Lewis Hamilton put one hand on the 2017 Formula 1 drivers’ world championship by taking victory in Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix while chief rival Sebastian Vettel retired early.
Hamilton picked up his eighth win of the second and third in the last four years at Suzuka to extend his lead over Vettel to 59 points, meaning he can clinch his fourth world title at the next race in Austin, Texas.
After discovering a spark plug issue on Vettel’s car on the grid, Ferrari was forced to make a late change on his power unit, but a quick fix ensured the German was able to take the start from P2 on the grid.
Vettel made a good getaway, only for Hamilton to drift across and defend well to drop the Ferrari driver into the clutches of Max Verstappen behind. Vettel lost a place to Verstappen at the hairpin and went slow coming out of the final corner, reporting no power on his Ferrari engine.
A safety car called following a crash for Carlos Sainz Jr. stopped Vettel losing more places, leaving him P6, but his demise continued when the race resumed, prompting Ferrari to bring him into the pits and retire the car in another blow to his title hopes.
The news boded well for Hamilton, who now had a golden opportunity to extend his points lead, but the Mercedes driver now had Malaysia winner Verstappen on his tail, hungry to take a second straight victory.
Hamilton was able to eke out a lead to over three seconds, while teammate Valtteri Bottas was also making up ground on the soft compound tire, rising to fourth behind Daniel Ricciardo as Force India’s Esteban Ocon lost two places in quick succession.
Red Bull looked to put pressure on Hamilton at the front by bringing Verstappen in first, swapping him onto the soft tire on Lap 21 to try and get the undercut. Mercedes was quick to respond, pitting Hamilton just one lap later and ensuring he retained his advantage over the young Dutchman, albeit at a reduced margin.
Verstappen was able to stay within two seconds of Hamilton at the front in the laps following the stops, and closed right on the back of the Mercedes as both caught up with Bottas, who was going deep into the race before stopping on the soft tire.
Hamilton complained that Bottas was compromising both his pace and his tire management by staying ahead, with Mercedes confirming they had understood his message. Just a few corners later, Bottas moved aside for Hamilton on entry to the Casio Triangle, with the Finn now tasked to keep Verstappen back.
Verstappen was unable to get close enough to make a pass on Bottas in the laps that followed, allowing Hamilton to pull three seconds clear at the front. His job complete, Bottas pitted at the end of Lap 30 to move onto the super-softs, returning to the track in fourth place.
With a long second stint to complete on the soft tire in hot conditions, Hamilton reported early that he was struggling to make his rear tires work, allowing Verstappen to make up some ground and begin to apply pressure entering the final 15 laps.
Hamilton managed to get on top of the issue and keep the gap stable and extended it to five seconds after the VSC, only to report a vibration on his tire that allowed Verstappen to close right up again.
Verstappen was told to give it everything and looked poised to claim a shock win, only for traffic to stunt his charge as Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa both got in the way.
Hamilton crossed the line 1.2 seconds clear to clinch his eighth win of the year and take a giant step towards winning his fourth world title, running 59 points clear with 100 left to play for this season.
Verstappen was left to cross the line second ahead of teammate Daniel Ricciardo as Red Bull recorded its second straight double-podium finish, continuing its good late-season form.
Valtteri Bottas went on a late charge with his fresh super-soft tires and latched onto the back of Ricciardo in the closing stages, but lost momentum when the Virtual Safety Car was called with five laps to go after a crash for Lance Stroll, leaving the Finn to settle for P4.
Kimi Raikkonen was Ferrari’s sole finisher in fifth place after managing to battle his way past the Force India pair of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez, who were left to take P6 and P7 respectively.
Perez did request to be waved past Ocon, feeling he was faster, only for the team to deny him as part of its new rules of engagement introduced after the on-track clash at Spa.
Haas enjoyed one of its best races of the season as Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean finished eighth and ninth respectively, the pair both passing Felipe Massa late on.
Massa took the final point on offer in P10 for Williams, holding off a late charge from McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, also aided by the VSC and the blue flags both faced moving aside for the leaders.
Jolyon Palmer finished 12th on his final start for Renault, having confirmed on Saturday he would be leaving the team after Suzuka, while Toro Rosso youngster Pierre Gasly took 13th.
Stoffel Vandoorne had a tough race in the second McLaren-Honda, pitting twice en route to P14, while Pascal Wehrlein was the last classified finisher in 15th.
Lance Stroll retired after a front-right tire failure late on that nearly saw him take out one of the Red Bulls, sparking the VSC. Nico Hulkenberg had to park his Renault up with 13 laps to go after his DRS failed, getting stuck open.
F1 returns in two weeks’ time with the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas.