Sebastian Vettel was made to work for his fifth successive race victory but eventually beat Mark Webber and Romain Grosjean to the chequered flag in Japan...
Unlike in previous weeks, the Red Bull racer did not have it all his own way as Romain Grosjean controlled the race for 29 laps, but his race was compromised by having to fend off the split strategies of two-stopping Vettel and three-stopping Webber
Fernando Alonso brought his car home fourth ahead of Kimi Raikkonen to keep the championship mathematics alive while Esteban Gutierrez scored his first points for Sauber in P7.
It was an eventful afternoon for Mercedes who suffered one puncture and caused another on their way to a solitary P8 for Nico Rosberg.
The skies were clear blue and the ambient temperature at 25C with the track at 37C but still a brisk wind. As the tyre warmers came off everyone bar Daniel Ricciardo and Charles Pic had opted for the Medium tyre. After qualifying, Jules Bianchi, Charles Pic and Adrian Sutil took penalties and gathered at the back of the grid.
Grid1.Webber, 2.Vettel, 3.Hamilton, 4.Grosjean, 5.Massa, 6.Rosberg, 7.Hulkenberg, 8.Alonso, 9.Raikkonen, 10.Button, 11.Perez, 12.DiResta, 13.Bottas, 14.Gutierrez, 15.Maldonado, 16.Ricciardo, 17.Vergne, 18.Chilton, 19.van der Garde, 20.Pic, 21.Bianchi, 22.Sutil
As the lights went out both Red Bulls got a poor getaway while Romain Grosjean got a stormer from P4 and was up the inside of Vettel and into the lead. Lewis Hamilton hooked up his Mercedes perfectly and was straight in between the Red Bulls, but as he passed Vettel, the World Champion moved across and nudged his rear right tyre with his front wing.
The impact was slight but it immediately punctured the right rear tyre of the Mercedes and in the slow drive back to the pits Hamilton damaged his floor. Although he was able to continue for a few laps at the back he was off the pace of the front-runners and almost a lap down so Mercedes took the decision to retire the car.
At the back, Jules Bianchi and Giedo van der Garde came together and spun off into the gravel at the outside of Turn 1. It looked like an automatic Safety Car but the race continued with the cars being recovered under yellow flags.
Positions on Lap 1: 1.Grosjean, 2.Webber, 3.Vettel, 4.Rosberg, 5.Massa, 6.Alonso, 7.Hulkenberg, 8.Perez, 9.Gutierrez, 10.Button, 11.Raikkonen, 12.DiResta, 13.Bottas, 14.Ricciardo
Romain Grosjean put in a series of fastest laps at the front, but he was closely followed by Mark Webber who was just 1.0 behind on Lap 4 and 1.1 on Lap 6.
By Lap 7 Kimi Raikkonen was past Jenson Button for P10 using DRS on the main straight. Button had experienced tyre vibration on the way to the grid and had changed wing settings - which he admitted afterwards had just made things worse with a lot of understeer. By Lap 8 Button was in for more tyres.
At the front Mark Webber was advised to drop back from Grosjean on Lap 9 as his rear tyres were getting too hot. Vettel was a further 1.9 seconds behind Webber at this stage.
Hulkenberg came in for tyres on Lap 10; Webber, Massa and Raikkonen on Lap 11; Grosjean, Rosberg and Perez on Lap 12; Alonso on Lap 13 and Vettel on Lap 14.
The major upset of the pit-stops was Nico Rosberg, who was released slap bang into the path of Sergio Perez as he came in. Perez did well to avoid the Mercedes, but it looked like an easy decision to rule it as an unsafe release. It was a better result for Nico Hulkenberg who set a fastest lap on Lap 12 and managed to undercut both Ferraris in the process.
Positions on Lap 15: 1.Grosjean, 2.Webber, 3.Vettel, 4.Ricciardo, 5.Rosberg, 6.Hulkenberg, 7.Massa, 8.Alonso, 9.Gutierrez, 10.Raikkonen, 11.Perez, 12.Button
Daniel Ricciardo was going long in the first stint but by Lap 17 he was doing 1:40s compared to the front three who were doing 1:37s. Nico Rosberg didn't need to pass him because he had already taken his drive through penalty and dropped down the order, it was Nico Hulkenberg who was heading up the queue of cars that wanted to get past the Toro Rosso. As the cars stacked up behind Ricciardo, Alonso closed up on Massa at the chicane and as Massa went defensive, his line was compromised onto the following straight where Fernando used the DRS to pass.
Nico Hulkenberg couldn't get past on the main straight but on Lap 20 he swept around the outside of the Toro Rosso at 130R. Massa almost got back past Alonso into the chicane on that lap as the Spaniard waited his turn to get past the Australian, which he did on the following straight.
The Toro Rosso had created a train of Hulkenberg, Alonso, Massa, Gutierrez, Raikkonen and Perez and Gutierrez saw it as the opportunity to make up a place on Massa and tried to take him on the inside line into and out of the hairpin. The cars made contact on the exit as Gutierrez didn't leave quite enough space for the Ferrari, but Massa held his line and the place as they banged wheels.
Ricciardo pitted on Lap 22 and fell all the way back to P16.
Nico Rosberg's drive-through had dropped him back to P10, but he was in again for tyres on Lap 25, followed a lap later by Mark Webber and preceded a lap earlier by Jenson Button - so all three drivers looked to be on three-stop races.Directly behind Webber, Vettel produced a bad lock-up into the final chicane just as Mark came in, and it looked like Sebastian was using up his tyres for one final lap before pitting himself. Vettel set the fastest lap on Lap 26 and was reminded by his engineer that he wasn't racing Mark he was racing Grosjean. The warning was because Vettel wasn't anywhere near his target in-lap.
With Webber out of the way Vettel closed the gap to Grosjean to 1.3 seconds on Lap 28 and on Lap 29 Grosjean came in for tyres. Grosjean rejoined behind Webber who had been incredibly quick on his Prime (Hard) tyre, but Webber would almost certainly have to stop again. He wasn't going to make a set last 28 laps, particularly after driving so aggressively.
Behind the front three there was a big gap to Nico Hulkenberg caused by the Sauber's pace and the Ricciardo delay. The two-stopping cars in the scrap for P4 to P10 came in with Massa on Lap 28, Hulkenberg on Lap 29, Alonso and Perez on Lap 30 and Raikkonen on Lap 31.
The order was further shuffled by drive-throughs for Daniel Ricciardo who had overtaken Pastor Maldonado using the run-off at 130R to gain an advantage and Felipe Massa who had been caught speeding in the pitlane.
Positions on Lap 34: 1.Vettel (one stop), 2.Webber, 3.Grosjean, 4.Hulkenberg, 5.Alonso, 6.Massa, 7.Raikkonen, 8.Rosberg, 9.Button, 10.Vergne, 11. Gutierrez, 12.Perez, 13.Ricciardo
Massa took his drive- through after Ricciardo and dropped to P11 promoting Raikkonen who was now catching Alonso in front.
Vettel looked after his tyres very well and could run all the way till Lap 37 before pitting for more Hard tyres that would take him to the end of the race. He closed Grosjean down quickly and passed him using the DRS into Turn 1 on Lap 41. This now made the order: Webber, Vettel, Grosjean - but Mark was in for his third and final stop on Lap 42 and rejoined in third place.
The question now was, could Mark race, overtake Grosjean and close up to Vettel in the last few laps of the grand prix? Perez dropped down the order after Rosberg clipped hus tyre going into the final chicane, forcing the Mexican driver back into the pits and losing him a points finish.
Positions on Lap 43: 1.Vettel, (3.6 seconds clear)2.Grosjean (4.2 seconds clear), 3.Webber, 4.Hulkenberg, 5.Alonso, 6.Raikkonen, 7.Gutierrez, 8.Massa, 9.Rosberg, 10.DiResta, 11.Button, 12.Sutil
Fernando Alonso finally found a way past Nico Hulkenberg on Lap 46 as Webber closed on Grosjean, but despite the RBR9 having the faster Medium tyre for the final stint Grosjean was able to defend going down the main straight and held Webber off. In the laps from 47 to 51 Webber lost the opportunity to get anywhere close to Vettel. A couple of time he looked at a pass going into the entry of Spoon corner.
Nico Rosberg, who had four trips down pitlane and three tyre stops managed to get past the two-stopping Felipe Massa for P8 on Lap 47 as (also three-stopping) Jenson Button managed a pass round the outside of Paul DiResta into the final chicane.
Webber finally made a DRS pass on Grosjean on Lap 52 while behind him Kimi Raikkonen made another remarkable overtaking move going round the outside of Nico Hulkenberg for P5 into the final chicane, not the easiest of passes but the Sauber driver left him room. It was too late for Kimi to close the gap to Alonso in front,
Button had rapidly caught the fading tyres of Felipe Massa and though Massa blocked him into the chicane, Jenson cruised past him on the following straight with better traction, to take P9.
Rosberg had caught Esteban Gutierrez in the final few laps but Mercedes had gone marginal on fuel to compete with the Red Bulls and so Nico didn't have the ability to change his engine mapping to something more fuel-rich. Once over the line at the chequered flag he parked the car.
Sebastian Vettel duly brought his Red Bull home for his fourth win in five years, his ninth win of 2013 and his 35th overall. It was Red Bull's second 1-2, the first since Malaysia. Mark Webber was left to consider the data and his early tyre stops having been forced onto a three-stopper by wear in the first stint.
Romain Grosjean, who had led for over half the race laps, was the star performer in P3, having a year earlier punted Webber off ignominiously at Turn 2. Alonso was a very distant P4, Raikkonen a heroic P5, Hulkenberg P6 and Esteban Gutierrez scored his first championship points in P7.
Rosberg's drive-through had cost him a better place than P8, while Button's end to the race was a lot better than his first two stints in P9. Massa came home in P10.
It may have been a predictable result, but the race had hung in the balance as the strategies unfolded. Vettel had run wide and locked up more than usual but he had still come home in P1 and all this without Adrian Newey's attendance on the pitwall for the second race running.
01 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1:26.49.301
02 Mark Webber Red Bull +7.1
03 Romain Grosjean Lotus +9.9
04 Fernando Alonso Ferrari +45.6
05 Kimi Raikkonen Lotus +47.3
06 Nico Hulkenberg Sauber +51.6
07 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber +71.6
08 Nico Rosberg Mercedes +72.0
09 Jenson Button McLaren +80.8
10 Felipe Massa Ferrari +89.2
11 Paul di Resta Force India +98.5
12 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso +1 lap
13 Daniel Ricciardo Toro Rosso +1 lap
14 Adrian Sutil Force India +1 lap
15 Sergio Perez McLaren +1 lap
16 Pastor Maldonado Williams +1 lap
17 Valtteri Bottas Williams +1 lap
18 Charles Pic Caterham +1 lap
19 Max Chilton Marussia +1 lap
R Lewis Hamilton Mercedes +46 laps
R Giedo van der Garde Caterham +53 laps
R Jules Bianchi Marussia +53 laps