Lewis Hamilton is now within reach of becoming a five-time Formula 1 World Champion after cruising to a decisive victory at the Suzuka Circuit.
The Mercedes driver led every lap from pole position in a serene demonstration of control that felt like a re-run of several Grands Prix over recent seasons where the Silver Arrows thrashed the field and rivals Ferrari were hobbled by driver errors and terrible strategy.
Hamilton’s sixth victory from the last seven Grands Prix has emphatically swung the battle for the World Championship title in the Englishman’s favour. With a whopping 67-point margin in the Drivers’ Championship standings over arch-rival Sebastian Vettel, the Ferrari driver has to finish second or better at the next race in the United States to keep his increasingly slim championship hopes alive.
Barring a complete disaster for Hamilton, even that will simply delay the inevitable. A season that started so promisingly for the Scuderia looks set to end with a whimper rather than a bang.
As has been the case far too often this season, Vettel crumbled under pressure. Following the team’s shocking tyre selection error in qualifying that saw Vettel start from eighth on the grid, he needed to make up ground quickly in the opening laps.
As the lights went out, Hamilton scampered off into a lead that would never be threatened. Vettel, meanwhile, jumped the two Toro Rossos of Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly and made short work of Romain Grosjean’s Haas to be fifth halfway around the opening lap.
Fifth became fourth when Max Verstappen shoved the sister Ferrari of Kimi Räikkönen off the circuit after shortcutting the chicane. Knowing he needed to get onto the tail of the Mercedes’ but failing to acknowledge Verstappen’s reputation for being tough to pass, Vettel made a late lunge up the inside of the Dutch youngster at the Spoon Curve – not a corner typically associated with overtaking.
Predictably, the pair made contact. Verstappen ran wide and rejoined without losing a place, while Vettel spun into the tarmac run-off and sat helplessly waiting for the rest of the field to drive past before he could get going. With damage to his car, the best result Vettel could hope for was a sixth-placed finish.
After the race the pair blamed each for the contact. The FIA Stewards ruled it a racing incident but hit the Red Bull Racing driver with a five-second time penalty to be served at his pit stop for his dangerous re-entry to the track on Lap 1.
With its star driver now at the back of the field, Ferrari oddly chose not to bring Vettel in for an early stop to give him clear air and instead kept him out to pick his way past the lower midfield while he still had life in his tyres. Undeterred by his failed move on Verstappen, Vettel made a number of successful passes on other drivers at Spoon Curve.
He eventually worked his way back up to sixth place behind Räikkönen but was too far behind the Finn for Ferrari to even remotely consider using team orders to swap their drivers around – not that the Sauber-bound 2007 World Champion was likely to cooperate…
Up ahead, Hamilton was able to cruise and collect the 71st victory of his career. Barely a week after looking the better driver than his teammate until team orders intervened, Valtteri Bottas finished in second place with the sort of unnoticed performance that has been too large a hallmark of his second year driving for the Silver Arrows.
Verstappen pushed hard in the final laps and closed to within two seconds of Bottas but ultimately had to settle for the final spot on the podium, a result that even surprised the management at Red Bull Racing.
After starting in the lower midfield thanks to his engine cutting out in Q2, teammate Daniel Ricciardo put in another one of his characteristic charging drives with overtaking moves reminiscent of those that took him to victory in Shanghai earlier this year. The Australian richly deserved his ‘Driver of the Day’ popular vote.
The remaining points’ positions were claimed by the two Force India drivers of Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon, who finished seventh and ninth respectively in another solid showing by the Silverstone team.
The pair sandwiched the Haas Ferrari of Romain Grosjean – who has historically performed well at Suzuka – after a confidence-building and tidy drive. The same could not be said of teammate Kevin Magnussen, who once again earned the ire of his fellow drivers for his overly-aggressive defence.
This time the Dane’s victim was Charles Leclerc. The Sauber driver tried to pass the Haas down the start/finish straight and after moving towards the inside he found his path blocked by Magnussen who suddenly jinked to the right. The pair made nose-to-tail contact, leaving Leclerc requiring a new front wing while Magnussen limped back to the pits with a puncture and badly damaged floor that ultimately put him out of the race.
Renault’s Carlos Sainz Jr. claimed the final point on offer, finishing tenth after a late pass on Gasly’s Toro Rosso. Teammate Nico Hülkenberg was the race’s third retiree, pulling into the pits with suspension dramas.
Despite neither Toro Rosso scoring points at the home race of engine supplier Honda, it was a positive weekend for the Faenza team. The STR13 chassis’ armed with the latest-spec Honda upgrades looked quick and gave the team its best qualifying result of the season. That neither driver scored points was down to poor strategy calls for Gasly and a shocking start for Hartley that undid the New Zealander’s third-row starting position in a matter of seconds.
By contrast, the performance of the cars powered by former engine supplier Honda will have been further humiliation for McLaren as the failings of its MCL33 chassis were laid bare for all to see. Slowest of all in qualifying and having opted for completely the wrong mix of tyre compounds, Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne were left to trundle around at the rear of the field. The end of the year cannot come soon enough for either driver.
|FORMULA 1 2018 HONDA JAPANESE GRAND PRIX – FINAL CLASSIFICATION (53 LAPS)|
|Driver||Team / Entry||Laps||Result|
|1.||Lewis Hamilton||Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport F1W09||53||1:27:17.062|
|2.||Valtteri Bottas||Mercedes AMG Petronas Motorsport F1W09||53||+ 12.919|
|3.||Max Verstappen||Aston Martin Red Bull Racing TAG Heuer RB14||53||+ 14.295|
|4.||Daniel Ricciardo||Aston Martin Red Bull Racing TAG Heuer RB14||53||+ 19.495|
|5.||Kimi Räikkönen||Scuderia Ferrari SF71H||53||+ 50.998|
|6.||Sebastian Vettel||Scuderia Ferrari SF71H||53||+ 1:09.873|
|7.||Sergio Pérez||Force India F1 Team Mercedes VJM11||53||+ 1:19.379|
|8.||Romain Grosjean||Haas F1 Team Ferrari VF-18||53||+ 1:27.198|
|9.||Esteban Ocon||Force India F1 Team Mercedes VJM11||53||+ 1:28.055|
|10.||Carlos Sainz Jr||Renault Sport F1 Team RS18||52||1 lap behind|
|11.||Pierre Gasly||Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda STR13||52||1 lap behind|
|12.||Marcus Ericsson||Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team Ferrari C37||52||1 lap behind|
|13.||Brendon Hartley||Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda STR13||52||1 lap behind|
|14.||Fernando Alonso||McLaren F1 Team Renault MCL33||52||1 lap behind|
|15.||Stoffel Vandoorne||McLaren F1 Team Renault MCL33||52||1 lap behind|
|16.||Sergey Sirotkin||Williams Martini Racing Mercedes FW41||52||1 lap behind|
|17.||Lance Stroll||Williams Martini Racing Mercedes FW41||52||1 lap behind|
|Not Classified||Team / Entry||Laps|
|DNF.||Charles Leclerc||Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team Ferrari C37||38||Suspension|
|DNF.||Nico Hülkenberg||Renault Sport F1 Team RS18||37||Handling|
|DNF.||Kevin Magnussen||Haas F1 Team Ferrari VF-18||8||Damage|
|Fastest Lap||Team / Entry||Lap||Time|
|Sebastian Vettel||Scuderia Ferrari SF71H||53||1:32.318|
Images via Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team and Red Bull Racing