The 2012 F1 championship took another unexpected turn on the very first lap of the Japanese Grand Prix. In the blink of an eye, the Ferrari of Fernando Alonso was parked, facing the wrong way, at turn one.
Sebastien Vettel grabbed the opportunity to vault back into championship contention to take his second win in a row.
Felipe Massa got a great start and found himself on the second step of the podium, having never been threatened, while Kamui Kobayashi held off Jenson Button's McLaren for a very popular third.
Qualifying ended with a puff of disappointment after Kimi Raikkonen spun while the leading drivers were on their last flying laps, bringing out the yellows.
Mark Webber made a welcome return to the front row, qualifying just behind teammate Vettel.
The grid was decided as much by speed as penalties: five places for Button (gearbox change), ten places for Michael Schumacher (crash in Singapore), five for Hulkenberg (gearbox change after FP3 crash) and three for Vergne (three places for blocking Bruno Senna in qualifying).
Ricciardo started 14th after all the shuffling, setting him up for a points finish.
While Vettel was off to a flying start, Webber was passed off the line by local hero Kamui Kobayashi.
A melee broke out behind as Fernando Alonso touched the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen, the Ferrari getting out of shape on the exit of turn one with a punctured rear tyre. The car spun to face oncoming traffic which the Spaniard survived unscathed, but his race was over.
On the exit of turn two, Romain Grosjean simply drove straight into the right rear of Mark Webber's Red Bull, beaching the RB8 on the grass. The Australian was able to get going again and pitted for new tyres and front wing.
Grosjean was given the biggest penalty the stewards had at their disposal, a ten-second stop-go. After the race, Webber branded him a "first-lap nutcase," suggesting the Frenchman "needs another holiday."
Bruno Senna somehow managed to get involved in the same accident, punching into the back of Rosberg's Mercedes, the German forced to retire. Senna got a drive through for his troubles some 20 laps after the incident occurred.
Vettel caught Kobayahsi napping off the restart, Vettel pulling out several car lengths before he even got on to the front straight but it was unlikely to have made any difference to the eventual result.
Down the pack, Perez fought hard through turn one with Raikkonen but ceded the position as the Finn held his line.
Button, Ricciardo, Hamilton and Kovalainen were the main beneficiaries of the turn one and two debacles, Ricciardo jumping to tenth, Kovalainen to 11th.
Perez got by Hamilton on lap 6 in a brave move at the hairpin. Hamilton then had to deal with a fast-starting Hulkenberg.
Hamilton was going nowhere in the McLaren, his pace a second off the leader's. Button, too, was struggling in the sister McLaren while Kamui Kobayashi held down a hugely impressive second place behind the rampant Sebastien Vettel.
Button, Raikkonen, Hulkenberg and di Resta pitted on lap 13 while Kobayashi pitted from second on lap 14. Perez pitted on lap 16 from fourth, the Sauber team enjoying an excellent start to the Japanese Grand Prix.
Massa popped up in second, just eleven seconds behind Vettel on lap 17, as Hamilton and Maldonado and Senna pitted.
Kobayashi dived past Ricciardo's Toro Rosso at the hairpin on the same lap as Vettel finally pulled in for new tyres, rejoining the track in the lead, while Massa also came out in front of Kobayashi.
Button radioed in to his team to tell them that the new gearbox that had been fitted - and caused him to start five places back from his qualifying time - was misbehaving, only to be told that there was nothing wrong. Which may have been true as he promptly set the fastest lap.
Sergio Perez got it all wrong trying to pass Lewis Hamilton on lap 19, again at the hairpin. He had fired out of the little kink on the run up to the hairpin, already out of shape and hitting the brakes he shot past the McLaren driver into the sand.
Oddly, Perez tried to blame Hamilton by saying he made a late move to the inside, an opinion he'll probably be revising after closer inspection of the footage.
Hamilton complained of tyre degradation just seven laps after his stop but he settled in for an anonymous afternoon and fifth place.
Webber pitted from ninth after a long stint on his set of replacement tyres to attempt a one stop race and recover from the first corner disaster. He rejoined in 12th.
Michael Schumacher may have made the decision to retire but he made a terrific pass on Paul di Resta on lap 28, going deep into turn one and holding the line through turn two.
Kobayashi pitted on lap 31 from fourth, with Hamilton and Hulkenberg close behind.
Hamilton's exit from pitlane was an exciting one as Raikkonen came firing around the outside, attempting an opportunistic move to stay in front of the McLaren. Hamilton held the line and motored away.
Button pitted on lap 36, a strategic move to try and get him in front of Kamui Kobayashi, but a slightly long pit stop (Button over-shot his marks) and a good lap from the Sauber driver foiled the effort.
Felipe Massa's excellent race continued in second, and he pitted for hard tyres to take him to the flag. Vettel followed him in on lap 38 for a 2.6 second stop to keep him in the lead, a lead that stretched to almost a pit-stop's worth by the end of the race.
The closing laps of the race were dominated by the battle between Kobayashi and Button, fought at a distance as the two traded lap times, the McLaren driver trying to get inside the DRS zone.
Webber climbed to ninth, leading home Ricciardo and Michael Schumacher, neither of whom had been visited by misfortune.
Ricciardo fended off Michael Schumacher for tenth, the Toro Rosso driver fighting gamely with the multiple world-champion.
"I was holding off Michael and I was really pleased to have won that battle," Ricciardo said.
"It's always tougher when you are the slower car in a duel, but with good advice from the pit wall on how to use the KERS to defend in the DRS zone, I managed it."
Massa scored his first podium in 36 races, the last was at the sodden 2010 Korean Grand Prix.
Romain Grosjean's miserable afternoon ended on lap 52, his car pushed into the garage and into retirement.
Vettel set the fastest lap of the race on the second-to-last lap and cruised on to victory.
Massa crossed almost 21 seconds behind while Kamui Kobayashi held off Jenson Button, to great excitement and emotion on the Sauber pitwall.
Mark Webber came home 9th, behind the Williams of Pastor Maldonado.
"To finish eight seconds behind fifth place considering [on lap one] I was reversing away from the fence, and the safety car was in before I got back on to the back of the group," Webber said after the race.
We ticked all of the worst boxes again and maybe I need to have a few whiskeys and get some luck that way."
Formula 1 returns next week at the Korean Grand Prix.
2012 Japan F1 GP Results
- Vettel - Red Bull-Renault - 1h28:56.242
- Massa - Ferrari +20.639
- Kobayashi - Sauber-Ferrari +24.538
- Button - McLaren-Mercedes +25.098
- Hamilton - McLaren-Mercedes +46.490
- Raikkonen - Lotus-Renault +50.424
- Hulkenberg - Force India-Mercedes +51.159
- Maldonado - Williams-Renault +52.364
- Webber - Red Bull-Renault +54.675
- Ricciardo - Toro Rosso-Ferrari +1:06.919
- Schumacher - Mercede +1:07.769
- Di Resta - Force India-Mercedes +1:23.400
- Vergne - Toro Rosso-Ferrari +1:28.600
- Senna - Williams-Renault +1:28.700
- Grosjean - Lotus-Renault +1 lap
- Kovalainen - Caterham-Renault +1 lap
- Glock - Marussia-Cosworth +1 lap
- Petrov - Caterham-Renault +1 lap
- De la Rosa - HRT-Cosworth +1 lap
- Pic - Marussia-Cosworth
- Karthikeyan - HRT-Cosworth
- Perez - Sauber-Ferrari
- Alonso - Ferrari
- Rosberg - Mercedes