Vettel closes the gap on leader Alonso

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FORMULA ONE / Podium finish for Massa and Kamui Kobayashi

SIMPLY SUPERB:Sebastian Vettel, who became the first driver to win back-to-back races this season after his victory in Singapore two weeks ago, celebrates with Kamui Kobayashi.— PHOTO: AP
SIMPLY SUPERB:Sebastian Vettel, who became the first driver to win back-to-back races this season after his victory in Singapore two weeks ago, celebrates with Kamui Kobayashi.— PHOTO: AP

: Sebastian Vettel slashed the Formula One title race to just four points on Sunday as he stormed to victory in the Japanese Grand Prix after championship leader Fernando Alonso span out on the first turn.

Red Bull’s double defending world champion escaped a chaotic start and sped away to win by more than 20 seconds ahead of Ferrari’s Felipe Massa and home favourite Kamui Kobayashi, whose first podium received huge roars from the capacity crowd.

The 25-year-old Vettel, who won in Singapore two weeks ago, threw the championship wide open as he became the only man this year with back-to-back victories. With five races left, he trails Alonso 194 points to 190.

Alonso, of Ferrari, was eliminated when he was hit by rival Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus at the first corner and suffered a puncture, kicking up plumes of dust as he skidded into the dirt.

Legendary feat

As carnage ensued behind him, Vettel was left out in front and he raced to a luxurious triumph, the 24th of his career, a feat that drew him level with the legendary Argentine Juan-Manuel Fangio in the record books.

Alonso has not led a race since the German Grand Prix in July and his ascendancy in the championship has been more due to consistency than outright speed. On Sunday’s evidence, Vettel now has both.

“I saw the safety car at the beginning, but I had a very good start and that was very important. I knew behind me there was a crash and I saw a Ferrari was out, but wasn’t sure which one,” said Vettel.

“Halfway through I was looking to see the others and I saw their (Ferrari) car still racing. It was Felipe; I didn’t know what happened to Fernando.”

Massa’s podium finish was his first in 35 races, and may help the under-fire Brazilian retain his seat in 2013. But his success was overshadowed by the rapturous welcome that greeted Kobayashi.

Emotional scenes

In emotional scenes, the crowd chanted “Kamui, Kamui” until the driver, keen not to disappoint them, appeared on the podium with a broad, if bashful, smile and a big wave.

“Thank you very much everyone,” said Kobayashi, who became only the third Japanese driver to mount a Formula One podium, and the first in Japan since Aguri Suzuki in 1991. “This is my first podium, and in Japan. Fantastic, unbelievable.”

Jenson Button finished fourth for McLaren ahead of his Mercedes-bound team-mate Lewis Hamilton, with Raikkonen sixth behind the two Britons. Nico Hulkenberg of Force India came home seventh ahead of Pastor Maldonado of Williams and Australians Mark Webber of Red Bull, who was involved in the first corner accidents after starting second, and Daniel Ricciardo of Toro Rosso.

Retirement-bound seven-time champion Michael Schumacher, 43, finished 11th, just failing to score a point after starting from the back of the grid for Mercedes.

Perfect start

On a warm and dry day with a track temperature of 32 degrees Celsius (90 Fahrenheit), Vettel made a perfect start and drew clear of the pack —but behind him, it was mayhem.

In a thunderous burst of collisions, similar to the start of last month’s Belgian race, both Alonso and Nico Rosberg of Mercedes were knocked out while Webber was also forced off the circuit, but recovered.

Re-runs showed Raikkonen rammed into Alonso and punctured his left rear tyre, in a bitterly frustrating incident for the Spaniard. Webber was shunted by Romain Grosjean of Lotus, who was hit with a one-race ban after the Belgium pile-up, and Rosberg was the victim of a mistake from Williams’ Bruno Senna. Both offending drivers were given drive-through penalties.

Webber later called Grosjean “a first-lap nutcase” and suggested the Frenchman “maybe needs another holiday”.

When the safety car withdrew Vettel streaked away in front followed by Massa and Sauber’s Sergio Perez, who will replace Hamilton at McLaren next year and raced with great vim before making a mistake and spinning out.

And Vettel, revelling in the performance of his Red Bull car, simply romped away.

The results: 1. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) 1:28:56.242, 2. Felipe Massa (Ferrari) +20.639 3. Kamui Kobayashi (Sauber) +24.538, 4. Jenson Button (McLaren) +25.098, 5. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) +46.490, 6. Kimi Raikkonen (Lotus) +50.424, 7. Nico Hulkenberg (Force India) +51.159, 8. Pastor Maldonado (Williams) +52.364, 9. Mark Webber (Red Bull) +54.675, 10. Daniel Ricciardo (Toro Rosso) +01:06.919 11. Michael Schumacher (Mercedes) +01:07.769, 12. Paul di Resta (Force India) +01:23.460, 13. Jean-Eric Vergne (Toro Rosso) +01:28.645, 14. Bruno Senna (Williams) +01:28.709, 15. Heikki Kovalainen (Caterham) 1 lap, 16. Timo Glock (Marussia) 1 lap 17. Vitaly Petrov (Caterham) 1 lap, 18. Pedro de la Rosa (HRT) 1 lap. Did not finish: Romain Grosjean (Lotus), Charles Pic (Marussia), Narain Karthikeyan (HRT), Sergio Perez (Sauber), Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), Nico Rosberg (Mercedes)

Overall standings: Drivers: 1. Alonso 194, 2. Vettel 190, 3. Raikkonen 157, 4. Hamilton 152, 5. Webber 134, 6. Button 131, 7. Rosberg 93, 8. Grosjean 82, 9. Massa 69, 10. Perez 66, 11. Kobayashi 50, 12. Paul di Resta 44, 13. Schumacher 43, 14. Hulkenberg 37, 15. Maldonado 33, 16. Senna 25, 17. Vergne 8, 18. Ricciardo 7.

Constructors: 1. Red Bull 324, 2. McLaren 283, 3. Ferrari 263, 4. Lotus 239, 5. Mercedes 136, 6. Sauber 116, 7. Force India 81, 8. Williams 58, 9. Toro Rosso 15. — AFP

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