The plot for the 2012 Formula One World championship gets even more intriguing. Just a week ago, Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso looked set to cruise to the champion’s title. Alonso’s first corner accident and Sebastian Vettel’s victory in Suzuka changed all that. Now with five races remaining, the Spaniard leads the German by just four championship points.

On the highly technical Suzuka track, Vettel and the Red Bull car were the class of the field. For the first time in his career, Vettel claimed the coveted ‘triple’ — pole position, fastest lap and victory.

The German’s pace in the closing stages of the race brought ever more frantic messages from his pit wall, telling him to slow down. With about ten laps to go, engineer Guillame Roquellin told him, “be careful to save your tyres”. Undaunted, Vettel set the fastest lap.

Then on the penultimate lap, Roquellin said, “remember, there’s a lot at stake in this race”. This time, Vettel set a lap time almost a full second faster than any of his rivals. The boy was clearly having fun!

Whether Vettel can maintain such pace this weekend in Korea may be another story. A likely track temperature 10 degrees cooler than in balmy Suzuka may switch the balance of power back to McLaren, as may Mercedes’ horsepower advantage on Yeongam’s 1.2 kilometre-long straight. In addition to chasing Alonso for the title, Vettel needs to watch his mirrors for a Hamilton fightback.

Alongside Vettel on the Suzuka podium, the race was no less critical for the other two drivers in the top three. Felipe Massa and Japanese home hero Kamui Kobayashi were driving for their respective careers in the Ferrari and Sauber teams.

In the case of Massa, his run to second place was vindicating proof that given the right car and conditions, he can still deliver a result. After starting a lowly 10th, the Brazilian was perhaps lucky to emerge from the first corner mayhem near the front of the order, but his mid-race pace was critical in giving him second place ahead of Kobayashi.

Massa, many believe, has now done enough to gain a contract extension for another season. However, Kobayashi’s Sauber team has played down the fact that a single good result, even as emotionally charged as his home podium, would change its opinion of the driver’s season-long performance.

Sauber teammate Sergio Perez may just have helped the Japanese driver by moving on to the ‘golden seat’ at McLaren next year. He is almost certain to be replaced by another Mexican, rookie Esteban Gutierrez, who has been the team’s reserve driver this season. To maintain consistency of development, it makes good sense to keep the capable and experienced Kobayashi for another year.

Big talking point

Meanwhile, the other big talking point was Lotus driver Romain Grosjean, who ruined both his own race and Mark Webber’s, with another first corner tangle.

While some have called for the Frenchman to serve another ban and Mark Webber dryly commenting that, “maybe there should be two starts, one for Grosjean and one for the rest of us”, I think a few words should be said in Grosjean’s defence.

After missing Monza as a penalty for causing an accident in Spa, a few drivers assumed, rightly, that Grosjean would be more cautious in his next start in Singapore. They took advantage at the first turn, bundling him down the order.

At Suzuka, Grosjean was determined not to be bullied again. He was fighting with Perez, wheel-to-wheel in the ultra-fast downhill run into the tightening first corner.  Frankly, if he hadn’t hit the slower-moving Webber, Perez would have. 

It was a silly first corner accident, but Grosjean was no more culpable this time than teammate Raikkonen who clipped Alonso and Bruno Senna, who spun Nico Rosberg out of the race. The trouble is, Grosjean now comes with a reputation.

Steve Slater is a race commentator on STAR Sports’ coverage of the F1

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