7 October 2012
Vettel wins after Alonso's first lap exit
While Vettel's lead was now stretching out toward 10s, there was still plenty of battles for position back down the rest of the field as the early scrambled running order continued to try to sort itself back to something more like normality. Things were further complicated by the handful of drivers trying for off-sync pit strategies by running longer. The most dramatic different take on pit stops came from Mark Webber, who after pitting at the end of lap 1 was now attempting to make it the rest of the way on just one more at just over midrace distance on lap 28.
Most of the leaders were finding it difficult to eke out their tyres and started looking toward adjusting their strategies: Raikkonen was in for his next stop early on lap 31, and Kobayashi, Hamilton and Hulkenberg reacted to the threat by coming in next time around. Hamilton ended up exiting pit lane just as Raikkonen streaked past the pit exit, but Lewis kept his foot down and even though it seemed that the Finn had pulled off the pass for fifth place he was unable to run flat-out on the outside line and had to lift a fraction. That shot Hamilton back into the front position after all, but it had been a matter of millimetres as to who would win that encounter.
Still coping with his assorted technical glitches - which were at least not getting any worse as the race wore on - Jenson Button was less successful in trying to run longer before his own second stop in an effort to jump Kamui Kobayashi. In the end it wasn't even close and Button resumed well behind the Sauber, meaning that the plan was now to hope that Kobayashi's tyres would fall off the proverbial cliff in the remaining laps and enable Button to use his fresher rubber to catch and challenge the Japanse driver for position at the end.
Vettel's lead over Massa was now approaching the 20s mark, as the world champion continued to put in fastest laps despite a nervous Red Bull pit wall telling him to be careful. Kobayashi was four seconds back from the Ferrari, putting him three seconds ahead of a surging Button in fourth place who was in turn pulling away from Hamilton in fifth. The rest of the top ten was formed up by Raikkonen, Hulkenberg, Maldonado (heading for his first points for the first time since Barcelona), the recovering Mark Webber - and an impressively solid run from Daniel Ricciardo in the final points position. Although the Toro Rosso was soon under intense pressure from the sole remaining Mercedes of Michael Schumacher, the Australian continued to defended valiantly and held on to the position through to the chequered flag.
The main focus of the final stage of the race was on whether Button could close that gap down to Kobayashi for the final podium position: Button closed to just outside a second off the back of the Sauber with six laps to go, but Kobayashi then responded with everything he had to maintain the margin and succeeded in preventing Button getting the boost from the DRS activation until it was too late to make any difference.
Outside the top ten, it had been a bad day for Paul di Resta who unlike his Force India team mate lost places in the confusion at the start and never recovered from there, finally finishing behind Schumacher in 12th place just ahead of Jean-Eric Vergne. There were late race retirements in the garage for Narain Karthikeyan, Charles Pic (engine) and Romain Grosjean, while Vitaly Petrov got a drive-thru penalty on lap 49 for ignoring earlier blue flags ordering him to make way for faster cars approaching from behind.
In terms of the race win, there had only ever been one man in it - Sebastian Vettel, the first driver to take back-to-back wins in 2012 and in in so doing maximising the opportunity that had presented itself to close the gap on Alonso to just 4pts in the championship battle. If this is a sign that Red Bull are back on form, then Ferrari will need an urgent package of upgrades if they're to stay in with a chance of the title or else Suzuka might prove to be the beginning of the end of the 2012 championship.
Vettel's win might have been a foregone conclusion almost from the moment he clinched pole position so emphatically on Saturday, but surely no one had been expecting to see Felipe Massa as Ferrari's sole representative on the podium. And even though he'd started from third on the grid, few had believed that Kamui Kobayashi would be able to hold on in that position through to the chequered flag to claim his first F1 podium - to the delight of the home crowd who chanted his name as they waited for the drivers to come out for the post-race presentations. Just as Vettel's win has major implications for the title fight, so Massa and Kobayashi's success might have a major effect on how the 2013 driver line-up shakes out. Have they both just effectively secured extensions with their current teams as a result of the podiums today?
With so much now left up in the air after Suzuka, it's just as well we only have seven days to wait for the next instalment of the 2012 F1 drama in Korea.
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