The German, who has won the title the last two years, moved to within 29 points of championship leader Fernando Alonso having taken advantage of good fortune to win the race.
Vettel trailed pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton for the opening third of the race and was perfectly placed when Hamilton suffered a gearbox failure and retired on lap 23. It will probably be the death heel for Hamilton’s championship challenge and given the rumours circulating linking him to a move to Mercedes this failure could play a key role in his decision.
Speaking after the race the 2008 champion was clearly frustrated as he sensed his title hopes slipping away:
“It’s heartbreaking not to have finished the race today,” said Hamilton. “We definitely had the pace to win this weekend. In fact, before I retired, I was cruising; just managing the gap back to Seb.”
The Englishman has driven very well this season and has eliminated the mistakes that blighted his campaigns in recent years but for whatever reason he has suffered at the hands of mechanical failure and being in the wrong place at the wrong time on numerous occasions.
His pole lap was stunning, over half a second faster than the rest of the field, but he will remember Singapore as yet another opportunity that went begging. With six races remaining he finds himself 52 points behind Alonso.
For Vettel however it was a perfect race. He made a good start and moved past surprise front row starter Pastor Maldonado into second and hunted Hamilton for the opening stint. It never appeared that he had the pace to overtake the McLaren but he was able to apply pressure throughout the first 23 laps and when Hamilton retired Vettel was there to pick up the pieces.
Speaking after the draining race, held in high temperatures and high humidity, provided a challenge for all the drivers and speaking afterwards the victor was keen to point this out:
“It’s one of the toughest races all year,” said Vettel. “It’s very long, we did the full two hours, the circuit is a killer, there are many bumps and there is no room for error. Obviously I benefited from Lewis’s failure, which I could see for a couple of laps. I’m very happy, it’s such a tough race and very proud to win it.”
Once in front Vettel opened a comfortable gap to Jenson Button, with Pastor Maldonado and Fernando Alonso battling for the podium, and it seemed that simply managing his pace would give him his first win since Bahrain. The race however had plenty of twists and turns remaining with a pair of safety cars playing a key role in the outcome of the race.
The first of these came out when Narain Karthikeyan crashed his HRT and parked it underneath the overpass leaving marshals unable to recover it without neutralising the track.
Vettel could have been excused for cursing this but making his second pitstop under the full course yellow effectively gave the leader a free pitstop. Alonso and Maldonado made their stops just before Karthikeyan’s crash and it hurt the Venezuelan as he fell down the order.
Once the race resumed however Maldonado was able to press Alonso and the pair enjoyed a terrific scrap with the Williams driver getting ahead into turn 14 in a superb late braking move.
The weekend showed, once again, just why Maldonado has impressed so much at times in 2012. His speed has been one of the surprises of the year and even though he has had more than his share of accidents he is clearly capable of developing into a top line talent. His race however would end soon after his move past Alonso with a hydraulic failure,
While Maldonado was able to make a clean move into turn 14 Michael Schumacher was not able to. The seven times champion crashed spectacularly with Jean-Eric Vergne after misjudging his braking into the tight second gear corner. After the seven times champion was handed a ten place grid penalty.
The ensuing safety car saw Mark Webber dive into the pits for a fresh set of tyres. The Australian had a difficult weekend after pitting before the first safety car and having to chase the race afterwards. His championship hopes have taken a battering in recent races and after battling through to finish in tenth before being demoted to 11th with a time penalty, for overtaking off the track, gifting Sergio Perez the final point.
Once the race resumed Vettel was able to pull away from Button at the front with Fernando Alonso in third. Speaking afterwards the Spaniard admitted that Ferrari needed to improve their car but that the weekend had been a successful one for his championship hopes:
”We need to improve the performance we saw here,” Alonso said. “Positions five and 13 [on the grid] for our cars is not what we are hoping for. We need to be in a better position at Suzuka. Of the four or five contenders we lost points to one, and with the others we gained an advantage. When we are not quick enough, to get points over three of our opponents was good.”
The race also saw Paul di Resta claim his career best finish with fourth for Force India. Timo Glock’s 12th place finish could have huge implications in the battle for tenth in the Constructors’ Championship, and a much bigger slice of the team’s prize money, with Marussia now moving ahead of Caterham.