Despite needing only one point from five remaining races, Sebastian Vettel had hoped to secure his second consecutive F1 world title with victory at the Japanese Grand Prix, but the German was thwarted by a rare lack of performance from the Red Bull team.
Although he had snatched pole position from McLaren's Jenson Button by just 0.009secs on Saturday afternoon, Vettel knew that the Briton had been the fastest driver for much of the weekend, and his actions at the start suggested that he had needed to keep the 2009 world champion at bay early in the race as well [see story here
His robust tactics on the run to turn one worked in as far as Button dropped to third, but the Briton was quickly back into the role of chief pursuer after McLaren team-mate Lewis Hamilton suffered a puncture - a legacy of his qualifying faux pas
- and quickly closed in on the Red Bull. Although Vettel held the lead through the first round of tyre stops, RBR's need to pit earlier than Button eventually played into the Briton's hands, and he moved to the front as the field settled again after stop number two approaching half distance.
"I didn't enjoy [seeing cars come out ahead of me at the pit-stops], but I think we were a little bit too weak today on the option tyre, [especially] against those two guys at the end of the stints," he said, referring to Button and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, who went on to finish second in the race.
"I think, in comparison to Lewis in the first stint, we were able to pull away. Then, obviously, I got informed that Jenson had passed him, and he was seven- or eight-tenths quicker at that stage, which clearly is not because he found a short cut all of a sudden! He took care of his tyres better than the rest and was able to push harder at the end of the stints. Any time on the soft tyre, we had to come in quite early."
Vettel also felt aggrieved at the behaviour of some of the slower runners, which he felt could have made lapping them a little easier.
"On the hard tyre, I felt much much better but I came out behind Fernando, and lost a little bit of time to the Force India when I tried to get past, which didn't work straight away," he recalled, "I was then sticking to Fernando quite well until the Virgin... I don't know, maybe he should use both
of his mirrors, as it was a bit dangerous. Fernando was right behind him, he pulled to the right, let him by, before taking the corner before turn eight. I knew that I wouldn't take any stupid risks, but I didn't expect him to go back on line, and I lost the connection [to Alonso].
"You get some lap time for free if you're always behind, because you are in the DRS zone so it's easy to catch up a little bit on the straight, but, unfortunately, I was never really close enough to pass Fernando. Their straight-line speed was quite good, which we already knew on Friday!"
Despite the frustration of not being able to close enough on Alonso to be able to consider a pass, Vettel refused to give up hope of claiming the victory with which he wanted to take the title, as the pair homed in on a conservative Button in the final few laps.