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Vettel reignites title challenge with win in Suzuka, Massa and Kobayashi complete popular podium places

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Sebastian Vettel took a giant leap in the 2012 driver’s championship battle at the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka this evening, comfortably winning from pole position while Championship Leader Fernando Alonso's Ferrari crashed out at Turn 1 on the Opening Lap. The Red Bull driver had a perfect weekend, also collecting the fastest lap to complete a hat-trick. Felipe Massa received a big fillip to his hopes of retaining his Ferrari drive by taking a well-deserved 2nd place, his first podium in two years. An exceptionally popular podium place was captured by home driver Kamui Kobayashi for Sauber in a strong third, only the second Japanese to stand on the rostrum at Suzuka.

Sebastian Vettel headed all-Red Bull front row on the grid, their first of the year, amid speculations the team were running a new double DRS. Button posted the third fastest time in qualifying but a 5 place penalty relegated him to P8. This elevated home driver Kamui Kobayashi's Sauber to 3rd, who was followed by Romain Grosjean's Lotus. The other Sauber of Sergio Perez and Ferrari's Fernando Alonso were P6 and P7. Lewis Hamilton started behind teammate Button on P9, and Felipe Massa lined up tenth in the second Ferrari. Penalties for Force India's Nico Hulkenberg, Toro Rosso's Jean-Eric Vergne and Michael Schumacher's Mercedes pushed them down the grid to 15th, 23rd and 19th respectively.

Tyres nominated by Pirelli for the race were the hard and soft compounds, with the soft nearly a second quicker on 1-lap pace. Vergne, Charles Pic in the Marussia and Schumacher were the only drivers with an alternate strategy to start on hard tyres.

As the 5 red lights went out, it was chaotic at the first corner which immediately brought the safety car. Among the cars which crashed out in the melee was spinning championship leader Alonso, a second retirement of the season critically denting his hopes of the title this year. Kobayashi was up to second having had a better start than Webber, who stopped after the second turn after contact with Romain Grosjean but resumed later to pit for hard tyres, as did the Lotus. Button and Massa had blistering starts to go up to third and fourth. Nico Rosberg also crashed out at Turn 1. The Safety Car was needed to clear the debris on the track, including a couple of stationary cars.

The safety car came in on lap 3, and Vettel capitalized at the restart with a great run out of the final chicane to eke out a 2.4s gap over Kobayashi by the next lap. Perez and Raikkonen went side by-side at Turn 1, the Sauber losing out forced wide to lose two places down to 7th place. Perez regained a place on Lap 7 by passing Hamilton at the hairpin.

Grosjean was given a 10 second stop and go penalty for the contact with Webber, not the first time the Frenchman has tangled with cars at the start.

Vettel pulled away at the front to establish a 7.4 second lead by Lap 12, as the order remained static behind him, with only Massa and Perez within the DRS zone of the cars ahead of them, Button and Raikkonen.

First round of pitstops

Button(P3), Raikkonen(P5) and Hulkenberg(P8) rolled the dice by pitting on lap 14 to take on fresh hard rubber. It was Massa who was the big gainer after all the leaders had pitted, coming out in second place ahead of Kobayashi and Button as they were held up by Daniel Ricciardo's Toro Rosso. Vettel, meanwhile was 10 seconds up the road in a comfortable lead after his dive for fresh rubber. Hamilton had leapfrogged Perez and the Mexican, in the heat of the battle with the man he will replace next year, lost the car into the gravel at the outside of the Turn 5 hairpin to retire from the race.

Webber had by this time made his way from the back of the grid to P9, 8 seconds behind Maldonado and 2.5 clear of Ricciardo. At this point on Lap 21, Senna was handed a drive-through penalty for causing Rosberg's collision at the start.

As Webber lost his tyres on Lap 27, he finally pitted for a second set of new hard tyres. Schumacher, having switched to soft tyres after his first stop, now took Di Resta at Turn 1 to move up to 10th place.

Second round of pitstops

Raikkonen was the first of the frontrunners to come in for their second stops on lap 31. This prompted Hamilton, Kobayashi and Hulkenberg to react on the very next lap, the McLaren executing the undercut on the Lotus with a feisty pass on the inside on Turn 2. Button pitted on Lap 35 but a slow pitstop put paid to his team's plans of gaining track position on Kobayashi. Amid all of this action, HRT called in Narain Karthikeyan to the garage to retire the car, as did Marussia with Charles Pic with engine problems.

A series of fastest laps for leader Vettel (1 second quicker than Massa) further upped his lead to 17.7s after his stop, the German clearly cruising, holding back peak performance to a select few laps when it mattered.

Last year's winner Button put in a run of quick laps to rein in Kobayashi for the final podium spot, with the gap at just under 2s on lap 50. Schumacher was on the gearbox of Ricciardo for the final point-scoring 10th position but unable to get past the Australian.

As the chequered flag fell at the end of 53 laps, Vettel became the first back-to-back winner in 2012, a massive 20s clear of Massa. Kobayashi crossed the line a mere 0.5s ahead of Button to a resounding roar of the Japanese crowd. Hamilton was 21s down the road in 5th, ahead of Raikkonen, who just held off Hulkenberg for 6th. Maldonado, Webber and Ricciardo rounded off the top 10.

The victory pulls Vettel to within 4 points of Alonso’s championship lead at 190 points as opposed to the Spaniard’s 194. Kimi Raikkonen who finished 6th, remains a distant third at 157 points. In the constructor’s standings , Red Bull extended their lead at the top at 324 points, now 41 ahead of second placed McLaren. Ferrari retain third place at 263 points.

Top 10: Vettel, Massa, Kobayashi, Button, Hamilton, Raikkonen, Hulkenberg, Maldonado, Webber, Ricciardo