SUZUKA, Japan (AP) — Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel won the Japanese Grand Prix from the pole on Sunday to close within four points of Formula One championship leader Fernando Alonso, who crashed out of the race at the first turn.
Vettel, who also won the last race in Singapore, is now within sight of a third straight title — something only previously accomplished by Juan-Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher — with five races left.
"It was an important step today," Vettel said. "There is still a long way to go. I don't know what happened behind me today but Alonso was very unlucky. We never know what is going to happen in the next race so it was important to take points today."
Alonso's Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa was second, 20.6 seconds behind Vettel for his first podium finish since Korea in 2010, a performance that should boost his chances of staying with the team.
"It's a huge relief to be back on the podium," Massa said. "It was a great race and shows we are here to fight for the victory and the podium."
Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi delighted the home fans by taking third place — holding off a late challenge from McLaren's Jenson Button — for his first-ever F1 podium. He became the first Japanese driver on a podium here since 1990.
"It was a very tough race," Kobayashi said. "I got off to a good start but really had to fight and it took everything I had to hold off Jenson. To get a podium here in Japan in front of these great fans is fantastic."
The race got off to a rocky start with a series of collisions in the first corner. Alonso made contact with the Lotus of Kimi Raikkonen and appeared to sustain a punctured tire, fishtailing off the track and the car stalled, leaving a disconsolate Alonso to trudge back to the pits.
Also on the first turn, Lotus' Romain Grosjean rammed into the Red Bull of Mark Webber, sending the Australian to the back of the pack after starting from second. Grosjean was given a drive-through penalty for causing the collision, and in light of his suspension for a race for doing the same in Belgium, the Frenchman may face disciplinary action again.