x Abu Dhabi, UAEMonday 24 July 2017

Sebastian Vettel wins dramatic Japanese Grand Prix as Alonso crashes out on first corner

The Red Bull driver narrowed the gap at the top of the drivers' championship to just four points after an incident-packed first lap at Suzuka.

Sebastian Vettel celebrates winning the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix
Sebastian Vettel celebrates winning the 2012 Japanese Grand Prix

SUZUKA, JAPAN // He came, he saw, he conquered, he cried.

For the second race weekend in succession, Sebastian Vettel claimed maximum points to close the gap at the top of the drivers' standings and strengthen his bid for a third consecutive world championship.

Red Bull Racing's German driver arrived in Asia two weeks ago trailing Fernando Alonso by 39 points.

However, having triumphed already in Singapore, he added another 25 points Sunday to his tally by cruising to a third Japanese Grand Prix title in four years.

More importantly, as Alonso suffered a puncture and was forced to retire before he had even negotiated Turn One, Vettel was able to slash the margin between himself and the Spaniard with all the effectiveness of a samurai sword.

Now just four points separate the two men with five races remaining, including the psychological challenge of an Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where at the 2010 season finale Vettel famously snatched his maiden title from Alonso's grip.

The Spaniard left the circuit before the end of the race Sunday, but later tweeted the words of Miyamoto Musashi, the famous 17th century Japanese swordsman.

"If the enemy thinks in the mountains, attack by sea, if they think in the sea, attack by the mountains," he wrote, followed by the hashtag "Leaders".

Ferrari's 31 year old continues to hold the numerical advantage, despite having now retired twice in his past four races.

Yet there is no doubting Vettel has the edge going forward. Somewhat fortunate in Singapore after pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton was forced to retire, there was no fortuity in the world champion's performance this weekend.

Indomitable in qualifying and invulnerable in the race, Vettel was the man to catch and, portentously, nobody came even close.

Before a quarter of the race had elapsed, the sport's youngest champion held a 10-second lead, which he maintained until the midway point, when he boldly began to build on it.

Such is the man from Heppenheim's confidence that as he approached the chequered flag, his team had to warn him to ease off.

"You have got a lot to lose," said Guillaume Roquelin, Vettel's engineer.

Vettel is not the type of driver to ease off the throttle. Fortunately for Red Bull, neither is he the type of driver to make a mistake on a final lap with nobody breathing down his neck. He passed the chequered flag 20.6 seconds ahead of Ferrari's Felipe Massa, who finished on the podium for the first time in close to two years.

"It's unbelievable," Vettel said.

"Since qualifying, nothing could be better. You come across these kinds of races or weekends very, very rarely.

"It's very easy to get carried away and start to think ahead and lose the focus and do a little mistake. But I just tried to stay in the moment and until the end it was fantastic. I had a car where I could control the race and I could push as hard as I wanted to."

Vettel's victory, the 24th of his career, means he has now won one of every four races he has competed in and equalled the number of race wins collected by Juan Manuel Fangio, the Argentine who won five championships between 1951 and 1957.

Vettel broke down in tears when asked if such statistics resonate with him, yet the ultimate goal is to emulate Fangio's achievement of capturing three successive drivers' titles.

"I'm very careful on this," Vettel said. "In terms of championships, this race was a big step and it helped us, but we see how quickly things can change. That is why I say I want to be very careful because it's still a long way ahead and there's a lot of things that can happen.

"I think it was important for us. Obviously we did have some pace this weekend and so it was important for us to make use of that." Massa is further proof of the speed in which things can change. The Brazilian had not finished in the top three since the 2010 Korean Grand Prix and this season has faced intense criticism.

Yet in recent races the 31 year old has shown signs of improvement, none more so than in Monza when he was made to move aside and let his teammate Alonso pass.

"To come here and start 10th was not so good," Massa said. "So, for sure, the race was much better than I expected. We did a good job. Unfortunately Fernando is not here fighting for the championship as well, but I'm very happy with my race so let's keep pushing hard to be on the podium not every two years, but every race now."

gmeenaghan@thenational.ae

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Massa ends podium drought

Second place in Japan was the first time the Ferrari driver Felipe Massa had finished in the top three since he was third in South Korea in 2010 - 36 races ago.

Japanese GP race results

1 Vettel, Red Bull 1h28m56.242s

2 Massa, Ferrari +20.639

3 Kobayashi, Sauber +24.538

4 Button, McLaren +25.098

5 Hamilton, McLaren +46.490

6 Raikkonen, Lotus +50.424

7 Hulkenberg, Force India +51.129

8 Maldonado, Williams +52.364

9 Webber, Red Bull +54.675

10 Ricciardo, Toro Rosso +1.06.919

11 Schumacher, Mercedes +1.07.769

12 Di Resta, Force India +1.23.400

13 Vergne, Toro Rosso +1.28.600

14 Senna, Williams +1.28.700

15 Kovalainen, Caterham +1 lap

16 Glock, Marussia +1 lap

17 Petrov, Caterham + 1 lap

18 De la Rosa, Hispania + 1 lap

19 Grosjean, Lotus + 1 lap Retired

20 Pic, Marussia 37 laps

21 Karthikeyan, Hispania 32 laps

22 Perez, Sauber 18 laps

23 Alonso, Ferrari 0 laps

24 Rosberg, Mercedes 0 laps

 

Drivers' championship

Fernando Alonso, Spain 194 pts

Sebastian Vettel, Germany 190

Kimi Raikkonen, Finland 157

Lewis Hamilton, Britain 152

Mark Webber, Australia 135

Jenson Button, Britain 131

Nico Rosberg, Germany 93

Romain Grosjean, France 82

Felipe Massa, Brazil 69

Sergio Perez, Mexico 66

Kamui Kobayashi, Japan 50

Paul di Resta, Britain 44

Michael Schumacher, Germany, 43

Nico Hulkenberg, Germany 37

Pastor Maldonado, Venezuela 33

Bruno Senna, Brazil 25

Jean-Eric Vergne, France 8

Daniel Ricciardo, Australia 7

Timo Glock, Germany 0

Charles Pic, France 0

Vitaly Petrov, Russia 0

Heikki Kovalainen, Finland 0

Pedro de la Rosa, Spain 0

Narain Karthikeyan, India 0

 

Constructors' championship

Red Bull Racing-Renault 324

McLaren-Mercedes 283

Ferrari 263

Lotus-Renault 239

Mercedes 136

Sauber-Ferrari 116

Force India-Mercedes 81

Williams-Renault 58

STR-Ferrari 15

Marussia-Cosworth 0

Caterham-Renault 0

HRT-Cosworth 0