Lewis Hamilton took his fourth Japanese Formula 1 Grand Prix victory as Sebastian Vettel’s championship challenge all but ended at Suzuka. After a faulty spark plug retired Vettel from the race, Hamilton’s win at Suzuka has given him a 59-point lead in the drivers’ championship.
Max Verstappen briefly challenged for the lead, but second place was his at the finish with team-mate Daniel Ricciardo third, on the podium for the first time at Suzuka. All were greeted on the podium by Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato.
Hamilton tried on the Indy 500 winner’s ring in jest. “I need that ring!” he said before Toto Wolff went up to the Ferrari pitwall to offer his sympathy.
The spark plug slowed Vettel as he fell down the order on lap two, having tested Hamilton’s lead through Turn 1 to no avail. Carlos Sainz Jr went off at Degner 2 soon after, in his last race for Toro Rosso, and the Safety Car was summoned.
“Sad to close the race like this,” said his engineers after Sainz apologised to the team.
Hamilton mastered the restart as Vettel tried every combination on his steering wheel, but there was no solution and the Ferrari retired as the Mercedes pulled ahead.
Meanwhile, Raikkonen was pushed to 14th having been bumped off by Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg; Ferrari’s woes showed no signs of ending.
The recovery drive was on for Raikkonen and he jumped up to eighth by lap 10, after a Virtual Safety Car was pulled out for Marcus Ericsson’s crash at the second Degner curve.
There was no sign that Verstappen could have threatened Hamilton’s pace and it was only until Verstappen pitted midway through the race when that lead was challenged. He emerged with a marginal lead over Raikkonen.
Hamilton pitted on lap 28 but emerged behind team-mate Bottas. “Hope he’s not out for much not longer as I’m getting compromised,” said Hamilton down the radio, as he was slowed down with Verstappen right behind.
Verstappen made a move through the final chicane but Hamilton blocked successfully, and on the following straight, the grunt of the Mercedes engine showed its might as the Red Bull was left in the dust.
The Red Bull desperately hung onto the slipstream of Hamilton but on lap 31, Bottas was pitted for super-softs (to emerge in fourth) and Hamilton took advantage of the clean air in front.
However, a few laps later, Hamilton said that his rear tyres were dropping off, but he continued to lead by around two seconds and the Mercedes revelled in clean air to stretch its legs through the final laps of the race.
Bottas was catching up to Ricciardo late on for third, with Raikkonen nowhere to be seen in a distant fifth.
The Virtual Safety Car, borne out of tragedy at this grand prix where Jules Bianchi lost his life in 2014, was imposed with five laps remaining, leaving three laps to go for Verstappen to catch Hamilton for the lead, and for Bottas to catch Ricciardo for third.
Verstappen was right behind Hamilton through the Degners with two laps remaining, though backmarker Fernando Alonso slowed the Red Bull briefly in his own attempts to win a point.
Hamilton hung on, though hampered by vibrations which he blamed on the power unit. By a margin of 1.211 seconds, victory was his. Red Bull took another double-podium finish, with Ricciardo holding off Bottas by 0.901s at the chequered flag.
The Force Indias were in a battle of their own at the end of the race, but they didn’t challenge each other, as Perez was eager to attack Ocon in front. Team orders, after numerous collisions between the two this season, prevented him from doing so. Ocon took sixth behind Raikkonen, and Perez seventh.
Having finished eighth or better at Suzuka for the last five years, Hulkenberg was furious having retired on lap 42 as his DRS setting was stuck-on, and the pit crew failed to fix his rear wing.
The Haas drivers, lurking mid-pack, were pushing hard for points and the door was open through Turn 1 on lap 43. Both shoved their way past Massa who was struggling on softs.
Massa did shut the door with some wheel-to-wheel contact but Magnussen found his way ahead, eventually finishing eighth ahead of his team-mate, leaving Massa to take the last point.
In its final home race, McLaren-Honda’s torrid time was punctuated by a lack of pace throughout and the team’s decision to pit Stoffel Vandoorne and Alonso earlier than its rivals didn’t pay off – both were stuck behind Williams’ Lance Stroll as they emerged around lap 33.
Capping off an unceremonious homecoming, Alonso’s late chase of Massa didn’t stick and he finished 11th, with Vandoorne 14th.
Stroll went off late on through the Esses, nearly hitting Ricciardo in the process, to become the final retiree of the race, with his first failure to finish in 13 races.
Jolyon Palmer finished 12th in his final race for Renault before Sainz takes his seat beginning with the USA GP.
Will Hamilton seal the title at Austin in two weeks’ time? Have your say in the comment section below.