A fifth consecutive win for Sebastian Vettel – the first time he has achieved such a feat – was not quite enough to secure the world championship here in Suzuka.
It was, however, a fine drive, won on strategy, that remained close to the dying laps. To take the title he required his nearest rival, Ferrari's Fernando Alonso, to finish ninth or lower but the Spaniard, who had started from eighth on the grid followed Mark Webber and Romain Grosjean home in fourth. Indeed it was Grosjean who matched his best finish of the season here in third, and Webber who kept the action alive until the end.
Grosjean had taken the lead from fourth on the grid going up the inside of Vettel and Webber, who had poor starts, and powering down the hill into turn one. Lewis Hamilton had also started well, darting between the Red Bulls, but he took a right rear puncture from Vettel’s front wing. Although he pitted the same lap, he was then forced to retire after returning to the track seconds off the pace due to a loss of aero perfomance.
Grosjean, meanwhile held the lead from the two Red Bulls with both dropping back to avoid running in the dirty air of the cars in front. Webber was the first of the leaders to pit on lap 12, and he was followed a lap later by Grosjean. Vettel stayed out until lap 15, taking a very quick 2.5 seconds in his box.
After the stops panned out Grosjean had maintained a 1.8sec gap to Webber and a further 3.24sec to Vettel, while behind them an engrossing scrap was developing.
Daniel Ricciardo went long having started on hard tyres, and held up Nico Hulkenberg, Felipe Massa, Alonso, Esteban Gutiérrez and Kimi Raikkonen. Alonso and Hulkenberg made the most of it with the latter punching well above his much-discussed weight in the Sauber.
Out front, through the second set of stops it became clear Vettel and Grosjean were looking to two-stop against Webber’s three and after Webber came in for his second, Vettel immediately pushed up to Grosjean, knocking the gap down to 1.3sec. Grosjean was in on lap 30 but Vettel worked his rubber superbly staying out until lap 37.
It was 22 laps after his first stop and left him 16 to run to the end and he exited just over three seconds behind Grosjean. With Webber taking a three-stopper at that point he had the lead by 13.9sec from Grosjean with Vettel 2.1sec back on that.
Vettel was gambling on having enough left in his tyres to hold off Webber who would be on a charge at the end. The German had closed on Grosjean – crucial to having some rubber left for the finish was not running in the dirty air of the Lotus – and he duly swept past on the straight, completing the move before turn one.
By lap 43 Webber had a 14.5sec lead over Vettel and he promptly came in for his final stop, fitted new medium option tyres, the faster of the two looking for a sprint to the finish.
He would not quite make it. A second a lap quicker than Vettel with eight laps remaining and 6.8sec behind, he went for the pass on Grosjean but the Frenchman moved over and Webber ultimately did not make it through until the penultimate lap. That was too late to catch the likely world champion. Vettel and his team had called the strategy perfectly and even after a poor start he took the flag 7.1sec ahead of his team-mate. Vettel can secure the title with a top-five finish at the next race in India but will also take it if Alonso scores no more than 10 points more than him.