Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel stormed to a fourth victory in five years at the Japanese Grand Prix yesterday, but at minimum, he will have to wait until the Indian Grand Prix on October 27 to celebrate a fourth successive Formula One world title.
Vettel reeled in his departing teammate Mark Webber in the closing stages as well as Lotus driver Romain Grosjean, who wound up third for Lotus after a flying start at Suzuka.
But Fernando Alonso’s fourth-place finish means Vettel’s celebrations will stay on ice at least until India in two weeks, despite the German’s career-best run of five straight race wins.
Webber began the race on pole for the first time this year, but Grosjean’s scorching start from fourth saw the Frenchman sneak into Turn 1 ahead of the Australian.
Both men had their chances, but ultimately Vettel proved too strong. After roaring past Grosjean on the home straight on Lap 41, he went in front when Webber pitted for the third time and was never seriously threatened thereafter.
“Ichiban,” Vettel yelled over the radio as he took the chequered flag for the ninth time this season.
That is the Japanese word for “first”. “You’re the best team in the world,” he said. “I love you guys. Yes, ichiban!”
Webber’s three-stop strategy cost him, and though he finally passed a determined Grosjean with two laps of the 53 left, it was too late to catch his teammate and claim a first victory of the year in his last season in F1. Webber will retire to compete in endurance racing.
Grosjean finished on the podium for the fourth time this season and has finished third in two consecutive races.
Vettel, on the brink of becoming the third man to win four Formula One titles in a row after Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio, holds a 90-point lead over Alonso with a maximum of 100 available over the last four races.
Despite only needing 10 points from the remaining four races to win the title, Vettel is not taking anything for granted.
“Regarding the championship, it’s not over until it’s over,” he said.
Vettel did suffer a major scare yesterday when his front wing was touched by Lewis Hamilton at the start, with the Mercedes-GP man coming off worst.
The Briton’s right-rear tyre punctured and after having to complete a lap with the shredded Pirelli flailing around, he subsequently had to retire due to damage to his car.
Vettel’s decision not to pit for a third time looked inspired in the end, but there were some tense moments before he slowly clawed his way into the lead.
“It was not easy to make the two stops work,” the German said.
“It couldn’t have been a worse start. I was in a bit of a sandwich with the Lotus [Grosjean] and Lewis. I couldn’t avoid the contact. It was a horrible start, but a fantastic comeback.”
Webber said of his second-place run: “The race was pretty good, although I’d like one more step on the podium. Seb went longer in his first stint, and that made the difference, but I’m pretty happy with second. I got the best out of what I could.”
The Australian was surprised that he needed to make three stops, unlike Vettel, adding: “I asked, was it the right thing to do?
“Seb went a bit longer, but the target for two stops was achievable. I felt we could get to the laps we were looking to get to.”
Alonso drove an aggressive race to finish fourth after starting eighth, with Kimi Raikkonen, another former world champion, fifth ahead of Nico Hulkenberg.
Esteban Gutierrez was seventh and Nico Rosberg recovered from a drive-through penalty to take eighth on an unhappy day for Mercedes, who had shown good pace all weekend.
The race was preceded by a sombre minute’s silence for former reserve driver Maria de Villota, who died in Spain this week, a year after a serious crash in testing.