Sebastian Vettel took a massive step towards a third World title as he clinched a dominant victory in Japan while Fernando Alonso retired.
Arriving in Japan, Alonso held a 29-point advantage over the Red Bull racer, however, by the end of lap one it was down to just four points.
The Ferrari driver failed to make it around the first corner as his rear tyre was clipped by Kimi Raikkonen, causing a puncture and an off that left Alonso beached in the gravel.
Vettel came home in front of Felipe Massa and Kamui Kobayashi who held off a late race charge from Jenson Button to get his first podium at his home grand prix - and send the crowd wild.
The sun was shining down on Suzuka with an ambient temperature of 23C and the track at 32C.
Seven rows of grid:1.Vettel, 2.Webber, 3.Kobayashi, 4.Grosjean, 5.Perez, 6.Alonso, 7.Raikkonen, 8.Button, 9.Hamilton, 10.Massa, 11.DiResta, 12.Maldonado, 13.Rosberg, 14.Ricciardo
Start:As the lights went out it was a chaotic start at an old-fashioned track that is narrower than most. Vettel got a clean getaway, but behind him Romain Grosjean made contact with Webber into Turn 2, punting the Red Bull to the inside of the track before the Esses. Grosjean damaged his front wing and had to come in for a new one.
Further back down the grid the hapless Bruno Senna made another first lap contact, this time with Nico Rosberg sending the Mercedes driver out of the race and damaging Senna's front wing and obliging him to go back to the pits for a new one.
However the major loss on the first lap was championship leader Fernando Alonso who was tapped from behind by Kimi Raikkonen who he'd squeezed across the track, the Lotus losing a chunk of its front wing, but enough to deflate Alonso's rear tyre and spin him into retirement, beached in the gravel.
The Safety Car was dispatched so that Alonso's car could be recovered and as they lined up behind the order was: 1.Vettel, 2.Kobayashi, 3.Button, 4.Massa, 5.Raikkonen, 6.Perez, 7.Hamilton, 8.Hulkenberg, 9.Maldonado, 10.Ricciardo, 11.Glock, 12.Kovalainen, 13.Verne, 14.DiResta, 15.Schumacher
The stewards immediately put the Webber/Grosjean incident under investigation while Grosjean, Senna and Webber tried to race round to make the most of the temporary delay. On Lap 12 the stewards would get round to investigating the Senna/Rosberg incident. Both Grosjean and Senna took penalties as a result.
Button (P9) and Massa (P10) had profited enormously from having P2, P4, P6 and P7 get embroiled in first corner accidents and were up to third and fourth. We were racing again from Lap 3 and Sergio Perez was keen to get past Kimi Raikkonen - trying to overtake the Lotus in a wheel-to-wheel move around the outside of Turn 1. It didn't work, forced Perez out wide and he lost a place to Hamilton as a result.
Perez was then all over the back of Lewis Hamilton who looked to be struggling in the early phase of the race. On Lap 6 the Sauber driver was able to take advantage of Hamilton's lack of attention, running up the inside into the hairpin in a move reminiscent of Kamui Kobayashi's debut Japanese GP.
At the front, Sebastian Vettel was pulling away and by Lap 10 had opened up a 6.2 second gap to Kobayashi in second place. Button was two seconds down on the Japanese driver with Massa right behind him. Perez was able to close up the gap to Raikkonen who looked to be losing the rear tyres of the Lotus.
Although Button's times didn't appear to be dropping off, he was in for tyres at the end of Lap 13, along with Hulkenberg and Raikkonen. The Finn exited behind a battle between Jean-Eric Vergne and Heikki Kovalainen and spent a lap behind that battle. With Perez still on track and putting the hammer down, it looked like a formality that Perez would pick up Raikkonen's place.
Kimi battled his way past Vergne, using the DRS zone to pass the Toro Rosso on Lap 15 and on the same lap he was past Kovalainen at Spoon, just as Perez was pitting. The Sauber must have lost time somewhere on track or in the pits because Perez emerged from the pits not only behind Raikkonen, but when Hamilton stopped on Lap 17, the Mexican found himself back behind the McLaren again.
Perez was not the only one delayed; with Kobayashi able to keep his place in front of Button through the first pit-stops, they both found themselves behind the sluggish Toro Rosso of Daniel Ricciardo. This was a gift to Felipe Massa who came in with Vettel at the end of Lap 18 and exited firmly in second place, leapfrogging the pair of them and having fresher tyres to boot.
Positions on Lap 18:1.Vettel, 2.Massa, 3.Kobayashi, 4.Button, 5.Ricciardo(not stopped), 6.Raikkonen, 7.Hamilton, 8.Perez, 9.Hulkenberg, 10.Kovalainen (not stopped), 11.Vergne (not stopped)
Jenson Button was reporting problems with his gearbox which was dropping into neutral and the team were trying to find solutions for him on the fly. Future team-mate Perez was stuck behind Hamilton again, but Lewis wasn't going to be overtaken up the inside into the hairpin again and when Perez made a move there on Lap 20 he put a wheel on the grass and the Sauber went spinning off into the gravel and out.
Soon after his pit-stop Felipe Massa put in successive fastest laps of the race and on Lap 21 Vettel's lead dipped under ten seconds. To show he was in absolute command Vettel responded on Lap 22 with his own fastest lap which included two purple sectors.
Team-mate Mark Webber had made it up to ninth place by Lap 21 but he was out of sequence with the other cars having pitted so early, and on Lap 26 he was back into the pits again, all set for a late race charge.Around Laps 29 and 30 both McLarens started to make progress on the cars in front, Button began to catch Kobayashi - who he'd dropped back from - and Hamilton closed the gap on Raikkonen from 2.7 to 2.4 to 1.9 - then on lap 30 Lewis was 0.7 quicker than Raikkonen in Sector 1 alone and Raikkonen had to make a dash for the pits.
Hamilton pitted just a lap later and exited the pitlane alongside Raikkonen. The pair toughed it out through Turn 1 but Hamilton had the inside line and it was a credit to their car control skills that both could get through without touching. Kobayashi had pitted at the same time and such was his haste to get out of the pitlane that he almost took a jack with him.
Kobayashi had to put in a fast outlap and get up to speed quickly to stay ahead of Button who waited four laps before pitting. When he did, he had a problem with his right rear tyre, but such was Kobayashi's pace in the intervening four laps that it made no difference and Button resumed over four seconds in arrears.
Positions on Lap 36:1.Vettel, (one stop) 2.Massa (one stop), 3.Kobayashi, 4.Button, 5.Hamilton, 6.Raikkonen, 7.Hulkenberg, 8.Maldonado, 9.Schumacher (one stop), 10.Webber, 11.Ricciardo, 12.Vergne.
Michael stopped for the final time on Lap 37, along with Felipe Massa, while Vettel pitted on lap 38. By now he had an 18 second lead over Massa and could play around scaring his race engineer by going for an occasional fastest lap - which he did on lap 39.
Raikkonen faded away from Hamilton and Hulkenberg couldn't close the gap to the Finn. The only big question now was could Kamui Kobayashi hold off a determined charge from Jenson Button in the remaining laps to the flag? Kamui's advantage fell from 3.9 to 3.5 to 3.0 to 2.7 to 2.2 to just 1.8 on Lap 44 (of 53). Progress beyond that was slow for Button as he encountered the turbulent air off the Sauber's rear wing. Kobayshi put in personal best after personal best in his fight to stay ahead.
Most important of all Button couldn't get into the DRS zone and he wasn't helped when Kovalainen's Caterham delayed him on a lap where he looked to move into it. So the gap then levelled out: 1.7 to 1.5 to 1.8 to 1.8 to 1.6 to 1.2 to 1.1 to 1.0. On the last lap Button made significant gains and was right behind Kamui coming into the hairpin for the final time, but the Japanese driver hung on to finish just 0.5 ahead - sending the crowd wild.
Vettel, in his usual style, had done some more fast-lap-scaring with an almighty 1:35.775 on the penultimate tour (the previous Vettel fastest lap on Lap 46 had been a 1:36.466!) but cruised to the flag ahead of Massa, Kobayashi, Button, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Hulkenberg and Pastor Maldonado scoring his first points since Barcelona in P8. Mark Webber had hauled himself up into P9 and had both the Williams and the Force India in his sights when he ran out of laps.
It was an emphatic win for Vettel on a day when nobody was going to catch the Red Bull. Now just four points behind Alonso, Vettel knows that all he has to do to make it World Championship No.3 is stay in front of his main rival on track. With the Red Bull looking significantly faster than the Ferrari the betting is only going to go in one direction.
However it was just as significant a drive for Massa, his first podium since Korea in 2010, and a seat-for-2013-saving drive. Kobayashi's third place equalled the best result for a Japanese driver in Japan and will have gone a long way in convincing the Sauber team to keep him on for 2013.
01. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1h28:56.242
02. Massa Ferrari + 20.639
03. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 24.538
04. Button McLaren-Mercedes + 25.098
05. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 46.490
06. Raikkonen Lotus-Renault + 50.424
07. Hulkenberg Force India-Mercedes + 51.159
08. Maldonado Williams-Renault + 52.364
09. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 54.675
10. Ricciardo Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1:06.919
11. Schumacher Mercedes + 1:07.769
12. Di Resta Force India-Mercedes + 1:23.400
13. Vergne Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1:28.600
14. Senna Williams-Renault + 1:28.700
15. Grosjean Lotus-Renault + 1 lap
16. Kovalainen Caterham-Renault + 1 lap
17. Glock Marussia-Cosworth + 1 lap
18. Petrov Caterham-Renault + 1 lap
19. De la Rosa HRT-Cosworth + 1 lap
Did Not Finish
Pic Marussia-Cosworth 39
Karthikeyan HRT-Cosworth 34
Perez Sauber-Ferrari 19
Alonso Ferrari 1
Rosberg Mercedes 1