Lewis Hamilton wins fourth Japanese Grand Prix to close in on title
British driver now 59 points clear of Sebastian Vettel after Suzaka success
Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton throws his winner’s trophy in the air as Max Verstappen (left) and Daniel Ricciardo look on from the podium at the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka. Photograph: Behrouz Mehri/AFP/Getty Images
Lewis Hamilton won the Japanese Grand Prix and in doing so, after his Formula One world championship rival Sebastian Vettel failed to finish, has come within touching distance of taking his fourth title. The Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo were once again very strong and finished in second and third, with Hamilton’s Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas fourth and Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari fifth.
Hamilton had begun the weekend with a 34-point lead over Vettel but it is now 59 points with four races remaining. Hamilton could now claim his fourth world championship at the next round at the Circuit of the Americas. He needs to score 16 more points than the German in Texas to do so, and a win with Vettel finishing in sixth or worse would be enough.
The season had been a nip and tuck affair between the two drivers, with Vettel holding the lead until Monza but after Hamilton’s victory in Italy put his nose in front for the first time, he has enjoyed a decisive swing in his favour.
Vettel went out after the opening lap crash in Singapore and could manage only fourth in Malaysia after taking a 20-place grid penalty for using a new engine. It has been a sequence of races, concluding here in Suzuka, that has completely changed the complexion of the championship.
“It is normal to be critical, especially when things go wrong,” said Vettel, of his Ferrari team. “I think I need to protect them. We have done an incredible job so far. It is like that sometimes, of course it hurts and we are all disappointed.
“We go flat out for the last four races and see what happens. We still have a chance this year, it depends what happens today, it is not as much in our control as we would like but overall the team is in a good way. I think we have got further than people thought. We have a lot of positives, but today is not a day to look at positives.”
This was the three-time world champion’s eighth win of the season, his 61st career victory and his fourth from the last five races. He has now won the Japanese Grand Prix four times, with three victories here in Suzuka and one at Fuji in 2007. He had been untouchable in claiming pole and although he had expected to face greater competition during the race he had the measure of it from the off, just as he had at Spa, running from pole to the flag and controlling it from the front.
Hamilton had made a clean start on the 373m run down to turn one and held his lead but Vettel had caught by Verstappen at the hairpin and the young Dutch driver skilfully claimed second place.
It swiftly became clear however that the German, was struggling for pace and had some form of problem. He had a faulty spark plug on the grid which Ferrari had believed they had dealt with but Vettel had an issue and was struggling for power. By the start of the second lap he was promptly passed by Esteban Ocon, Ricciardo and Bottas and dropped to sixth.
Carlos Sainz went off, wide into the esses, causing the safety car to be deployed on the second lap. After the restart on lap four, Vettel lost a further place to the Force India of Sergio Perez and the team opted to pit him at the end of the lap and had to retire the car. Ferrari confirmed it had been a spark plug failure and although they endeavoured to change he was ultimately forced to climb out and accept defeat.
Hamilton had managed the restart and in the clean air out front and more than aware that a win would put the title within his grasp. By lap eight he was 1.7 seconds ahead of Verstappen.
The virtual safety car was deployed when Marcus Ericsson went off at Degner 2 on lap eight, putting his car in the wall, and on the restart three laps later Ricciardo claimed third place from Ocon on the run down the hill into turn one. Bottas pulled the same move at the same place a lap later to move up to fourth.
Out front, whatever had been ailing the Mercedes in Malaysia, had been dispensed with here in Japan. Even the much higher temperatures with the track which was at 27 degrees on Saturday rising up to a high of 44 degrees just before the race started, which have been an issue for the team this season, appeared to be no hindrance at all. Hamilton’s lead was up to five seconds just as Verstappen opted to pit on lap 22.
Mercedes covered the move, bringing Hamilton in a lap later to take the soft tyre and make it to the end of the race on a one-stop. Bottas had stayed out long, having opened with the soft tyre after his five-place grid penalty and had inherited the lead through the stops but Hamilton was being held up by his team-mate and it allowed Verstappen to close the gap to under a second. Hamilton promptly informed his team he was being compromised by Bottas’s pace.
On lap 28 Bottas allowed Hamilton past, slotting back ahead of Verstappen – the perfect position for Mercedes to manage and the team finally brought the Finn in on lap 31. With Hamilton back in clean air he was able to once again attempt to extend his lead but Verstappen was absolutely determined not to let him get away.
The gap was 2.5 seconds by lap 38 and with Hamilton managing his tyres, was enough for him to maintain to the end. He held it at just over two seconds until a late VSC period after which for the last two laps Hamilton had difficulty getting up to speed struggling with some vibration from the power unit and Verstappen closed to within a second. It was late drama and tense but the British driver had just enough of a lead. The win had ultimately proved relatively straightforward but its consequences for the title protagonists far-reaching.
Ocon finished in sixth, with his team-mate Perez in seventh. Kevin Magnussen in the Hass was in eighth and his team-mate Romain Grosjean in ninth, with Felipe Massa’s Williams rounding out the top ten.