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Lewis Hamilton is within touching distance of a fourth Formula One world title after he raced to a crucial victory at the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday, with championship rival Sebastian Vettel failing to finish.
Starting on pole, the Mercedes man was always in control of the race despite some heavy late pressure from Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, who was second; Verstappen’s Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo came home in third.
The big boost for Hamilton was Vettel’s early retirement, as he was pulled in by Ferrari mechanics on Lap 5 due to a spark plug problem, per the team’s Twitter account. The result means Hamilton has a commanding 59-point lead at the top of the standings with four races remaining.
Here are the race results, per the Formula One Twitter account:
Formula 1 @F1
INITIAL CLASSIFICATION: Huge day for @LewisHamilton in the 2017 title race – he’s now 59 points ahead of Sebastian Vettel #JapaneseGP 🇯🇵 https://t.co/evU0XWRZu8
The race got off to the worst possible start for Vettel, who headed off in second behind Hamilton. The German would have been hoping to apply some pressure to his title rival off the line, though he struggled to find early pace and was overtaken by Verstappen.
Eugene Hoshiko/Associated Press
A virtual safety car offered some respite for Vettel after Carlos Sainz spun off track. When the racing resumed, it became apparent his issue was something a lot more serious.
Indeed, on Lap 5 the Ferrari garage deemed enough was enough and pulled in their man. As noted by Andrew Benson of BBC Sport, it’s been a torrid spell for the German as of late, with issues in Singapore and Malaysia prior to this race:
Andrew Benson @andrewbensonf1
Quite astonishing how Ferrari’s campaign has collapsed. Six weeks ago, Vettel was leading the championship https://t.co/9nzhRMOOcv
Speaking after his retirement, Vettel was adamant the title picture wasn’t over yet, though:
Formula 1 @F1
VET: “Being critical is part of our job but I have to protect them [the team]. We’ll go flat out for the next four races” #JapaneseGP 🇯🇵 https://t.co/oApYOAtiSd
His issues presented Hamilton with an incredible opportunity, and as he raced away at the front of the field, he appeared ready to take it, quickly putting some distance between himself and Verstappen.
With the Mercedes man getting away from him, Verstappen darted into the pits before the leader to don the soft compound. Hamilton, with around four seconds to play with, mirrored that strategy, while Valtteri Bottas was left out by Mercedes in an attempt to hold up the charging Red Bull.
KIYOSHI OTA/Getty Images
When Bottas pitted and the leaders resumed, there appeared to be an edge for the Red Bull on the soft compound, as Verstappen turned the time sheets purple. After his win in Malaysia, there was clearly a confidence about the young Dutchman and he started to slowly reel Hamilton in.
And as the leader revealed he wasn’t feeling completely comfortable out on track, a scrap for first place appeared to be in the offing, per Motorsport Week:
Motorsport Week @MotorsportWeek
Verstappen: “Are the tyres OK?”
Engineer: “All good”
Hamilton: “Struggling with rears”
We smell a fight! #F1 #JapaneseGP 🇯🇵
However, there was always a feeling Hamilton had something extra in the tank, and infuriatingly for Verstappen, a late run-off from Lance Stroll prompted another virtual safety car in the final stages.
When racing did resume, for a couple of laps the youngster gave it absolutely everything in an attempt to close the gap down and, at one point, was just 0.2 seconds behind Hamilton. But in the end the Briton was helped by some back markers, who prevented Verstappen from launching an all-out assault.
Sky Sports F1 captured the final stages:
Sky Sports F1 🏎 @SkySportsF1
Verstappen has caught Hamilton.
2 laps to go
Blog: https://t.co/HrBUXwNflT #SkyF1 #JapaneseGP #F1 https://t.co/fmCOjwxs8D
Sky Sports F1 🏎 @SkySportsF1
Alonso cuts across Verstappen and he loses time
Blog: https://t.co/W4Jk8YOv8D #SkyF1 #JapaneseGP #F1 https://t.co/FFQx5uWS6A
The win will be even sweeter for Hamilton given Vettel’s issues, and should the former win in the United States in a fortnight’s time and the latter finish in sixth position or lower, the Mercedes man will be confirmed as the champion.
Given the reliability of the Mercedes and the superb form Hamilton is in at the moment, if he doesn’t get the job done in Indianapolis, you sense it’s only a matter of time until the Brit is confirmed as the 2017 king.