HOPES that an Englishman will be crowned world champion for the third successive year suffered a major blow yesterday as Sebastian Vettel led home a Red Bull one-two at the Japanese Grand Prix.
Vettel’s team-mate Mark Webber increased his lead at the top of the drivers’ standings by claiming second at Suzuka, while Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso completed the podium to maintain his charge for a third title.
McLaren duo Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton had to settle for fourth and fifth respectively, however, as they both lost ground in the five-way fight to be anointed champion in Abu Dhabi next month.
Hamilton at least finished a race for the first time in three attempts – no mean feat considering his gearbox failed him – but the 2008 title-winner concedes his chances of overhauling Webber are fast receding.
“The championship doesn’t look great at the moment,” he said. “But there are still three races to go and 75 points available, so we’ll remain optimistic and keep doing the best job we can. I’ll keep fighting.”
The gearbox problem, which left him unable to use third gear, saw Hamilton lose a place to colleague and compatriot Button late in the race.
“I didn’t think the car would make it,” he added. “It was making a lot of strange noises, but I kept my fingers crossed, tried not to shift too much and looked after it to the flag.”
Defending champion Button now trails Australian Webber by 31 points and expressed his bemusement at being left with hard tyres long after many of his rivals had switched. “To stay out when everyone else pitted was probably the wrong thing, maybe you should cover the people you’re racing,” he said.
Vettel’s third win of the season, and his first since Valencia in June, capped a weekend of dominance for the German (left), who shone in both practice sessions and started in pole position.
Victory breathed new life into the 23-year-old’s hopes of a maiden title, lifting him level on 206 points with Alonso, some 14 adrift of Webber.
Championship leader Webber, who is also chasing his first title, extended his lead by three points with just Korea, Brazil and Abu Dhabi to go. He said: “It’s chopping and changing, but most important is that the gap is going the right way.”
Veteran Michael Schumacher took sixth for Mercedes while Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi delighted home fans with a buccaneering drive to take seventh place.
STANDINGS | CHAMPIONSHIP
1. Mark Webber (Red Bull) 220
2. Fernando Alonso (Ferrari) 206
3. Sebastian Vettel (Red Bull) 206
4. Lewis Hamilton (McLaren) 192
5. Jenson Button (McLaren) 189