Championship advantage swings Vettel’s way after Japanese victory

Sebastian Vettel capitalised on Fernando Alonso’s first corner crash in the Japanese Grand Prix to slash the Spaniard’s championship lead to just four points.

The reigning world champion dominated at Suzuka in the early hours of this morning to claim his third victory of the season after converting pole position into a lights to flag victory. Following his Singapore victory the Red Bull driver now has momentum behind him as he looks to claim his third title.

The balance of the car was amazing,” commented the vcitor. “We didn’t change too much at the stops; it just seemed to work fantastically well. I’m very happy, the guys have been pushing very hard and even though we didn’t have major upgrades here.”

The race began with Vettel making a clean getaway from pole position to lead into the first corner ahead of chaos as Alonso and Nico Rosberg both retired from separate incidents with Mark Webber, Romain Grosjean, Bruno Senna and Kimi Raikkonen all also involved.

Rosberg made a superb start from 14th on the grid but clashed with Senna and retired on the spot but the main attention was focused just in front of him with Alonso’s second retirement of the season set to play a crucial role in the outcome of the championship.

The Ferrari driver made a clean start and trailled Sergio Perez into the first corner with Raikkonen just behind him. Alonso tried to edge his way towards the outside of the corner to take the natural racing line into the fast opening corner but was unaware of just how close Raikkonen was to him.

The Lotus driver had nowhere to go and tagged into the left rear wheel of Alonso puncturing the Pirelli on the championship leader. With dust flying as Alonso spun through the gravel trap his title hopes took a battering and as he trudged through the gravel trap it was clear how meaningful this incident was to his title hopes.

Today, we were very unlucky,” said a rueful Alonso after the race. “To finish a race like this, at the very first corner is really a shame. Contact from Raikkonen caused a puncture to the left rear tyre and my race ended there. Unfortunately, when you start in the middle of the pack, these things can happen.”

His team manager, Stefano Domenicali, was equally disappointed for his lead driver after the race and said:

Personally I don’t believe in luck, but given what’s happened these last couple of days, I’m considering changing my mind…The gods that didn’t shine on us yesterday definitely took a shot at us again today! What happened to Fernando at the start is an example of the many variables that you cannot control in this sport and we have to accept it, but clearly all of us are very disappointed at the moment.”

It wasn’t all bad news for Ferrari however with Felipe Massa claiming his first rostrum finish of the season. The Brazilian made a great start from tenth on the grid and avoided the mayhem to move into fourth place when the safety car was deployed to clear the accident damage. A well judged decision to pit earlier for fresh tyres than his rivals put Massa in position to leapfrog Kamui Kobayashi and Jenson Button and move into second for most of the race.

He was faultless throughout and having improved throughout the second half of the season this podium could be crucial in allowing the 2008 championship runner up to hold onto his Ferrari seat in 2013.

Speaking after the race a delighted Massa said, “It was a fantastic race! Being back on the podium after almost two years away is just great and I feel really uplifted. They have been two tough years for me.”

The home crowd were also in jubilant mood with Kobayashi finishing on the podium for the first time in his career. He was also the first Japanese driver to finish on the podium at home in over 20 years.

Kobayashi started from third on the grid and made a great start to get ahead of Webber into the first corner and from that point on he set a consistent pace and was able to stay ahead of Jenson Button throughout the race and while Massa was able to jump past both drivers at the first round of pit stops Kobayashi was superb in holding off the faster McLaren in the closing stages of the race.

Starting from third obviously helped a lot,” said the Sauber driver after the race. “Also the long run I did on Friday made me very confident for the race. The team has built a great car this year. You can tell this from the podium finishes my team-mate has had.”

Those podium finishes of Perez had put a lot of pressure on Kobayashi and the popular driver has been at the centre of a lot of speculation relating to his future recently. With Perez moving to McLaren there was always a greater probability of him remaining with the team but this result has clearly given Sauber something more to consider when deciding on their future driver line up.

He was able to take advantage of Webber’s crash that removed a potential podium challenger from the fight at the front but getting into position to be able to reap the spoils of that is crucial. His qualifying lap on Saturday was superb, he was one of the few drivers not affected by a late session yellow flag, but having had a disappointing season so far it was a superb return to form for the Japanese driver.

On the other side of the Sauber garage Perez was at the centre of attention for most of the weekend and the Mexican was involved in an exciting tussle with Lewis Hamilton during the early stages of the race.

It seemed almost inevitable that the pair would be in close quarters during the race considering that Perez will replace Hamilton at McLaren but when the Sauber driver shoved his car down the inside into the hairpin during the opening stint a few wry smiles might have been expected in the McLaren garage but before half distance the Mexican was out of the race after making a mistake and spinning out of the race.

Jenson Button recovered from his grid penalty for changing a gearbox to make a great start and run in third in the opening stage but the McLaren’s pace seemed strangely subdued for much of the race. The Englishman lost out to Massa in the round of pitstops and even though he was able to pressure Kobayashi for second no mistake was forthcoming and the 2009 champion had to settle for fourth.

“Towards the end, I was able to push and start catching Kamui,” said Button. “But he controlled his final set of tyres very well – I could get close to him, but the only way I was going to get into the DRS zone was by braking extra-late into the chicane, and, every time I tried, I locked up and ran wide. Still, this result isn’t too bad – we got some more points – we just didn’t have the pace to go for the win today.”

Button finished ahead of his teammate Hamilton with the soon to be Mercedes driver unable to capitalise on Alonso’s retirement. He was never happy with his car throughout the 53 lap race and having come to Japan with high hopes his failure to finish on the rostrum has hurt his championship hopes.

With five races remaining he is 42 points behind Alonso but with Vettel finding form it is clear that the scale of the challenge facing Hamilton to overcome the lead is clearly going to be exceptionally difficult.

“I pushed as hard as I could throughout the whole race,” said the 2008 champion. “This just wasn’t the weekend for me. With better qualifying, we can get better results – and that’ll be our aim in South Korea next week.”

While Hamilton was disappointed to lose ground in the championship his erstwhile title rival, Mark Webber, was clearly incredibly frustrated after the race to have been a helpless victim at the first corner of Grosjean.

The Frenchman has been under fire throughout the season for numerous early race crashes and in Japan he was given a 10 second stop and go penalty for causing the crash at the start of the race. The Lotus driver made a clean start from fourth on the grid but focussed his attention on defending from Perez on the entry to the first corner.

With his attention on Perez he misjudged the closing speed to Webber’s Red Bull and hit into the back of the Renault powered car. Missing his braking into the tightening right hander was another example of how much the 2011 GP2 champion still has to mature if he is to remain on the grid.

Having been on the receiving end of a one race suspension from the stewards last month it was hoped that he would be able to avoid any incidents in the future but this was another case of an easily avoidable accident that the Lotus driver found himself involved in.

When Webber, who finished ninth, spoke after the race his anger was clear:

I haven’t seen the accident yet but the guys confirmed that it was first lap nutcase Grosjean,” said the Australian. “The rest of us are trying to fight for decent results every weekend and he’s trying to get to the third corner as fast as he can each race. It’s frustrating and maybe he needs another holiday. He needs to have a look at himself, it was completely his mistake. How many times can you make the same error with first lap crashes. It’s pretty embarrassing at this level.”

Given that the FIA have made clear that they are on a mission to improve driving standards in the sport it would be of little surprise if action was taken against Grosjean again. With five races remaining in the championship it is imperative that Lotus have both drivers finishing in the points and with this being the seventh accident by Grosjean during races it is clear that his team are losing out on points as a result of his mistakes.

The team find themselves 24 points behind Ferrari in the fight for third in the Constructors’ Championship and they could be forgiven for being annoyed with Grosjean’s mounting list of incidents. The Frenchman’s speed has impressed many this year but, like Pastor Maldonado, it is crucial that consistency is aligned with that speed and points scoring finishes are achieved.

Grosjean could take heed from Maldonado who has also been involved in numerous on track incidents this year. The Spanish Grand Prix winner however had a clean race in Suzuka and finished eighth.

After qualifying third in Sinagpore and racing well before retiring this solid performance showed again that the Venezuelan is improving and has started to match his undoubted speed with a level of maturity that could make him a serious contender in the coming years.

Maldonado finished just ahead of the recovering Webber who was able to salvage two points from his race with the duo closing on Raikkonen and Nico Hulkenberg in the closing stages.

With Lotus once again failing to race their double DRS Raikkonen was hamstrung and was only able to close down Alonso’s lead by a handful of points. His superb return to Formula 1, which has now netted a twelfth consecutive points finish, looks set to end without a championship challenge but the “Iceman” looks well placed for next season.

For Hulkenberg this race could be crucial in his fortunes for 2013. He had been linked with a move to Ferrari in place of Massa but the Brazilian drivers podium finish may have put him in pole position to retain his seat with the Prancing Horse. Hulkenberg once again outperformed his teammate, Paul di Resta.

If you had told me before the race that we would finish seventh, I would have taken it straight away – so I’m very happy with today’s result,” said the German. “I made a great start, moving ahead of several cars and was able to keep out of the trouble in turn one. By the end of lap one I was already in eighth and as it turned out we had good pace. I was able to chase Lewis and Kimi hard and put pressure on them and for the closing laps I just had to make sure I kept ahead of Maldonado.”

Daniel Riciardo was the final points scorer with the Toro Rosso driver claiming the seventh point of his career after holding off Michael Schumacher in the closing stages of the race.

With the paddock moving on to the Korean Grand Prix next week there is little chance for teams to improve their fortunes ahead of the next race and with Ferrari having clearly lost ground in the development race the pressure has shifted onto Alonso in the championship fight. How the team reacts will decide how the championship will be won.

It seems to be a battle between Alonso and Vettel and all of the momentum has shifted towards the Red Bull driver. Raikkonen and Hamilton have fallen behind in the standings and even though McLaren will be confident of having the fastest car for the remainder of the season the challenge presented by Red Bull and Vettel is exceptionally strong.

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