Nico Rosberg increased his lead in the 2016 Formula 1 world championship with a commanding victory at the Japanese Grand Prix as his Mercedes teammate and title rival Lewis Hamilton salvaged third place after making a poor start to the race.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen drove what he considered to be one of his best F1 races, to hold off Hamilton in the closing stages and finish second.
It was the ninth win of the season for Rosberg and the 23rd of his career, putting him level with Nelson Piquet, one behind Juan Manuel Fangio and two behind team chairman Niki Lauda.
Rosberg led away from pole position while Hamilton bogged down off the line, largely due to a poor clutch deployment, but it must be said that the even numbered grid slots had a damp line down them and Hamilton positioned his car to the left to try to compensate for that, but failed to mitigate the problem. He was got swamped by Daniel Ricciardo and the Ferrari pair of Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen.
The Force India drivers Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg also rocketed off the line –with the Mexican racer shooting into third place from fifth on the grid – which demoted Hamilton to eighth by the time the pack charged into Turn 1 for the first time in the 53-lap event.
Rosberg immediately leapt clear of the DRS danger posed by Max Verstappen, who had moved into second as Hamilton fell down the order, and began to steadily pull away from the Red Bull driver.
Vettel quickly caught and passed Perez for third while Hamilton, who apologised to his Mercedes team over the radio shortly after his poor start, followed Raikkonen past Hulkenberg as they made identical sweeping moves around the outside of the Force India on laps six and seven.
The action settled down approaching the first round of pitstops – Rosberg edging his gap over Verstappen up to 5.0s while Mercedes told Hamilton to concentrate on keeping his tyres alive.
Red Bull triggered the first stops by double stacking Verstappen and Ricciardo on lap 10 with Rosberg, Perez and the Ferrari drivers following them in to switch to the mandatory hard tyres two laps later.
Mercedes kept Hamilton out for a further lap and he used the full pace advantage of his car in clear air to move ahead of Raikkonen for a net fifth place when he emerged from the pits – where the 2007 world champion was busy overtaking Perez and the Renault of Jolyon Palmer in a brave double move along the pit straight – despite being on older tyres.
Hamilton then quickly caught and breezed past Ricciardo for sixth, which was fourth place in reality as the Williams pair of Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa were in front of them due to their alternative one-stop strategy.
Up front, Verstappen had cut Rosberg’s lead to 2.5s shortly the first stops but the championship leader slowly set about building his lead back up, with Vettel further back in third.
Over the course of the next stint, as Rosberg edged back away from Verstappen, Hamilton, who was fourth for real by this stage as Bottas and Massa were dispatched and they then came in for their single stop for hards, reeled in Vettel.
While Verstappen and Rosberg came in for their second stops on laps 28 and 29, the world champion stayed out until lap 33 before diving in for his own fresh set of hard tyres.
Although Ferrari brought in Vettel a lap later for a brand new set of soft tyres, Hamilton moved up to third place thanks to the fresh tyre advantage the undercut had given him.
Vettel immediately began to catch the Mercedes and he got within a second of Hamilton before his tyres started to fade and he dropped back from the Briton, railing against the backmarkers and blue flags as he did so.
In the process of rebuffing Vettel’s advances, Hamilton had closed up to just seven seconds behind Verstappen by lap 37 and he quickly started eating into the Red Bull’s advantage.
By lap 45 they were running line astern on the track, but although Hamilton closed to within one second and picked up the DRS, he could not find a way by.
But coming to the end of the penultimate lap, Hamilton did get close enough to attack Verstappen at the final chicane, but the Dutch driver jinked right as they braked and the Mercedes racer had to back out of the move and take to the runoff area, which dropped him out of contention for a final lap move.
Rosberg calmly crossed the line to win by 4.9s over Verstappen on a day where he was never seriously threatened, to score his ninth win of 2016 and Hamilton’s third place confirmed Mercedes’ third consecutive constructors’ championship.
Speaking after the race, where he increased his lead over Hamilton to 33 points with just four races remaining, Rosberg said: “What an awesome weekend, for sure. The whole weekend just felt great from the word go, so it’s been very special.
“Especially on this legendary track, [it’s] beautiful to win here. Congrats to everybody, all my colleagues in the team for clinching the third constructors’ world title.
“[It’s] so absolutely deserved, definitely, it’s an unbelievable effort [over] all these years, so lets celebrate hard.”
Vettel led home Raikkonen in a fourth and fifth finish for Ferrari, as Ricciardo, who had lost time at his second pitstop due to a delay with his right front tyre, came home sixth for Red Bull.
Perez and Hulkenberg ended up seventh and eighth ahead of the Williams pair of Massa and Bottas, their rivals for fourth place in the constructors’ standings.
Romain Grosjean finished 11th on a disappointing day for Haas F1, which did not score a point despite getting two cars into the top ten on the grid for the first time in the team’s history.
Jolyon Palmer used a one-stop strategy to move up to 12th for Renault from 16th on the grid ahead of Daniil Kvyat and Kevin Magnussen.
Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson beat Fernando Alonso to 15th as Carlos Sainz finished 17th and Jenson Button was 18th on a poor day for McLaren at the home of its engine supplier Honda.
Felipe Nasr was 19th, just ahead of Esteban Gutierrez in the second Haas, and the Manor pair of Esteban Ocon and Pascal Wehrlein.
No drivers retired for the second year in a row at Suzuka, which is a first for any track in F1 history.
Japanese Grand Prix result:
1 Nico Rosberg, Mercedes 1h26m43.333s
2 Max Verstappen, Red Bull +4.978s
3 Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes +5.776s
4 Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari +20.269s
5 Kimi Raikkonen, Ferrari +28.370s
6 Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull +33.941s
7 Sergio Perez, Force India +57.495s
8 Nico Hulkenberg, Force India +59.177s
9 Felipe Massa, Williams +1m37.763s
10 Valtteri Bottas, Williams +1m38.323s
11 Romain Grosjean, Haas +1m39.254s
12 Jolyon Palmer, Renault +1 Lap
13 Daniil Kvyat, Toro Rosso +1 Lap
14 Kevin Magnussen, Renault +1 Lap
15 Marcus Ericsson, Sauber +1 Lap
16 Fernando Alonso, McLaren +1 Lap
17 Carlos Sainz, Toro Rosso +1 Lap
18 Jenson Button, McLaren +1 Lap
19 Felipe Nasr, Sauber +1 Lap
20 Esteban Gutierrez, Haas +1 Lap
21 Esteban Ocon, Manor +1 Lap
22 Pascal Wehrlein, Manor +1 Lap
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