Click above for high-res gallery of the Japanese F1 GP

Wildcards. That's what racing fans want, isn't it? Yet so many seasons in the recent history of grand prix racing have been down to just a handful of drivers – just one or two, in many cases – contending for race victories and ultimately the championship. Last year's four-way face-off between Kimi Raikkonnen, Felipe Massa, Lewis Hamilton and Fernando Alonso put the racing world on notice. But even that free-for-all is paling by comparison to this season, with no fewer than seven drivers (Hamilton, Raikkonen, Massa, BMW's Robert Kubica, McLaren's number two Heikki Kovalainen, double world champion Fernando Alonso and even perennial back-marker Toro Rosso's Sebastian Vettel) taking turns on the top step of the podium, turning the 2008 FIA Formula One World Championship into a heated battle the likes of which we haven't seen for a long time. This weekend's Japanese Grand Prix was no exception. And if you don't have it recorded for future enjoyment, follow the jump to read why.

Related Gallery2008 Japanese Formula One Grand Prix

Arriving in the land of the rising sun, the Japanese Grand Prix could have been anyone's for the taking. Lewis Hamilton, Fernando Alonso and Kimi Raikkonen have all claimed victories at the event before (although in Kimi's and Fernando's cases, it was at Suzuka while this year's race, like the last, was held at Fuji). But after Saturday's qualifying session was done, it was Hamilton who took pole, with his arch-rival Raikkonen next to him in second place and team-mate Kovalainen right behind him in third. Alonso, Massa and Kubica rounded out the front of the remaining grid. But some hard-core wheel-to-wheel action saw a quick change-up in the succession straight from the green lights.

Coming off the line, Raikkonen pulled away faster than Hamilton, but the British driver tried to defend his position by pushing the Finn wide going into Turn 1. Both drivers skidded off the track, along with their team-mates who were trying to avoid a crash. The four drivers fell back in traffic while attempting recovery, allowing Kubica and Alonso to slip by into the lead positions. On the second lap, while fighting his way back to the front, Massa cut across the curbing at Turn 10 and pushed Hamilton into a spin. Both Hamilton and Massa later received drive-through penalties for their respective incidents, relegating the two title front-runners to the mid-field for the rest of the race, a situation from which they would not recover.

Back at the front, meanwhile, the heat was on between Kubica and Alonso, with the Renault champion ultimately taking the lead in the pits only to open it up even further on the track. Raikkonen managed to pick his way through the field to wage battle against Kubica for third, all the while the second Renault car, piloted by championship scion Nelson Piquet Jr., managed to climb from 12th position on the grid all the way up to fourth, hoping to grab a podium finish from Kubica or Raikkonen as the pair fought each other for position.

In the meantime, Alonso continued to secure his lead, crossing the line over five seconds clear of Kubica. Raikkonen took a solid third place, while Piquet claimed fourth, his second best result since his debut at the start of this season. The unexpectedly dominant finish by Renault demonstrated how much the team has improved in the latter part of the season.

Behind Nelsinho, Toyota's Jarno Trulli took an admirable fifth place, while the pair of Sebs at Toro Rosso surprised yet again by taking sixth and seventh with four-time Champ Car champion Bourdais ahead of Italian Grand Prix winner Vettel. Massa took the final point with an eighth-place finish, closing in on Hamilton's lead by one point, now down to six with only two rounds to go. With both Ferraris, meanwhile, finishing in the points, and neither McLaren claiming a single one, the Scuderia reclaimed its lead in the constructors' championship. Check this space next week for the results from the upcoming Chinese Grand Prix from Shangai ahead of the season closer in Brazil at the end of the month.

Related Gallery2008 Japanese Formula One Grand Prix

2008 Japanese Grand Prix

1. Alonso Renault
2. Kubica BMW Sauber
3. Raikkonen Ferrari
4. Piquet Renault
5. Trulli Toyota
6. Bourdais Toro Rosso-Ferrari
7. Vettel Toro Rosso-Ferrari
8. Massa Ferrari
9. Webber Red Bull-Renault
10. Heidfeld BMW Sauber
11. Rosberg Williams-Toyota
12. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes
13. Barrichello Honda
14. Button Honda
15. Nakajima Williams-Toyota

Fastest lap: Massa, 1:18.426

Not classified/retirements:
Fisichella Force India-Ferrari
Kovalainen McLaren-Mercedes
Sutil Force India-Ferrari
Glock Toyota
Coulthard Red Bull-Renault

World Championship standings
after 16 rounds

1. Hamilton 84
2. Massa 78
3. Kubica 72
4. Raikkonen 63
5. Heidfeld 56
6. Kovalainen 51
7. Alonso 48
8. Trulli 30
9. Vettel 29
10. Glock 20
11. Webber 20
12. Piquet 18
13. Rosberg 17
14. Barrichello 11
15. Nakajima 9
16. Coulthard 8
17. Bourdais 7
18. Button 3

1. Ferrari 141
2. McLaren-Mercedes 135
3. BMW Sauber 128
4. Renault 66
5. Toyota 50
6. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 36
7. Red Bull-Renault 28
8. Williams-Toyota 26
9. Honda 14