SUZUKA: Defending world champion Sebastian Vettel threw the battle for this year's formula one title wide open on Sunday when he cruised to a supreme victory in the Japanese Grand Prix.
The 25-year-old German, who won in Singapore two weeks ago, became the first man this year to score back-to-back wins as he slashed Fernando Alonso's championship lead to just four points with five races left.
Alonso, of Ferrari, was eliminated from Sunday's contest when he was hit by rival Finn Kimi Raikkonen's Lotus at the first corner and suffered a puncture, only his second non-finish of the season.
Sparks will fly ... Red Bull driver Mark Webber sits in the grass after colliding with the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen, top right. Photo: Reuters
Raikkonen, ironically, is a former Ferrari driver and was the team's last world champion before heading into temporary retirement in 2007.
Vettel was left out in front on his own and raced to a luxurious triumph, the 24th of his career, a feat that drew him level with the legendary Argentinian Juan-Manuel Fangio in the record books.
Vettel came home comfortably clear of Alonso's Ferrari teammate, Felipe Massa, with local hero Kamui Kobayashi third for Sauber, a result that made him only the third Japanese driver to score a podium finish in formula one.
Massa's podium finish was his first in 35 races since the 2010 Korean Grand Prix, a feat that may help retain his seat in 2013 - but he was overshadowed by the huge roar from the capacity crowd that greeted Kobayashi's finish.
Britain's Jenson Button finished fourth for McLaren ahead of his Mercedes-bound teammate, Lewis Hamilton. Raikkonen finished sixth.
Nico Hulkenberg of Force India came home seventh ahead of Pastor Maldonado of Williams and Mark Webber of Red Bull, who was involved in the first-corner accidents after starting second, and Daniel Ricciardo of Toro Rosso.
Retiring seven-time champion Michael Schumacher finished 11th, failing to score a point after starting at the back of the grid for Mercedes.