SUZUKA, Japan -- Lewis Hamilton has inched ever closer to a fifth world championship after dominating an incident-filled Japanese Grand Prix as title rival Sebastian Vettel once again hit trouble.
Vettel had enjoyed a lightning start to go from eighth to fourth by the end of the first lap, but his race, and championship challenge, unraveled soon after. On Lap 8, the German attempted a dubious pass on Red Bull's Max Verstappen upon entry into Spoon Curve, only to run out of tarmac. As a result, the pair made light contact and Vettel was spun around, dropping back to last place.
He recovered to finish P6 after scrapping his way past the midfield teams, but with Hamilton claiming yet another win, Vettel has slipped to what is surely an insurmountable 67 points behind in the championship standings. In fact, Hamilton can claim the title next time out in Austin if he is to win and Vettel doesn't finish second.
Out front, Hamilton was unchallenged, leading every lap from pole position and remaining calm despite multiple Safety Car periods to win for a fifth time at Suzuka. The Mercedes driver finished 12.9 seconds ahead of teammate Valtteri Bottas in second place while Verstappen completed the podium, managing to finish just 1.3 seconds behind the Finn, despite serving a five-second time penalty for a Lap 1 collision with Kimi Raikkonen.
Like Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo made up plenty of places in the early stages to move from P15 into the points by the end of Lap 3. The Australian was able to avoid the chaos around him and emerged in fourth place once everyone's first stint was out of the way, a position he held until the chequered flag. Raikkonen came home fifth for Ferrari, finishing over 50 seconds behind Hamilton's Mercedes.
Sergio Perez claimed best-of-the-rest honours with P7. The Force India driver made a pass on Romain Grosjean in the dying laps to snatch the position away from the Frenchman, who slipped back to eighth from his P5 grid slot. Esteban Ocon gave Force India a double points finish with P9, while Carlos Sainz rounded out the top 10 for Renault.
A scorching hot day at Suzuka raised doubts about whether the predicted one-stop strategy would be feasible, but in the end all of the frontrunners made it work, albeit with most opting to switch onto the more durable medium tyre. Raikkonen was the first of the leading group to stop for the medium compound when he came in on Lap 18 before Verstappen followed on Lap 22. Ricciardo and the Mercedes drivers were able to hold out until Lap 25, courtesy of starting the race on the soft tyre.
Vettel was the only one of the top six to finish the race on the soft compound, but it was a no-brainer for Ferrari given his early spin. He proved there was plenty of grip in the tyre at the end of the race by setting two purple sectors on his final lap.
The drama at Suzuka began on the opening lap, when Verstappen overshot his braking point into the chicane, allowing Raikkonen to steal P3. However, Verstappen came steaming back across the track, making contact with the Ferrari. As a result, the stewards hit Verstappen with a five-second time penalty for causing a collision.
It wasn't the only contact seen in the early stages. Kevin Magnussen and Charles Leclerc came together down the main straight on the second lap after the Haas driver made a late move to defend his position. The debris strewn across the circuit forced a Safety Car to be deployed and Magnussen retired from the race shortly after.
Japan had promised so much for Toro Rosso after the team enjoyed its best qualifying of the season on Saturday. Brendon Hartley lined up P6 on the grid, while Pierre Gasly started one place behind, but both drivers went backwards in the race, and in the end neither was able to score a championship point. Gasly eventually finished P11, just ahead of Sauber's Marcus Ericsson, with Hartley finishing P13.
The McLarens finished next with Fernando Alonso edging Stoffel Vandoorne for 14th while Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll finished at the rear for Williams. Leclerc retired his Sauber 15 laps from the flag after going off at Degner 1, joining Nico Hulkenberg and Magnussen as the only three to fail to make it to the finish.