Sebastian Vettel kept alive his world championship hopes with a dominant drive at yesterday's Japanese Grand Prix to claim the fourth victory of his career. The German led from start to finish in a faultless drive around the Suzuka circuit to cut his deficit to championship leader Jenson Button, who finished the race in eighth, to 16 points with two races remaining.
There was a marginal repeat of the drama of the crash-ridden qualifying session of the previous day on lap 45 when Jaime Alguersuari lost control at the 130R, corner smashing into an advertising hoarding and forcing the safety car to come out as marshals dealt with the clean-up operation. But once the safety car pulled in with four laps left of the 53-lap race, Vettel immediately pulled clear of his chasers for his third win of the season, keeping alive the prospect of the championship going down to the final race in Abu Dhabi in the process.
The only other momentary scare for the German came when his mechanics struggled to remove his front right tyre on his second pit-stop during an otherwise unblemished afternoon for the Red Bull-Renault racer. Vettel said: "It feels great to be back in first place once again. I was screaming on the radio to the team particularly after the last few races that were all a bit up and down. We were pretty confident of defending our position at the start but suddenly I saw a silver arrow on my left-hand side [Lewis Hamilton's McLaren] but I had the inside line.
"After that it was head down and the car was fantastic and I was able to pull a big gap." Despite Vettel's win, Button remains the favourite to win the title, in part thanks to a lucky break just 12 laps into the race. The Briton, who had already been dropped five places on the grid for an infringement in qualifying, had a dire start off the line, dropping back to 11th as the Kers-powered McLaren of Heikki Kovalainen forced its way past.
However, Button's championship cause was helped when Adrian Sutil tried to squeeze past Kovalainen at the chicane 12 laps later only for the Finn to cut in and send Sutil into a spin. In the resulting melee, Button overtook them both and climbed into the points in eighth in his Brawn GP car, a position he maintained to the finish despite a nervy finish with BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica all over his tail in the dying laps.
By the chequered flag he had fended off the Pole by just 0.3 seconds on the line. Teammate Rubens Barrichello was once more the quicker of the Brawn duo in the race but only managed two points with seventh place to leave him 14 points behind Button ahead of his home event, the Brazilian Grand Prix, in two weekends time. The safety car appeared to play into the hands of Hamilton, who had lost his second place to Jarno Trulli in the pit-stops but had the prospect of using the Kers system on his car at the restart.
But the energy recovery system on his McLaren failed to work and the Briton had to make do with the bottom step on the podium behind Trulli for Toyota's second successive runners-up spot. The Italian's Toyota was the only one on the grid as Timo Glock was declared unfit to race after suffering a deep cut to his left leg during qualifying on Saturday. Kimi Raikkonen sealed an impressive fourth in his Ferrari, while Nico Rosberg was a place back in fifth ahead of the BMW Sauber of Nick Heidfeld, with the two Brawns completing the points positions, though it was not enough to secure the constructors' title.