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Vettel leads Red Bull 1-2 despite early setbacks

13 October 2013

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.

A hint of team orders preceded a nice DRS move by Alonso on Massa through turn 1 on lap 20. With Ricciardo's tyres finally giving up the ghost, Alonso was soon able to follow Hulkenberg past the waning Toro Rosso on lap 21, and Massa tried to do likewise only to end up being repulsed and dropping back into the determined clutches of Gutierrez at the hairpin that he was only just able to fend off in a thrilling sequence of corners.

Ricciardo was finally in on lap 21 for his first stop, and three laps later Button was also on pit lane for his second stop of the day after reporting a vibration, although a slow right-rear wheel change cost him three seconds before he was able to resume. Two laps later and Webber - unable to make any significant inroads into Grosjean's stable lead - was in for his second stop in the hope of making something happen through strategy. The Lotus team made no immediate attempt to cover the move, Grosjean staying out despite tyres with more that 20 laps on them as he continued to strive for a two-stopper. He ultimately came in at the end of lap 29, handing the lead back to Sebastian Vettel in the meantime in a fascinating battle of race strategies as the Red Bull started to focus on using the clear air to make as much ground as possible in the meantime.

Promising days for Ricciardo and Massa came to a frustrating halt with drive-thru penalties for both men, Ricciardo's for exceeding track limits at 130R while overtaking Paul di Resta and Massa for speeding on pit lane which dropped both of them out of the top ten.

Vettel's middle stint finally concluded with a pit stop at the end of lap 37 with a change to a new set of primes to make it to the finish. He emerged back out on track in third behind Webber and Grosjean, but on tyres eight laps fresher than the Lotus and with the knowledge that Webber would have to make another stop before the finish. The new tyres proved crucial as Vettel hunted down and passed Grosjean down the front straight at the start of lap 41 in what was effectively the decisive move for the race win, and Webber officially turned over the race lead with his final stop at the end of the following lap and a Hail Mary choice of taking on a set of options for the final 12 laps remaining of the race which allowed him to close right up to the back of Grosjean in the final part of the race.

Behind the lead trio, Hulkenberg was once again managing to hold off Alonso's challenge for fourth while Raikkonen was right behind the Ferrari in sixth, with Gutierrez holding off Rosberg, Massa and Button after Sergio Perez was forced into making an unscheduled extra stop after getting his left rear tyre sliced open by the front wing of Rosberg's Mercedes on lap 43.

The final laps of the race saw Vettel carefully holding a six second lead at the front ahead of the best scrap on track between Grosjean and Webber for second. Although Webber had ben able to pull right up to the back of the Lotus on his fresher set of options he hadn't been able to make the pass, and the dirty air and shorter life of the medium tyres was slowly swinging the advantage back to Grosjean in the battle for the runner-up position. Finally some lapped traffic added the extra spice Webber needed to seal the deal, and the Australian applied a dab of DRS to pass Grosjean at the start of the penultimate lap.

Having lost so much time behind the Lotus, there was nothing Webber could do about Vettel's comfortable (if smaller than previous races) margin at the front, and Vettel duly claimed the chequered flag ahead of his team mate as Red Bull pulled off their first one-two finish since Malaysia with Grosjean having to settle for third after victory had looked so tantalisingly close for so very long in Japan.

Even though Vettel had done his part, the championship battle would not be sealed this weekend after all, with Alonso managing to get past Hulkenberg for fourth place to keep the title mathematically within reach, even if common sense dictates that it will only be a couple of weeks before t becomes a reality in India.

Raikkonen also managed a late pass on Hulkenberg at the chicane to secure fifth place with the Sauber man having to settle for sixth ahead of his team mate Gutierrez, with Rosberg rallying from his mid-race penalty to claim eighth ahead of Button and Massa and Paul di Resta ending up just outside the points in 11th place and the last man on the lead lap following a disappointing day for Force India which saw Adrian Sutil in 14th place after finding it impossible to recover from his Saturday setbacks.

Much to celebrate for Red Bull, then, even if the title remains elusive for one more race. It was still an emphatic demonstration of dominance by Sebastian Vettel, who just seems unstoppable the longer the season goes on. Will anyone else stand on the top step of the podium for the rest of 2013?

On this evidence it's getting increasingly hard to imagine.

Full results available.


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