Toyota’s Jarno Trulli snatched second, while Lewis Hamilton took third place at Suzuka, leaving the world champion yet to be crowned.
Vettel started from poll after a superb lap on Saturday in the midst of a chaotic, crash-strewn qualifying session which saw four drivers penalised for failing to slow down adequately under yellow flag conditions.
The German managed to hold off strong starts from both Hamilton and Trulli and led throughout to claim his third victory of the season and the fourth of his career.
Trulli, starting from second on the grid, was overtaken by Hamilton in the first lap but was able to regain his position when the British driver had a problem emerging from the pit lane.
Jenson Button arrived in Japan with a chance to join a list of Formula One greats to be crowned world champion at Suzuka, including Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher.
Six points would have seen him take the title. However, his prospects were severely hampered by a five-place grid penalty, which left him in 10th position on the grid, despite qualifying in seventh.
His chances looked even bleaker after a dreadful start saw him drop back to 12th. He overtook BMW’s Robert Kubica with a neat manoeuvre at the chicane on lap one but with the drivers ahead of him carrying more fuel, Button still faced an uphill struggle. Some good fortune helped him out, when Sutil and Kovalainen, jostling for position, collided, allowing the Brit to nip through into eighth place.
With the chequered flag approaching, it looked as though Brawn GP had managed to secure the four points they needed to take the constructors’ title, but Jaime Alguersuari’s crash eight laps from the finish meant another twist in the tale. Having lost a position when pitting, Barichello ended up in seventh behind the safety car, with Button trailing him.
When the race restarted with four laps to go, the lapped Roman Grosjean was a buffer for Vettel, preventing Trulli from pushing for first, while Hamilton managed to hold off Kimi Raikkonen, despite losing seconds due to a failed Kers system.
Button did well to hold his nerve to withstand an aggressive challenge from Kubica behind him and secure a vital point to stay 14 clear at the top of the table. Barichello’s additional two points mean Brawn GP just need half a point from the final two races to secure the constructors’ title.
Vettel’s chances of becoming world champion for the first time have gone from mathematical to entirely possible, especially considering that Raikkonen gained 17 points in two races to steal the championship from Hamilton in 2007.
The German insisted that he could repeat history in 2009, despite still trailing Button by 16 points. “You can ask the man sitting next to me,” he said, referring to Hamilton. “Everyone said to Lewis it will not be a problem, sitting in one of the most competitive cars, just get a couple of points, but you can see sometimes, things just donÃ¢â‚¬â„¢t work your way. Anything is possible.”
“I think we have a great car, still improving, the boys back in the factory are pushing very hard. We will see what we can do. We will focus on us, on ourselves, and simply try to win. Whatever Rubens and Jenson are doing it is in their hands, so I will keep on pushing.”
Button maintained that he had made the best out of a difficult weekend. “Today was about picking up points after our eventful qualifying session yesterday and that’s exactly what I did.
“I did the best that I could in the car that we had this weekend and we got the maximum performance out of it with a points-scoring finish,” he said.
The Briton, like Vettel, will also be aiming to repeat history when the championship travels to Brazil in two weeks time. The Interlagos circuit was the scene of Hamilton’s triumph in the last race of the 2008 season, when he snatched the title from local hero Felipe Massa by a single point.
Button will be hoping to break Brazilian hearts again by denying team-mate Barichello, who will enjoy passionate support from his fellow Paulistas. Third place or higher would guarantee he becomes world champion in Sao Paulo, regardless of where anyone else finishes.
However, he continued to look towards both Brazil and the final Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi. “We go to two circuits now which should suit our car so I’m excited about the end of the season and already looking forward to the next race in Brazil,” he said.
MORE: The latest football news
MORE: The latest tennis news
BIOGRAPHY: Adam Lallana
BIOGRAPHY: Nacho Monreal