Sebastian Vettel finally returned to the top spot of the podium by taking a flawless victory in the Japanese Grand Prix for a second straight year.
His Red Bull teammate Mark Webber was a close second, and extended his championship lead to 14 points over third-place finisher Fernando Alonso and Vettel, now up to joint second thanks to his first win since Valencia.
McLaren's title hopes took another blow as Jenson Button and Lewis Hamilton, the latter hobbled by the loss of third gear, finished fourth and fifth.
Most of the incident in the race was compacted into the opening minutes – although the destruction began even before the start, when Virgin's Lucas di Grassi had a massive, and bizarre, crash at the 130R on his way to the dummy grid.
Then when the race got under way, the fast-starting Vitaly Petrov (Renault) clipped Nico Hulkenberg's Williams and slammed into the barriers on the pits straight, moments before Ferrari's Felipe Massa took to the grass going into the first corner and speared into Tonio Liuzzi's Force India.
The safety car was immediately brought out, and one of the race's most intriguing possibilities was removed during the yellow. Robert Kubica had split the Red Bulls off the line, but the second-placed Renault pulled off on lap three after shedding its right rear wheel while cruising around behind the pace car. Red Bull therefore resumed 1-2 formation at the restart, with Vettel and Webber easily pulling away from Alonso (Ferrari) at around a second per lap initially.
The only time they were headed was when Button's alternative strategy allowed him to lead from laps 25 to 38, as the World Champion ran long on his hard tires before changing to softs and mounting a late charge.
His targets were Hamilton and Alonso. A battle between the two had seemed to be brewing until Hamilton reported the loss of third gear in the final stages. He tumbled away from the Ferrari and let Button pass him with ease at the hairpin on lap 44. Hamilton was able to hang on to fifth, while the gap to Alonso was too great for Button to close in the time remaining.
Michael Schumacher returned to the top six after one of his strongest races of the year. He looked set to finish behind Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg, who had pitted under the safety car at the start, until the younger German lost a wheel and had a big crash at the S curves with five laps to go. Rosberg had earlier escaped a near-miss with Sebastien Buemi when an attempt to pass the Toro Rosso on the outside at the 130R went awry.
Late entertainment was again provided by Sauber's Kamui Kobayashi. Running an identical strategy to Button, he dived past Jaime Alguersuari (Toro Rosso) and Adrian Sutil (Force India) at the hairpin in his first stint, but fell behind both after finally pitting.
He flew on fresh tires, though, surging past Alguersuari again – with the Toro Rosso breaking its front wing trying to retaliate – gaining a place when Sutil's engine blew (and sent him spinning scarily at the 130R), then passing Rubens Barrichello's Williams and his Sauber teammate Nick Heidfeld to delight the home crowd with a hard-earned seventh.
Heidfeld scored his first points back with Sauber in eighth, while Barrichello was only ninth having been passed by Schumacher on-track and Heidfeld in the pits even before falling victim to Kobayashi. Buemi completed the top 10.
PROVISIONAL RACE RESULTS
The Japanese Grand Prix
53 laps; 307.573km;
Pos Driver Team Time
1. Vettel Red Bull-Renault 1h30:27.323
2. Webber Red Bull-Renault + 0.905
3. Alonso Ferrari + 2.721
4. Button McLaren-Mercedes + 13.522
5. Hamilton McLaren-Mercedes + 39.595
6. Schumacher Mercedes + 59.933
7. Kobayashi Sauber-Ferrari + 1:04:038
8. Heidfeld Sauber-Ferrari + 1:09.648
9. Barrichello Williams-Cosworth + 1:10.846
10. Buemi Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1:12.806
11. Alguersuari Toro Rosso-Ferrari + 1 lap
12. Kovalainen Lotus-Cosworth + 1 lap
13. Trulli Lotus-Cosworth + 2 laps
14. Glock Virgin-Cosworth + 2 laps
15. Senna HRT-Cosworth + 2 laps
16. Yamamoto + 3 laps
17. Rosberg Mercedes + 5 laps
Fastest lap: Webber, 1:33.474
Driver Team On lap
Sutil Force India-Mercedes 45
Kubica Renault 4
Hulkenberg Williams-Cosworth 1
Massa Ferrari 1
Petrov Renault 1
Liuzzi Force India-Mercedes 1
Di Grassi Virgin-Cosworth 1
World Championship standings, round 16:
1. Webber 220 1. Red Bull-Renault 426
2. Alonso 206 2. McLaren-Mercedes 381
3. Vettel 206 3. Ferrari 334
4. Hamilton 192 4. Mercedes 176
5. Button 189 5. Renault 133
6. Massa 128 6. Force India-Mercedes 60
7. Rosberg 122 7. Williams-Cosworth 58
8. Kubica 114 8. Sauber-Ferrari 37
9. Schumacher 54 9. Toro Rosso-Ferrari 11
10. Sutil 47
11. Barrichello 41
12. Kobayashi 27
13. Petrov 19
14. Hulkenberg 17
15. Liuzzi 13
16. Buemi 8
17. De la Rosa 6
18. Heidfeld 4
19. Alguersuari 3
All timing unofficial