Lewis Hamilton has one hand on the Formula 1 championship trophy thanks to victory in the Japanese Grand Prix, beating Max Verstappen as Sebastian Vettel’s title hopes took a major blow with retirement.
Hamilton converted pole into an early lead while second-placed Vettel began to drop back immediately, minutes after his Ferrari team had taken the engine cover off the car on the grid to check a spark plug problem.
Vettel’s lack of pace meant Verstappen, who passed Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo off the line, picked off Vettel at the hairpin on the opening lap, before the Ferrari dropped another three places at the start of the second lap.
After a brief safety car period, caused by Carlos Sainz crashing his Toro Rosso at Turn 6, Vettel dropped down to eighth before getting the call on the radio to pit and retire the car on lap 4.
This retirement is a real blow to Vettel’s title hopes and it’s a real shame that the championship looks over after so many problems at Ferrari.
Hamilton then extended his lead to just over four seconds before Verstappen pitted to change his supersofts for soft tyres on lap 21, with Hamilton covering off the undercut on the following lap.
Bottas began to hold up Mercedes team-mate Hamilton after Ricciardo made his pit-stop, allowing Verstappen to close within a second of his rival, but the gap grew again when Bottas allowed Hamilton through at the Casio Triangle chicane at the midway point and started to hold up Verstappen.
It wasn’t until lap 30 that Bottas pitted for supersofts by which time Verstappen had fallen 3.4 seconds adrift.
The Red Bull driver then managed to cut Hamilton’s advantage to a little over two seconds, but couldn’t keep up the pace until Hamilton found himself being held up by Fernando Alonso on lap 51.
That allowed Verstappen to close to within a second at the start of the final lap, but more traffic allowed Hamilton to escape once more and seal the win by a slight margin.
Ricciardo completed the podium in third after a succession of fastest laps late on but couldn’t make further inroads after switching to supersoft tyres on lap 25.
The sole surviving Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen finished fifth, recovering after dropping to P15 on the opening lap when he was forced wide at Spoon Curve by Nico Hulkenberg.
The Force Indias of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez finished sixth and seventh. Ocon had run as high as third early on after passing Ricciardo on the opening lap, but was soon demoted to fifth on successive laps by Ricciardo and Bottas.
An aggressive late move at Turn 1 on the Williams of Felipe Massa gave Kevin Magnussen eighth place, with Haas team-mate Romain Grosjean following through to grab ninth.
Fernando Alonso finished P11 in the final home race for Honda as engine partner to McLaren, ahead of Jolyon Palmer’s Renault and Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly.
This was Palmer’s final race for Renault as he steps down from the driving seat to make way for exciting new talent, Carlos Sainz Jr.
Stoffel Vandoorne came home P14 for McLaren after dropping to the rear on the first lap.
Sauber’s Pascal Wehrlein was the only other finisher in P15, his team-mate Marcus Ericsson crashing out early on at Degner 2.
Lance Stroll retired when an apparent failure on the front-right of his Williams sent him skating across the gravel late on, while Nico Hulkenberg’s DRS refusing to close forced him out.
So the perfect result for Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes at Suzuka. The reality of winning the 2017 Formula 1 world championship is getting real. The speed, reliability and strategy from the Silver Arrows has been impressive and it will be such an achievement to win the title.
As for Sebastian Vettel. This was a major disappointment to retire from the Japanese Grand Prix with this spark plug problem. So much bad luck and technical issues from Ferrari. It’s going to take a miracle for Vettel to win the title with this setback.
Japanese Grand Prix, race results after 53 laps:
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1h27m31.193s
2 Max Verstappen Red Bull-Renault 1.211s
3 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull-Renault 9.679s
4 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 10.580s
5 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 32.622s
6 Esteban Ocon Force India-Mercedes 1m07.788s
7 Sergio Perez Force India-Mercedes 1m11.424s
8 Kevin Magnussen Haas-Ferrari 1m28.953s
9 Romain Grosjean Haas-Ferrari 1m29.883s
10 Felipe Massa Williams-Mercedes 1 Lap
11 Fernando Alonso McLaren-Honda 1 Lap
12 Jolyon Palmer Renault 1 Lap
13 Pierre Gasly Toro Rosso-Renault 1 Lap
14 Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren-Honda 1 Lap
15 Pascal Wehrlein Sauber-Ferrari 2 Laps
– Lance Stroll Williams-Mercedes Retirement
– Nico Hulkenberg Renault Retirement
– Marcus Ericsson Sauber-Ferrari Spun off
– Sebastian Vettel Ferrari Power Unit
– Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso-Renault Spun off