Fernando Alonso’s recent fears about his championship lead being eroded were confirmed in the worst possible way at Suzuka when the Ferrari driver was eliminated going into the first corner.
Alonso had previously been referring to the Ferrari not being on the pace of Red Bull and McLaren – a forecast proved correct by seventh fastest time in qualifying (converted to sixth on the grid thanks to a five-place penalty for Jenson Button after the McLaren driver had qualified third).
Had Lewis Hamilton not got the set-up on his McLaren completely wrong to qualify ninth, Alonso would have been headed by both McLarens as well as Red Bull as Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber locked out the front row of the grid for the first time this season.
Button had been concerned that his penalty had dropped him from the leading edge of the grid to a potentially hazardous position behind some fiery customers as Kamui Kobayashi, Romain Grosjean and Sergio Perez occupied places on the second and third rows.
Button’s fears were justified as the field swept down the hill towards the first corner. Trouble started when Alonso, sensing Button drawing alongside on his right, squeezed Kimi Raikkonen (to the left of the Ferrari) towards the grass. There was simply no room at that point. The right-front edge of Raikkonen’s nose wing snagged Alonso’s left-rear, caused a puncture and sent the Ferrari into retirement. Raikkonen, his nose wing not critically damaged, would continue to finish sixth and score points for the 12th race in succession.
Button was clear of this potential chaos and was also lucky to avoid the next (unrelated) incident a few seconds later when Grosjean made another first-lap misjudgement and smacked the back of Webber as the Red Bull lined up for Turn 2.
Then, to add to the dust and confusion, Bruno Senna would receive a penalty for hitting the back of Nico Rosberg and retiring the Mercedes. It was almost a relief to have the Safety Car come out and allow everyone to take stock.
Vettel’s day was made. Not only was Alonso parked but the reigning champion immediately left the field standing at the restart, his nearest challenger Kobayashi bottling up the field. Vettel was back in territory that had been so familiar when he won 11 races last year. A couple of seconds ahead when DRS was permitted after two laps, Vettel would not be troubled for the rest of the afternoon.
Kobayashi would have plenty to keep him busy as Button and Felipe Massa came through to push the Sauber hard. With Alonso out, Massa knew this was a major opportunity chance to do the business for Ferrari, particularly on a track he liked. (Saying that, there can hardly be a single F1 driver who does not relish attacking the magnificent challenge of Suzuka.)
The key to Massa’s race would be staying out late for his first stop and turning in four stonking laps to jump both the Sauber and the McLaren to leap from fourth to second. By then, of course, Vettel was long gone.
Despite a gearbox glitch, Button chased after Kobayashi but the Japanese driver held on during an intense final 10 laps to score his first podium in front of an adoring crowd.
Meanwhile Hamilton, fourth in the title chase going into this race, finished a disconsolate fifth with a car that had not been right for most of the weekend. Or, put another way, not as good as the Red Bull.
“You’ve got to hope this is not a stand-out race for Red Bull,” said Button, before adding wistfully: “But I’d be surprised if it was.”
Ferrari and Alonso entertained similar thoughts after Red Bull, according to team chief Christian Horner, had done nothing special but merely worked on detail.
“Today, we were very unlucky,” said Alonso. “Clearly, this result has practically wiped out the advantage I had. I’m not worried, but we must react to the step forward that the other competitors have made. Now we start a sort of mini-championship, run over five Grands Prix. What happened to us today could happen to the others next time: the wheel turns and that is what races are all about.”