October 13th, 2013 (F1Plus / Chris Cameron-Dow) - Sebastian Vettel has won a strategic thriller of a race at Suzuka in Japan, beating his Red Bull team-mate, Mark Webber and the Lotus of Romain Grosjean after a close battle between the three drivers throughout the race.
Webber was on pole ahead of Vettel, but at the start it was Grosjean and Lewis Hamilton who made strong starts and surged ahead. Unfortunately for Hamilton, he just touched Vettel's front wing with his right-rear tyre on the way past and ended up with a puncture that relegated him to the back of the field until he retired on lap 9 with floor damage and overheating brakes.
Grosjean had no such misfortunes, and led almost every lap until his second pit stop. Webber ran second with Vettel third until the Red Bull drivers split their strategy in an attempt to pass Grosjean in the pits.
Mark Webber made use of a 3-stop strategy, stopping earlier than Grosjean and Vettel for his second stop. It was clear at that point that Webber intended to stop again, which he did late in the race, putting on a set of used medium compound option tyres that allowed him to challenge for second position.
Vettel made his second set of tyres last long enough that, by the time he made his second and final pit stop, he had much fresher tyres than Romain Grosjean who was also on a 2-stop strategy. Vettel caught Grosjean rapidly and managed to pass with the help of DRS.
When Mark Webber came out of the pits on medium tyres for his final stint, he was just 3 seconds behind Grosjean and lapping much faster than the Lotus. But getting past was not a simple matter, and it took Webber until the penultimate lap to pass Grosjean with the assistance of some slower cars who were battling for position just ahead on the track but effectively a lap behind.
Fernando Alonso finished fourth for Ferrari after battling with Nico Hulkenberg for much of the race. In the early stages of the race, Alonso had run behind Felipe Massa, who was in no mood to let him past. Alonso did manage to pass his team-mate at one point using DRS, but ultimately finished ahead of Massa largely due to a drive-through penalty for the Brazilian for speeding in the pitlane.
Kimi Raikkonen came through from ninth on the grid to finish fifth, not quite close enough to Alonso to challenge for fourth place. Third and fifth for the Lotus drivers was a very strong result for the team, and brings them to within just 23 points of third-placed Mercedes in the Constructors' Championship.
Nico Hulkenberg finished sixth for Sauber, after battling with Alonso, Massa and Raikkonen for much of the race. Hulkenberg has been in impressive form for a few races and continued to show his talent in today's race by running fourth for quite a bit of the middle stint.
Esteban Gutierrez finished seventh, just ahead of Nico Rosberg, to record his first points finish in Formula One. It also marks the first time Sauber have recorded a double-points finish in 2013.
Rosberg's four points for eighth place will seem like a very small reward for a weekend of hard work by Mercedes. Rosberg received a drive-through penalty for an unsafe release - he very nearly drove into Sergio Perez in the pit lane - which cost him the chance to challenge for more significant points. Lewis Hamilton's race was over almost before it began, after his first lap puncture damaged the floor of his car and caused issues with brake cooling that eventually caused him to retire.
Jenson Button finished ninth for McLaren and Felipe Massa completed the top ten for Ferrari, recovering to score a point after his drive-through penalty.
Sebastian Vettel is now 90 points ahead of Fernando Alonso in the Drivers' Championship. That means that the title will be decided no sooner than the Indian Grand Prix in two weeks' time. Vettel will need to score 10 points in India to be sure of retaining his crown, and to do that he must finish fifth or higher if Alonso wins the race. If Alonso finishes third or lower in India, Vettel will be World Champion even if he fails to finish the race.
Red Bull are now 148 points ahead of Ferrari in the Constructors' Championship with four races remaining. It therefore seems likely that Red Bull will also wrap up the Constructors' Championship in India, as Ferrari need to score 20 points more than Red Bull at the next race just to keep the championship alive.