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Alonso wins Japanese Grand Prix; Hamilton's lead shrinks after wreck on Lap 2

10/16/2008

OYAMA, Japan -- Fernando Alonso won Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix for a victory that was almost a sideshow to a breathless race that provided another twist in the title fight.

While the rejuvenated Spaniard made it back-to-back wins in his Renault, the race's history of season-defining incidents between title rivals gained a new chapter when Lewis Hamilton and Felipe Massa tangled in a memorable second-lap collision.

Both leading drivers received pit drive-through penalties before Hamilton finished out of the points for McLaren and Massa came in seventh following a post-race stewards' decision that elevated him from eighth.

That meant Hamilton's championship lead was cut from seven points to five with two races remaining. BMW's Robert Kubica, who finished second, continued to sneak up on the pair and is 12 points off the lead.

The drama began from the green light. Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen -- starting second on the grid -- got the better of pole-sitter Hamilton and was set to get through the opening corner first.

But Hamilton, eager to take back the lead, went into the bend too quickly on hard tires in cool conditions, taking him off the track and forcing Raikkonen to do the same.

Pushed down to sixth, Hamilton attempted to fight back on turn 10 of the second lap, passing Massa and forcing the Ferrari driver wide.

Massa trailed into turn 11 with two wheels off the road, went over the curbing and collided with Hamilton, putting the Briton into a spin as Massa continued.

"I was outside and then he pushed me a little bit close to the gravel," Massa said. "I had two wheels on the gravel and he closed out and we touched. Because I was on the gravel I couldn't do anything as we touched and that's it."

A Ferrari crew member punched the air in delight as it appeared Massa was set to trim or maybe erase Hamilton's title lead.

But his joy was short-lived since race stewards soon announced both drivers had to serve pit drive-through penalties: Massa for the collision and Hamilton for the opening corner.

After their penalties, Massa and Hamilton were 14th and 15th respectively and the interest centered on whether they could fight back into the points.

Massa did, passing Red Bull's Mark Webber in another hair-raising maneuver that almost forced the Ferrari driver into the wall along pit lane.

That appeared to have given Massa eighth and a single point, but he was promoted to seventh by a post-race stewards' ruling that imposed a 25-second penalty on initial sixth-place finisher Sebastien Bourdais of Toro Rosso for a collision with Massa on the 50th lap.

Massa was critical of Hamilton's behavior on the first corner.

"It was a big casino out there," Massa said. "It was pretty optimistic for him, especially if you consider the championship."

McLaren team principal Ron Dennis said he was surprised Hamilton was penalized for the first corner, but the driver himself remained optimistic.

"I've only lost two points to Felipe in the drivers' championship, so it's definitely not over," Hamilton said. "Now I'll forget today ever happened and move forward."

The incident was reminiscent of the collisions between title rivals Alain Prost and Ayrton Senna in the 1989 and '90 Japanese GPs, but Massa insisted his relationship with Hamilton was not about to become as poisonous as the interactions between those two greats.

"I have a good relationship with Lewis and I will not do anything to destroy it," Massa said. "We are colleagues, we have a good relationship, I admire him and he admires me."

While the focus will be on Massa and Hamilton heading into next Sunday's Chinese Grand Prix, Kubica should not be overlooked.

Last year, Hamilton led Raikkonen by 17 points before the Finn won the final two races to secure the championship.

Kubica is closer, only 12 points behind. It would be a remarkable world championship if the Pole can pull it off, considering he has only won one race in his career, at Canada this season.

"Kimi showed last year that anything is possible," Kubica said. "The difference is I have two guys in front of me, not one, and at normal pace it's no secret we are not as fast as Massa and Hamilton, so life is a bit more difficult."

Alonso's back-to-back wins have lifted the two-time world champion, who had made little effort to disguise his disappointment with Renault's struggles for most of the season. He is expected to stay with Renault despite a huge potential offer from Honda.

"I know what to do but I will announce it after Brazil," Alonso said.

His win in Singapore had more to do with good luck than anything else, but he required no such good fortune Sunday.

"I cannot believe it right now, but back-to-back wins is a very nice feeling and the team did a great job to improve the car," Alonso said. "We are now just behind Ferrari and McLaren and this is completely amazing."

Raikkonen was forced to settle for third after a thrilling late battle with Kubica for second, with the pair wheel to wheel through a succession of corners.