Lewis Hamilton took a massive step towards a fourth World title as he won the Japanese GP while a DNF all but put the final nail in Sebastian Vettel’s championship hopes.
A spark plug problem for Vettel on the grid, a fast-starting Hamilton and an early Safety Car for Carlos Sainz set the scene for Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix.
Vettel arrived on the Suzuka grid desperately needing the win, however, instead his engine cover was off minutes before the race with a reported spark plug issue.
Unable to challenge pole-sitter Hamilton off the line, he was soon overtaken by the flying Max Verstappen and was down in sixth place by the end of lap 1 when the Safety Car came out for Sainz, who crashed out of his final race as a Toro Rosso driver.
The restart saw Hamilton under pressure from Max Verstappen who in turn was being harried by Esteban Ocon. However, it was Vettel who the big loser as he was passed by Sergio Perez, Felipe Massa, Nico Hulkenberg and Kevin Magnussen within one lap. “Box” and “retire the car” were the next words the Ferrari driver heard.
Red Bull’s belief that their race-pace would be superior to their qualifying form proved to be spot on as Verstappen stuck close to Hamilton in the battle for the lead.
The Virtual Safety Car was out on lap 9 when Marcus Ericsson crashed at the second Degner, putting his Sauber nose first in the barrier.
The race resumed with Hamilton three seconds up on Verstappen while Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas made short work of Ocon to run third and fourth. that, though, was were the drama ended as the race settled down.
Verstappen was the first of the frontrunners to pit with Hamilton in next followed by Ricciardo and Bottas. Prior to Bottas’ stop he moved over to allow Hamilton back up into the lead and then played bollard to Verstappen. The Dutchman was three seconds behind Hamilton when Bottas pitted.
There was a bit of late drama as something went wrong with Lance Stroll’s Williams sending him flying off the track at the first part of the Esses. He came back onto the racing line and narrowly avoided being hit by a Red Bull. Stroll parked his Williams on the side of the track, bringing out the Virtual Safety Car.
Using the VSC as opposed to the Safety Car meant the field wasn’t bunch up but tyre vibration for Hamilton meant Verstappen closed right up on him in the final laps.
The Dutchman was right on his rear wing but traffic – especially Fernando Alonso – arguably saved the day for Hamilton who raced to the victory to extend his lead in the title race to 59 points over Vettel. Verstappen was second with Ricciardo joining his team-mate on the podium.
Bottas was fourth ahead of Kimi Raikkonen who lost ground at the start before putting in some impressive overtakes to work his way back up the order.
Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez were sixth and seventh with the latter asking Force India to have his team-mate move over for him as he was “too slow.” Force India declined.
Kevin Magnussen, Romain Grosjean and Felipe Massa completed the points.
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1:27.31.193
2 Max Verstappen Red Bull 1.211
3 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 9.679
4 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 10.580
5 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 32.622
6 Esteban Ocon Force India 67.385
7 Sergio Perez Force India 70.060
8 Kevin Magnussen Haas 87.934
9 Romain Grosjean Haas 88.912
10 Felipe Massa Williams 1 LAP
11 Fernando Alonso McLaren 1 LAP
12 Jolyon Palmer Renault Sport 1 LAP
13 Pierre Gasly Toro Rosso 1 LAP
14 Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren 1 LAP
15 Pascal Wehrlein Sauber 2 LAPS
Did not finish
Stroll Williams crash
Hulkenberg Renault DRS
Ericsson Sauber crash
Vettel Ferrari engine
Sainz Toro Rosso crash