Lewis Hamilton closer to F1 title after winning Japanese Grand Prix

Lewis Hamilton took a major step towards a fourth world title with victory at the Japanese Grand Prix as championship rival Sebastian Vettel retired.

The Briton started in pole position and his Mercedes performed in the Suzuka heat - although he was pushed by the Red Bull of Max Verstappen in the closing laps - to extend his lead to 59 points in the drivers' standings.

Vettel was hamstrung by a spark plug failure which caused his second retirement in three races for Ferrari, while he started at the back of the grid in Malaysia last weekend after engine trouble and could only recover to fourth.

Verstappen won in Sepang but had to settle for second here as his late push was ended as he was caught up in back-markers, while his team-mate Daniel Ricciardo took the final step on the podium.

Hamilton can win the championship next time out at the United States Grand Prix if he out-scores Vettel by 16 points or more in Austin - the scene of his last title triumph in 2015.

Vettel's mechanics were working furiously on the car as it sat on the starting grid as concerns grew that another reliability issue would impact on the title picture.

Unlike team-mate Kimi Raikkonen last week, Vettel was able to take the start but it was obvious all was not well.

He was passed by Verstappen, Force India's Esteban Ocon, Ricciardo and Valtteri Bottas in the second Mercedes before the end of the first lap, leaving him down in sixth when the safety car came in after Carlos Sainz crashed out for Toro Rosso.

At the restart he was overtaken by the Force India of Sergio Perez before being told to retire the car with just five laps raced.

Ferrari continued to work in the garage in the hope of sending Vettel back out but it was a forlorn effort and he eventually climbed out of the car.

Vettel insisted he would still fight for the title this season and said he would "protect" his team after more technical problems dented his championship hopes.

"It is normal to be critical, especially when things go wrong. I think I need to protect them," he told Sky Sports F1.

"We have done an incredible job so far. It is like that sometimes, of course it hurts and we are all disappointed.

"We (will) go flat out for the last four races and see what happens. We still have a chance this year."

Unlike last weekend, Verstappen had no answer to the pace of Hamilton here, who was pulling away and controlling the race with the ease at which he stormed to pole position yesterday.

The Red Bull was the first of the leaders to pit on lap 22 and he fed out just ahead of the Ferrari of Raikkonen - who was making up positions having started in 10th following a gearbox change.

Hamilton responded by coming in on the next lap to maintain his lead but the soft compound tyres appeared to favour Verstappen, who began to close the gap.

Bottas was holding up his team-mate before eventually making way as Hamilton then kept Verstappen at arm's length.

The second Mercedes of Bottas was the car on the move as the Finn homed in on Ricciardo for third.

But a virtual safety car- following the retirement of Williams' Lance Stroll - checked his progress while giving renewed optimism to Verstappen.

The Dutchman was given permission by his team to push but he was held up by both the McLaren of Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa's Williams and ended the race a little over a second behind Hamilton.

Hamilton was visibly emotional as he brought his car back to the pits and was pleased to see off the charge of the Red Bulls.

"The track was fantastic and the team did an incredible job. Max didn't make it easy for us though," he said.

"It wasn't an easy one for us at all. Today the Red Bulls seemed to be rapid in race-trim. We were quick in qualifying but I was still just able to hold him behind, particularly at the end.

"I could only have dreamed of having this kind of gap (in the championship), Ferrari have put on a great challenge all year. I can only put it down to my team, reliability has been on point."


 

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