2013 Japanese GP: Sebastian Vettel does it again - but Webber, Grosjean make him work
Webber's late surge secures Red Bull 1-2; Alonso's fourth delays Seb's title coronation until India; Hamilton drops out after tagging Vettel
By James Galloway. Last Updated: 13/10/13 1:38pm
Sebastian Vettel moved to the brink of his fourth successive world title with yet another victory at the Japanese GP - however his route to a fifth straight win was far removed from recent races as he won a gripping three-way battle at the front.
Having led every lap of the two previous grands prix from pole, for much of Sunday's 53-lap race at Suzuka it looked as though Vettel would be beaten for the first time since July as impressive long-time race leader Romain Grosjean and Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber ran ahead of him for half of the grand prix.
But while Fernando Alonso's position in the top five meant Vettel's now inevitable championship coronation was never likely to come before India, the World Champion still fulfilled his part of the prospective Suzuka title-winning equation by delivering a masterclass in tyre preservation and controlled speed to overcome his challengers.
The reigning champion now tops the standings by 90 points and will secure the title if he finishes fifth or higher in India.
"Obviously, I'm blown away with today's race," Vettel enthused after his fourth win in five attempts at Suzuka.
"I had a very, very poor start. I think it was right between Romain and, I think, Lewis and I clipped a little bit the front wing. I think Lewis had a puncture after that. I couldn't go anywhere.
"After that we were patient, looked after the tyres and had incredible pace towards the end. So we managed to get past Romain, beat Mark on another strategy so, all in all, fantastic."
But Vettel was made to work hard for his latest victory, with Grosjean jumping both Red Bulls into the first corner as the German got away slowly and got tangled up with a luckless Lewis Hamilton. The frustrated Mercedes driver suffered a puncture in the process and soon dropped out of the race due to the damage on his W04.
Which left Grosjean to carry the fight to the Red Bulls. The impressive Frenchman never put a wheel out of place, but was denied his first F1 victory as the canny Red Bull outfit employed a pincer movement with Webber and Vettel running different pit strategies.
While Webber, as a result of heavier tyre wear in the first stint, committed to a three-stopping plan, ensuring he would be the fastest man on the track at the end but crucially lose him track position, Vettel was able to run longer first and second stints than the similarly two-stopping Grosjean.
Vettel's tyre management during the second phase ensured he was able to run a final stint, on hard tyres, which was eight laps shorter than Grosjean's. Although the Lotus driver did re-inherit the lead after the German's stop, he was soon caught and overhauled as Vettel ruthlessly passed the E21 at the first opportunity down the pitstraight.
With Vettel thereafter told to preserve his hard tyres to the end, focus then turned to whether Webber, since pitting and returning to the track on even fresher medium tyres, could set up a grandstand - and potentially explosive - intra-Red Bull finish and claim a swansong Suzuka victory.
While such a prospect initially seemed possible, Webber reeling in Grosjean at a fast rate of knots, the Australian took longer to pass the Lotus than his team-mate. Although he did eventually manage it on the penultimate lap, Vettel was by then away and gone for his 35th career win.
A fifth straight win secured - the first time the 26-year-old has achieved such a sequence - but confirmation of another Vettel Drivers' Championship will now likely come in India after Alonso finished fourth at Suzuka. Vettel now only needs to finish fifth in two weeks' time to secure the title.
Having qualified down in eighth, Alonso was never in the hunt for the podium but at least managed to gain some revenge on Nico Hulkenberg for the Korean GP last week after finally passing the Sauber driver late on.
Kimi Raikkonen also demoted Hulkenberg, the German finishing sixth, but the Finn's fifth place couldn't mask the fact that he finished the best part of 40 seconds behind team-mate Grosjean.
Sauber's revitalisation was nonetheless underlined by Esteban Gutierrez producing the drive of his troublesome nascent F1 career to finish behind Hulkenberg in seventh, just ahead of Mercedes' Nico Rosberg who had earlier served a drive-through penalty for an unsafe team pit release.
It proved to be a thoroughly forgettable day for Mercedes, who lost ground to Ferrari in the Constructors' Championship and slipped back towards Lotus. Hamilton's race was effectively ended before the first corner when, attempting to drive his W04 through a gap between the Red Bulls, innocuously tagged Vettel's frontwing, the contact puncturing his tyre but doing terminal damage to his car's floor.
Jenson Button took ninth for McLaren with the second Ferrari of Felipe Massa tenth after a drive-through penalty for speeding in the pitlane.