F1: Supreme Sebastian Vettel is forced to wait for fated coronation despite victory in Japanese Grand Prix

German claims fifth consecutive victory despite plucky drive from Romain Grosjean as Red Bulls dominate once again

Sebastian Vettel is closing in on his fourth consecutive world title after recovering from a faltering start to claim his fifth grand prix victory in a row here yesterday – becoming the sixth driver in Formula One history to achieve that feat.

The German now only needs a fifth-placed finish in India in 13 days’ time  to finish the job, although for a while here it seemed like what has become a procession to another crown might be held up by the unlikely challenge of Romain Grosjean. No longer the “first-lap nutcase” of 2012, the Frenchman was dreaming of his first grand prix victory before the Red Bulls of Vettel and Mark Webber provided an unwelcome wake-up call.

Fernando Alonso’s plucky fourth place for Ferrari leaves him 90 points adrift of Vettel with 100 still up for grabs. But another 1-2 was more than enough to cement the constructors’ title for Red Bull for the fourth year in succession.

“I’m blown away with the race,” Vettel said. “I made a very poor start, and got caught between Romain and Lewis [Hamilton] and clipped a little bit the front wing. I couldn’t go anywhere. The decision on my strategy was made in the first stint and I stayed out longer but saved the tyres in order to push harder. I looked after my tyres and managed to get past Romain and Mark, who was on another strategy. I’m overwhelmed with the result.”

Grosjean made a storming start for Lotus from fourth on the grid to seize the lead and stay in front for half the race before Red Bull’s strategy put Vettel in the driving seat. Even then a second place might have been Grosjean’s consolation, had he not been held up by backmarkers and then overtaken on the penultimate lap by Webber on fresher tyres.

“I thought it was the day that the first victory was coming,” Grosjean, a former GP2 champion, said after appearing on the Suzuka podium. “I said, ‘Our car is beautiful today, it’s going to be good...’”

Hamilton’s race was all but over just seconds after it began as Grosjean came down the inside and the Briton found himself pinched between the two Red Bulls as they struggled to regain momentum. As Vettel had to move left to avoid Grosjean he clipped Hamilton’s right rear tyre with his left front wing endplate. The McLaren driver’s tyre instantly deflated and he limped to the pits. He restarted on fresh tyres, but soon retired when it was clear aerodynamic damage was costing him a second a lap.”

“I got a fantastic start, better than both Red Bulls for probably the first time this year,” Hamilton said. “Seb’s front wing clipped my right rear, cut the tyre and that was that. It wasn’t his fault, just one of those things that wasn’t meant to be this afternoon. I feel most gutted for the team.”

Grosjean’s 2012 season was littered with first-corner crashes, including one that brought him a race ban for the Italian Grand Prix, but yesterday’s start showed how much progress he has made. “When I dropped the clutch I said, ‘Woah, that’s a good one, come on, come on, go for it’. Amazing,” he said. “I think [the battle] would have been nice with [Webber] until the end of the race but we caught some slower cars, lapped cars, and they blocked me a lot. I lost the position against Mark. I don’t know if I could have held him until the end.”

The race was a marked contrast to last year’s at Suzuka, when a furious Webber branded Grosjean a “first-lap nutcase” and berated him after they collided in the opening seconds.

The Australian, who is leaving Formula One at the end of the season for a new career in sportscars with Porsche, was far more complimentary yesterday about his old sparring partner. “I think it’s very clear that Romain has a very different mental approach to the job at the moment this year,” he said. “He’s driven some quite strong races, putting together the whole weekend which is a sign of a driver starting to get a bit more relaxed and confident. A lot fewer mistakes, not just in races but in practice. You know, we’re not here to blow smoke up his arse but in the end he’s doing a very good job this year and it’s a big step for him... I hope he doesn’t improve too much more before the end of the year.”

Webber chased Grosjean until making his first pit stop on the 11th lap. Grosjean followed him in a lap later, but Vettel went until the 14th lap before stopping. Grosjean continued to lead, but after Webber again stopped early, on the 25th lap, as Grosjean went until the 29th. That put Vettel into the lead and, crucially, he didn’t stop until the 37th lap.

By then it was clear Red Bull had switched Webber to a three-stop strategy. He had overtaken Grosjean during the second stops, and now he led, but then he came in for his final pit call on the 42nd lap, and dropped to third. He was on fresher medium-compound tyres and quickly hauled in Grosjean, but by the time he succeeded in displacing the Frenchman on the 52nd lap, he had run out of time to challenge Vettel and followed him home 7.1sec adrift.

In the press conferences Webber was the dutiful team player. However, he told reporters later that he was surprised to be called in early for both of his stops because his tyres were still performing well, and again when he did his third stop. “When they called me in for that I still felt that there was life in that set of tyres, and that I might just have been able to hold on to the end,” he said, indicating without quite saying it that he felt he had been short-changed.

Alonso played second fiddle for a long time to Ferrari team-mate Felipe Massa, then moved ahead of the Brazilian and in the closing stages fought and won a tight battle with Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg, who lost fifth to Lotus’s Kimi Raikkonen with three laps left. Jenson Button was ninth for McLaren but Vettel now stands on the verge of joining Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio as the third driver to win four conseuctive world titles.

“I don’t want to think about , just to enjoy today,” he said. “We have a very, very good gap but we’ll still keep pushing. We never give up because it’s not over until it’s over.”

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