Hamilton breezes to victory in Suzuka as Vettel trips up

Lewis Hamilton cruised to victory in the 2018 Japanese Grand Prix, with his team mate Valtteri Bottas making it a relatively easy 1-2 for Mercedes.

Max Verstappen had a far livelier race, clashing with both Ferraris early in the race. He still managed to apply heavy pressure on Bottas in the closing laps, as he held on to the final podium place ahead of his Red Bull team mate Daniel Ricciardo.

Sebastian Vettel’s title hopes dimmed further after he was only able to recover to sixth place following a collision with Verstappen through Spoon.

2018 Japanese Grand Prix – Race result

Pos Driver Team Gap Stops

1
Lewis Hamilton
Mercedes
53 laps – 1:27:17.062s
1

2
Valtteri Bottas
Mercedes
+ 12.919s
1

3
Max Verstappen
Red Bull
+ 14.295s
1

4
Daniel Ricciardo
Red Bull
+ 19.495s
1

5
Kimi Räikkönen
Ferrari
+ 50.998s
1

6
Sebastian Vettel
Ferrari
+ 69.873s
1

7
Sergio Pérez
Force India
+ 79.379s
1

8
Romain Grosjean
Haas
+ 87.198s
1

9
Esteban Ocon
Force India
+ 88.055s
1

10
Carlos Sainz
Renault
+ 1 lap
1

11
Pierre Gasly
Toro Rosso
+ 1 lap
1

12
Marcus Ericsson
Sauber
+ 1 lap
1

13
Brendon Hartley
Toro Rosso
+ 1 lap
1

14
Fernando Alonso
McLaren
+ 1 lap
1

15
Stoffel Vandoorne
McLaren
+ 1 lap
1

16
Sergey Sirotkin
Williams
+ 1 lap
2

17
Lance Stroll
Williams
+ 1 lap
2

18
Charles Leclerc
Sauber
DNF
2

19
Nico Hülkenberg
Renault
DNF
2

20
Kevin Magnussen
Haas
DNF
2

Suzuka had been transformed overnight for race day, any thoughts of the rain and showers that had such an impact on qualifying 24 hours earlier now a distant memory. The cars were baking on the starting grid under brilliant blue skies as they waited for the lights to go out and the action to commence.

Pole sitter Lewis Hamilton got a solid start and easily covered off his team mate in the 405m downhill run to turn 1. They were untroubled by second row starters Max Verstappen and Kimi Raikkonen, with Romain Grosjean holding on to fifth place for Haas.

After a grim qualifying session left him starting from eighth place on the grid, Sebastian Vettel wasted no time setting about repairing his situation. He made short work of both Toro Rossos and then blasted past Grosjean for fifth. He was gifted another place when Verstappen ran wide into the chicane and connected with Raikkonen as he came back on track; a subsequent five second time penalty for the Dutch driver meant Vettel was now effectively up to third after just four laps.

Vettel’s progress was temporarily neutralised by a safety car deployed for debris on the track from Kevin Magnussen’s car, which had sustained a puncture after being rear-ended at the start by Charles Leclerc. Magnussen limped back to the pit lane and briefly rejoined the race in time for the restart, but was eventually forced to retire with floor damage sustained from the flailing rubber. The Sauber had also been required to pit for a new front wing and tyres, but was able to continue with the race stewards determining no one was to blame for the clash.

A clean restart saw Hamilton and Bottas jump away at the front ahead of Verstappen, Vettel and Raikkonen. Vettel saw an opportunity to make a run on the Red Bull through Spoon, but Verstappen was in no mood to jump aside and the pair made contact, sparks flying as the RB14 was briefly launched into the air. It was Vettel who came off worst, though, spinning into the run-off and left idling before he could rejoin at the back. Race stewards reviewed the incident and decided that no further action was required on either driver.

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That restored the top five to their starting grid order, with Pierre Gasly holding on to sixth place ahead of Daniel Ricciardo who was recovering from his own nightmare qualifying in which technical issues had forced him out of Q2. Despite being on the slower soft compound, the Australian easily dismissed his forthcoming replacement with a decisive DRS pass into turn 6, and then made equally fast work of passing Grosjean for fifth.

Vettel meanwhile was slogging his way back through the field. By lap 15 he had passed Stoffel Vandoorne, the two Williams of Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll, and the Sauber of Marcus Ericsson. That meant he was running in 15th place right behind the similarly recovering Leclerc, the man who will be his Ferrari team mate in 2019. For the time being at least there was little opposition from the Monegasque: Vettel swept past the Sauber next time by, and a lap later took care of Nico Hulkenberg’s Renault at the chicane for 13th place despite visible heavy damage on the Ferrati’s right-hand sidepod and barge boards from his earlier contact with Verstappen.

It was Vettel’s team mate Raikkonen who was the first of the leaders to pit on lap 18, dumping his waning supersofts for more durable softs. He returned to the race in tenth place, immediately encountering traffic in the form of Carlos Sainz. The Renault took little effort to dispatch, leaving the Finn lining up a brace of yet-to-stop Force Indias in the form of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez followed by the Toro Rosso of Pierre Gasly.

Raikkonen had taken care of all three by lap 23 when Verstappen made his own pit stop. Even though he was hampered by serving his five second penalty, Verstappen came back out on track just in front of the Ferrari. The prospect of a rematch between the two drivers was defused when Ricciardo pitted for new mediums tyres and slotted back in to place between them.

Mercedes had also pulled the pin on pit stops, Bottas coming in first followed by Hamilton on lap 25; both had moved on to the medium compound in a clear declaration that no further stops were envisaged. Despite the stress of overtaking his way through the field, Vettel held out until lap 27 before making his own stop, dropping him from tenth back down to 16th in his increasingly desperate bid to keep his title hopes alive.

He was soon back in front of Hulkenberg, who was eventually forced to retire with a technical problem on the Renault. Vettel then safely navigated his way through a heated spat between Ocon and Leclerc before a slow pit stop for Gasly assisted him in getting back into the points. However once he had managed to work his way up to sixth place, the gap to the next car on track – his own team mate Kimi Raikkonen – was 40 seconds, unbridgeable without a safety car.

A full safety car one wasn’t forthcoming, but a virtual equivalent was deployed on lap 41 after Charles Leclerc went off at Degner, reporting to the Sauber pit wall that “something broke, something is broken.” Mercedes feinted with the idea of a ‘free’ pit stop under the VSC but the track went green again before anything could come of it.

While the race-neutralising VSC had left Hamilton’s six second lead intact, Bottas was now within the one second DRS range of Verstappen. A lock-up for the Mercedes at the hairpin as the pair lapped Fernando Alonso gave Verstappen half a chance to pounce, but the moment quickly passed and Bottas scrambled to pull away again only for a second lock-up at the chicane on lap 47 to put him under pressure all over again.

After those scares for his team mate, a relatively untroubled Hamilton went on calmly navigate lapped traffic and even set a new fastest lap of the race – subsequently bettered by Vettel on the penultimate tour – as he led Bottas to the chequered flag, thereby inflicting a big blow to Vettel’s championship campaign. The Silver Arrows pair were joined on the podium by Verstappen, with Ricciardo easily holding on to fourth ahead of Raikkonen.

Behind Vettel, Perez was best of the rest in seventh ahead of Grosjean, Ocon and Sainz. Honda were denied points in their home race with Gasly finishing in 11th ahead of Ericsson and Hartley.

Fernando Alonso finished in 14th ahead of Stoffel Vandoorne, after being handed a five second penalty during the race for leaving the track and gaining an advantage during a battle with Lance Stroll. The teenager was also penalised for causing a collision in the same incident and ended the race in last place.

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