The Japanese Grand Prix has long held a special place in the Formula One World Championship. Traditionally one of, if not the very last race of the season, Japan has crowned many a champion: in fact the title has been decided there 12 out of the 24 times the Pacific island nation has hosted a grand prix. And of the drivers who've won there the past ten years running, all but Kimi Raikkonen lined up there again this weekend, Suzuka taking back the hosting duties from Fuji once more.
Would this year's race see a new winner atop the podium? Or would Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher or even Rubens Barrichello add the trophy alongside their previous wins in the Land of the Rising Sun? Follow the jump to find out.
[Images: Greg Baker, Mark Baker / AP | Mark Thompson, Shuji Kajiyama / Getty | Toshifumi Kitamura, Jung Yeon-Je, Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP/Getty]
Fans who tuned in, as we typically begin our coverage, on Saturday for qualifying found a whole lot of nothing. Torrential downpours forced the race stewards to cancel Saturday's session due to unsafe track conditions, prompting pundits to ponder more extreme "monsoon" rain tires, and officials to move the qualifying sessions to Sunday morning before the race in the hope of better weather. Fortunately the sun chased away the rain clouds over Suzuka this morning, leaving the track clear for racing.
Red Bull returned to its pole-dominating form in the rescheduled qualifying sessions, locking up the first row as Sebastian Vettel took the top spot with Mark Webber beside him. Lewis Hamilton qualified third, but due to McLaren's decision to swap gearboxes, was penalized five grid positions and relegated to eighth place. Robert Kubica impressed by placing his Renault fourth (third on the starting grid after Hamilton's penalty), followed by Ferrari's Fernando Alonso in fifth (4th), McLaren's Jenson Button (5th), Mercedes GP's Nico Rosberg (6th), Williams' Rubens Barrichello and Nico Hulkenberg sandwiching Hamilton in 7th and 9th respectively, and Mercedes' Michael Schumacher in 10th. Sauber's Nick Heidfeld took 11th while Ferrari's Felipe Massa could manage no better than 12th.
The race action started early as the field took to the grid when Lucas di Grassi lost control of his Virgin-Cosworth before the race even started, totaling his car and ending his race before it even began. That was just the start of the mishaps, however: with the formation lap completed and the race underway, Renault's Vitaly Petrov careened sideways across the track, taking William's Hulkenberg out with him. Ferrari's Massa and Force India's Tonio Liuzzi collided off the line as well, ratcheting the DNF count up to five before the first corner.
The safety car was deployed immediately, and Renault's fortunes looked to be in the better hands of Robert Kubica – jumping from third to second off the line – until the Pole lost his right-rear wheel and the race was over for the French team by the second lap. Meanwhile Merc's Rosberg, Lotus' Jarno Trulli, HRT's Bruno Senna and Virgin's Timo Glock headed for the pits for fresh rubber under the safety car, the latter returning to pit lane a second time on the following lap.
Just four laps in, the Red Bulls remained in the lead (Vettel ahead of Webber), followed by Alonso (3), Button and Hamilton (4 & 5), Barrichello (6), Schumacher (7), Heidfeld (8), Force India's Sutil (up from 15th on the grid to 9th) and Toro Rosso's Jaime Alguersuari (10). Sauber's Kobayashi, STR's Buemi, Merc's Rosberg, Lotus' Heikki Kovalainen, HRT's Sakon Yamamoto, Lotus' Jarno Trulli, HRT's Bruno Senna and Virgin's Timo Glock followed suit as six drivers now watched from the proverbial sidelines.
The safety car that had been out virtually since the start of the race was finally called in at the end of lap 6 and the race got back underway. Mercedes showed promising form as Rosberg (already having completed his mandatory tire-swap) immediately moved past Buemi for P12 and Schumacher squeezed past his old team-mate Barrichello for P6.
A fight ensued at the back between Yamamoto, Trulli and Glock for P15, bearing little effect on the race's eventual outcome but providing an additional spectacle for the fans.
Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi began demonstrating his superior knowledge of his home track in passing Alguersuai for P10 on lap 14, a move which he would repeat a few laps later on Sutil for P9. Sutil, Heidfeld, Barrichello and Alguersuari took their pit stops from the middle of the field on the subsequent laps, and the race leaders began to pit after them.
Hamilton was the first of the front-runners into the pits, surrendering P5 to rejoin P7. Schumacher followed from P5 to return in P9, followed by Vettel from the lead to P3, Alonso from P3 to P4 and Webber from the subsequent lead to P3. Meanwhile Hamilton, on fresh rubber, passed Kobayashi (still yet to pit) as the race leaders began running into lapped back-marker traffic before the half-way mark.
Race fans got their money's worth and then some as Schumacher closed in on the back of Rosberg, both having completed their mandatory pit-stops. "No team orders are in place, but Nico knows to be sensible", declared the strategists on Mercedes GP's pit wall over the radio, making sure the race stewards could hear them as clearly as their own drivers. The fight would carry on for much of the rest of the race as neither driver would cede an inch.
By lap 30 of 53, only Button, Kobayashi, Kovalainen and Yamamoto had yet to pit. Defending champion Jenson held on to the lead for a number of laps, ahead of Vettel ( 2), Webber (3), Alonso (4), Hamilton (5), Kobayashi (6), Robserg (7), Schumacher (8), Heidfeld (9) and Barrichello (10). Sutil, Alguersuari, Buemi, Kovalainen, Trulli, Yamamoto, Glock and Senna rounded out the field of back-markers. But on lap 38, Button finally headed into the pits, surrendering the lead to Vettel as he rejoined in fifth, behind his team-mate Hamilton.
Kobayashi meanwhile finally surrendered P6 on lap 39 to rejoin 12th, but was far from surrendering the race. Before the day was done, he passed Alguersuari for P10 (damaging the STR's front wing in the process and forcing him into the pits), Barrichello for P8 and his own team-mate Heidfeld for P7. While the young Japanese driver wowed his home crowd, Hamilton radioed in problems with his gearbox – the new unit installed before the race for which he took the grid penalty in the first place. Third gear, it seemed, was jammed, forcing him to let Button by to take P4.
Closing lap action saw Sutil's Force India billow smoke and spin out, just making it back into the pits to retire from the race on lap 45 with only eight to go. And after fending off the advances of his seven-time champion wingman, Rosberg ended his race with an impromptu meeting with the tire wall.
After 53 tumultuous laps, Sebastian Vettel claimed his third victory of the season, a jubilant Mark Webber coming in less than a second behind for a spectacular Red Bull 1-2 finish. Alonso made good on his pre-race aspirations of a podium finish by coming in third, Button and Hamilton taking fourth and fifth for McLaren. Schumacher took a solid sixth place, followed by an impressive local-hero Kobayashi in seventh and his Sauber team-mate Heidfeld in eighth – the best outcome for the newly independent team so far this season. Barrichello and Buemi took the remaining points, as Alguersuari, Kovalainen, Trulli, Glock, Senna and Yamamoto crossed the finish line outside the points once again.
The results leave Mark Webber with a solid lead at 220, ahead of Fernando Alonso and Sebastian Vettel tied at 206. Lewis Hamilton trails with 192 ahead of his team-mate Jenson Button's 189, an unfortunate Felipe Massa in sixth place with 128, Nico Rosberg with 122, Robert Kubica with 114, Michael Schumacher with just 54 and Adrian Sutil rounding out the top ten with 47 points. With just three races left to go in this year's championship, Red Bull is firmly in the lead for the constructors' title with 426 points to McLaren's 381 and Ferrari's 334.
With a question mark still looming over the new track's preparedness, the circus is scheduled to head to Yeongam for the inaugural Korean Grand Prix on October 24.