Lewis Hamilton wins in Japan to take 59-point lead, Sebastian Vettel retires
Lewis Hamilton moved within reach of a fourth Formula One world championship on Sunday after winning a Japanese Grand Prix that saw Ferrari title rival Sebastian Vettel retire with engine problems.
"I could only have dreamed of having this kind of gap," said Hamilton, interviewed on the podium by Indianapolis 500 winner Takuma Sato.
"I wouldn't say that I have one hand on it (the title)," he added later. "There's still 100 points available so I'm still going to keep the pedal to the metal."
Sunday’s win was the 61st of Hamilton’s career and third at the Suzuka circuit. It came a day after the 32-year-old smashed the track record to seize pole at the 5.8-km track in dominant style.
Verstappen's Australian team-mate Daniel Ricciardo finished third.
Hamilton started on pole position and now leads Vettel, who retired on the fourth lap, by 59 points in the standings with four races remaining. He could clinch the title as early as the next U.S. Grand Prix.
Sebastian Vettel of Germany and Ferrari prepares to drive on the grid before the Formula One Grand Prix of JapanGetty Images
Engine problems forced Vettel out on the fourth lap after his Ferrari mechanics had worked feverishly on the starting grid to try and fix an engine problem. Vettel was already 34 points behind championship leader Lewis Hamilton, with the Mercedes driver leading from pole position and stretching his lead to 59 with four races remaining. He said:
" Of course it hurts, and we’re all disappointed. Now I think we just have to get back, get some rest and go flat out for the last four races and see what happens."
Vettel had lined up alongside Hamilton on the front row at a sunny Suzuka, hoping the hotter conditions could handicap the Briton after he proved unbeatable in qualifying. But all was clearly not well, with Ferrari mechanics hurriedly changing the car's spark plug as the seconds ticked away. The German made a clean start, hanging on to second off the line, but it soon became apparent the problem ran much deeper as Vettel, clearly lacking power, plummeted down the order.
He was finally called in to the pits: "Box, Sebastian, box. We retire the car," he was told.
It was the third race in a row that Vettel’s hopes had been dealt a battering. In Singapore the 30-year-old crashed out on the opening lap after colliding with team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, who had tangled with Red Bull's Max Verstappen. Two weeks later in Malaysia, the Ferrari driver finished fourth after engine problems in qualifying forced him to start at the back of the field.
Triple champion Hamilton capitalised on both occasions, winning in Singapore and finishing second in Malaysia. But Sunday’s setback could be the most decisive yet, opening the possibility that Hamilton could wrap up his fourth title as early as the next race in Austin, Texas, if not Mexico a week later. Vettel said:
" We still have a chance this year...obviously it’s not as much in our control as we would like. I think we are improving race by race, we’ve got a lot further than people have thought so there’s also some positives. But for sure now you don’t look at the positives because it’s not the day to look at positives."