SUZUKA, Japan (AFP) — Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel came out on top after a thrilling Japanese Grand Prix yesterday but just missed out on clinching the Formula One world title for the fourth year in a row.
Vettel won an absorbing game of cat-and-mouse with teammate Mark Webber and Lotus's Romain Grosjean to win his fifth race in a row, the sport's longest victory streak in nearly a decade.
It was very different from the dominant performances which have taken Vettel to the verge of joining Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio as only the third driver to win four straight world championships.
Despite front wing damage after a scrape with Lewis Hamilton at the outset, Vettel reeled in the departing Webber as well as Romain Grosjean, who took third after a flying start.
But Fernando Alonso's fourth place means Vettel's celebrations are on ice at least until India in two weeks, when he is expected to seal the title with another three races left on the schedule.
"I'm blown away with today's race," Vettel told reporters. "It couldn't have been a worse start. I was in a bit of a sandwich with the Lotus (Grosjean) and Lewis. I couldn't avoid the contact. It was a horrible start but a fantastic comeback.
"It was not easy to make the two-stop (strategy) work. Regarding the championship, obviously I have a very, very good gap but we keep pushing. It's not over until it's over."
Webber began on pole for the first time this year but Grosjean's scorching start from fourth saw the Frenchman sneak into turn one ahead with the Red Bulls slow out of the blocks.
Tail-enders Giedo van der Garde and Jules Bianchi crashed out in the dash to the turn, while Hamilton's Mercedes suffered a shredded rear tyre after clipping Vettel, a knock which forced him out and formally ended his world title challenge.
Webber and Grosjean both had their chances but ultimately Vettel proved too strong and, after roaring past Grosjean on the home straight on lap 41, went in front when Webber pitted for the third time and was never seriously threatened thereafter.
Webber's three-stop strategy cost him and, although he finally passed a determined Grosjean with two laps of the 53 left, it was too late to catch his team-mate and claim a first victory of the year in his last season in F1.
Grosjean finished on the podium for the fourth time this season by matching his third place at last week's South Korea race.
Vettel now holds a 90-point lead over Ferrari's Alonso with 100 available from the last four races. Fifth place in India will get the job done for Vettel, even if Alonso wins.
He is also the first man to win five races in a row since Schumacher drove his Ferrari to five and then seven consecutive wins in 2004.
His coronation virtually a foregone conclusion, Vettel had a hair-raising start, his brush with Hamilton costing him downforce on the front wing.
But the German preserved his tyres superbly while Webber had to pit early, forcing Red Bull to change their strategy.
Alonso drove aggressively to finish fourth after starting from eighth place, with Kimi Raikkonen, another former world champion, fifth for Lotus ahead of Sauber's Nico Hulkenberg.
Sauber teammate Esteban Gutierrez placed seventh and Nico Rosberg recovered from a drive-through penalty to take eighth on an unhappy day for Mercedes, who had shown good pace all weekend.
The race was preceded by a minute's silence for former reserve driver Maria de Villota, who died in Spain last week a year after a serious crash in testing.