Lewis Hamilton has two hands – almost – on the 2017 Formula 1 World Championship crown after winning Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka while his main title rival Sebastian Vettel suffered a rare mechanical failure in his Ferrari.
Victory for the Englishman – the 61st of his Formula 1 career – put him 59 points clear of Vettel with four races to go. Should he outscore the German by 16 points next time at Austin (victory for him and sixth or worse for Vettel would do the trick), then the Drivers’ Championship will be his.
A fourth World Championship crown will put Hamilton, already ranked as one of the sport’s true greats, will see him join rarefied company among the likes of Vettel, Juan Manuel Fangio, Alain Prost and Michael Schumacher as drivers to have won four or more titles.
Only a cruel twist of fate could deny Hamilton such an achievement.
Vettel has, however, exemplified how quickly a championship title can slip from one’s grasp. After finally being overtaken for the World Championship lead after the Italian Grand Prix, Vettel’s hopes have seemingly evaporated over the following rounds in Singapore, Malaysia and Japan where he has twice failed to see the chequered flag.
Until that point the battle had been a tightly-fought affair between the two rivals. It was a welcome reprieve after three previous seasons of sheer dominance by Mercedes.
The pair briefly shared the lead of the Drivers’ Championship after the Chinese Grand Prix before Vettel pulled clear and stayed in front until Monza, when a disastrous qualifying performance in the rain at Monza handed the ascendancy to Hamilton. Momentum has been firmly on Hamilton’s side of the equation ever since.
Sunday’s 53-lap race at Suzuka underscored how delicately the pendulum can swing in one driver’s favour, as Hamilton was able to collect the maximum 25 points on offer while Vettel retired early on with a broken spark plug.
The problem under the cowling of Vettel’s Ferrari SF70H made itself apparent on the starting grid. Ironically its spark plug manufacturer, the Japanese-based NGK, is based barely 60 kilometres away in Nagoya.
As rare as a mechanically-induced DNF is for Ferrari in recent years, to happen at such a location and point in the season could not have been worse timing.
Vettel was able to take the start but it was immediately apparent that this issue was costing him vital performance. As Hamilton launched into the lead from pole position, Vettel was left to fend off Max Verstappen and duly lost second place to the Dutch driver at the hairpin on the opening lap of the race.
He tumbled to sixth by the second lap, before his discomfort was temporarily halted by a Safety Car following Carlos Sainz Jr’s opening-lap crash at the Esses in the Spaniard’s final outing for Scuderia Toro Rosso ahead of a late-season switch to Renault to replace Jolyon Palmer.
A lap after the race restarted, Vettel pulled into the pits to retire. On top of his more self-inflicted points’ hits in Azerbaijan and Singapore, this was perhaps the more galling to swallow but the German copped his disappointment on the chin.
Hamilton and Verstappen were able to break clear at the restart ahead of Force India’s Esteban Ocon, although the Frenchman was quickly overtaken by Verstappen’s teammate Daniel Ricciardo. The early laps spent tucked up behind Ocon proved enough to deny the Australian a shot at challenging for victory, leaving Hamilton to focus his efforts on keeping Verstappen at bay over the remainder of the race.
Hamilton extended his race lead to five seconds by the time the race’s sole pit stop phase occurred and although Verstappen attempted to capitalise with an undercut, Hamilton’s Mercedes crew responded by bringing the Englishman in a lap later to cover.
Emerging behind his yet-to-stop teammate Valtteri Bottas, the Finn responded to team instructions and let Hamilton through at 130R before staying out on track for a few more laps to act as rear-gunner. By the time he had pitted, Verstappen had fallen back to by 3.4 seconds behind Hamilton.
Verstappen was able to chip away at the gap and had a sniff of Hamilton’s rear wing thanks to a Virtual Safety Car brought about late in the race when Lance Stroll slid his Williams into the Turn 3 gravel thanks to a puncture.
Hamilton’s two-second lead was eliminated when he was held up by the battling Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa – disputing tenth place – and that allowed Verstappen a fleeting shot at challenging for victory. He too was held up as he lapped the pair, with Massa proving particularly unhelpful.
In the end, Hamilton crossed the finish line 1.2 seconds clear of Verstappen while Ricciardo completed the podium in third place after a late push by Bottas.
Starting from tenth place thanks to a grid penalty for a gearbox change, Kimi Räikkönen attempted to atone a disappointing day for Ferrari. The Finn fought his way back to fifth place at the finish line after dropping as low as fourteenth in the opening laps when a lunge on Renault’s Nico Hülkenberg failed to pay off.
Sixth and seventh went to the two Force Indias of Ocon and teammate Sergio Pérez, who further consolidated the team’s firm hold on fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship standings. Given the drivers’ multiple run-ins this year, the team held firm on their instructions that the duo not race in the closing laps, which Pérez respected.
The Haas F1 Team claimed a fine double-points finish, with Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean claiming eighth and ninth respectively to move the team ahead of Renault for seventh in the Constructors’ Championship. Massa survived his late fight with former teammate Alonso to claim tenth and the final point on offer.
Renault failed to maintain its recent run of form, with Hülkenberg retiring thanks to a DRS failure and outgoing teammate Jolyon Palmer finishing twelfth after starting from eighteenth place.
The Englishman gained a place from Pierre Gasly after the Toro Rosso rookie locked up at the hairpin and flat-spotted his second set of tyres while threatening the top ten. The French driver was forced to make a second pit stop and dropped out of contention for a points’ finish to cross the line in thirteenth.
After starting inside the top-ten thanks to grid penalties for Räikkönen and Alonso, Stoffel Vandoorne lost his shot at a third successive points’ finish when he ran off-track at Turn 1 and fell towards the rear of the field.
The Belgian finished fourteenth ahead of a twice-lapped Pascal Wehrlein, who completed the classified runners in his Sauber. The German’s teammate Marcus Ericsson was an early retirement with a clumsy crash at Degner 2 on Lap 8.
Image via Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team