The 2012 Japanese Grand Prix proved to be vital for the title battle. Fernando Alonso left the Suzuka circuit with a heavily eroded lead over Sebastian Vettel in the driver’s standings, a lead that he would eventually lose at the next race in Korea.
The F1 paddock returned to Suzuka for the 28th running of the Japanese Grand Prix. A real driver’s circuit, the track mixes high-speed bends with twisty corners and long straights.
The race wasn’t the most exciting race of the season, but it certainly provided some high drama and gave the packed grandstands something to cheer about with home hero Kamui Kobayashi collecting a big haul of points with his best ever career finish.
Jenson Button started the weekend where he left off 12 months earlier. After winning the race in 2011, he topped the first session before losing out to the Red Bulls of Webber and Vettel in the second and third sessions.
Qualifying arrived and it was the usual suspects who dropped out in the first session, Bruno Senna being the sole mid-field runner to join them. Felipe Massa struggled during the second session and was knocked out alongside di Resta and Schumacher – who had just announced his second retirement from F1. Maldonado, Rosberg, Ricciardo and Vergne completed those in the drop-zone.
The top 10 shoot-out arrived and it was Sebastian Vettel who emerged on top. He took pole position ahead of Webber, Button, Kobayashi and Grosjean. Perez, Alonso and Raikkonen were next up with Hamilton dropping to ninth and Hulkenberg rounding out the top 10. However, Button and Hulkenberg dropped down the grid thanks to gearbox penalties.
Race day arrived and the Suzuka circuit was bathed in stunning sunshine. Vettel had a strong start and led into turn one but front-row starter Mark Webber dropped to third, losing out to Kobayashi. Further back Raikkonen made contact with Alonso after the Finn was squeezed out on the run to the first corner.
With a punctured tyre, Alonso spun off track and through the gravel before coming to rest at the entry to turn two. He wasn’t the only one in the wars. Mark Webber was hit by Romain Grosjean after the Frenchman took too much speed through the second turn and Rosberg collided with Bruno Senna.
Unlike Alonso and Rosberg, Webber was able to get back on track after his trip across the grass. The chaos at turn one caused a rather large field spread that was soon eliminated by the deployment of the safety car. It wasn’t out for long though, returning to the pit lane at the end of lap two and unleashing the chasing pack.
It was a dominant restart for Vettel as Kobayashi was caught napping, holding up those behind. He soon eked out a sizeable lead over those behind with drivers struggling for tyre degradation as early as lap eight on what is a very demanding circuit.
Jenson Button and Kimi Raikkonen were the first drivers to stop on lap 14. Sauber reacted by bringing Kobayashi in on the following lap. He managed to maintain his position ahead of Button but both drivers were held up by Daniel Ricciardo. This caused them both to lose out to Felipe Massa when the Ferrari driver stopped for the first time on lap 17, the same lap as Vettel’s trip to the pit lane.
Sergio Perez was the races third retirement after spinning into the gravel trap at turn 10 on lap 20. Mark Webber had been making a quiet rise through the field, climbing to ninth place by lap 23. The Aussie soon found the ‘cliff’ with his Pirelli tyres though, diving immediately into the pits for his second stop. Raikkonen followed him in shortly after but lost out in the pit stop sequence to Lewis Hamilton.
Through the second stops Sebastian Vettel continued to extend his advantage at the front of the field. The German looked at ease in first place with Massa running in a clear second place. Kobayashi was hanging on to third but Button soon began to close in.
Narain Karthikeyan and Charles Pic were late retirements and Bruno Senna made a stunning move on Romain Grosjean around the outside at the formidable 130R. Meanwhile further up the field it was Button who was on a charge. The Brit had third place firmly in his sights and closed in on Kobayashi. With eight laps to go the gap was just 1.8 seconds.
However at the head of the field it was Sebastian Vettel who took the race win. It was his third race victory around the twists and turns of the Suzuka circuit and his third win of the 2012 season. Massa finished 20 seconds off the Red Bull driver in second with Kobayashi clinching an emotional first podium finish.
Button and Hamilton completed the top five with Raikkonen, Hulkenberg and Maldonado close behind. Webber recovered to ninth place with Ricciardo completing the top 10.
With Alonso retiring from the race, Vettel edged to within four points of the Spaniard in the driver’s standings as the battle heated up. McLaren edged slightly further away from Ferrari in the constructor’s championship but Red Bull continued to dominate at the front.