Underdogs turned front-runners. Grands prix won by six different drivers. Four teams switching their lineups midseason. A multiple world champion (quite nearly) returning to the grid. A team principal and technical director shamed into retirement. A retiring motorsport figurehead sparking a heated race for his succession, and several new teams preparing to join the grid. More so than any other in recent memory, this season of Formula One racing has been packed with excitement. But now it all comes down to three things: points, points and – you guessed it – points. Because while the championship has been in contention since the start of the season some seven months ago in Melbourne, we're now down to the final rounds where the titles will be ultimately decided.
Crossing the East China Sea from Singapore to Japan, Jenson Button held a commanding lead in the drivers' standings, and with his teammate Rubens Barrichello in second place, Brawn GP looked poised to take the constructors' crown as well. All they'd need would be another few points and they'd have it all locked up, leaving their rivals fighting over the table scraps. Follow the jump to see if they got 'em.
Those who tuned in on Saturday for the qualifying order may have been surprised to find the Brawn boys farther down the starting grid than expected. In their place, Sebastian Vettel – winner of two races this season and the Brawn duo's chief rival – sitting on pole. Beside him, one Jarno Trulli, the Toyota driver who started out the season with a promising couple of podiums before being relegated to the back of the field in the ensuing weeks. Defending champion Lewis Hamilton took the third spot on the grid, ahead of Force India's impressively scrappy Adrian Sutil. Rubens came in only fifth on the grid, his title-leading wingman Jenson in seventh, with BMW's Nick Heidfeld sandwiched in sixth and Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen in eighth.
As soon as the race got underway, Hamilton KERS-boosted himself past Trulli but couldn't get around Vettel. The youngest race winner in the sport's history, Vettel would go on to open up an unassailable lead over the course of the race to take a dominant checkered flag – his third this season – putting himself and his team back in contention for both titles.
Behind him, Hamilton and Trulli managed to stay ahead of the pack for nearly the entire race. The Toyota driver stayed out two laps more than Hamilton during the second round of pit stops to retake second place, matching his teammate's second-place finish in Singapore last weekend and the team's best result to date.
While Vettel, Trulli and Hamilton separated themselves from the field, further behind them the rest of the pack fought valiantly for every point. Button's hopes of locking up the title in Japan were dashed when his seventh-place starting position quickly evaporated to 12th, as Raikkonen, Kovalainen, Buemi, Rosberg and Alonso all sped by. Not exactly championship material, but before the race was over he'd manage to squeak into the points with an eighth-place finish, just behind Barrichello's seventh, giving the Brawn team a few extra points to keep them ahead of their rivals.
Unfortunately for the contenders at Red Bull, Mark Webber didn't fare nearly as well. The Australian driver, who won his first race earlier this season, set the fastest lap of the day, which only goes to show what could have been if he hadn't been forced to pit early a devastating three times with mechanical problems. He finished dead last, two laps down.
The B-squad had an even worse day, however, as neither of its rookie drivers managed to finish the race. Alguersuari went out in a dramatic crash and Buemi was foiled by a clutch problem. The Toro Rosso pair joined Toyota's Timo Glock on the sidelines.
Force India's Sutil and McLaren's Kovalainen battled wheel to wheel for much of the race distance, only for Giancarlo Fisichella – still learning the ropes at Ferrari – to squeeze in between. All three drivers finished outside the points, in 11th, 12th and 13th positions. Behind them, Force India's returning Tonio Liuzzi crossed the line in 14th, Williams' Kazuki Nakajima in 15th, and Renault's Romain Grosjean in 16th. Ahead of them, Fernando Alonso took tenth with a one-stop strategy, and Kubica fought hard only to finish ninth, just outside the points.
Up ahead, teammate Nick Heidfeld carried the torch for the departing BMW Sauber team with a sixth-place finish, just ahead of the Brawn pair. Nico Rosberg took the opportunity to pit under the safety car called out in the wake of the Alguersuari crash, a strategy that earned the young German a fifth-place finish.
Meanwhile, Kimi Raikkonen, waging a one-man fight to secure Ferrari third place in the constructors' championship before leaving the team, managed to get by Button, Heidfeld and Barrichello to take fourth place.
The results demonstrate once again that a driver's chief rival is his teammate: Button leads Barrichello with 85 points to 71, Vettel now follows close behind with 69 points. Red Bull, meanwhile, trails Brawn in the constructors' standings with 120.5 points to 156. Quick arithmetic will tell you that, with two races to go, both titles are still in contention, but just barely. Tune in again in two weeks' time for the Brazilian Grand Prix from Sao Paulo as it all comes down to the wire.