were counting on careful management of Fernando Alonso's big points lead to secure their driver the 2012 F1 world championship, then those plans were blown apart by a first lap disaster in the Japanese Grand Prix. The first corner proved a dramatic one with far reaching consequences for the title battle as Alonso was sent spinning off the track and into early retirement, effectively wiping out his lead over Sebastian Vettel
in the title battle.
Perhaps even more disturbing was the sheer margin and superiority that Vettel enjoyed for the rest of the afternoon at Suzuka: not since his two championship-winning seasons has the Red Bull
looked quite this emphatically in command. Their rivals will be hoping that this is a one-off event, or else the 2012 season might just have taken a decisive turn in Vettel favour.
The crucial incident happened as the cars launched away from the grid and streamed through the long right-hander, which gradually narrowed and packed the cars closer together - forcing them to either yield or risk the consequences. Alonso thought he was safe on the outside line, but Kimi Raikkonen
was tucked in right behind him and the more Alonso drifted out, the closer the two came to making contact: when the inevitable touch finally happened it was Alonso who was spun off. He tried to save the car but ended up spearing back onto the track in the middle of the oncoming traffic, causing all sorts of chaos as drivers reacted to avoid the stricken Ferrari.
Inevitably, there were knock-on collisions: Romain Grosjean
was slow to realise what was happening and ended up running into the back of Mark Webber's car, turning the Red Bull
perpendicular to where it needed to go; Nico Rosberg
also got a hefty punt at the rear from Bruno Senna.
The day was done for both Alonso and Rosberg, while the other three - Webber, Grosjean and Senna - were able to get back underway and limped back to the pits for repairs as the safety car marshalled the rest of the field. Grosjean and Senna both got further penalties for causing collisions - Grosjean's recent past making it a full ten-second stop-go penalty in his case, the heaviest in-race sanction available to the race officials. The stewards didn't frown on Raikkonen, however, and seemed to view that inciting incident as a plain racing accident - although Alonso understandably bitterly criticised the Finn for not lifting when as far as the Spaniard was concerned it was always clear there was no room for the Lotus.
The safety car wasn't out for long - it didn't even give Webber enough time to catch up to the pack after his enforced pit stop - and it was a fascinating running order as the action resumed. Vettel was still in the lead and immediately pulling away, but now local hero Kamui Kobayashi
was up into second. Jenson Button
had benefited the most from the initial mayhem and took the green flag in third place ahead of another big gainer, Alonso's Ferrari
team mate Felipe Massa
who was followed in turn by Kimi Raikkonen, Lewis Hamilton
and Sergio Perez.
Other than Vettel, the fastest cars on track were the two Saubers. While Kobayashi couldn't stay with the race leader, he was certainly comfortably faster than Button behind; and Sergio Perez similarly showed his superiority on Button's team mate Lewis Hamilton
with a wild move into the turn 11 hairpin on lap 7 that somehow paid off, leaving Hamilton doubtless fuming at being shown up by his incoming 2013 replacement in the McLaren
All the teams seemed happy with tyre wear over the first laps, some even managing to extend their first stints before finally starting the first cycle of pit stops from lap 15 starting with Button, Raikkonen and Nico Hulkenberg. The majority of the other teams had to react quickly over the ensuing laps. The big gainer was Felipe Massa, who came in at the same time as Vettel three laps later and leap-frogged both Kobayashi and Button to slip into second place, albeit a long way behind the race leader who was already in a world of his own at Suzuka.
The second stint quickly proved to not be a happy one for McLaren, with Button struggling with gear and brake issues although still managing to set some of the fastest lap times, and Hamilton dejectedly complaining about his harder compound tyres going off just six laps in. Hamilton did at least have the satisfaction of having got back in front of Sergio Perez during the pit stops, and to then see the Sauber sail off into the gravel when Perez tried a repeat of his earlier ambush of the McLaren
and got completely out of shape in the run down to the hairpin.