If you'd wanted to write the perfect cliffhanger script for the world championship fight, you'd pretty much have come up with what happened at Suzuka yesterday.
Jenson Button finished only eighth with Brawn team-mate Rubens Barrichello one place ahead of him, as title outsider Sebastian Vettel bounced himself right back into contention by trouncing everybody. Even second placed finisher Jarno Trulli described him as "untouchable", while Lewis Hamilton praised the German's performance after finishing a distant third. With two races to go, Barrichello is now 14 points behind Button, with Vettel 16 adrift.
The world champion's big opportunity for glory was always going to be at the start, when his KERS energy storage button offered him the chance to out-accelerate Vettel's Red Bull and Trulli's Toyota, which had bested him in qualifying. He got the Toyota, but couldn't quite make it past the Red Bull.
"We were the favourites but first of all you have to do the start," Vettel said, "and it was closer than I thought into Turn One, The pull away was good, so I looked left and right, saw it was a decent start and stayed in the middle of the road. Then all of sudden I saw a silver arrow on the left-hand side, but I had the advantage. After that I just got my head down and tried to push every single lap, and was able to pull a big gap quite quickly."
"I tried to get them both at the start but they both got away well," Hamilton said of his immediate rivals. "I had enough room and it was fair, but it wasn't our best start. And being on the outside isn't the place to be."
He and Trulli then slugged it out in Vettel's wake, unable to match him but trading qualifying-style laps with one another for the rest of the race. The Italian was not able to hide his disappointment at failing to win, when a victory might seal Toyota's decision to remain in the troubled sport, but both he and Hamilton bubbled afterwards with the thrill of their battle.
It was a good job somebody did, for though this is a majestic circuit and one of the best in the world, it generated a procedural race. Kimi Raikkonen brought his unfancied Ferrari home fourth after a fighting drive, while Nico Rosberg appeared to make some amends for his Singapore error by bringing his Williams home fifth ahead of Nick Heidfeld's BMW Sauber. That left slim pickings for the Brawn duo, as Barrichello finished just ahead of Button as the final points scorers. Both had been given grid penalties for failing to slow sufficiently for yellow flags during qualifying, but it was Button who lost out more and he made a slow start from the dirty side of the grid. He overtook Robert Kubica, then got a break on the 13th lap when the duelling Heikki Kovalainen and Adrian Sutil clashed in the chicane. Thereafter he was in contention at least to score something.
The main drama came on the 44th lap when the Spanish rookie Jaime Alguersuari dumped his Toro Rosso into the tyre wall at 200mph after spinning on the exit to the tricky 130R corner. That brought out the safety car and appeared to throw Trulli a lifeline after he had overtaken Hamilton during their second pit stops.
Up front, Vettel maintained control, however. "I did one very quick lap when I put on the soft compound tyres near the end," he said. "Then my engineer said 'look after the tyres, remember there might be a safety car' – and two laps later there was one. It wasn't what you hope for when you are leading. But I had a bit of a cushion, and when we restarted I did three fantastic laps and pulled away again."
Hamilton's chances of challenging Trulli again evaporated when his KERS stopped working. "That loses us a good few tenths per lap," he said. "When we were preparing for the restart I was on the radio to see if they could get the KERS working again and I really needed that, but they weren't able to. I didn't particularly exit the last corner close enough to Jarno anyway; you have to be very close and I wasn't."
Button, however, was close to Barrichello and made a determined dive at his team-mate in the chicane where, 20 years earlier, McLaren teamsters Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna so famously came to grief. This time there were no tears, but in the closing laps Button had to focus more on fending off Robert Kubica than challenging his partner.
"Today was about picking up points after our eventful qualifying session yesterday and that's exactly what I did," he said. "I only lost one point to Rubens today, which is my main priority. Obviously we lost a few points to Sebastian but we were expecting them to be strong here. We go to two circuits now which should suit our car so I'm excited about the next race in Brazil."
Suzuka details: Result and standings
1 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull - Renault 1hr 28 min 20.443 sec
2 J Trulli (It) Toyota 1:28:25.320
3 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren - Mercedes 1:28:26.915
4 K Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari 1:28:28.383
5 N Rosberg (Ger) Williams - Toyota 1:28:29.326
6 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber 1:28:29.952
7 R Barrichello (Br) Brawn 1:28:31.084
8 J Button (GB) Brawn 1:28:31.917
9 R Kubica (Pol) BMW Sauber 1:28:32.220, 10 F Alonso (Sp) Renault 1:28:33.508, 11 H Kovalainen (Fin) McLaren - Mercedes 1:28:34.178, 12 G Fisichella (It) Ferrari 1:28:35.039, 13 A Sutil (Ger) Force India-Mercedes 1:28:35.402, 14 V Liuzzi (It) Force India-Mercedes 1:28:36.177, 15 K Nakajima (Japan) Williams - Toyota 1:28:38.416, 16 R Grosjean (Fr) Renault 1:28:39.798, 17 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull - Renault 1:28:42.682
Not classified: 18 J Alguersuari (Sp) Toro Rosso - Ferrari 43 laps completed, 19 S Buemi (Swi) Toro Rosso - Ferrari 11 laps.
1 Button 85 pts
2 Barrichello 71
3 Vettel 59
4 Webber 51.5
5 Raikkonen 45 ;6 Hamilton 43; 7 Rosberg 34.5; 8 Trulli 30.5; 9 Alonso 26; 10 T Glock (Ger) Toyota 24; 11 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 22, 12 Kovalainen 22, 13 Heidfeld 15, 14 Kubica 9, 15 Fisichella 8, 16 Sutil 5, 17 Buemi 3, 18 S Bourdais (Fr) Toro Rosso-Ferrari 2, 19 Nakajima 0, 19= N Piquet Jnr (Br) Renault 0, 19= L Badoer (It) Ferrari 0, 19= Liuzzi 0, 19= Grosjean 0, 19= Alguersuari 0.
1 Brawn GP 156pts, 2 Red Bull 120.5, 3 Ferrari 67, 4 McLaren 65, 5 Toyota 54.5, 6 Williams 34.5, 7 Renault 26, 8 BMW-Sauber 24, 9 Force India 13, 10 Scuderia Toro Rosso 5.
18 October Brazilian Grand Prix (Sao Paulo), 1 November Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (Abu Dhabi).