Sebastian Vettel led from the start to win the Japanese Grand Prix and move to within four points of Formula One championship leader Fernando Alonso, who spun out of the race on the first lap.
Red Bull’s Vettel followed his Sept. 23 triumph in Singapore by finishing 20.6 seconds ahead of Ferrari’s Felipe Massa yesterday at Suzuka, becoming the first to secure back-to-back victories this season. Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi was third, giving Japanese drivers a home podium place for the first time since 1990.
Alonso of Ferrari retired after getting a rear-wheel puncture during contact with Kimi Raikkonen’s Lotus heading into the first corner. The Spaniard, a two-time world champion, tops the standings on 194 points with five races remaining.
“It’s a shame for Alonso, it’s not something you hope for and it could happen to us at the next race,” Vettel said in a team statement. “We’ve seen this year there are a lot of up and downs and things change quickly. We have to keep our heads down and take it step by step.”
The 25-year-old German is the 4-6 favorite to win his third straight drivers’ title ahead of 13-8 chance Alonso, according to U.K. bookmaker William Hill. Red Bull is the favorite for the constructors’ championship, where it has 324 points to McLaren’s 283, with Ferrari on 263 and Lotus 239.
Vettel’s victory was his third at Suzuka. He converted pole position into a lead at the first corner and gradually increased his advantage in the 53-lap race.
Alonso didn’t complete a single lap after Raikkonen ran slightly off the road and touched the Ferrari’s left-rear tire as he rejoined the track, causing a puncture and tipping the Spaniard into a spin as he went into the first turn.
“When you cannot even get past the first corner it’s sad,” Alonso said in a televised interview. “We need to think and concentrate for next week. Others are making mistakes and we need to avoid this.”
Massa’s second place put him on the podium for the first time since the 2010 Korean Grand Prix. Korea will host the 16th of 20 races Oct. 14 in Yeongam.
Kobayashi was greeted with chants of “Kamui, Kamui, Kamui” on the presentation platform after holding off Jenson Button by half a second to secure a career-best third place.
He’s only the third Japanese F-1 driver to score a top-three finish after Aguri Suzuki in 1990 at Suzuka and Takuma Sato at the 2004 U.S. Grand Prix.
“I had to push to defend my podium place,” Kobayashi, 26, said. “Only during the final lap did I allow myself to really think I can keep him behind me, because then the best overtaking opportunity at the end of the straight was over, and then I saw all the fans and the raised hands. It meant a lot to me.”
Button finished ahead of McLaren teammate Lewis Hamilton, while Raikkonen was sixth after fighting off a challenge from Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and Pastor Maldonado in a Williams in the closing stages.
Raikkonen is in third place in the championship, 33 points behind Vettel and five ahead of Hamilton, who has 152 points.
Mark Webber is in fifth place after fighting his way back up the field to finish ninth yesterday after being put into a spin on the first corner by Lotus’s Romain Grosjean, who received a 10-second stop-and-go penalty for crashing into Webber’s Red Bull. Grosjean was banned from the Sept. 9 Italian Grand Prix after causing a first-corner pile-up in Belgium the previous week.
Toro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo in 10th place rounded out the points-scoring positions at Suzuka.
“We’re trying to fight for results each weekend and it doesn’t help so, yeah, it’s frustrating as a few of the big guys suffered out there,” Webber said of his collision with Grosjean. “I didn’t give up and got something from it. I’ll come back in Korea.”