Sebastian Vettel has won the Japanese Grand Prix for the fourth time in five years with a superb performance that saw him fend off a fierce challenge from Lotus’ Romain Grosjean and pole-sitter Mark Webber at Suzuka on Sunday.
The German driver did not runaway with the race as he has done in the past few races, forcing Red Bull into a strategic battle with Lotus that saw the world champions run split strategies with their cars. After leading for large parts of the race, Grosjean eventually lost out to Vettel just after the final round of pit stops, with the defending world champion controlling the final stage of the race to claim his fifth consecutive win that gives him a ninety point lead heading to the Indian Grand Prix at the end of the month.
The start saw Romain Grosjean make an incredible getaway from fourth place, moving down the inside of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber to seize the lead of the race at turn one. Lewis Hamilton fell foul of the tight first corner as contact with Vettel saw the Mercedes driver suffer from a puncture that caused him to slow and drop to the very back of the pack before retiring from the race on lap nine. Further back, Jules Bianchi and Giedo van der Garde came together and went straight on into the wall at turn one, but luckily both drivers were okay and walked away from the incident unscathed.
Grosjean quickly set about opening up a gap to the chasing Red Bulls as Vettel proved that he is human by running wide at turn two. The German driver was told to drop back from his teammate in order to save his tires, but Webber also couldn’t keep up with Grosjean at the front and the Australian was the first of the front-runners to pit in an attempt to get the undercut on the Lotus. Grosjean pitted just one lap later and stayed ahead of Webber, with Vettel’s decision to stay out two laps longer failing to pay off as he rejoined in third place. Alonso’s race took a blow when he came out of the pits behind his teammate and Nico Hulkenberg, but the trio made up a position when Nico Rosberg received a drive-through penalty after an unsafe release from his pit-box. However, Ricciardo’s long first stint saw Hulkenberg, Massa and Alonso bunch up behind the Toro Rosso, with the German driver making an ambitious overtake down the inside of 130R on the Australian and Alonso followed suit a few corners later. Ricciardo eventually pitted as Massa became embroiled in a battle for P6 with Raikkonen and Gutierrez, just about staying ahead of the Finn.
Webber bore down on Grosjean with around half of the race run, closing with half a second of the Lotus. However, the Australian dived into the pits a few laps later as he attempted to get the undercut on the Frenchman once again. Vettel responded by closing on Grosjean after his teammate pitted, cutting the gap to less than a second as he was given the order to “put pressure on Grosjean”. Lotus responded by pitting their lead driver, handing the lead to Vettel, and he emerged behind Webber although the pole-sitter appeared to be on track for a three-stop strategy.
The battle outside of the podium places saw Felipe Massa and Daniel Ricciardo both receive drive-through penalties for discrepancies whilst Nico Hulkenberg quietly went about his business in fourth place ahead of Alonso and Raikkonen, both of whom had bad memories of fighting with the Sauber in Korea. New leader Vettel looked to go deeper into the race than Grosjean, eventually pitting with fifteen laps to go and coming out behind the Frenchman. His engineer, Guillaume Rocquelin, gave him a very simple instruction: “Go get him!” Vettel responded by moving to within a second of the Lotus and eventually passed him using DRS heading into turn one, meaning that all eyes were now on race leader Webber who still had one final stop to make for option tires that would give him an advantage.
Webber eventually pitted with ten laps to go for a fresh set of options, coming back out in third place behind Vettel and Grosjean. Therefore, it was a final sprint for the Australian driver as he went in search of his first win of the season. He soon set the fastest lap of the race to close on Grosjean, but the Frenchman was not going to give up second place without a fight. Fernando Alonso found a way past Hulkenberg as the Sauber’s tires began to fade in the final stages of the race with Raikkonen trying to follow the example set by his future teammate, eventually passing in the penultimate lap. Grosjean and Webber continued to fight for position in the final few laps, with the Australian driver finally finding a way past with two laps to go to put Red Bull on–course for a one-two finish.
Vettel eventually took the checkered flag 7.1 seconds ahead of Webber in P2 with Grosjean coming home in third for Lotus. Fernando Alonso finished fourth to ensure that the championship battle continues to India, whilst Esteban Gutierrez produced an excellent display to score his first points in Formula One in seventh behind his teammate.
Although Vettel’s dominance continued in Japan, he was forced to prove his triple-champion credentials as he came under pressure from both Grosjean and Webber throughout the race. It was an incredibly mature drive from the German driver to respond to the early setback off the line and come through to claim his ninth win of the season. With this result, Vettel is just fourteen days away from being crowned world champion for the fourth time.