Lewis Hamilton made further strides towards a fifth world championship title after dominating the Japanese Grand Prix with an impressive pole to flag victory.
Having claimed an incredible 80th pole position of his career, the Mercedes driver was in no mood to offer title rival Sebastian Vettel any glimmer of hope. And when the German spun after a wildly ambitious overtake on Max Verstappen into Spoon corner only eight laps in, his title chances were effectively over.
It left Hamilton clear to cruise home from teammate Valtteri Bottas and the Red Bulls of Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, Vettel recovering to finish sixth behind teammate Kimi Raikkonen.
Sergio Perez finished an excellent seventh for Racing Point Force India ahead of Romain Grosjean and teammate Esteban Ocon as Carlos Sainz grabbed the remaining point.
Hamilton’s victory means he now leads Vettel by a massive 67 points with just four races remaining.
“I love you guys,” said an ecstatic Hamilton after taking the chequered flag. “I love driving this car, I love this track. I am so happy man, I’m so appreciative of everything you’ve done for me. Thank you so much guys.”
Despite starting on the more durable but less grippy soft tyre, Hamilton led Bottas away from the rest of the field with consummate ease at the start, Vettel making a supreme start from ninth on the grid and up to fourth after a mistake from Verstappen hampered Raikkonen’s Ferrari.
After a less than impressive qualifying performance, Daniel Ricciardo was a man on a mission and sliced his way up into the points before contact between Charles Leclerc and Kevin Magnussen led to a safety car situation. “Magnussen is and will always be stupid. It’s a fact. A shame,” vexed the Frenchman. But for Verstappen, a five second time penalty for leaving the track and not returning safely almost scuppered his chances of a podium after he dueled with Raikkonen.
“What the f**k, honestly,” vented a furious Verstappen. “I tried to do the best I could. He drives around the outside, he could have easily waited for me to come back.”
Then came the crucial, season defining moment. Knowing that he had to make up quick places, Vettel attempted to dive down the inside of Verstappen into Spoon corner when there appeared to be no gap to go for. The inevitable result was contact, pitching the Ferrari into a spin and to the back of the field.
It appeared a rash and somewhat desperate move in what has become a desperate cause over the last few grands prix. Realistically, he must now win each of the remaining races and hope misfortune befalls Hamilton somewhere down the line.
“I was obviously pushing to get past but I wasn’t desperate to get past,” Vettel told Sky Sports F1. “I knew he had a penalty but I also felt that we were faster.
“The gap was there but as soon as he saw me obviously he defended. But I had the inside. As soon as he realizes somebody is close or next to him, he tries to – in my opinion – push when you shouldn’t push anymore.
“Look at [the incident with] Kimi, he’s [Verstappen] off the track and comes back and if Kimi just drives on they’d collide. But it’s not always right that the other guy has to move. We’re all racing, the race is long.”
There were no such dramas for Hamilton, a smooth stop for a set of medium compound tyres on lap 25 saw him set fair for the finish and surely set fair for a fifth world title.
And the records continue to tumble. It was Hamilton’s fourth win at Suzuka in five years, the 71st of his career and 50th win for Mercedes.
“I’m very, very happy. The whole weekend has been incredibly strong for the team, a great 1-2 for Mercedes and a true showing of the real strength in depth we have as a team and this track is the best track in the word.
“I don’t know why they don’t make tracks like this any more but every second of the run was just great fun. I’ve raced a long time but the happiness I have inside is as good as always.”
Should Hamilton win in America in two weeks’ time and Vettel is anywhere lower than second, he will have even more to smile about.
Top Image: 2018 Japanese Grand Prix. ©Steve Etherington.