If there was any doubt before this weekend - and let's be honest, there really wasn't - then Sebastian Vettel
is increasingly in a class all his own as the 2013 F1 season wears on, so much so that even a poor start and turn 1 contact nocking him off his stride couldn't prevent the championship leader from working his way back into a winning position by the end of the 53-lap Japanese Grand Prix
on Sunday to claim his fifth win in a row and his ninth of the year.
However, it still wasn't enough to enable Vettel to secure the title this weekend, after Fernando Alonso
laboured to a fourth place finish which is enough to keep him mathematically in with an outside chance of the title with four races remaining.
Mark Webber had the advantage of pole position for the start of the Japanese Grand Prix
alongside his team mate Vettel, but neither of the Red Bulls got the best of starts after a long hold on the grid left their brakes smoking before the lights finally went out to get the action underway.
Romain Grosjean got the best start of the leaders, slipping smoothly down the inside line into the lead in turn 1 while the Red Bulls were trying to out-duel each other and also fend off Lewis Hamilton, who was busy trying to force the Mercedes down the middle of the track. That ended in disaster for Hamilton as his right rear wheel made the lightest of contacts with Vettel's front wing - enough to slice open the carcass and leave Hamilton limping round the 3.6-mile, 17-turn Suzuka circuit for new tyres and eventually to retirement because of significant floor damage to the W04.
All of that releases Webber to take up second place behind race leader Grosjean, while Vettel settled in to third while assessing his RB9 for any lingering damage from the contact with Hamilton. Behind the lead trio, Nico Rosberg
had moved up to fourth place ahead of the two Ferraris of Felipe Massa
and Fernando Alonso, while Nico Hulkenberg
had held on to seventh place ahead of early movers Sergio Perez and Esteban Gutierrez who had both got in front of Jenson Button
and Kimi Raikkonen.
The first corner had also seen an incident at the back of the field as Jules Bianchi
and Giedo van der Garde battled their way into a mutual retirement in the gravel runoff. With Charles Pic
also carrying out his drive-thru penalty at the end of lap 1, it allowed Adrian Sutil
to make his way forward from that back row starting position after his own gearbox penalty saw him start from 22n place.
The first round of pit stops got underway significantly earlier than expected, with Jean-Eric Vergne in on lap 7 and Sutil, Button and Valtteri Bottas all coming in at the end of lap 8, triggering a response throughout the field that included Webber at the end of lap 11 and Grosjean in next time by on what looked to be three-stop strategies, leaving Vettel toughing it out in the lead but looking scrappy at times and a second slower than Webber proved to be on the new set of tyres before Vettel also finally pitted at the end of lap 14.
There was more woe for Mercedes as Rosberg was handed a drive-thru penalty for an unsafe release after the team allowed him to pull out of his pit stall right in front of Sergio Perez. That dropped him out of fifth place all the way back to 12th, so that by the end of the first round of pit stops Grosjean was back in the lead by to seconds from Webber with Vettel three seconds further back but looking happier and significantly faster on the new set of prime tyres for his second stint. Daniel Ricciardo was running up in fourth as the only man not to have stopped, having started the race on primes were everyone else had gone for options; that gave him temporary track position over Hulkenberg, Massa, Alonso, Gutierrez, Raikkonen and Perez.