, bringing him out at the back of the pack.

It was clear that Hamilton would have a lot of work to do if he wanted to haul himself back up into the points. But as it turned out, his race was to be brought to a premature end. He retired on lap 9, with the damage on his car from that first lap clash clearly terminal.

Hamilton wasn’t the only one to suffer a first-lap catastrophe, though. There was also a big shunt at the back between the Caterham of Van Der Grade and the Marussia of Jules Bianchi as they collided, sending them both flying off the track.

The incident put them both out of the race. But luckily it wasn’t serious enough to warrant a safety car, and the first few laps of the race were conducted under yellow flags while the cars were cleared.

Alonso had a poor start to the Grand Prix, too. He hadn’t made the flying launch off the line that he was used to, and spent the first few laps of the race stuck behind his team mate Massa in sixth place.

Track Action (Photo by Clive Rose/Getty Images) Track action (photo by Moy)To add insult to injury, he knew that he wouldn’t have the luxury of Massa moving aside and letting him past, with the Brazilian himself fighting to showcase his talent so that he can stay in F1 for another season.

Out front, Grosjean had stretched out a three-second lead over the Red Bulls by lap 11. Both Webber and Vettel had been told to drop back and save tyres ahead of the first pit stop, where they could better attempt to leap frog the Lotus.

The pit stop window opened on lap nine, when Button boxed for new tyres. Webber was the first of the front runners to pit at the end of lap 12, with Grosjean coming in a lap later – and returning to the track in front of the Red Bull of Webber once again.

Vettel stayed out another three laps to try and stretch out a lead, which didn’t really work to his advantage. He came back out in third again now almost five seconds behind the leaders. But it was clear he would be doing everything within his power to rectify that situation…

Rosberg was just behind him on track in fourth, but he’d had a bit of a nightmare in his pit stop. He’d been released into the path of Perez’s incoming McLaren, earning him a drive-through penalty for an unsafe release. He served his punishment on lap 16, effectively ruining any chance of the German getting a decent points-place finish this afternoon.

Alonso had dropped down to seventh following the pit stops. Now he, Massa and Hulkenberg were caught up behind fourth-placed Ricciardo, who hadn’t yet pitted for tyres.

Alonso was painfully aware that he needed to pass to keep his championship hopes alive, but with Massa stubbornly refusing to let him past (and who can blame him?), Alonso would have to do it on pure talent alone.

The Spaniard finally made the move on Massa on lap 20. Then both he and Hulkenberg made their way past Ricciardo on the following lap, which allowed them to scamper off down the road in pursuit of the leading pack.

By this point, however, the top three cars were 20 seconds out in front. Grosjean was still in the lead, but it was Webber, not Vettel, who was gaining on him and looking likely to launch an attack for first place.

Webber pitted on lap 26, hoping to undercut Grosjean and leap frog him off the track. With Webber out of the way, Vettel started putting in fastest laps, gaining on leader Grosjean and threatening to overtake Webber by the time the pit stops has shaken out.

Grosjean pitted from the lead at the end of lap 29 – but Webber had been putting in fastest laps since his own stop, and Grosjean came back out behind him in second place.

That put Vettel in the lead, as he’d not yet stopped for a second time. By lap 34 he’d pulled out a 20-second gap over third place Grosjean, giving him enough time to make a stop and still come back out in second place.

The thing was, Grosjean was now lapping consistently faster than Vettel on his new tyres, and the gap between them was dropping by the lap. Webber was lapping faster, too, and the gap between him and Vettel was down to just seven seconds.

And so Vettel pitted at the end of lap 37. He came back out in third place, behind Grosjean – but on his fresher tyres, Vettel was significantly faster, and quickly closed in on the back of the Lotus’ gearbox.

Vettel made the move on lap 40 to take second place – which was disappointing for Grosjean, but note entirely unexpected. Vettel was now free to chase down team mate Webber, who was 15 seconds ahead by this point.

While Vettel had made a two-stop strategy work for him though, Webber’s tyres were slipping away. He was forced to pit for a fresh set of rubber at the end of lap 42, promoting Vettel to first place and bringing Webber back out behind Grosjean in third.

Webber was on a fresh set of the softer tyres, meaning he could race like crazy to the chequered flag. But he’d have his work cut out for him to overtake Grosjean – and if he did drive up to the back of Vettel, the chances of him being allowed to overtake his team mate were slim to none.

Further back, there had been another coming together for Rosberg and Perez. The Mercedes had attempted to overtake the McLaren, but Perez has moved over and shut the door on Rosberg, leading to contact between their cars.

Perez suffered a puncture, and had to come in at the end of lap 43 for a final tyre change. Rosberg himself was complaining of damage to his car – but nevertheless he made it to the end of the race, and would later make his feelings about the overtake clear as he blamed Perez for crowding him off the track.

In front of them Hulkenberg was still running in a solid fourth, with Alosno behind in fifth. On lap 46, Alonso finally made the pass for fourth place, which is where he was to finish the race. Not that the extra points would help him much as he’s now resigned himself to the fact that he’s out of the championship fight.

With just five laps remaining, Webber was still stuck behind Grosjean in third place – and despite his best efforts, just couldn’t make his attempts to pass him stick.

On lap 52, the duo came up against a long train of backmarkers, giving Mark the opportunity to make a sneaky pass on Grosjean for second place. With the road ahead of him clear, he made a break for it and set the fastest lap of the race. But Vettel was already too far ahead…

He had a seven second lead, so there was ultimately nothing Webber could do to catch his team mate. Vettel took his fifth win in a row, but Alonso’s fourth place finish meant the Red Bull star didn’t quite clinch his fourth drivers’ title.

Grosjean lined up beside the Red Bulls on the podium in third place.

Raikkonen finished fifth, having put a brave move round the outside of Hulkenberg on lap 52, with the second Sauber of Gutierrez finishing just behind in seventh place.

With Alonso now 90 points behind Vettel in the championship, the Red Bull driver simply has to finish in the top five in India to wrap up this year’s championship. It looks likely he’ll do it – but there are still vital points to be scored as the battle for second place in the constructors’ championship rages on between Ferrari, Mercedes and Lotus.  By Sarah Ellis

1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1h37.410s
2. Mark Webber Red Bull-Renault +7.1s
3. Romain Grosjean Lotus-Renault +9.9s
4. Fernando Alonso Ferrari +45.6s
5. Kimi Raikkonen Lotus-Renault +47.3s
6. Nico Hulkenberg Sauber-Ferrari +51.6s
7. Esteban Gutierrez Sauber-Ferrari +1m11.6s
8. Nico Rosberg Mercedes +1m12.0s
9. Jenson Button McLaren-Mercedes +1m20.8s
10. Felipe Massa Ferrari +1m29.2s
11. Paul di Resta Force India-Mercedes +1m38.5s
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. Charles Pic Caterham-Renault +1 lap
19. Max Chilton Marussia-Cosworth +1 lap
20. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes RET
21. Giedo van der Garde Caterham-Renault RET
22. Jules Bianchi Marussia-Cosworth RET

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