Hamilton wins in Japan to close on F1 Drivers’ title as Vettel loses his ‘spark’

Lewis Hamilton took victory in the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday, while Championship rival Sebastian Vettel retired early on due to a spark plug issue. It means Hamilton leaves Suzuka having extended his title advantage to 59 points with four races to go, although the final few laps were far from comfortable for the Briton.

Hamilton led from the off, making the most of pole position, and cutting across Vettel, who was soon demoted to third by Max Verstappen.

At the end of the opening lap Vettel had dropped to sixth and while an early safety car period – to retrieve the Toro Rosso of Carlos Sainz, after the Spaniard spun off – gave the German some breathing room, he was forced to pit on lap four and park his Ferrari, his second DNF in three races.

Back at the front, Hamilton was in control easing away from Verstappen’s Red Bull, despite a Virtual Safety Car period on lap 8 when Marcus Ericsson put his Sauber in the barriers at Degner.

Hamilton made his one and only stop on lap 22, responding to Verstappen, who had pitted a lap earlier as Red Bull tried the undercut.

Hamilton re-joined in third, behind Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas – both yet to change tyres. Ricciardo then pitted a few laps later and while Bottas stayed out longer – holding up his team-mate before letting him by on lap 28 and then making amends by also backing up Verstappen, he finally pitted on lap 30.

Hamilton appeared less happy on the soft tyres in the second stint and reported he was struggling with the rears. Nevertheless he maintained a 2-3 second cushion over Verstappen as the race headed into its final phase.

A late Virtual Safety Car then ensued after Lance Stroll went off at Turn 3 – with replays showing he had ‘what looked like a failure at the front right’.

When the second VSC period ended, Hamilton reported vibrations and was struggling to turn his tyres on. That put Verstappen right in the mix, but Hamilton held on – just – aided in part by backmarkers Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso. He crossed the line 1.2secs ahead.

It was Hamilton’s eighth win of the season and his third at Suzuka and means he will now go to Austin later this month with the possibility of securing his fourth F1 Drivers’ Championship. He can claim the title if he wins in the USA and Vettel is fifth or lower.

“It is great to have a beautiful day here – the track was fantastic and the team did an incredible job. Max drove an outstanding race. Honestly it wasn’t an easy race for us at all,” the Mercedes man said. “Today the Red Bulls just seemed to be very rapid in race trim. Obviously we are quick in qualifying trim, but still I was just able to hold him behind.

“It definitely got close a couple of times, particularly at the end with the VSC and then when we restarted the tyres were cold and we had a bit of traffic. He caught right up and it was very, very close.”

“Honestly I could only have dreamed of having this kind of gap [in the championship],” he added. “Ferrari has put on such a great challenge all year long and what I can really say is, I have to put it down to my team.

“A phenomenal job and reliability has really been on point. They are just so meticulous and that is really why we have the reliability we have and why we have the results. A big thanks to the guys. I owe it to everyone here and back at the factory. Also the support we get really does help lift us up.”

Vettel’s emotions unsurprisingly were rather different: “I think I need to protect them,” he told Sky Sports F1. “We have done an incredible job so far and obviously a pity at the last two races with the reliability issues, but it is like that sometimes. Of course it hurts and we are all disappointed, but now we need to get back and 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 in the next few races. It is not in our control as much as we would like but overall I think the team is on a good way. We are improving race-by-race and I think we have got a lot further than people thought.

“There is also some positives, but for sure now you don’t look at the positives because it is not the day to look at them.”

Meanwhile, Verstappen was encouraged to following up his Sepang victory with such another strong drive: “The pace today was really promising. The first stint on the supersoft I was struggling a bit with the left front, but as soon as we switched to the soft tyre I was actually very competitive. I was always with Lewis and especially the last few laps we had great pace,” he said.

“It is just really hard to pass and the last 2-3 laps I gave it my all to try and close the gap. But we had a really good day again and the car is definitely improving race-by-race. I am really happy about that.”

Behind, Daniel Ricciardo took the final podium spot to give Red Bull a 2-3 finish and in a reverse of the nail-biting battle at the front had to contend with the fast-charging Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas. The duo were split by just 0.9secs at the end.

“This is my first podium here and my objective this weekend was to get a Suzuka podium. I have it and it feels great,” Ricciardo noted.

“It is a circuit I have always enjoyed and now with this year’s cars it is a lot of fun. The race after the start spread out and it wasn’t that exciting from my point of view. But then I had Valtteri coming at the end and actually to have a bit of pressure at the end made it more exciting. It was good fun.”

Further back, Kimi Raikkonen recovered to finish fifth in his Ferrari, after that unscheduled gearbox change on Saturday – following his crash in FP3 – left him saddled with a five-place penalty and 10th place on the grid.

Force India duo Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez were ‘best of the rest’ in sixth and seventh, while the Haas cars of Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean came in eighth and ninth, the former barging his way by Massa with 10 laps or so to go.

Massa managed to take the final point for Williams keeping McLaren-Honda’s Fernando Alonso at bay as the Spaniard’s challenge was halted as they had to get out of the way when they were lapped by Hamilton and Verstappen right at the close.

Of the rest, Renault’s Jolyon Palmer was 12th in his final race with the team following the announcement on Saturday that he will be replaced by Sainz for the remainder of the season. Toro Rosso newbie Pierre Gasly took 13th with Stoffel Vandoorne 14th in his McLaren and Pascal Wehrelin 15th for Sauber, the final finisher.

In addition to the early retirements of Sainz, Vettel and Ericsson, as well as Stroll’s exit on lap 47, Nico Hulkenberg also failed to get to the chequered flag, retiring his Renault on lap 42 when the DRS got stuck open.

Race Result available – HERE.

Picture credit: Mercedes

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