Lewis Hamilton edged closer to a fourth Formula One world championship title as he kept Red Bull’s Max Verstappen at bay to take a third career Japanese Grand Prix win. It was a disastrous day for Sebastian Vettel, however, as a spark plug problem forced Hamilton’s only real title contender to retire from the race on lap five. Hamilton now has a 59-point lead over Vettel with four races remaining.
At the start Hamilton got away well to hold his lead. Initially Vettel too looked to be in good shape but early in the lap he was pounced upon by a hard charging Verstappen. The Dutchman has made an excellent start from P4 to pass team-mate Daniel Ricciardo and then at the hairpin he powered past Vettel.
It was the beginning of a swift slide for the Ferrari man. At the beginning of lap two the German was passed by Force India’s Esteban Ocon, who had passed Ricciardo on the previous lap, as well as the Red Bull man.
There followed a brief safety car period as Carlos Sainz’s Toro Rosso remained beached in the gravel trap at Turn 7 after a lap one off and when the action resumed again Vettel was again under attack sliding to eighth place behind the second Force India of Sergio Perez and the Williams of Felipe Massa.
The was clearly something wrong with Vettel’s Ferrari and within moments the German’s race engineer was on the radio saying “box, Sebastian, box, we retire the car”.
At the front Hamilton was beginning to build a lead over Verstappen and by the time the Virtual Safety Car was deployed when Marcus Ericsson crashed out at Degner 2 on lap 8 the Mercedes driver was more than four seconds clear of the Red Bull man.
Ocon’s grip on third place only lasted until lap 10, when the VSC was removed. Ricciardo closed on the pit straight under DRS and powered past the Force India on the left-hand side on the approach to Turn 1. Valtteri Bottas, too, managed to get past the Frenchman and by lap 13 Hamilton lead from the Red Bulls, Bottas, the Force Indias of Ocon and Perez and seventh-placed Massa. Kimi Räikkönen was in P8 in the remaining Ferrari, ahead of Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg and Haas’ Kevin Magnussen.
Verstappen was the first of the frontrunners to pit, with the Red Bull driver taking on soft tyres at the lap of lap 21. Mercedes reacted and brought Hamilton in at the end of the next tour. When they both crossed the line the next time around, the gap between them had shrunk to just 1.8s and Verstappen was setting purple lap times.
Ricciardo then made his stop at the end of lap 25, though his stop for soft tyres looked a little slow. He rejoined behind Raikkonen who, like new leader Bottas, was still circulating on his starting soft tyres.
Bottas, however, was now running slowly, in the 1m37s bracket, and as a consequence he began to back Hamilton towards Verstappen and on lap 28 the deficit was just 1.1s. Hamilton was quickly on the radio to voice his concern and a few corners later Bottas allowed the Briton to sweep past.
The Finn then dropped back to frustrate Verstappen for the next few laps until Mercedes called him to the pits at the end of lap 30. Bottas emerged from his pit stop with fresh supersofts, in fourth place and 10s behind Ricciardo. At the front Hamilton was now three seconds clear of Verstappen but already the Mercedes driver was saying he was struggling with rear tyre grip.
Verstappen closed to within 2.5s and there the race for the lead stalled with Hamilton apparently able to control the gap comfortably.
Behind the top two Ricciardo’s pace began to flag and slightly and Bottas, on supersoft tyres compared with Ricciardo’s softs, began to close on the Australian.
On lap 48 the Finn had shortened a 10 second gap to just 2.8s, but then Lance Stroll suffered what looked like a front-right suspension failure. The Virtual Safety Car was again deployed and the speed limit in force bought Ricciardo valuable time.
However when the action resumed Bottas applied the pressure with a race fastest lap to almost get within DRS range of the Red Bull driver.
Further ahead Hamilton was hitting traffic and that allowed Verstappen to close in on the lead. However, the Dutchman was denied any opportunity to attack the Briton as McLaren’s Fernando Alonso came between the leaders on the penultimate lap. The Spaniard was put under investigation for ignoring blue flags, but Verstappen’s chance was gone and he had to settle for a second consecutive P2 in Japan.
Behind them Ricciardo managed to hold third ahead of Bottas, while fifth place when to Räikkönen in the sole remaining Ferrari. Esteban Ocon was sixth for Force India ahead of team-mate Sergio Perez, while Haas enjoyed a double points finish, with Kevin Magnussen eighth ahead of team-mate Romain Grosjean. The final point on offer went to Williams’ Felipe Massa.
2017 Japanese Grand Prix – Race
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 53 1hr27:31.193
2 Max Verstappen Red Bull 53 1.211
3 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 53 9.679
4 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 53 10.580
5 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 53 32.622
6 Esteban Ocon Force India 53 1:07.788
7 Sergio Perez Force India 53 1:11.424
8 Kevin Magnussen Haas 53 1:28.953
9 Romain Grosjean Haas 53 1:29.883
10 Felipe Massa Williams 52 1 lap