Sebastian Vettel is conditioned to dominating from the front but a come-from-behind victory in Japan seemed to demonstrate his success is not only about the No 1 Red Bull Racing car.
The German has been booed this year, but he buttressed his case as one of Formula One’s greats, with his victory at Suzuka.
Vettel was accused of sending fans to sleep with his successive wins at Belgium, Italy, Singapore and South Korea, but he had to fight for victory in Japan.
The performance, described as “quite supreme” by his team principal Christian Horner, leaves Vettel, 26, all but assured of a fourth successive world title.
Only two men in Formula One history – Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher – have won four in a row, and neither managed it at such a young age.
At Suzuka, Vettel qualified second on the grid despite being without his speed-boosting Kinetic Energy Recovery System (Kers), a handicap estimated at 0.3 seconds per lap.
And at the start of the race, he got away slowly and was clipped by Lewis Hamilton, an impact that damaged the Red Bull’s front wing.
But he waited patiently in third place and nursed his tyres to the extent that he needed only two pit stops, compared with three for his teammate Mark Webber.
And when he finally got his chance, late in the race, he pounced on leader Romain Grosjean, darting past and then watchfully bringing his deteriorating tyres home.
Vettel has now won five consecutive races, the longest winning streak since Schumacher in 2004, and four of the past five grands prix in Japan.
With a 90-point lead over Alonso and 100 points available from the last four races, his coronation is a foregone conclusion, barring an extraordinary turn of events.
Vettel has the statistics of a champion, but does not always get the recognition usually accorded one.
Critics point to his superior car, crafted by Red Bull’s brilliant designer, Adrian Newey.
His decision to ignore team orders and snatch victory from a fuming Webber this year in Malaysia lowered him in the opinion of some fans. Others seem to be growing tired of the finger-pointing celebration and excitable yelling from the cockpit that accompanies every win.
Vettel shouted “Ichiban!” – Japanese for “first” – over the radio as he took the chequered flag for the ninth time this season.
“You’re the best team in the world. I love you guys. Yes! Ichiban!”
Boos greeted his victories in Belgium, Italy and Singapore. But great sportsmen are often accused of arrogance – just ask Muhammad Ali, Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods.
Horner highlighted a telling moment in Japan, when Webber had the chance to follow Vettel past Grosjean and challenge his teammate for victory.
“Seb had DRS [drag reduction system] when he passed Grosjean,” Horner said. “There was one lap where Mark got right into the slipstream but because he pushed the button too early, the flap didn’t open.”
Webber got stuck behind Grosjean, and his chance of winning disappeared. Fine margins that separate the great from the rest.