SUZUKA, Japan, Oct 8, 2012 (AFP / Gordon Howard) - If statistical evidence is to be taken seriously, Fernando Alonso knows his hopes of winning a third world title this year were virtually ended at the first corner of Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix.
A collision there, when Kimi Raikkonen drove into Alonso's Ferrari and caused him a puncture, eliminated the Spaniard from the race -- and left defending champion Sebastian Vettel free to win and cut his lead from 29 points to four.
If that was not a bad enough omen, Alonso will know that only one of the last 17 winners of the Japanese Grand Prix prior to Sunday's race did not go on to win the title -- Ferrari's Rubens Barrichello, in 2003.
With five races remaining, and such a flimsy lead to protect, Alonso remained admirably defiant on Sunday night, but all around him were drivers warning that he faces a tough challenge to win his third world title.
Vettel, the title-winner in 2010 and 2011, became the first man this year to reel off back-to-back wins as he sauntered to success at Suzuka and proved that he has gained momentum at just the right time.
"It's going to be very tough to hold on to Sebastian," said Briton Jenson Button of McLaren, the last man to win the title before Vettel established his hegemony.
"His lead has gone, but that's not all. It's also very tough for him because the Red Bulls are so fast now. Ferrari are pretty quick but not as quick as Red Bull."
Alonso's misfortune was his second in four races in a season of otherwise almost flawless consistency, and both of his unscheduled early exits were the result of mistakes by other drivers.
He was eliminated in Belgium last month by Romain Grosjean of Lotus, who was branded a "first-lap nutcase" by Red Bull's Mark Webber on Sunday after shunting the Australian just after the start.
Alonso refused to talk to the media immediately after his exit. But he later said: "It was a shame. It is always sad when you cannot do the first corner, but we need to concentrate and think about next week.
"We need to keep working well and not making mistakes. Nothing we can do. Thanks to this consistency we are leading the championship. The others make mistakes, we need to avoid this."
His Ferrari team chief Stefano Domenicali echoed the Spaniard's sentiments.
"For us, the most important thing now with five races remaining is to stay really rational and not fall to the worst enemy of the team -- which is pressure," he said.
Meanwhile Vettel was careful not to be drawn into any unwise predictions.
"Obviously this was an important win and an important step, but there is a long way to go," he said, when asked if he was now favourite for the title.
"You don't wish these things on people. It's a long season and you don't know what's going to happen. It could be us in the next race.
"We have seen this year there is a lot of up and down and things can change quickly so we have to keep our head down and go step by step and not think too far ahead."