The winner may have been the same as the in the previous four races, and every one since the summer break, but was Sebastian Vettel deserving of 'driver of the day' honours at Suzuka?
The German appeared a little rough around the edges, maybe a result of not leading from the front as has become the norm in recent weeks, but he showed that, as well as scintillating speed he could also drive tactically, responding to instructions from the Red Bull pit-wall to conserve his tyres longer than those ahead of him and put himself in position to claim a 35th career win. The fact that he now only needs a fifth place finish next time out in India is a mere consequence of the drive....
Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber looked a potential winner, at least in qualifying and the early part of the race, but had to pit earlier than Vettel and was then the victim of a mid-race change of strategy - one that he did not appear entirely happy with as three stops proved more costly than two. An inability to get past Romain Grosjean for second place until it was too late also mitigated against a battle for victory with Vettel and the Australian had to settle for second.
Grosjean was the man to beat early on, vaulting from the outside of row two to take the lead into turn one as both the Red Bulls were slow away. One year on from another first lap incident, the Frenchman drove sublimely, able to resist Webber early on and holding the lead through the first round of pit-stops as RBR played the waiting game. In the end, opting to cover Vettel's two-stop strategy left the Lotus vulnerable to Webber's late charge, but Grosjean defended stoutly before the inevitable drop to third.
Fernando Alonso may have subconsciously conceded the title to Vettel before the weekend had even begun, but he remains determined to keep Ferrari in second place in the constructors' table, and produced another battling performance to haul his F138 from eighth on the grid to fourth at the flag. Running in tandem with his 2014 team-mate, the Spaniard overcame obstacles presented by the likes of current colleague Felipe Massa and Ferrari aspirant Nico Hulkenberg to amass as many points as possible which, combined with a bad day for Mercedes went some way to achieving his new goal.
Kimi Raikkonen, who is destined to partner Alonso next season, had a good view of the Ferrari's rear-end as he chased the Spaniard for part of the afternoon. The Finn had started ninth on the grid, but lost places with a bad getaway before clawing back the lost ground on his way to another top five finish. With Lewis Hamilton retiring early on, after a flying start culminated in a tyre-shredding brush with Vettel, Raikkonen was able to tighten his grip on third in the championship with four races to run.
Hulkenberg, much as he had in Korea a week ago, proved to be a stubborn opponent, rising to, and running, fourth until the closing stages of the race, when Alonso and Raikkonen were able to make their move. Despite dropping to sixth in sight of the chequer, however, the German not only bolstered Sauber's expanding points tally but also provided further proof of why he needs a decent ride for 2014.
Sauber's points haul was boosted by another six from rookie Esteban Gutierrez, who finally produced a top ten finish after a series of near misses. After a slow - and somewhat erratic - start to the season, the Mexican now looks like he belongs in F1, and fully deserved his maiden top ten finish - to go with two recent top ten starts - after coming from 14th on the grid to chase his team-mate home.
Nico Rosberg salvaged eighth on a bad day for Mercedes, in which Hamilton's lap seven retirement was followed by a drive-thru' penalty for an unsafe release that denied the German a better result.
Massa also suffered from the stewards' decisions, being adjudged to have broken the pit-lane speed limit and having to complete a drive-thru' of his own the limited him to tenth on the road. Prior to that, the Brazilian showed the first hint that he is now driving for himself, and not Ferrari, by resisting team orders to let Alonso through before the first round of stops.
Between the two penalised drivers, Jenson Button took another two points on a relatively quiet afternoon for McLaren. The Briton could maybe have been a little higher had it not been for a problematic pit-stop, but also pointed the finger at himself after making last-minute set-up changes that left him battling understeer.
Missing out on points this time around, Daniel Ricciardo felt that he could have been a contender for the top ten had it not been for a drive-thru' handed down when the stewards felt that he had taken advantage of the run-off at 130R to complete a brave move on Adrian Sutil.
Joining the Australian outside the top ten, Sergio Perez also felt aggrieved to have twice been on the receiving end of incidents with Rosberg. The Mexican was the victim of Mercedes' decision to release its remaining runner into his path during the pit-stops, the resulting delay dropping him behind Gutierrez, before a late-race clash with the German saw his left rear tyre sliced open by the end of Rosberg's front wing.
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