Lewis Hamilton has taken a huge step closer to being world champion with victory at the Japanese Grand Prix as title-rival Sebastian Vettel retired early.
Vettel was already 34 points behind Hamilton before lights-out but a spark plug issue detected on the grid meant that he could only complete a handful of laps.
It was the best possible result for Hamilton who now sits 59 points clear in championship with just four races remaining.
The Englishman will now take the title at the next race in Austin, Texas, if he wins and Vettel finishes lower than fifth.
Hamilton Blunts Late Attack
Hamilton was remarkably the only driver to begin in their qualifying position after a string of grid penalties and he got off to a strong start to lead around Turn 1.
Vettel was clearly struggling for power from the beginning and was soon passed for second at the hairpin by Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. From there, the Dutchman was on the trail of Hamilton staying within 5 seconds at his only pit stop on the 21st lap.
But the Mercedes seemed to struggle on Pirelli’s supersoft tyres and Verstappen continued close behind.
A virtual safety car deployed on the 47th lap when Lance Stroll’s Williams broke its front suspension in the Esses nearly caught Hamilton undone.
Verstappen launched an attack on the re-start as Hamilton’s cold tyres struggled with traction and he complained over team radio about engine vibration. The gap closed to under a second but the Englishman managed to withstand the challenge as they negotiated backmarkers.
Despite taking a formidable lead in the championship, Hamilton refused to get carried away after the race.
“Is it a purple patch? A golden patch maybe. It’s definitely been a great second half of the season. An incredible performance from the team,” said Hamilton.
“I just have to keep my head down and keep doing what I’ve been doing.”
“We’ve still got to win the next four races.”
Vettel Suffers Terminal Blow
The flurry of activity surrounding Vettel’s car while it was sitting on the grid before the race wasn’t a good sign.
News soon started to trickle through that there was a spark plug issue but the German would start the race nonetheless.
He barely got down the track before it became clear that it was a major issue. He quickly slipped down to sixth and stayed out during a safety car for Torro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz but he immediately dropped further places and was told to come into the pits.
It spells the end to a disastrous Asian campaign for Ferrari that has seen Sebastian Vettel go from leading the championship after the Belgium Grand Prix to now only having faint prospects of securing the title.
Vettel said before leaving Suzuka: “It’s normal you’re critical, especially if things go wrong, so it’s part of our job.”
“I think I need to protect them. We’ve done an incredible job so far. Bitter the past two races with the reliability issues – but you know, it’s like that sometimes.”
“Of course it hurts and we’re all disappointed, but now we need to get back, get some rest and then go flat out for the last four races and see what happens.”
Some cold comfort for Ferrari is that Kimi Raikkonen ended in fifth after starting 11th with a gearbox penalty. He finished behind Valtteri Bottas, while Red Bull continued their string of fine form with Daniel Ricciardo joining Verstappen on the podium.
Force India claimed sixth and seventh and Haas took eighth and ninth places. Jolyon Palmer ended in 12th on his last race for Renault.