The 2011 Japanese Grand Prix was an important one for Sebastian Vettel. The German driver was mere points away from securing his second straight World Championship F1 title, and nobody was going to get in his way. Except they did. Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso out-thought the Red Bull man to relegate him to third position — enough for the crown he craved — but not the victory he wanted.
Sunday’s edition of the race put the record straight for Vettel, as he mimicked his 2011 nemesis’ tactics to deliver his fourth Suzuka victory in five years; 2009, 2010, 2012 and 2013 will indelibly be remembered as examples of Sebastian Vettel’s imperious skill and talent.
“I love this track, and it’s just fantastic to win here.” — Sebastian Vettel
The German didn’t get it all his own way, though. Teammate Mark Webber, retiring at the end of the 2013 season, planted his own Red Bull on pole position on Saturday ahead of the German to cement a one-two start for the Anglo-Austrian team. Both men made torrid starts, however, and as they bogged down French driver Romain Grosjean launched his Lotus car into an early lead ahead of Webber, Vettel and the chasing pack.
While the battle for the win became a study in tactical and strategical nous, the fight behind the rampant three leaders was anything but. Here, brute force was the order of the day, and overtaking abounded as the drivers squabbled for position. The action even continued in the pitlane, with Mercedes' unsafe release of the departing Nico Rosberg into the path of incoming Mexican Sergio Perez, earning the German a drive-through penalty for almost causing an accident. However, the McLaren driver made contact with Rosberg later in the race, suffered a puncture and had his own Grand Prix ruined beyond redemption.
Up front, Vettel stalked Grosjean and Webber from a distance as the Australian attempted to keep close behind the Lotus. This backfired, burning up Webber’s fragile Pirelli rubber too quickly and forcing him into a three-stop pit strategy that would see him having to mount a late race charge on fresher tires for victory. When Grosjean also peeled off into the pitlane, Vettel made his move and hammered in the fast laps he needed to close the gap.
When the final stops played out, the German was close enough to put a pass on the Frenchman, who resisted firmly but fairly, and the lead fell to Vettel when Webber, who had managed to overtake Grosjean, was forced to pit for the third and final time. Despite exiting the pits on new, faster tires, the Aussie spent too long repassing Grosjean to pose a threat to the reigning World Champion. The win was Vettel’s fifth in a row and ninth of the season.
“I love this track, and it’s just fantastic to win here.” smiled the German.
“It was a horrible start, to be honest; we found ourselves sitting in third place and then tried to go longer in the first stint. I had great traction after I got past Romain, and after that the only threat was Mark, who got stuck behind Romain. We could then manage the gap until the end of the race.”
His championship aspirations are still on hold, however, as Spain’s Fernando Alonso finished in fourth place to ensure that the "fight" for the 2013 title will go to the next race in India in two weeks’ time. The Ferrari star is not foolish enough to believe he can actually stop the Red Bull man’s inevitable triumph, though. "Even if Vettel doesn't finish all of the races, I need to win nearly all, so it's a matter of time [until Vettel is champion]," he said.
The Indian Grand Prix, taking place at the Buddh International Circuit near Delhi, will see Vettel crowned for the fourth time if he finishes fifth or higher, a task it is hard to imagine the German failing to accomplish.