Lewis Hamilton is on the brink of a fourth world championship after taking the win ahead of Max Verstappen at Suzuka for the Japanese Grand Prix.
The Mercedes driver led a lights-to-flag victory and managed to fend off title rival Sebastian Vettel in the opening stages, who was suffering with a spark plug problem which affects his straight-line speed.
After a brief Safety Car period brought out by Carlos Sainz who spun into the barriers on the opening lap and retired, Vettel was instantly mugged by Esteban Ocon, Daniel Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas at the restart heading into the first corner. A few laps later Ferrari elected to retire the car as the issue started to worsen, causing Vettel to lose out on a crucial points finish.
Things weren’t any better for team mate Kimi Raikkonen, who started outside the top ten with a grid penalty and lost ground at the first corner. Raikkonen fought his way back through the field though, getting back up to the leaders in sixth before the first round of pit stops triggered by Ocon.
Force India were reacting to the threat from Raikkonen after being passed by Ricciardo and Bottas a few laps into the restart, some of which were spent under Virtual Safety Car conditions after Marcus Ericsson fell victim to the second Degner’s and crashed out into the barrier.
Raikkonen elected to stay out for a few more laps before coming in, which eventually put him ahead of the two Force India’s after Ocon got stuck behind Fernando Alonso and Jolyon Palmer. Further up front Verstappen was the first to pit out of the leaders, duly followed by Hamilton a lap later.
After Ricciardo spent a few laps in the lead he also pitted for a set of Soft tyres, handing the lead to Bottas who started on Soft tyres to begin with and was going longer in the opening stint. Therein presented a problem for Mercedes, because Hamilton was gaining quite rapidly on Bottas and had Verstappen just a couple of seconds behind too.
When Verstappen started to get within DRS range of Hamilton, Mercedes swapped the position of their cars which enabled Bottas to back Verstappen up and give Hamilton some breathing space up front by around 3.5 seconds as he struggled to get his rear tyres up to temperature.
Meanwhile Raikkonen was battling with Hulkenberg for sixth, the Ferrari driver getting through before the Renault encountered problems with his DRS which forced him to retire. Another retiree came just a few laps later, when Lance Stroll went off at the Esses with a front right wheel failure.
The incident brought out the Virtual Safety Car for a second time, allowing Bottas to gain on Ricciardo for the final podium place but more crucially caused the rear tyre temperatures to drop on Hamilton’s car.
With the help of traffic Verstappen was able to close the gap on Hamilton to five tenths of a second, which prompted him to ask his team if he could “give it everything” for the race win. Try as he might, the straight-line speed of the Red Bull was compromised by the Renault engine and once Hamilton was able to get out of the dirty air from Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa he could pull away and just hang on to a crucial race win.
Ricciardo also managed to hold off Bottas for the final podium space, ahead of Raikkonen and the two Force Indias. Both Haas drivers also making it into the top ten in the closing stages when Kevin Magnussen bullied Massa off the road and also allowed Romain Grosjean through.
That is what prompted the fight for 10th between the Williams and Alonso, although that was ultimately the subject of a post-race investigation by the stewards regarding the ignoring of blue flags. Alonso was given two penalty points and a reprimand for the incident, although no penalty which affected his 11th place finish.