We're officially into the closing stages of the 2012 F1 season. The European stretch of the year is over, and now we're onto flyaway races. The Japanese grand prix marked the start of this part of the year, and I have to say it was well worth sacrificing a weekend of catching up on sleep!
Suzuka has been a circuit which has often played a large part in championship deciders. Vettel last year managed to secure his second world championship at this race, long before the season's end. This year however the season is much tighter, with Alonso currently in the lead. Before the race, Alonso had a 29 point lead over Vettel, however as we head into the Korean race this lead has been cut to just 4 points.
Over the course of a season, all the drivers seem to have their fair doses of good and bad luck. At the first part of the season, it looked as though Red Bull and Vettel were getting their bad luck out of the way, while Fernando Alonso's Ferrari could do no wrong. However, in these closing stages of the year the tables seem to have turned somewhat, resulting in the championship being blown wide open again.
This effect on the championship can be put down to the opening lap of the race at Suzuka last weekend. Vettel managed to clinch his fourth pole position at the circuit, and thus pulled off his usual trick of streaking away into the distance once the five lights went out. However, behind the leader things weren't so straightforward: Grosjean pulled away incredibly well from his starting position, however once again he seemed to put his car in completely the wrong place, and had a collision with Mark Webber. The other Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen also got into the danger zone, and ended up giving Alonso a puncture, forcing him out of the race and therefore out of the points. Due to the chaos of these incidents, Nico Rosberg also got into trouble with Bruno Senna, resulting in Senna taking a drive-through penalty.
Once things had settled down in the pack, Vettel extended his lead over someone who you might not expect to be in second - Felipe Massa. Recently, Massa has been under a lot of pressure and has faced a lot of criticism for his driving ability. People have been questioning whether he really deserves his place at Ferrari, and if he is perhaps lacking in pace. However, of late Massa seems to have returned to his old form - the form of 2008 when he almost won the world championship. In my opinion, Massa's driving had never fully recovered after his accident in Hungary. Me being a psychology student and looking to studying traumatic brain injury in the future, you have to wonder whether that accident caused more damage than it appeared on the surface. Brain injuries are tricky things, and recovery can take years, so from the way in which Massa has been driving I'd not be surprised if that incident was responsible for such a loss of form over such a long time. In any case, Massa's skill at driving in Suzuka was enough to earn him his first podium since 2010, and hopefully has silenced some of the doubters out there.
Third place was more of a battle than perhaps the first two steps of the podium. Jenson Button had a good drive after his 5 place grid drop, however in the end he couldn't quite make the third step of the podium. Instead, this went to another surprise: Kamui Kobayashi. While Kobayashi's teammate, Perez, has managed to secure a few trophies this year, things haven't always gone Kamui's way, making the team question whether to keep him for 2013. However, a great drive meant that he secured his first podium of his career, and in front of his home crowd too! In all the years I've been watching F1, I've seen plenty of podium ceremonies. However, up until this weekend I'd never heard a driver's name being chanted before! Having such support out there must have been a fantastic experience for Kobayashi, and no doubt his desire to secure more podiums must have grown.
So, with only one championship runner finishing on the podium, we've got a bit of a fight on our hands for the rest of the season. With five races remaining, I'd be very surprised if anyone other than Vettel or Alonso got the title. However, in this season anything has been possible, and with 125 points left it's still mathematically possible for Raikkonen or Hamilton to sneak in and take the title. Whatever happens in the championship, we're certain that the last five races will be just as thrilling as the previous showdowns along the season. With any luck, the early mornings will be worth it!