Hamilton aiming to move closer to title at Japanese GP

Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images
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Lewis Hamilton can take a major step toward a fifth Formula One title at this weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka, a race the Mercedes driver has dominated in recent years.

After winning last week’s Russian Grand Prix, Hamilton leads Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel by 50 points with five races left.

Hamilton has won three of the last four races at Suzuka with the only other win going to Hamilton’s former Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg in 2016. He heads into Sunday’s race having won five of the last six races.

“Lewis is hungry, focused and completely determined to succeed,” Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff said. “It’s been great to see the power he has brought to this championship, and how he has taken it to the next level.”

Hamilton’s win in Sochi was overshadowed by the decision to have teammate Valtteri Bottas pull over to let Hamilton pass. Bottas started from pole and was in position for his first win of 2018 when the decision was made by the team.

Wolff insisted ahead of the Japanese GP that the team orders tactic was justified.

“The battle with Ferrari remains extremely close, as was underlined by Sebastian’s pace on Sunday and the pressure he put us under,” Wolff said. “In the end, we left Sochi with a bigger lead. But we know that doesn’t mean anything because our fight with Ferrari is far from being over.”

Even if Vettel wins all five remaining races, he’s not guaranteed to beat Hamilton.

But Vettel, who has had his own success at Suzuka – winning four times between 2009 and 2013 – wasn’t about to concede the championship.

“We need to keep pushing and try,” the Ferrari driver said. “Who knows what will happen in the next races.”

Meanwhile, Red Bull’s Max Verstappen will be looking to follow up on his impressive showing in Russia.

On his 21st birthday, Verstappen started 19th but charged through the field to finish fifth.

It was another dramatic drive from Verstappen, who over four seasons has firmly established himself as F1’s most aggressive and exciting racer, but has never had a car capable of a true title challenge.

Verstappen has fond memories of the Suzuka circuit, having made his F1 debut here in by taking part in the first free practice at the 2014 Japanese GP.

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Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.