Sebastian Vettel fully embodied the mascot of his Red Bull
team by stampeding to a dominant victory in the Japanese Grand Prix, keeping both world championship battles alive with two races still to run on the 2009 Formula One calendar.
Having been fastest in every phase of qualifying, the German - who started the weekend 25 points adrift of championship leader Jenson Button
with 30 to play for - carried his speed into the 53-lap race, pulling out enough of an advantage over his pursuers to be able to return to the lead after both of his pit-stops. He appeared to be headed for a crushing win until the intervention of a late safety car, which slashed his lead with just ten laps remaining.
Despite the presence of KERS-enabled Lewis Hamilton
on row two, Vettel made the perfect start to lead into turn one, and was never headed thereafter. Hamilton's bid for the lead was thwarted by second-place starter Jarno Trulli, who initially managed to block the McLaren
man's advance before succumbing to the inevitable. While the Italian then had to contend with Nick Heidfeld, however, Hamilton found it tougher to close the gap to the fleeing Red Bull
as Vettel pulled out an early gap.
Further back, Jenson Button
stuttered as he went for second, allowing Heikki Kovalainen
to pass him for tenth, adding to the existing problem of having the more heavily-fuelled Nico Rosberg
and Robert Kubica
promoted ahead of him by Saturday's post-qualifying penalties. Kimi Raikkonen, meanwhile, had held on to fifth spot, with Rubens Barrichello
and Adrian Sutil
filling the remaining top ten places.
Button quickly followed Kovalainen past Kubica to ease his worries, but found it harder to catch the McLaren, particularly when Kovalainen also put Sutil between them. Confident that he may be able to deal with the Finn if the slippery Force India
wasn't there, the Briton tried to keep in touch until Sutil made his expected early stop, but found the handling of his Brawn not to his liking.
Once again, however, Button's luck while struggling held firm, as Sutil's lap 13 move on the McLaren
at the chicane attracted a stiff response from Kovalainen that resulted in both of them tangling, allowing the Brawn free passage into eighth spot. Blame for the incident appeared to lie with the Finn who, far from ceding the corner to the marginally ahead Force India, bounced off the kerbs and collected it.
At the front, the order appeared pretty static, but the monotony was interrupted when Hamilton headed for the pits on lap 15. An 8.9secs stop returned him to the fray in seventh, and Trulli was unable to overturn the gap when he produced a near identical performance. Vettel, meanwhile, came in two laps after the Toyota, was stationary for nearly four seconds longer - as the Red Bull
team played it safe instead of releasing him into the path of Heidfeld's BMW
Sauber - and still had enough in hand to rejoin in the lead.
In the midst of the leaders stopping, Button made his call - the timing of which had been determined before the stewards wielded Saturday's red pen over the grid order - dropping to 14th behind a handful of longer runners, but carrying the same improved pace with which he had ended his opening stint.
Approaching half distance, the order was skewed by the presence of late-stoppers Rosberg, Kovalainen and Kubica in second, sixth and seventh but, when they finally made the call for fuel and tyres - surprising many by adopting two-stop strategies when one had been anticipated - normality was restored, with Vettel out front from Hamilton, Trulli, Heidfeld, Raikkonen and Barrichello - the top six unchanged from the opening lap - with Rosberg just ahead of Button and both Kubica and Kovalainen behind the Briton.