Sebastian Vettel desperately needed a victory in Japan. Not just to help boost his world championship chances, but also his credibility after eight pole positions this season had yielded just two wins. And at the end of a gripping race he duly delivered, having controlled it throughout, even when Jenson Button had a 12-lap spell in the lead. Making it a good day for Red Bull, Mark Webber steered to second place, boosting his leading points tally to 220 as Vettel's success brought him level on 206 with third-placed Fernando Alonso.
Even though Button finished fourth and a troubled Lewis Hamilton fifth, after more gearbox woes, a tough event resulted in McLaren's drivers slipping further adrift and may have ended their title thrust. While Hamilton, in particular, was left to rue a "weekend from hell", in which mechanical woes combined with a persistent ear infection to blight his mood, Vettel and Webber left with their tails well up.
The race began with a bang – several of them. Vitaly Petrov collided with Nico Hulkenberg's Williams and the Renault was pitched hard into the wall on the left-hand side. For causing the accident, the Russian will get a five grid-place penalty in South Korea in a fortnight's time. Then, at the first corner, Felipe Massa was forced on to the grass as everyone fanned out to avoid the tardy Nico Rosberg, launched over a kerb and smashed hard into Tonio Liuzzi's Force India on the outside. Hulkenberg was also involved, making it four cars damaged within the first few seconds. Five, if you counted Lucas di Grassi's Virgin, which didn't even make the start after the Brazilian crashed heavily, but without injury, in the infamous 130R corner on the grid formation laps.
Webber was then handed the sort of luck that can make a championship, when Robert Kubica, who had started third but sprinted up to second between the Red Bulls, pulled off on the second lap while the field was under the safety car, as his Renault lost its right rear wheel.
Apart from Button's intervention in the lead, which came about because he qualified on the harder Bridgestone tyre and was thus able to run until the 38th lap before changing tyres, whereas his rivals on their softer rubber stopped on laps 22 (Hamilton), 24 (Vettel and Alonso) and 25 (Webber), Vettel had complete control of the race. Though Webber pushed hard enough to set fastest laps, as the gap between them fluctuated between one-and-a-half and four-and-a-half seconds depending on traffic, the German had no problem keeping his team-mate under control.
"Seb did a great job in qualifying and we know how important pole position is round here," Webber said philosophically, and that pretty much said it all. Alonso kept them honest but lacked the speed to challenge.
"After the safety car stayed out quite long with the incident with Kubica, both of us were able to pull away from the field and were then just controlling the pace until the end," Vettel said. "There was a little bit of a rest behind Jenson as we couldn't really go through him, so we had to wait until he pits. But after that, it was just incredible. I'm so really, really happy – it's about time!"
While Button was leading and backing Vettel up, both Webber and Alonso had their best chances to put the winner into a difficult situation, but for the Australian it was a matter of maintaining a balance between pushing too hard and not pushing hard enough.
"This is a beautiful track but it was basically a formation finish," he said. "Both Sebastian and I were just following each other around and it's very difficult to get much closer. Anything around a second or second-and-a-half is about as good as it's going to get around here, so I'm very happy with how I drove this weekend. Congratulations to Seb. He deserves the victory as he did a good job and Fernando didn't drive too bad either.
"I needed to make sure that if JB stayed out a long, long time, I didn't kill my tyres trying to put pressure on Sebastian. Even though Jenson wasn't really in the race, for the lead, he was potentially going to play a role in backing us up against Fernando, so I needed to get the balance right. It was fun to bring the gap back down to Seb, and after that track position was king."
Further back, the race was enlivened by a tense duel between the Mercedes drivers that went Michael Schumacher's way after Rosberg, who had him beaten, lost a rear wheel. And by another spectacular, overtaking drive from Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi, who delighted the crowd every bit as much as the HRT driver Sakon Yamamoto as he kept ahead of Jarno Trulli's Lotus and Timo Glock's Virgin for many laps.
The day, however, belonged to Vettel. Only Mika Hakkinen and Michael Schumacher have been back-to-back winners at Suzuka, and each went on to win the world championship. "It's the first time I've won a grand prix for the second time so you have to fall in love with this track," Vettel smirked. "And if that's a good omen, I certainly wouldn't mind!"
FIA Formula One Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka (53 Laps):
1 S Vettel (Ger) Red Bull 1hr 30min 27.323sec;
2 M Webber (Aus) Red Bull 1:30:28.228;
3 F Alonso (Sp) Ferrari 1:30:30.044;
4 J Button (GB) McLaren 1:30:40.845;
5 L Hamilton (GB) McLaren 1:31:06.918;
6 M Schumacher (Ger) Mercedes GP 1:31:27.256;
7 K Kobayashi (Japan) BMW Sauber 1:31:31.361;
8 N Heidfeld (Ger) BMW Sauber 1:31:36.971;
9 R Barrichello (Br) Williams 1:31:38.136;
10 S Buemi (Swit) Scuderia Toro Rosso 1:31:40.187; 11 J Alguersuari (Sp) Scuderia Toro Rosso at one lap; 12 H Kovalainen (Fin) Lotus F1 at one lap; 13 J Trulli (It) Lotus F1 at two laps; 14 T Glock (Ger) Virgin Racing at two laps; 15 B Senna (Br) HRT-F1 at two laps; 16 S Yamamoto (Japan) HRT-F1 at three laps; 17 N Rosberg (Ger) Mercedes GP at six laps. Not classified: 18 A Sutil (Ger) Force India 44 laps completed; 19 R Kubica (Pol) Renault two laps; 20 N Hulkenberg (Ger) Williams 0 laps: 21 F Massa (Br) Ferrari 0 laps: 22 V Petrov (Rus) Renault 0 laps; 23 V Liuzzi (It) Force India 0 laps; 24 L di Grassi (Br) Virgin Racing did not start.
World Championship Standings: Drivers:
1 Webber 220pts;
2 Alonso 206;
3 Vettel 206;
4 Hamilton 192;
5 Button 189;
6 Massa 128; 7 Rosberg 122; 8 Kubica 114; 9 Schumacher 54; 10 Sutil 47; 11 Barrichello 41; 12 Kobayashi 27; 13 Petrov 19; 14 Hulkenberg 17; 15 Liuzzi (It) 13; 16 Buemi 8; 17 P de la Rosa (Sp) Scuderia Toro Rosso 6; 18 Heidfeld 4; 19 Alguersuari 3; 20 Kovalainen 0; 21 Trulli 0; 22 Di Grassi 0; 23 K Chandhok (India) HRT-F1 0; 24 Glock 0; 25 B Senna 0; 26 Yamamoto 0; 27 C Klien (Aut) HRT-F1 0.
Manufacturers: 1 Red Bull 426pts; 2 McLaren 381; 3 Ferrari 334; 4 Mercedes GP 176; 5 Renault 133; 6 Force India 60; 7 Williams 58; 8 BMW Sauber 37; 9 Scuderia Toro Rosso 11; 10 Lotus F1 0; 11 Virgin Racing 0; 12 HRT-F1 0.
How the title race could be settled
South Korea 24/10/10
There have been concerns for some weeks now that this new circuit will not be ready in time, and that its newly laid surface will not take the strain of 800bhp cars racing on it. But everyone will start from zero there, and with one of the longest straights in Formula One, it could favour McLaren.
2009 result: n/a
With its relatively short straights and a multiple variety of slow-, medium- and high-speed corners, Interlagos could have been made specifically for Red Bull and Ferrari, and McLaren expect to struggle there in comparison unless their latest aerodynamics package, only partially optimised in Japan, makes a significant difference.
1. Mark Webber, Red Bull
2. Robert Kubica, BMW Sauber
3. Lewis Hamilton, McLaren
Abu Dhabi 14/11/10
In 2009, Red Bull finished first and second in the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, since the cars from Milton Keynes were perfectly suited to the Yas Marina circuit. That means it will suit them even more in 2010. But Lewis Hamilton led comfortably for McLaren until obscure brake problems intervened.
1. Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull
2. Mark Webber, Red Bull
3. Jenson Button, Brawn