Japanese Grand Prix 2017: Hamilton wins in Japan as Vettel's title challenge implodes

The drivers lined up on the grid under bright sunshine, and with the highest track temperatures the teams have seen so far this weekend all eyes would be on the strategy employed by the frontrunners. Mercedes, despite Hamilton’s pole, look vulnerable on their long runs on the supersofts, so it would be interesting to see if Ferrari could take advantage of this by employing longer runs on the red-walled tyre.

The big question was who would be able to make a one-stop strategy work, with Fernando Alonso indicating that this was his preferred route to the flag in trying to make places up from the back.

With just 15 minutes to go before the start, things took a depressingly familiar turn for Ferrari, with the world feed showing Sebastian Vettel’s engine cover off and his team of mechanics hard at work. A faulty spark plug was apparently the culprit this week, something the team and Vettel detecting the problem on the way to the grid. The team fixed this quickly on the grid, but this moment of panic couldn’t be helping Vettel focus in the build up to such a crucial race. Once he got in the car and onto the formation lap in one piece though, he would no doubt be razor focussed on the task at hand.

Hamilton retains the lead, Vettel loses out

Both the leaders got away well, with Sebastian Vettel gaining a slight advantage, but Hamilton moved over to the inside to cover him. They went through the first corner in formation, with Verstappen winning the battle of the bulls behind, pushing his teammate slightly wide at turn one which opened the door for Esteban Ocon to sneak through behind the Dutchman. The big loser in the first corner was Stoffel Vandoorne, who was pushed onto the grass on the outside of turn two and lost a bucketload of places as a result. 

Up front it was all action as Max Verstappen flew past Sebastian Vettel at the hairpin. Further back, Nico Hulkenberg went wheel to wheel with Kimi Raikkonen, pushing the Ferrari wide and dropping the Finn down the pack. Elsewhere Carlos Sainz had spun early on the first lap, bringing out the yellow flags.

Vettel’s title challenge implodes

Things looked bad for Vettel at this point, with his Ferrari showing an obvious lack of power down the main straight at the end of lap one; He was passed by not only Ocon, but also Ricciardo and Bottas before he arrived at turn one. Clearly the issue on the grid was causing an issue for the German, and it looked unlikely he would finish the race. He was spared any further loss of places for the time being though when the safety car was deployed to clear Sainz’s stricken Toro Rosso.

Once the safety car came in, Hamilton deployed one of his trademark restarts, comfortably keeping the lead from Verstappen through the first turns. It was heartbreak for Ferrari fans though when the team came over the radio to tell Sebastian to box to retire the car. 

Another devastating body blow for Vettel's title ambitions, and one that may prove terminal in this case. What an absolute disaster for Ferrari!

Ericsson’s crash triggers virtual safety car

Hamilton, who was now looking good to massively extend his championship advantage, led the race, followed closely by Verstappen, with the chasing pack of Ocon, Ricciardo, Bottas and Perez rounding out the top six. 

The race was just settling down on lap eight, when Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson put his car in the barriers at the exit of second Degna. This triggered a virtual safety car period, but not before Kimi Raikkonen forced his was past Nico Hulkenberg at the final chicane. This virtual safety car period lasted two laps before the race was resumed. Eager to make an immediate move was Daniel Ricciardo, attacking Esteban Ocon down the main straight and getting the move down around the outside of the Force India into turn one.

Red Bull come at Lewis

The race was now setting up as a Hamilton vs. Red Bull scenario, with Verstappen shadowing Hamilton out front, and Ricciardo chasing the pair down. Behind though, Valtteri Bottas forced a move on Ocon and also began to chase down the leaders, presenting the possibility that he could well influence the fight for the lead once the team strategies come into play.

By lap 16, Hamilton had built his gap to 4.2 seconds, with Ricciardo a further 8 seconds back. Valtteri Bottas initially appeared to be making inroads to the Aussie in third, but this gap tended to hold at around 2.7 seconds over the next few laps. 

Elsewhere Kimi Raikkonen was catching the Force India pair and was looking handy to take the challenge to the leaders if he could clear the pink cars quickly. The Finn made a good start on this, getting past Sergio Perez at turn one on lap 20. He would get past Ocon at the end of the next lap, but only because the Force India peeled off into the pits for a new set of the soft tyres.

The leaders pit

Max Verstappen was the first of the leaders to pit, also switching to the soft tyres, and just about managed to get out ahead of Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari, who was yet to pit. Hamilton came in at the end of the next lap (22), and after a pretty faultless stop emerged back on track easily in front of the Red Bull. Getting to this point in the race on the supersoft would suggest that teams are hoping to get to the end with just the one stop.

This promoted Daniel Ricciardo to the race lead, with Bottas in second, but with Hamilton only 7 seconds behind the new race leader. Ocon behind was providing some entertainment, getting past Fernando Alonso, then Jolyon Palmer, to get back up to seventh and climbing. 

At the end of lap 25 Ricciardo pitted, belaying the suggestion that he might play the team game and back Hamilton into Verstappen. Bottas remained out though, suggesting that Mercedes might consider playing that game with Verstappen; Otherwise Bottas was just losing pace unnecessarily at this point, not to mention holding up Hamilton, whose mirrors were filling with the sight of the pursuing Red Bull.

Bottas holds Max

At the end of lap 28, Bottas finally let Hamilton through at the final chicane, and then proceeded to hold off Verstappen down the pit straight, and for the rest of the next lap. Meanwhile, Kimi Raikkonen pitted, emerging in sixth and 6 seconds down on Nico Hulkenberg, who was yet to pit.

Bottas was clearly struggling, locking up at the hairpin on lap 30, but still managed to keep Verstappen behind, but Mercedes finally brought him in at the end of the lap, fitting the supersofts and getting him out in front of Nico Hulkenberg and Kimi Raikkonen. 

Kimi had managed to catch Hulkenberg and passed the German at the start of lap 33, and from here would no doubt do his best to chase down Valtteri Bottas. Bottas looked energised in fourth though, and was reeling off a series of fastest laps in an effort to claim a podium finish from the Red Bulls. On the softer tyre he should have more pace, but it would obviously depend how long the softer rubber would last.

Massa train for tenth

Massa had earlier made his way past the Haas of Kevin Magnussen, but now found himself backing up both Haas cars, with Romain Grosjean close behind and asking his team to get Magnussen to let him through to have a go at the ailing Williams.

Nico Hulkenberg was still to pit and was holding up Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez. Perez asked over the team radio if he could ‘attack’ Ocon, but was flatly told no by the team. The Force Indias were soon released at the end of lap 38 when Hulkenberg finally made his stop, and the German came out behind the Massa train, which had now picked up Pierre Gasly in his Toro Rosso. Gasly would soon pit though, unleashing the freshly-shod Renault to attack the Haas of Grosjean.

Unfortunately for Hulkenberg though his DRS malfunctioned, and he had to pit for repairs. Once he was in the box, it became apparent that this wasn’t something that was an easy fix, and the German was forced to retire. A real shame for Nico, who was looking handy to claim some points if he could have cleared Massa and co.

Towards the back, things were going from bad to worse for Vandoorne, who, as one of the only two-stop runners, was running round a lap down and lost a position to Lance Stroll when the Canadian covered his second stop.

Bottas’s podium charge

Kevin Magnussem had clearly had enough of sitting under Felipe Massa’s rear wing, and at the start of lap 43 he forced his way down the inside of the Brazilian veteran. This forced Massa wide at turn two, allowing the other Haas of Grosjean through. This would now be a straight fight to the end between the teammates.

Out front, Hamilton was holding the same 3 second gap that he had for much of the second stint over Verstappen. Ricciardo was holding third, but hadn’t been able to make inroads into the leader’s advantage. His main worry was the charging Valtteri Bottas behind, with the Finn closing fast on the Red Bull.

On lap 47 though, Lance Stroll ran very wide and took to the grass/gravel between turns three and five. Replays suggested a right front puncture, and unfortunately Lance was unable to continue. This instigated another virtual safety car period, neutralising the race while the stricken car was recovered. This played into the hands of Ricciardo in third, giving him a crucial few laps of breathing space before racing resumed on lap 50.

Charge to the line

With three laps remaining, Hamilton came over the radio to complain of vibrations, and by the next lap Verstappen was all over the back of the Mercedes as the leaders came to lap Fernando Alonso. Behind them Bottas was also challenging Daniel Ricciardo, setting up a grandstand finish.

Onto the final lap, Lewis was just about holding it together, and put the lapped Williams of Felipe Massa between him and the charging Dutchman. Verstappen finally got past in the second half of the lap, and began to chase down the leader. Behind them, Alonso and Massa were also putting on a show, pressing each other for the final points place. 

Out front though it was Hamilton who came through to take the chequered flag first, with Verstappen second. Ricciardo held of Bottas to claim Red Bull’s first double podium of the hybrid-turbo era in what was a very fruitful race for Red Bull, although they will no doubt wonder what could have been.

25 points for the win, and with Vettel not scoring, Hamilton now holds an imperious lead in the championship, and you have to wonder whether it is all over for Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari.

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