Vettel unfazed by first lap incidents to dominate Suzuka

Sebastian Vettel has become the first back-to-back winner of the 2012 season, taking an easy victory at the Japanese Grand Prix.

Championship leader Fernando Alonso was elminated on the first lap after a clash with Kimi Raikkonen, while several other drivers’ races were ruined. Lewis Hamilton struggled to a 5th placed finish, while Felipe Massa and Kamui Kobayashi both impressed. Here is what happened:

By the first lap, the championship battle had taken a massive twist, with Fernando Alonso pointing backwards and out of the race. Replays showed that the Ferrari made contact with Kimi Raikkonen, and spun in front of the entire field, luckily avoiding another accident.

Romain Grosjean, Bruno Senna and Mark Webber all crawled back to the pits after a chaotic first lap, and the safety car was deployed.

At the restart, Vettel continued to lead the race, while he was now challenged by Kamui Kobayashi and Jenson Button. Sergio Perez tried a move on Kimi Raikkonen at the first corner, but was squeezed out and dropped to 7th place.

After making a mistake with his setup in qualifying, Lewis Hamilton was 6th, and struggling to hold off the charging Sauber. By lap 6, Perez put a brave move at the hairpin to get past the driver he will replace next season.

While the Alonso/Raikkonen crash was clear for all to see, the Grosjean/Webber incident was more controversial. Within a few laps, the stewards had decided that Romain was at fault, handing him a 10 second stop/go penalty, dropping him to the bottom of the field.

After an action-packed opening stint, Button, Raikkonen and Hulkenberg all pitted for the harder tyre on lap 14. Kamui Kobayashi pitted a lap later, keeping a slim margin over Button behind. Kimi, meanwhile, exited the pits just behind Jean-Eric Vergne and Heikki Kovalainen, and was forced to pick them off to gain clean air.

By the end of the first round of stops, Button began to report a gearbox issue, but his team encouraged him to keep pushing. Felipe Massa, almost invisible to the rest of the field, emerged from his stop in 2nd place.

Sergio Perez tried a second move on Lewis Hamilton around the outside of the hairpin, but misjudged braking left him beached in the gravel trap and out of the race.

Lewis was free of the chasing Sauber, but within several laps he was then holding off the Force India of Nico Hulkenberg. While Hamilton bemoaned his setup, Nico was concerned about tyre wear, as the two ran closely lap after lap.

Both Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen pitted within a lap of each other, and the two tussled for position at the first corner, with the McLaren just moving into 5th position.

Not much changed at the second stop, with the majority of drivers taking on the hard tyres until the end of the race. Further back, Senna and Grosjean, who had both been penalised for first lap incidents, began to battle away, with Bruno eventually taking the Lotus at 130R.

Entering the closing laps, Kamui Kobayashi’s podium finish was under threat, as Button began to pressurise the Sauber. With a few laps to go, the McLaren closed the gap to a single second, but Kamui bravely held on to take his first ever podium finish.

Up front, Vettel was completely unchallenged to take his third win of 2012, and closes within 4 points of Fernando Alonso. Massa took an impressive 2nd place, which will help massively for his 2013 hopes, but the biggest cheer was saved for local hero Kobayashi.

Button and Hamilton took 4th and 5th, while Raikkonen was 6th, and still quietly in contention for the world championship. Mark Webber recovered to take 9th, while Daniel Ricciardo held off Michael Schumacher for the final point.

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