Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel has closed to within four points of the championship lead with five races to go after winning in Japan, adopting a two-stop strategy. The reigning world champion, who clinched his second title at Suzuka a year ago, started from pole on the Pirelli P Zero Yellow soft tyre and then completed two stints on the P Zero Silver hard tyre: the compounds that had been nominated for the Japanese Grand Prix. Vettel also used the hard tyre to set the fastest lap of the race on the penultimate tour.
The only drivers to start the grand prix on the harder compound were Jean-Eric Vergne (Toro Rosso), Charles Pic (Marussia) and Michael Schumacher (Mercedes) from 19th, 21st, and 23rd places respectively. But a first-lap incident that brought out the safety car prompted Red Bull's Mark Webber to switch strategies by moving onto the hard tyre. He rejoined in 19th place. The Australian took his second stop for hard tyres on lap 26, having worked his way back up to a points-scoring 10th and eventually finishing ninth.
The first of the frontrunners to make a stop were McLaren's Jenson Button and Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen, both of whom switched to the hard tyres on lap 13. Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi, who made an impressive start to run as high as second overall at his home grand prix, made the same move one lap later. Race leader Vettel made his stop for the hard tyres on lap 17 and was able to re-emerge in the lead thanks to some fast pit work from his Red Bull team. The last driver to change from the soft tyres during the first round of stops was Marussia's Timo Glock, who made his starting set of yellow tyres last for 20 laps with a full fuel load.
Vettel's final stop for the hard tyres took place on lap 37, from which he again emerged in the lead, with Ferrari's Felipe Massa in second having stopped one lap earlier, after making up eight places during the race from his grid position of 10th. The driver who made up most places was Schumacher, gaining 12 positions to finish 11th by using a strategy that put him on soft tyres with low fuel at the end of the race.
Williams driver Pastor Maldonado also used a different strategy to his advantage (similar to Toro Rosso's Daniel Ricciardo and HRT's Pedro De La Rosa) completing two initial stints on the soft tyre before a 20-lap final stint on the hard tyre that moved him up to a points-scoring eighth from his starting position of 12th.
Although Japan is often characterised by changeable weather, the race was held with track temperatures of 30 degrees centigrade at the start: increasing the demands on the tyres on what is already a very challenging circuit due to the flowing series of high-speed corners.
Paul Hembery: "At the beginning of the year, we had the closest start to a season in Formula One history, with seven winners from the first seven races. Now it looks like we might be in for a very close finish as well, after a Japanese Grand Prix where Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel adopted a textbook two-stop strategy to win the race and turn the championship on its head. Last year, a three-stop strategy was the preferred option but this year we saw only two stops for the majority of drivers. This underlines both the performance and durability of our P Zero tyres on the toughest circuit of the year in terms of lateral energy, even though the compounds are generally softer this season and conditions in Japan were a lot warmer than they were in 2011. We witnessed a great battle during the final laps between Kobayashi and Button for third place, which was based on tyre strategy with Button trying to get the most out of a fresher set of hard tyres. We'd like to congratulate Kamui on the first podium of his career, which couldn't come at a better place than his home grand prix, and also Felipe for his first podium of the year after a great race."
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