Jenson Button has never made any bones about how desperately he wanted to win the Japanese Grand Prix here on one of the greatest race tracks in the world. Yesterday his wish was granted as he dominated the race in a brave but ultimately fruitless attempt to prevent Sebastian Vettel from clinching his second consecutive world championship. The closing laps of a gripping race saw Button under attack from Fernando Alonso, as third place was all that a close-following Vettel needed to clinch his title.
Vettel and Button joked happily afterwards, but there was tension at the start as the 24-year-old German cut so hard across the fast-starting Button that the Englishman had to put two wheels over the right-hand kerb and on to the grass to avoid a collision.
"He's got to get a penalty for that," Button claimed angrily over the radio to his pit crew. But after they had investigated the incident, the race stewards, aided by 1980 world champion Alan Jones, decided that Vettel's move did not go too far and that no penalty would be levied.
"My start was good, maybe too good," Button said afterwards. "Sebastian didn't give me any room and I thought he should have got a penalty. I felt he took a little bit more than he needed, but obviously it was fair because the stewards said it was. I'll probably think the same thing when I watch it again."
"I just spoke to Jenson and he expressed his feelings," Vettel said. "Initially I was not sure where he was. I thought I had a good start and kept moving to the right before I saw him and realised maybe I was too far to the right. Obviously there was no intention to put him in any danger. But we can race with two wheels on the grass, can't we, Fernando?" he asked impishly of the second-placed Spaniard, who had put him on the grass during their fight at Monza last month.
That was the biggest moment for either of them. As Button had to back off momentarily and lost a place as team-mate Lewis Hamilton sped round the outside, Vettel sprinted into an easy lead. Hamilton's race was soon compromised by a right rear puncture, however, and he was obliged to pit for a new set of tyres on lap eight. But when Vettel did likewise only a lap later, followed next time round by Button, Alonso and Mark Webber, it was clear that tyre wear was a highly significant factor.
Vettel continued to lead until his second stop on the 19th lap. Once again Button stopped a lap later, but this time he was able to regain the track ahead of the Red Bull and thus was the race's final pattern established.
A safety car intervention on lap 24 appeared to throw Vettel a lifeline as debris was cleared from the chicane following an earlier collision when Hamilton had slightly squeezed Felipe Massa. The stewards again decided that it was just a racing incident.
As the track went green on lap 28 Button backed up the field going to the chicane then sprinted ahead, and steadily built an advantage again, as Vettel fell prey to a hungry Alonso as the Spaniard ran four laps longer before making his third and final stop on the 37th lap to switch to the medium-compound Pirelli tyres.
The closing stages were a straight fight between the three, and between laps 45 and 50 Alonso slashed Button's advantage. It had started as 4.8 seconds as the McLaren driver threaded his way through the inevitable traffic, but in successive laps Alonso whittle it down: 3.7, 2.9, 2.1, 1.6 and 1.0 sec, before Button opened it up again to 1.2 sec and then 1.7 sec. The delighted Englishman was still 1.1 sec ahead by the flag despite a last-lap near-miss as he lapped Tonio Liuzzi's HRT, while Vettel, having momentarily lost touch with Alonso after getting baulked by backmarker Timo Glock's Virgin, finished a further 0.8 sec adrift.
In a race notable for Michael Schumacher having a three-lap spell in the lead after staying out longer as others made their final pit stops, Webber took fourth comfortably ahead of the recovering Hamilton, who led home Schumacher and Massa as Sauber's Sergio Perez completed a brilliant race in eighth place.
"This circuit is very special," a delighted Button said. "We love this place and to get a victory here makes me very proud. We have a great affinity with the fans here; they are so supportive of the sport and we tried to help them and plant a good memory in their minds after a tough year for Japan. And congratulations to Seb, who has done a great job this year."
The German was ecstatic to clinch the world championship that nobody, least of all Button, ever really thought he might lose, and to become the youngest-ever back-to-back winner. Alonso was asked how he felt not only about losing the race, but also that youngest-ever two-time champion status. Already a trifle unamused by Vettel's jibe about Monza, the Spaniard gave a dark smile and said he would focus on becoming the youngest-ever three-time title winner. Vettel's schoolboy grin broke out. "Did you notice that Michael Schumacher is the youngest seven-time champion?" he sniggered.
"To win the world championship here is fantastic, and there are so many things I want to say in this moment but it's hard to remember all of them," he added, becoming serious for a moment. "I am so thankful to everyone in the Red Bull team, both here at the track and at Milton Keynes, to be able to fight for the championship and find ourselves in a very strong position. It was great to achieve the goal we set ourselves already, with four races left."
In such a competitive season it was indeed a great achievement, and he has 324 points to Button's 210, with Alonso on 202 from Webber on 194 and Hamilton on 178. The real fight is over, and his pursuers are left to scrap over the honour of being his runner-up.
Formula One Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka, Japan
Final positions after 53 laps
1 J Button (GB) McLaren 1hr 30min 53.427sec
2 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:30:54.587
3 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1:30:55.433
4 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:31:01.498
5 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:31:17.695
6 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:31:20.547
7 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 1:31:21.667
8 S Perez (Mex) Sauber-Ferrari 1:31:32.804
9 V Petrov (Rus) Renault 1:31:36.034
10 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:31:37.749
11 A Sutil (Ger) Force India 1:31:47.874; 12 P di Resta (GB) Force India 1:31:55.753; 13 K Kobayashi (Japan) Sauber-Ferrari 1:31:57.132; 14 P Maldonado (Ven) Williams 1:31:57.621; 15 J Alguersuari (Sp) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:32:00.050; 16 B Senna (Br) Renault 1:32:06.055; 17 R Barrichello (Br) Williams 1:32:07.618; 18 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus F1 1:32:21.251; 19 J Trulli (It) Lotus F1 1:32:29.567; 20 T Glock (Ger) Virgin Racing at 2 laps; 21 J d'Ambrosio (Bel) Virgin Racing at 2 Laps; 22 D Ricciardo (Aus) HRT-F1 at 2 laps; 23 V Liuzzi (It) HRT-F1 at 3 laps. Not Classified: 24 S Buemi (Swit) Scuderia Toro Rosso 11 Laps.
1 S Vettel (champion) 324pts
2 J Button 210
3 F Alonso 202
4 M Webber 194
5 L Hamilton 178
6 F Massa 90
7 N Rosberg 63
8 M Schumacher 60
9 V Petrov 36
10 N Heidfeld (Ger) Renault 34
11 A Sutil 28; 12 K Kobayashi 27; 13 P di Resta 20; 14 J Alguersuari 16; 15 S Perez 13; 16 S Buemi 13; 17 R Barrichello 4; 18 B Senna 2; 19 P Maldonado 1; 20 P de la Rosa (Sp) Sauber-Ferrari 0; 21 J Trulli 0; 22 H Kovalainen 0; 23 V Liuzzi 0; 24 J d'Ambrosio 0; 25 T Glock 0; 26 D Ricciardo 0; 27 N Karthikeyan (India) HRT-F1 0; 28 K Chandhok (India) Lotus F1 0.
Manufacturers' Championship : 1 Red Bull 518pts; 2 McLaren 388; 3 Ferrari 292; 4 Mercedes GP 123; 5 Renault 72; 6 Force India 48; 7 Sauber-Ferrari 40; 8 Scuderia Toro Rosso 29; 9 Williams 5; 10 Lotus F1 0; 11 HRT-F1 0; 12 Virgin Racing 0.