Lewis Hamilton took a big step towards winning a third Formula 1 drivers’ championship in 2015 by dominating proceedings en route to victory in Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix.
After seizing the advantage from pole-sitting Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg at the start, Hamilton never looked back as he led all 53 laps of the race to claim his eighth win of the season.
Rosberg was forced to focus on damage limitation after dropping to fourth at the start, but eventually battled his way up to second place to only lose seven points on Hamilton in the title race. Sebastian Vettel completed the podium as Ferrari failed to replicate its race-winning Singapore pace at Suzuka.
The start saw Hamilton dive down the inside of Rosberg at the first corner, causing the two drivers to run side by side through the first complex of corners. Remarkably, the Mercedes duo made no contact, but Rosberg was forced wide and subsequently dropped down to fourth behind Vettel and Valtteri Bottas.
Further back, contact between Daniel Ricciardo and Felipe Massa left both drivers with a puncture, forcing them to crawl back to the pits for repairs off the line. Fernando Alonso made a great start to jump up to ninth on the first lap, but the Honda power unit’s issues became clear yet again as he quickly began to drop back, prompting the Spaniard to tell McLaren that it was “embarrassing” how he was getting passed.
As Rosberg struggled to keep with Bottas for third place, Hamilton was told to open up his lead at the front of the field to ten seconds across the course of his first stint. Second-placed Vettel was unable to stay with the Briton, leaving him to cover the trailing cars during the first round of pit stops.
Rosberg’s decision to go longer than Bottas during his first stint did not pay off at first as he emerged from the pit lane behind the Williams driver. However, as the German driver pushed on his fresh tires, he pulled off a brave move at the chicane to gain the position, leaving him third with Vettel the next target up the road.
Hamilton had duly delivered the pace that Mercedes had asked for in his first stint, with his lead standing at over eight seconds once he had made his stop.
With Bottas now falling back into the clutches of Kimi Raikkonen, Rosberg set his sights on Vettel in second place through the second stint of the race. Ferrari informed Vettel that the German was coming, and told him to try to maintain a gap of two seconds to protect himself from the undercut.
When Rosberg blinked first and made his final pit stop on lap 29, Ferrari moved quickly to bring Vettel in and try to see off the threat from the Mercedes driver. However, a rapid in-lap allowed Rosberg to get the jump on his compatriot, moving himself up to second place.
Hamilton made his final stop of the race on lap 31, and once again returned to the track with a comfortable lead. With Rosberg almost ten seconds down the road, the Briton had the race in the palm of his hand with 20 laps remaining.
Williams’ hopes of getting ahead of Ferrari at Suzuka were dashed when Raikkonen managed to get the jump on Bottas through the second round of stops. The first lap puncture had left Massa at the very back of the field, turning his race into a glorified test session.
Hamilton was able to monitor the gap to Rosberg in the closing stages of the race with relative ease, eking out more and more time before crossing the line to clinch his second Suzuka victory by 18.9 seconds.
Despite coming under pressure from Vettel in the final few laps as he contended with traffic, Rosberg held on for second place to complete a Mercedes one-two and ensure that he left Japan only 48 points behind Hamilton with five races remaining.
In third, Vettel maintained his 100% podium record at Suzuka dating back to 2009, and remains just 11 points shy of Rosberg in the championship standings. Kimi Raikkonen rounded out a good day for Ferrari by finishing fourth ahead of Bottas.
Nico Hulkenberg had a quietly impressive race en route to sixth as he led home the Lotus duo of Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado in P7 and P8. Max Verstappen bounced back from his qualifying stoppage to end the day ninth, leaving Toro Rosso teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. to round out the points in tenth.
Alonso led McLaren’s charge in Japan by finishing 11th, albeit after complaining about his “GP2 engine” as he was easily passed by Verstappen earlier in the race. Teammate Jenson Button had even bigger issues, though, as he ended the day down in P16 ahead of Felipe Massa.
Sergio Perez trailed Alonso home in 12th after making a three-stop strategy work well, edging out Daniil Kvyat, Marcus Ericsson and Daniel Ricciardo in a breathless late battle.
Alexander Rossi won Manor’s intra-team battle once again after teammate Will Stevens suffered a high-speed spin in the closing stages of the race. The American driver will next get behind the wheel of an F1 car for his home grand prix at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas next month.
After Mercedes slipped up in Singapore, Hamilton led its fightback in style at Suzuka with a peerless display worthy of his two world titles. With 48 points in hand and just five races to go, the Briton will know that it is is championship to lose ahead of the Russian Grand Prix in two weeks’ time.