Sebastian Vettel isn’t leading the World Championship yet, but there’s little doubt that with five races to go in the 2012 Formula 1 season the Red Bull man is now bang on target to achieve a historic hat-trick of titles. His race day at Suzuka couldn’t have been more serene, as he converted his comfortable pole position into an untroubled victory.
Vettel’s day was made complete by the misfortune that befell World Championship leader Fernando Alonso. Sebastian arrived at Suzuka 29 points behind the Ferrari ace, and leaves Japan just four in arrears after Alonso’s disastrous non-finish.
Suzuka has been the scene of so many significant moments in World Championship history, and so it was again on Sunday. Starting from seventh, Alonso’s left rear was tagged by Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus on the approach to Turn 1. He did all he could to hang on to the Ferrari, but a punctured tyre left him powerless to stop the spin and he ended up facing the pack. Alonso’s race was done.
“I don’t understand why Kimi didn’t lift,” he shrugged, although the consensus had been that Raikkonen was faultless. The Ferrari had inadvertently squeezed the Lotus on the narrow run from the start and there really wasn’t much Kimi could do to avoid the contact.
The same couldn’t be said of Romain Grosjean ahead of them. The calamitous Frenchman, who started fourth, ran into the back of Mark Webber’s Red Bull at Turn 2, ruining the Australian’s race and causing mayhem behind him. Grosjean would be handed a 10-second stop-go penalty, and deservedly so.
Webber summed his feelings up succinctly, describing Grosjean as the “first-lap nutcase. Maybe he needs another holiday. It’s quite embarrassing at this level for him.” Nice guy he might be, but Romain doesn’t have many friends in the F1 paddock right now.
Nico Rosberg found himself a casualty of the collision’s concertina effect, as Bruno Senna’s Williams punted the Mercedes into retirement. Inevitably, the safety car was called on to allow the mess to be cleared up.
It didn’t take long, and on lap 3 Vettel streaked away as the race went green. Behind him, Kamui Kobayashi was running second on merit, having jumped Webber at the start before Grosjean’s assault. The Sauber ace, under pressure to keep his drive for 2013, would prove to be the star of the day.
Behind Kobayashi, Jenson Button was up to third from eighth on the grid, his lowly starting spot a consequence of a five-place penalty for a gearbox change. Button would report further gearbox problems during the race. For now, he headed Felipe Massa’s Ferrari, up from 10th on the grid, with Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton and Sergio Perez next up.
New McLaren signing Perez looked to be on a mission in these early laps, mugging the man he will replace at the hairpin on lap 6. Hamilton looked half asleep as Sergio dived up his inside to claim sixth place.
McLaren would gift Hamilton the place back in the pits, despite an untidy stop. So Perez had it all to do again, but tried a little too hard on lap 19, went in too hot as they approached the hairpin and spun into retirement. Not the best way to celebrate his new deal for next year.
As Vettel enjoyed his “perfectly balanced” Red Bull at the front, Button had designs on Kobayashi’s second place. But as the pair found themselves behind Daniel Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso after their first stops, Massa jumped both in what would be a sensational afternoon for Ferrari’s ‘other’ driver.
For the first time in two years, Massa would stand on the podium. Ok, he was never a threat to the imperious Vettel, but the timing of his accomplished drive to second couldn’t be better, as speculation continues over who will be driving ‘his’ Ferrari next year. And perhaps his race pace will offer a little consolation to his team-mate as Alonso contemplates how he’s going to stop Vettel overhauling him in the next few weeks.
In the second half of the race, Button continued to shadow Kobayashi and as we headed for the conclusion, Jenson closed in. But he didn’t quite have enough, and Kamui claimed a wonderful podium in front of his enthusiastic home crowd. Shades of Aguri Suzuki way back in 1990.
A subdued Hamilton claimed fifth behind his team-mate, ahead of Raikkonen, Nico Hulkenberg, Pastor Maldonado and the recovering one-stopping Webber.
Despite his setback, Alonso remained philosophical on his title hopes. “You never know, one time I retire, the next time it might be Vettel,” he said. “It’s like a mini-championship from now to the end.”
Vettel echoed those sentiments on the podium. “There is still a long way to go,” he said to interviewer Jean Alesi. “We don’t know what will happen in the next race, so it’s good to take the points today.”
Next stop, South Korea. Vettel has won two on the trot now. Can Alonso and Ferrari really stop him?