Sebastian Vettel continued his love affair with the Suzuka circuit with an emphatic win from pole position.
He led home team mate Mark Webber as Red Bull dominated the grand prix, strengthening their position in the constructors’ championship.
The race began with drama as four cars crashed within a few hundred metres of the start.
First Vitaly Petrov made contact with Nico Hülkenberg, then Felipe Massa cut across the first corner and slammed into Vitantonio Liuzzi.
That brought out the Safety Car which picked up Vettel, who had held the lead, followed by the fast-starting Robert Kubica. But the Renault driver’s race wasn’t to last much longer: His right-rear wheel detached from the car, forcing him to retire.
That promoted Webber to second ahead of Fernando Alonso, followed by the McLarens of Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton.
More gearbox gremlins for Hamilton
The top five finished in that order but not before McLaren had mixed up the order a little. Button stayed out a long time, having started the race on the hard tyres, and briefly took over the lead after the others had pitted.
The Red Bulls caught him but, knowing he still had to pit, held back. Alonso could do little to reduce their lead even as he came under pressure from Hamilton, who picked up speed after switching to the hard tyres, getting out of Button’s slipstream and quickly passing Kamui Kobayashi.
But Hamilton’s hopes of taking on Alonso ended when he lost third gear. He was left to finish the race using just fourth gear and higher, leaving him struggling around the slower corners, particularly the hairpin. That was where Button eventually passed his team mate after his late change to soft tyres.
Michael Schumacher arrived home in sixth place after spending most of the race stuck behind his team mate. At one point he was told “there are no team orders, but Nico knows to be sensible”.
Rosberg had already made his pit stop during the early safety car period and lost time after failing to pass Sebastien Buemi following the restart.
He stayed ahead of Schumacher until he suffered a similar failure to Kubica six laps from home. Unfortunately for Rosberg it happened at the Dunlop corner, sending him crashing into the barriers.
Kobayashi flies at home
It promoted Kobayashi to a very hard-fourth seventh place achieved with a string of gutsy overtaking moves. Among the drivers he scalped, most with very late-braking overtaking moves at the hairpin, were Jaime Alguersuari, Adrian Sutil and then Alguersuari again.
The second time Alguersuari made Kobayashi go the long way around the outside, and gave him a shove at the exit of the corner, failing to keep him behind and succeeding only in damaging his own car.
Kobayashi was one of few drivers to start on hard tyres and picked off Alguersuari for the second time after changing to softs. He then sized up and passed Rubens Barrichello and team mate Nick Heidfeld – the latter getting well out of Kobayashi’s way at his favourite overtaking spot.
Kobayashi’s victims followed him home – Heidfeld, Barrichello, Buemi and Alguersuari. In 12th place was Heikki Kovalainen, the highest finishing position for a new team so far, which all-but guarantees Lotus the coveted tenth place in the constructors’ championship.
Jarno Trulli was 13th ahead of Timo Glock, the only Virgin driver to take the start after Lucas di Grassi had a bizarre and as-yet unexplained crash at 130R on his way to the grid.
Webber could do nothing about Vettel – but he could stop him from claiming the fastest lap, setting the best time on the last lap of the race. But Vettel won the war, beating Webber home for the third race in a row to move within 14 points of him in the drivers’ championship.