Taking full advantage of a race of desperation for championship rival Sebastian Vettel, Lewis Hamilton led a Mercedes one-two and claimed his 71st Formula One victory to extend his lead in the drivers’ standings to a mighty 67 points.
Determined to try and make up for lost ground in yesterday’s qualifying, Vettel’s lightening run through the field from eighth on the grid was halted when a mistimed move on Max Verstappen sent him spinning out of contention.
With Mercedes one challenger down, they had only a racy Verstappen to worry about in the closing stages of the race, but they were mostly untroubled as Hamilton’s win was backed up by a second place for Valtteri Bottas.
The result means that a win for Hamilton at the next race in Austin will secure him the drivers’ championship if Vettel fails to finish in second place.
“The whole weekend has been very strong from the team, it’s a great one-two for Mercedes, a true showing of the real strength in depth we have as a team,” said Hamilton.
This track is the best in the world, I don’t know why they don’t make tracks like this any more, but every second of the run was great fun. I was able to look after my tyres the way I wanted.
“Obviously we’ve been racing for a long, long time, but the happiness I have is as high as always. It’s a great feeling.”
With faster tyres, Verstappen came into contention for second place in the closing stages of the race, but instead had to settle for third – despite having a five-second time penalty for an opening-lap collision with Kimi Raikkonen.
The second Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo fought through the field and gave a fine example of an ‘overcut’ to finish ahead of Ferrari’s Raikkonen in fourth.
Vettel’s recovery drive brought him back to sixth place, but the Ferrari man will be under pressure to at least validate his status to the team and deliver a strong end to the season after another driver error at Suzuka.
Despite the threat of a usually fast-starting Max Verstappen, both Mercedes got off the line perfectly and led the Dutchman into turn one.
Further back, Vettel had one of the starts of his season and jumped both Toro Rossos to run in P6 after the opening sequence of corners. His opening lap progress continued by passing Haas’ Romain Grosjean into Spoon corner.
Vettel was then gifted another place when Verstappen and Raikkonen came together on the opening lap; the Red Bull driver out-braked himself and ran across final chicane, but edged Raikkonen wide upon rejoining the track, which allowed Vettel to pass his team-mate for P4. Verstappen was given a five-second time penalty for failing to rejoin the track in a safe manner, something which the Dutchman labelled “ridiculous”.
“I braked a little bit too late into the chicane, I did everything I could to get back onto the track, and I think I did it in a safe way because I wasn’t crazy fast onto the track,” said Verstappen after the race.
“Kimi chose the wrong line into the chicane, he could’ve also just waited for me to come back onto the track and we touched a little bit. I think it’s really ridiculous, those five seconds.”
Further back outside the top ten, Charles Leclerc was attempting to pass Kevin Magnussen into turn one, but a very late defensive move from the Dane resulted in the Sauber tagging the back of the Haas, puncturing its rear tyre.
The shredding tyre was spreading debris all over the circuit, and the safety car was deployed. A few backmarkers used the opportunity to pit for medium tyres.
With the cars bunched up under the safety car, Vettel went straight on the attack when the track went back to green and, at the first sight of a gap, went for the overtake at Spoon corner.
However, the late lunge resulted in the pair making contact, which spun Vettel around and sent him to the back of the field, leaving his already-slim championship hopes in tatters.
Daniel Ricciardo had made a good start and was cutting his way through the field. The Australian made light work of the Force India and Toro Rosso drivers, and eventually passed the highest midfield runner – Haas’ Romain Grosjean – for fifth place on lap fourteen.
Up front, Hamilton was reporting an increase in vibrations from the power unit, but his lead appeared unaffected by this.
With the gap between fourth-placed Raikkonen and fifth-placed Ricciardo now closing, the Finn pitted on lap seventeen for fresh medium tyres in an attempt to defend against Ricciardo and undercut Verstappen.
However, the Ferrari man returned to the track in traffic, which prevented him from taking advantage of Verstappen’s five-second penalty, and also lost him a place to Ricciardo. He ended up in fifth place when Verstappen and Ricciardo pitted for softs and mediums respectively.
With Vettel trying to make his way through the backmarkers and midfielders, he extended his supersoft tyre stint in order to capitalise on free air and try to gain positions over the pit stop phase. This dropped him outside the top ten, but the fresh soft tyres allowed him to scythe his way through to sixth place with around 20 laps to go, but by now he was 40 seconds behind fifth-placed Raikkonen.
With Verstappen on the softer tyres and being able to get more pace out of his Red Bull than Bottas could out of his Mercedes, he began to reel in the Finn, whittling down the gap to around two seconds prior to a virtual safety car deployment for Charles Leclerc’s stricken Sauber.
Despite Verstappen having just over ten laps after the VSC to try to make a move on Bottas, the Red Bull could only really put the Mercedes under pressure when negotiating the backmarkers, and the Bottas had enough power in free air to keep Verstappen at arms’ length.
In the battle for ‘best of the rest’, Force India’s Sergio Perez got a strong restart after the VSC to mug Haas’ Romain Grosjean for seventh place at the chicane.
Up front, there were no further power unit complaints and Hamilton was untroubled as he took the chequered flag to take his 71st victory – his 50th with Mercedes – and lead Mercedes’ 4th one-two finish of the season.
Verstappen’s third place was followed up by a strong recovery drive for Ricciardo, who finished five seconds adrift of his team-mate.
Raikkonen was not instructed to let team-mate Vettel through, suggesting that Ferrari have all but given up on the drivers’ championship. Vettel taking the fastest lap in the closing stages meant that he denied Hamilton a ‘grand chelem’ victory – pole, win, lead every lap & fastest lap.
Perez built up a gap to Grosjean in the final few laps to secure the ‘class B victory’, with Esteban Ocon finishing ninth and Renault’s Carlos Sainz taking the final points-paying position from Pierre Gasly in the final laps, denying Toro Rosso a point on Honda’s home soil.
JAPANESE GRAND PRIX
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 53 Laps
2 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 12.919s
3 Max Verstappen Red Bull/Renault 14.295s
4 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull/Renault 19.495s
5 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 50.998s
6 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 69.873s
7 Sergio Perez Force India/Mercedes 79.397s
8 Romain Grosjean Haas/Ferrari 87.198s
9 Esteban Ocon Force India/Mercedes 88.055s
10 Carlos Sainz Renault 1 Lap
11 Pierre Gasly Toro Rosso/Honda 1 Lap
12 Marcus Ericsson Sauber/Ferrari 1 Lap
13 Brendon Hartley Toro Rosso/Honda 1 Lap
14 Fernando Alonso McLaren/Renault 1 Lap
15 Stoffel Vandoorne McLaren/Renault 1 Lap
16 Sergey Sirotkin Williams/Mercedes 1 Lap
17 Lance Stroll Williams/Mercedes 1 Lap
18 Charles Leclerc Sauber/Ferrari DNF
19 Nico Hulkenberg Renault DNF
20 Kevin Magnussen Haas/Ferrari DNF
By: Luke Murphy
All images: Motorsport Images
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