Japan win puts Lewis Hamilton on verge of world title
Defending champion leads Sebastian Vettel by 67 points with four races remaining
Lewis Hamilton celebrates victory in the Japanese Grand Prix. Photograph: Franck Robichon/EPA
Lewis Hamilton won the Japanese Grand Prix from pole with a controlled and untroubled run at the front of the field. The win puts his fifth world championship firmly in his grasp. With his title rival Sebastian Vettel only able to manage sixth after he tangled with Max Verstappen early in the race, the German’s challenge is all but over. Hamilton’s team-mate Valtteri Bottas completed a strong one-two for Mercedes. Verstappen was in third and his Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo in fourth, with Kimi Raikkonen in fifth.
Hamilton’s lead over Vettel is now 67 points with four races remaining, worth 100 points. Vettel knew he had to win here but after qualifying badly the odds were already against him. Now it is a matter of just when Hamilton closes it out and equals Juan Manuel Fangio’s five F1 titles. If Hamilton wins at the next round in the USA Vettel must finish second to ensure the fight even goes to Mexico City.
For Hamilton and Bottas enjoyed an almost serene run from the front row to the flag, although Bottas was pressured by Verstappen at the death. It will not necessarily be remembered as a classic but their perfect execution all weekend was an object lesson to Ferrari as to why their title hopes have been dashed. Vettel was pressured into trying to make something from his lowly grid slot and his eagerness led to another misjudgement that cost him dearly.
It is Hamilton’s fifth win at the Japanese Grand Prix and the 71st of his career. He took the flag at Fuji for McLaren in 2007 and has now won for Mercedes at Suzuka in four of the five races since 2014. He now has six wins now from the last seven races.
The victory means Mercedes continue their run of being unbeaten at Suzuka since the turbo-hybrid era began in 2014. Hamilton’s ninth win of the season leaves Ferrari reeling and their championship challenge in tatters after such a promising opening to their year. Their tyre choice mistake in qualifying that meant Vettel could only start from eighth was a huge blow and left Hamilton and Bottas free to dominate the race for Mercedes at the front.
Suzuka was expected to provide a good measure of just how Ferrari and Mercedes now match up to one another and on this evidence Mercedes have clearly regained the advantage. Although Ferrari have had the quicker car since Silverstone, Mercedes looked to have surpassed them in the development battle over the last three rounds. Hamilton had been strong all weekend topping all three practice sessions before taking pole and in the race he exploited his advantage to maximum effect.
Hamilton and Bottas held the lead cleanly through turn one but Vettel executed a magnificent first lap from eighth on the grid. He was quick off the line and had passed the Toro Rosso’s of Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley by the time he was into the esses to take sixth and the Haas of Romain Grosjean fell swiftly afterwards.
In front of him Verstappen overcooked it under pressure from Raikkonen at the chicane and went off, then squeezed the Finn when rejoining, Vettel took advantage to nip round his teammate to take fourth by the end of the first lap. Verstappen was subsequently given a five-second penalty for not returning to the track safely.
The safety car was deployed on lap five after Kevin Magnussen left debris on the track after clashing with Charles Leclerc, however when racing resumed on lap eight, Vettel’s valiant efforts were promptly wasted. He tried to go up the inside of Verstappen at Spoon and the two clipped one another. Vettel spun off and had to rejoin in 19th – last place.
The move appeared to be a little too much too soon, especially at Spoon and given that the Dutchman had a five second penalty to take at his stop. The incident was investigated by the stewards but they took no further action. Vettel appeared to want to avoid letting Mercedes open up too much of a gap in front, which he had to do given his deficit in the championship fight. It was the decisive moment of the race.
Vettel tried to come back but once again had to move right through the field. While Hamilton was in control out front the German driver had made it to 15th by lap 14. By lap 32 he had finally made it back to his starting position of eighth. He was putting in some of the fastest laps and on lap 35 was in sixth but a full 40 seconds behind his teammate in fifth.
It was as far as he could go and to be fair a valiant effort but his race was long gone just as his title attempt has fallen by the wayside over the last seven races. Hamilton however has simply gone from strength to strength and once again in Japan demonstrated why the championship is now in his hands.