Lewis Hamilton’s championship lead has grown to 59 points, putting the Briton one race away from claiming his fourth crown after dominating the Japanese Grand Prix when title rival Sebastian Vettel retired from the race on lap four.
Hamilton executed a clean start from pole position to prime himself for a victory that never really looked in doubt for the Briton.
Vettel’s start, on the other hand, was poor from second place, and the German quickly lost touch with Hamilton in the lead before falling prey to an ambitious Max Verstappen, who relieved the Ferrari of third place at the hairpin.
As the lap progressed it became obvious that Vettel was suffering from more than just start-line jitters. He was soon swamped Esteban Ocon, Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas, who passed him before the safety car was deployed on lap two to clear up Carlos Sainz’s crashed Toro Rosso car.
The race resumed on lap four, at which point Vettel was mugged by Sergio Perez and Felipe Massa, at which point he was radioed by the team to retire the car, dropping 25 points to Hamilton and counting himself out of realistic title contention.
“Obviously bitter the last two races with the reliability issues, but it’s like that sometimes,” Vettel told TV crews.
Hamilton can beat Vettel to the championship as soon as the next race in the United States on 22 October if Lewis wins and Sebastian finishes sixth or lower, but the Ferrari driver said he’s not prepared to give up on the season yet.
“Of course it hurts, and we’re all disappointed, but now I think we just have to get back, get some rest and go flat out for the last four races and see what happens.
“We still have a chance this year. Obviously it depends on what happens today and then the next races, but obviously it’s not as much in our control as we would like.
“We are improving race by race. I think we’ve got a lot further than people have thought, so there are also some positives.
“But for sure now you don’t look at the positives because it’s not the day to look at positives.”
It wasn’t a straightforward win for Hamilton from there, however. The Briton first had to fend off Verstappen at the restart and then guard against the Dutchman’s advances before edging out of DRS range and into the distance.
Red Bull Racing rolled the dice, stopping Verstappen first on lap 22, but a clean stop for Hamilton on the next lap was enough to cover the gamble.
That should have been enough to win him the race, but in the final five laps Hamilton complained of engine vibrations in his car.
With his lap times slowing considerably, Verstappen closed to within one second of the lead, and a virtual safety car to clean up Lance Stroll’s broken Williams gave the Red Bull Racing driver an opportunity to launch an attack.
However, a combination of lapped cars and a slight improvement in Hamilton’s speed across the last two tours thwarted Verstappen’s attempt to become a back-to-back winner, and the Briton crossed the line with a 1.2-second margin.
“Max drove an outstanding race,” Hamilton said. “Honestly, it wasn’t an easy one for us at all.
“I was able to just hold him behind, but he definitely got close a couple of times, particularly at the end with the VSC (virtual safety car).
“When we restarted, the tyres were cold and I had a bit of traffic, so it was very, very close.”
Told of his 59-point championship lead, Hamilton was almost speechless.
“Geez,” he exclaimed. “I could only have dreamt of having this kind of gap. The Ferraris have put on such a great challenge all year long.
“I have to put [the lead] down to my team. Reliability’s really been on point. They’re so meticulous and that’s why we’re having the results we’ve been having.”
Max Verstappen was happy to have had the opportunity to challenge for the victory, adding that heavy wear on his right-front tyre meant he could only push so hard.
“It was a great day again,” he said. “I think the pace today was really promising.
“As soon as we switched to the soft tyre we were very competitive. I was always with Lewis, especially the last couple of laps.
“I gave it all to close the gap, but we had a really good day today. The car is improving race by race, so I’m really happy about that.”
Daniel Ricciardo completed the podium, the Red Bull Racing driver again losing the opportunity to compete for victory after a poor start stuck him behind a slower car for the opening stint, as was the case in Malaysia last weekend.
In Japan he was caught behind Force India’s Esteban Ocon, and by the time he passed the Frenchman on lap 11 the gap to the lead was almost 10 seconds.
The Australian cruised in third until Valtteri Bottas, who was on the softer tyre for the second half of the race, closed rapidly onto the back of his car during the final 10 laps, but some deft defensive work guaranteed him a third consecutive podium and his first in Japan.
“My objective this weekend was to get the Suzuka podium, and I have it, so it feels great. Arigato,” said the Australian.
“The race, after the start, spread out and it wasn’t that exciting from my point of view, but I then had Valtteri coming on at the end.
“The pressure at the end made it more exciting. It was good fun.”
Bottas put in a much-improved performance after languishing badly off his teammate’s pace since the August midseason break.
Despite starting from sixth with a gearbox change penalty, the Finn perfectly executed his counterstrategy, starting on the soft tyre and ending on the supersoft, finishing just 10 seconds off the lead.
His pace compared favourably with Kimi Räikkönen, who took the chequered flag in fifth place after selecting an identical strategy after he too served a five-place gearbox penalty that dropped him to 10th on the grid.
Räikkönen had a calamitous start that dropped him to P14 after the first lap, but he recovered to finish 22 seconds behind Bottas and a comfortable 35 seconds ahead of Esteban Ocon in P6.
Ocon’s sizzling start put him into third, but he the Frenchman lost two positions to Ricciardo and Bottas and a third to Räikkönen in the stopes, leaving him one place ahead of teammate Sergio Perez, who was told not to attempt to overtake him after a string of on-track incidents between the two earlier in the year.
Kevin Magnussen finished eighth after a gutsy move down the inside of Felipe Massa at turn two on lap 43, coming from some way back at the first corner to dive down Massa’s right-hand side, barely avoiding contact with the Williams.
The move allowed teammate Romain Grosjean through behind him, dropping Massa to 10th for the final point of the day.