Lewis Hamilton moved to within touching distance of his fifth Formula 1 world title after taking a lights-to-flag victory in Sunday’s Japanese Grand Prix as chief rival Sebastian Vettel finished sixth after an early-race collision with Max Verstappen.

Hamilton led every single lap at Suzuka en route to his ninth victory of the season, six of which have come in the last seven races, crossing the line ahead of Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas.

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A blunder from Ferrari in qualifying on Saturday left Vettel eighth on the grid for the start, but the German driver was able to make up four places on the opening lap to run fourth behind Verstappen.

Following a brief Safety Car period called on Lap 4 due to debris after a puncture for Kevin Magnussen, Vettel was able to close on Verstappen - who had a five-second time penalty under his belt after pushing Kimi Raikkonen off-track at the chicane on the opening lap - and got a run on the Red Bull driver as they headed towards Spoon after the race resumed on Lap 8.

Vettel attempted a dive up the inside of Verstappen, only for the two drivers to touch. While Verstappen was able to continue, Vettel was sent into a spin in the run-off area before returning to the track down in 19th place. While the stewards investigated the incident, they ultimately took no action, deeming it to be a racing incident.

The setback left Vettel to fight his way back up the order through the race, and while he was able to battle back to sixth, it acted as the latest blow to his championship hopes.

Entering the race weekend with a 50-point advantage in the drivers’ standings, Hamilton was able to execute a hassle-free race - save for some momentary concerns about power delivery and gear shifts - to extend his lead to 67 points with four races remaining.

It means that victory for Hamilton at the United States Grand Prix in two weeks’ time with Vettel third will secure the Mercedes driver his fifth drivers’ title with three races to spare.

Bottas managed to hold on to second place despite coming under significant pressure from Verstappen in the closing stages, with the Red Bull driver gaining ground in part thanks to a Virtual Safety Car called that slowed the field, playing into his hand. Verstappen ran within a second of Bottas for most of the final 10 laps, but was powerless to make a pass, leaving him to settle for third place.

Daniel Ricciardo was able to recover from a throttle issue in qualifying that left him 15th on the grid to finish fourth, with a rapid first stint allowing him to get the jump on Kimi Raikkonen at the stops. Raikkonen had aimed to get the undercut on the penalised Verstappen when pitting, but lost time due to traffic, allowing both Red Bulls to get clear.

Raikkonen was left to finish the race fifth for Ferrari, nearly 20 seconds clear of the crest-fallen Vettel in P6.

Sergio Perez finished as the leading midfield driver in seventh place for Force India, getting the jump on Romain Grosjean following the Virtual Safety Car period, much to the Haas driver’s frustration. After passing at the final chicane, Perez pulled clear to leave Grosjean eighth ahead of Esteban Ocon in the sister Force India.

Carlos Sainz Jr. managed to grab the final point on offer at Suzuka for Renault, finishing 10th after passing Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly with three laps to go. Gasly had been chasing points at the home race of the team’s engine supplier, Honda, after starting seventh, but dropped down the order after struggling at the end of his long first stint.

Toro Rosso teammate Brendon Hartley also had a difficult race, falling from sixth on the grid to 10th on the opening lap. Hartley mirrored Gasly’s strategy, leaving him 13th at the chequered flag behind Sauber’s Marcus Ericsson.

McLaren drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne finished 14th and 15th respectively, having spent much of the race duelling with Williams drivers Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll, who wound up 16th and 17th. Alonso and Stroll were both hit with five-second penalties in the race following an early incident. Stroll was penalised for forcing Alonso off-track at the chicane; Alonso received the same time penalty himself for cutting the corner and gaining an advantage as a result of the incident.

Charles Leclerc’s hopes of points were dashed on Lap 39 when he was forced to retire from the race after reporting “something broke” on his Sauber, forcing him off at Degner 1 before pulling over at the side of the track and retiring from the race one corner later.

Nico Hulkenberg was forced out of the race one lap earlier due to an unspecified problem at the rear of his Renault car, while Haas’ Kevin Magnussen was the first retiree at Suzuka, parking up after eight laps.

The 2018 Formula 1 season continues with the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of The Americas in Austin, Texas on October 21.

 

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