Sebastian Vettel won a close tactical battle with team-mate Mark Webber to land his ninth victory of the season at the Japanese Grand Prix. The result edged the German ever closer to his fourth title as chief championship rival Fernando Alonso finished fourth behind Romain Grosjean.
Both Vettel, starting second, and pole position man Webber made poor getaways when the lights went out. After initially trying to defend, Webber took a wide line into turn one, avoiding problems. Vettel though was in trouble. Lewis Hamilton and Grosjean passed on either side but as they funnelled into turn one, Vettel’s front wing clipped the right rear of Hamilton’s car.
The Mercedes driver was forced to pit with a puncture and later had to retire from the race as a result of the incident.
Vettel, though, escaped intact, but down in third place behind Webber and leader Grosjean. The situation led to a re-evaluation of his race strategy and Vettel was then told to back off from pursuit of Webber to save his tyres for a slightly longer first stint. Webber meanwhile, would soon move to a three-stop race in a bid to find pace at the end.
The Australian made his way to the pit lane after 11 laps and was followed a lap later by Grosjean, but Vettel stayed out until lap 14 before taking on the hard tyre and beginning a long stint designed to push him ahead of his rivals.
Behind the leading trio, Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo, one of only two drivers to start on prime hard tyre, rose to fourth after the others had stopped and was soon backing up the field behind. That played into the hands of Alonso who, after starting eighth, passed team-mate Felipe Massa and closed on Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg before Ricciardo made his way to the pit lane. A drive-through penalty for fifth-placed Nico Rosberg following an unsafe release from his pit stop also helped Alonso.
Ahead, though, Vettel was patiently stalking leader Grosjean and second-placed Webber.
And when Webber made his second stop on lap 25, Vettel pounced. He upped his pace and began to close on Grosjean and when the Frenchman made his second stop on lap 29, Vettel swept past into the lead.
Webber, though, was on fresher tyres and with Grosjean now third, the Australian began to close the gap to his Red Bull team-mate. A 12-second deficit dropped to seven by lap 37 when Vettel made his second stop and it looked like Webber might make a fight of it.
Vettel though was sensing victory. Third on the road after his stop he chased down Grosjean and passed the Lotus on lap 40. And when leader Webber made his third stop on lap 42, Vettel reclaimed the lead and powered towards the flag.
His team-mate attempted to respond with the better pace of his fresh medium tyres but a sequence of slow laps behind a defensive Grosjean on old tyres put paid to Webber’s chances and he was forced to settle for second behind his team-mate.
“We started already to go longer than Romain and Mark in the first stint,” said Vettel after taking his fourth career win in Suzuka. “We took into account that we were a second a lap slower for two or three laps compared to them in order to get the range in the next stint and then tried to extend that to really put them under pressure towards the end. That was, let’s say, the game plan.
“Obviously after the first pitstop, Mark decided to go for the three-stop which wasn’t far off. Before the race I think we targeted more towards two stop but the tyres weren’t holding up as well as probably we thought,” he added. “I really tried to manage the gaps in the beginning of the stint and then close the gap, which worked brilliantly, especially with Romain. The end of the second stint I was just on his tail when he pitted, able to stay out another couple of laps and then I had more or less fresh tyres when I was able to pass him, so, yeah, great strategy.”
For Webber it was a bitter sweet occasion, satisfying to be on the podium in his final visit to Suzuka in an F1 car but disappointing to have missed out on victory.
“I would have liked one more step on the podium but there were different strategies going on,” said Webber. “Seb went longer in the first stint and then it unloaded his race a bit better than mine at the end. So, in general, pretty happy with second but you always want a bit more but we got the best out of it today.
“Both of us had very poor starts, which put us on the back foot a little bit and then after that it was just really trying to pace the car again on the tyres and making sure they survived to do the sort of strategy we wanted to.”
Alonso, meanwhile, passed Sauber’s Nico Hulkenberg on lap 45 to claim a fourth place that at least keeps the Drivers’ Championship battle alive for another race. The Spaniard now has 207 points, 90 adrift of Vettel.
Behind the Ferrari driver, Kimi Raikkonen also found a way past Hulkenberg to take fifth place. It was still a good weekend for the improving Sauber team, however, as Hulkenberg claimed eight points with sixth place and team-mate Esteban Gutierrez claimed the first six points of his F1 career with seventh place. Jenson Button finished ninth for McLaren and the final point was taken by Ferrari’s Felipe Massa.
2013 Japanese Grand Prix – Race Result
1 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull Racing 53 1:26:49.301 25
2 Mark Webber Red Bull Racing 53 +7.1 secs 18
3 Romain Grosjean Lotus 53 +9.9 secs 15
4 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 53 +45.6 secs 12
5 Kimi Räikkönen Lotus 53 +47.3 secs 10
6 Nico Hulkenberg Sauber 53 +51.6 secs 8
7 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 53 +71.6 secs 6
8 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 53 +72.0 secs 4
9 Jenson Button McLaren 53 +80.8 secs 2
10 Felipe Massa Ferrari 53 +89.2 secs 1
11 Paul di Resta Force India 53 +98.5 secs
12 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 52 +1 Lap
13 Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso 52 +1 Lap
14 Adrian Sutil Force India 52 +1 Lap
15 Sergio Perez McLaren 52 +1 Lap
16 Pastor Maldonado Williams 52 +1 Lap
17 Valtteri Bottas Williams 52 +1 Lap
18 Charles Pic Caterham 52 +1 Lap
19 Max Chilton Marussia 52 +1 Lap
Ret Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 7 Puncture damage
Ret Giedo van der Garde Caterham 0 Accident
Ret Jules Bianchi Marussia 0 Accident