Just when it looked like Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) was going to make a run at Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), Red Bull had a return to 2011 form, with Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber locking down the first two spots on the grid, unveiling a new double-DRS system in the process. It was Vettel’s fourth pole in four starts at Suzuka. As bad as this might be for Hamilton’s driver’s championship prospects, it’s even worse for McLaren constructor’s hopes, Red Bull entering the race in first with a 36-point lead over the silver Mercedes-powered machines. Jenson Button (McLaren) qualified P3 and Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber) fourth.
In the meantime changes for the 2013 season began in earnest, with Michael Schumacher (Mercedes) retiring, Hamilton making the jump to take his place, and Sergio Perez (Sauber) being hired by McLaren to pair with Button.
Vettel, Kobayashi, and Button broke out as the top 3 at the start. Alonso, meanwhile, retired following a mid-pack dust up which saw him leave the track surface and the safety car deployed. As Alonso re-entered the track crossways, Romain Grosjean (Lotus) turned Mark Webber (Red Bull). Lap 5 saw the top 3 unchanged with Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus) and Felipe Massa (Ferrari) in fourth and fifth.
Massa took fourth from Raikkonen, with Vettel and Kobayashi out front turning faster laps than anyone else. Vettel’s lead over the Sauber stood at 6.2 sec during Lap 11. Vettel pitted from the lead on Lap 18 with an 11.1-sec margin. Button reported gearbox problems the same lap….but then they went away. Following the first full round of pit stops the Top 5 consisted of Vettel, Massa, Kobayashi, Button, and Raikkonen.
Perez went off on Lap 19, putting the car in the gravel and forcing his retirement. Perez’ was the third retirement, Bruno Senna (Williams) having pushed Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) off during the first-lap melee. Tire wear began to be called in from the drivers Lap 23-25. Vettel’s lap expanded to 15 sec by Lap 33 as drivers were in the midst of the their second round of stops.
Kobayashi took 0.6 sec off Vettel in Lap 37, driving his fastest lap of the race. But Vettel stretched his lead over P2 Massa back to 20 sec following a 2.6-sec pit stop. Lewis Hamilton moved up to P5, with the Top 4 unchanged. Button was closing 0.3 sec/lap on Kobayashi with 13 laps to go, setting up a potential duel at the finish. Button picked up the relative pace still further, shaving 0.5 sec/lap a few laps later as Kobayashi already had 12 laps on his tires.
With 10 laps to go Vettel led by 18.5 sec, followed by the same group with Hamilton in P5. The gap between Kobayashi and Button was down to 1.5 sec with 7 laps to go (of 53), with Kobayashi stretching it to 1.8 the next time around. By Lap 51 the Kobayashi-Button gap stood at 1.2 sec. 1.1 sec Lap 52, just outside DRS time. Kobayashi locked his breaks, but Button followed with the same shortly after. DRS activated the final lap, but Button couldn’t make the pass.
Vettel became the first consecutive-race winner of 2012, Massa came in P2, and Kobayashi held Button off for the balance of the final lap to become the third Japanese F1 driver to podium….at home no less. Massa came from P10 for his second place finish, Nico Hulkenberg (Force India) made a similar push, moving from P15 on the grid to finish seventh, while Schumacher nearly made the points after starting P23, finishing eleventh.
Vettel’s win combined with Alonso’s retirement closed the drivers’ championship down to 4 points with 5 races to go.
Driver standings - Top 10
194 - Fernando Alonso (Spain) – Ferrari
190 - Sebastian Vettel (Germany) - RBR-Renault
157 – Kimi Raikkonen (Finland) – Lotus-Renault
152 - Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain) - McLaren-Mercedes
134 - Mark Webber (Australia) - RBR-Renault
131 - Jenson Button (Great Britain) - McLaren-Mercedes
93 - Nico Rosberg (Germany) – Mercedes
82 – Romain Grosjean (France) – Lotus-Renault
69 – Felipe Massa (Brazil) - Ferrari
66 – Sergio Perez (Mexico) – Sauber-Ferrari
Constructor standings - Teams scoring points
324 - RBR-Renault - Vettel, Webber
283 - McLaren-Mercedes - Hamilton, Button
263 - Ferrari - Alonso, Massa
239 – Lotus-Renault – Raikkonen, Grosjean
136 - Mercedes – Rosberg ,Michael Schumacher
116 - Sauber-Ferrari – Perez, Kamui Kobayashi
81 – Force India-Mercedes – Paul di Resta, Nico Hulkenberg
58 - Williams-Renault – Pastor Maldonado, Bruno Senna
15 – STR-Ferrari – Daniel Ricciardo, Jean-Eric Vergne
Next event: 2012 FORMULA 1 KOREAN GRAND PRIX – Korea International Circuit, Oct. 12-14, 2012