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Dominant Vettel keeps title hopes alive

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Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel dominated the Japanese Grand Prix from start to finish to keep his slim world title hopes alive, while Rubens Barrichello finished one place ahead of Brawn GP team-mate Jenson Button to inch one point closer to the championship leader.

Vettel was in a class of his own throughout, pulling as much as 10 seconds ahead at one stage before a safety car period in the closing laps concertinaed the field.

Jarno Trulli lost second place to Lewis Hamilton at the start but regained it at the final pit stop exchange to record Toyota’s second consecutive runner-up finish, this time at its home event. Hamilton lost time with a slow exit from the pits and then was hobbled by a KERS problem in the closing stages, but managed to fend off Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari for third.

Meanwhile, Button again played a perfect game of damage limitation, recovering well from his grid penalty and a poor start to finish eighth behind Barrichello. It means the Briton now has a 14-point advantage over his Brazilian team-mate heading into the season’s final two races, with Vettel clinging on 16 points adrift.

Brawn’s three-point haul meant it narrowly failed to clinch the constructors’ title, but the trophy is now on ice for the Brackley-based team, which has 35.5 points in hand over Red Bull with just 36 still up for grabs. At the start of the race the KERS-equipped Hamilton had pounced on front-row man Trulli and positioned himself to the left of polesitter Vettel on the run down to the first corner.

However, the McLaren driver was heading into a narrowing gap and decided discretion was the better part of valour, so it was Vettel who led the field through the super-fast right-hander.

Further back Button was coming under attack from the KERS cars of Heikki Kovalainen and Giancarlo Fisichella and arrived at the first corner in 12th, but used his wide line through the banked turn two to repass the Ferrari.

While the champion-elect was again toiling at the start of a race, Vettel quickly showed he did not intend to waste the opportunity to stay in the title hunt by romping clear of Hamilton in the first two laps. By the end of lap two the German was already 1.9s ahead of the McLaren and continued to steadily increase that advantage by several tenths to give himself a handy 2.6s lead four laps later.

Meanwhile Button's eventful start to the race was continuing. He had managed to regain his 10th-place starting position by lap three after expertly outbraking BMW’s Robert Kubica at the chicane, but then found his progress thwarted by the scrapping Kovalainen and Adrian Sutil. Kovalainen had quickly fallen off the pace of the cars ahead and was clearly holding up an increasingly agitated-looking Sutil, while Button was trapped in the pair’s turbulent air. Yet just when all sorts of nightmare scenarios may have begun to loom large in his mind, with several one-stoppers in striking distance behind, Button benefited from the kind of good fortune that often decides titles, and from which he has benefited on several occasions in recent months.

On lap 13 Sutil finally got a run on the similarly Mercedes-powered Kovalainen coming out of 130R and laid claim to the inside at the chicane – but the McLaren man refused to yield on the outside.

A collision was inevitable and as the Force India spun round and Kovalainen took to the asphalt run-off, the road was clear for a grateful Button to breeze through into eighth.

At that stage his main title rival Barrichello had fifth-placed Raikkonen in his sights, but Button now had the chance to get himself back in contention for more points in the run-up to his pit stop and immediately started lapping a second faster than he had up until that point.

Second-placed Hamilton was 4.3s behind Vettel when he set in train the first round of stops on lap 15, but trimmed that gap to 2.9s after Red Bull’s lollipop man cautiously held its driver while waiting for Heidfeld’s BMW to come down the pit lane. The small delay only served to spur Vettel on and he quickly began to build his advantage anew.

Hamilton in turn began to fall into the clutches of the impressive Trulli, the Italian getting the gap down to as little as 2.2s during the stint before Lewis responded with several quicker laps.

The McLaren driver had been told over the radio that he needed to keep at least 3s ahead of the slightly heavier Toyota in order to stay ahead of him through their respective final stops, but that proved no easy task as Trulli remained in relentless pursuit all the way to Hamilton’s second stop on lap 38.

All went like clockwork for the service itself, but as Lewis flicked his speed limiter off at the end of the pit lane the MP4-24 appeared to falter momentarily, losing him precious time. It proved costly; Trulli pitted only two laps later, but re-emerged just ahead of Hamilton to set up Toyota’s best ever result on home ground.

With serene race leader Vettel enjoying a trouble-free final stop to cement an almost certain victory and 10-point haul, what remained unclear was just how much ground he would make up on the Brawn drivers. Barrichello had been struggling in the middle stint of the race, having dropped like a stone from the increasingly fast Raikkonen after his first stop and fallen into the clutches of Rosberg, Button and Kubica. With the Brawns being the first to pit, and Button emerging right on the tail of Barrichello as the raced entered its final 10 laps, the main question still to be answered was where the longer-fuelled Rosberg would filter back onto the track in relation to the pair.

In the event he leapfrogged them both, and Heidfeld too – with a little help from the safety car that was deployed following a huge crash for Jaime Alguersuari at 130R. The teenager’s Toro Rosso unaccountably broke into a wild spin on the exit of the 190mph left-hander, which sent him smashing through one of the foam advertising boards on the inside and into his second sizeable impact with a tyre barrier in as many days.

The scattered debris meant a safety car period was inevitable and, while his rivals lapped to the controlled time indicated on their dashboard as they prepared to form up behind the pace car, Rosberg scooted into the pits and re-emerged in fifth. After a five-lap full-course yellow, Vettel reeled off the final four laps to take his fourth career win ahead of Trulli and the now KERS-less Hamilton.

Raikkonen had closed onto Heidfeld’s tail with a rapid middle stint and got in front following a slow final stop for the BMW driver, whose disappointment was compounded when he found Rosberg slotting in ahead of him. Amid post-race claims from Brawn that Rosberg had failed to adhere to the controlled speed limit on his in-lap, stewards investigated the incident but decided no punishment was required.

Button came under intense pressure from Kubica in the closing laps but held on for the final point, while Fernando Alonso finished ahead of Kovalainen in a commendable 10th for Renault after his qualifying penalty left him 17th on the grid.

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