Lewis Hamilton claimed an easy 71st career win and fourth in the last five years at the Japanese Grand Prix to put himself one race away from claiming his fifth world championship after Sebastian Vettel was involved in another early-race collision.
Hamilton was untroubled in the lead for the entire race, converting pole position into an unchallenged victory ahead of teammate Valtteri Bottas and Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen to put himself 67 points ahead of Vettel in the title standings.
“The whole weekend’s been incredibly strong for the team,” he said. “This track’s the best track in the world.
“The guys you see at the track, the guys back at the factory — these guys work so hard to create this beast; I’m just so proud and grateful that I have the chance to do what I do.”
While Hamilton cruised in the lead, Vettel’s eagerness to make up for his poor qualifying and eighth-place starting position (up from ninth after a penalty to Esteban Ocon) had him tangle with Max Verstappen on Lap 8 and fall to the back of the field.
The German embarked on an aggressive comeback drive to finish sixth, but the championship equation is extremely one-sided as a result: Hamilton can claim the championship if he wins the next race in the United States and Vettel finishes third or lower.
“Obviously I take it one step at a time,” Hamilton said. “I think we’ve gone from strength to strength this year as a team.
“Austin is generally a good track for us, and I can’t wait to unleash this beast there.”
At the start of the race Hamilton, Bottas and Verstappen had little trouble getting away from the line from the top three places, but behind them Vettel aced his start, jumping past the slow-launching Toro Rosso pair of Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly into sixth. The German then set his sights on Haas’ Romain Grosjean, passing him with a bold move around the outside at the hairpin.
Next for Vettel was Verstappen and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, who were busy battling for third, but the Red Bull driver outbraked himself into the hairpin, running off the track.
Spearing through the corner, he attempted to cut off Raikkonen as he exited the chicane, running the Finn off the track and opening the door for Vettel to move up to fourth place. Verstappen was handed a five-second penalty for the indiscretion.
Further down the field Kevin Magnussen was caught in a battle with Sauber’s Charles Leclerc in defense of 12th place. The Monegasque had gotten a good launch out of the last chicane to have a look down the Dane’s inside at the first turn, but Magnussen aggressively swept to the right, triggering a rear-end collision.
Magnussen came out worse, picking up a left-rear puncture that dropped him to last as he limped back to the pits, and the debris he scattered across the track in the process forced race control to deploy the safety car.
Hamilton sprinted away at the restart, but Vettel in fourth now had the bit between his teeth and harangued Verstappen for his podium place.
They battled all the way to Spoon curve, where the German scythed down the inside of his rival, but he was carrying too much speed. Vettel ran into the side of the navy RB14 and sent himself spinning down to the back of the field. The stewards judged the clash to be a racing incident.
Ricciardo was now the man on the move, having moved from 15th to 10th before the safety car. He made short work of both Force India cars before slicing past Pierre Gasly on Lap 13 and Grosjean on the following tour to take fifth place.
The Australian was now behind Raikkonen, who kicked off the first pit stop window with a switch to the medium tire on Lap 18 in an attempt to undercut Verstappen, but he exited pit lane into midfield traffic, slowing his progress.
Red Bull responded, pitting Verstappen on Lap 22 and Ricciardo on Lap 24, the former comfortably emerging ahead of Raikkonen and the latter jumping the Ferrari for good measure.
At the front of the field Hamilton and Bottas were running their own race at arm’s length from the rest of the pack. Hamilton complained intermittently of hesitations from his power unit from the lead, but he had no discernible difficulty keeping a five-second gap to his teammate in second place.
The top five cars settled into a rhythm for the middle stint of the race, but behind them the midfield was chaotic, with a combination of different tire strategies and Vettel trying to rise through the field creating all sorts of action.
Lance Stroll and Fernando Alonso were fighting for the rear-most places in the field, but their enthusiasm got the better of them. Stroll first forced Alonso off the track at the chicane, but the McLaren driver then cut straight through to gravel to rejoin ahead of the Williams. Both were penalized five seconds at their first pit stops.
Grosjean and Sergio Perez were also engaged in a tight battle for seventh, with the Frenchman defending the ‘best of the rest’ position at the head of the midfield.
Perez, however, had his opportunity to pass when Leclerc triggered a virtual safety car on Lap 41. The Sauber driver reported a breakage in his car before he ran through the gravel and into retirement at the Degner corners.
The Mexican jumped Grosjean when the VSC ended, but the Haas driver complained his rival had broken the speed limit during the caution period, though no investigation was immediately forthcoming.
Hamilton was sprinting away at the front all the while, but Bottas was struggling with rear blistering in his tires and making slower progress, slipping to 10 seconds behind his teammate and into the clutches of Verstappen.
Verstappen applied maximum pressure on the Finn and attempted to take advantage of the slow lapped cars to slingshot his way past the Silver Arrow, but it was in vain, with Bottas claiming second place and Verstappen forced to settle for third.
Perez held onto seventh ahead of Grosjean and Force India teammate Ocon at the flag, and Carlos Sainz scored a much-needed point from 10th place.