The Japanese Grand Prix provided a dramatic turn of events in the drivers' championship as Fernando Alonso crashed out on the first corner and Sebastian Vettel stormed to the win, tightening the distance between the two two-time champions atop the point standings.
Starting from pole, Vettel got away cleanly and held his lead into turn one. Behind him, though, things were less cut and dry. Red Bull Racing teammate Mark Webber, starting second, got away poorly and was passed by Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi. Webber then found himself alongside Lotus’s Romain Grosjean -- not a good place to be this year. When Webber turned in ahead of the Lotus, Grosjean held his line and collided with the back side of Webber's RB8.
The resultant damage saw Webber detour to pit lane for repairs at the end of the first lap, leaving him a long road to recovery from the back of the field.
Meanwhile, at lights out, Alonso, starting sixth on the grid, found himself under pressure from Kimi Raikkonen who had started just behind. The Lotus driver made a mistake, however, and put a wheel on the grass as he chased Alonso down. The momentary loss of control was enough to send him crashing into the back of the Ferrari and the championship leader was suddenly off and out of the race in a cloud of dust.
"I had no space on the right, I had Button I think on my left, I had Kimi... and I don't understand why Kimi didn't lift off or anything because there was not any room," Alonso said. "I don't know what was Kimi's idea for the first corner, but that is the way it is and this time it was bad luck for us."
Alonso insisted, however, that he won't give up on the championship despite Red Bull dominating all weekend in Japan and seeing his title lead cut to just four points by Vettel's win.
“It's five races to go, it will be like a mini championship, because we start with the same points and we need to score one more point [than Vettel] in five races. So we will try to do it,” he said.
Back on track, Alonso's woes were all the incentive Vettel needed. After a brief safety-car period he quickly powered to an 11-second lead by the time he dived for the pits for his first stop. He emerged with his lead intact, and over the next 20 laps, set about extending his advantage as behind him his rivals tussled for the remaining podium positions.
By lap 37 and his final stop, Seb was a whopping 35 seconds ahead of second-placed Felipe Massa and with his lead unassailable, the champion throttled back to cruise to victory.
"You come across these kinds of races or weekends very, very rarely,” said Vettel afterwards. “We had a very good start, obviously that was important, as Mark was running into trouble in turns one and two. Then I saw the safety-car boards. I think right behind me there was a little bit of a crash and I saw a Ferrari was out.
“I wasn't sure which and then halfway through the race, when I was looking at the tower to see where the others are, I saw the car still racing was Felipe's, so I was assuming Fernando was not racing any more.
“After that I had a very, very good race car and I said to the guys that when you dream about how a race car should be, (today's) was exactly what you’re wishing for, so I’m very happy and very proud of the team.”
It was a tougher afternoon for Webber. After his first-lap accident he found himself right at the back of the field in 22nd place but on the hard tire and primed for a long stint.
He soon began to claw his way through the field and by the time he made his sole regulation stop he was in 10th place and in the points. After that it was all about consolidation and the Australian eventually came home ninth to score two points.
After the race though the Australian expressed his frustration over the first-lap incident.
“I haven't seen what happened at the start but the guys confirmed it was the first-lap nutcase again – Grosjean,” said Webber. “The rest of us are trying to fight for some decent results each weekend but he’s trying to get to the third corner as fast as he can at every race.
“It makes it frustrating because a few big guys obviously suffered from that today. Maybe he needs another holiday,” he added, referring to the one-race ban Grosjean received for causing a first-corner accident in Belgium.
Of his fight-back, Webber said: “We were on a one-stop strategy which is not exactly stimulating around here but we got something from it. We kept pushing, I didn't give up and finished eight seconds behind fifth place.”
For Massa and Kobayashi it was an altogether more profitable weekend, with Massa taking his first podium since the Korean GP of 2010 and Kobayashi claiming his first ever top-three finish, in front of his home crowd no less.
“I was joking before the race that I've had a couple of chances to get on the podium but I've never had luck and I couldn't get it, but if I get the podium at this race maybe it's destiny," said Kobayashi. "So I'm very happy for the fans, and I had so many supporting me when I look at the crowd around the circuit. It's amazing so I have to really thank the fans.”
With a 27-point haul from the Japanese GP, Red Bull Racing have now extended their lead in the constructors' championship and with 324 points now have a 41-point advantage over McLaren, for whom Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton finished fourth and fifth today.
The headline news, however, is that with just five races left Vettel, with 190 points, sits just four behind Alonso. Since the summer break the defending champion has scored 68 points, more than double Alonso's total. It seems the title momentum has well and truly shifted.