Early in the morning for most Europeans, Formula One returned to the legendary Suzuka circuit for round seventeen of the 2018 season.
Lewis Hamilton started on pole once again, the 80th time he has done so in his career. Title rival Sebastian Vettel started from a lowly ninth place after a gamble on the intermediate tyres at the start of Q3 meant they lost precious time on track when it was dry. When the rain then started to fall near the end of Q3, Vettel couldn’t improve and made several mistakes in the slippery conditions. Bottas started behind Hamilton in P2, with a very surprised but happy Verstappen in third. On the other side of the Red Bull garage there was drama as Ricciardo once again had issues with the engine, keeping the car inside the garage in Q2 and resigning him to a 15th place start.
The race started under clear blue skies, and immediately Vettel began to make up for his poor qualifying by charging to sixth place after just two turns, and fifth place by the end of the first lap. Verstappen had a good start, but at the end of the first lap he locked up his brakes entering the final chicane, pushing the Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen off the track as he rejoined. The incident was investigated, and Verstappen was given a five-second penalty for “leaving the track and returning unsafely”.
After a brief Virtual Safety Car, deployed because of debris on the track after a collision between Kevin Magnussen and Charles Leclerc, Vettel moved up to fourth place and turned his attention to getting past Verstappen for third. He made an overtaking attempt going into Spoon Corner but, in trying to go through on the inside of Verstappen, the two made contact, with Vettel spinning and dropping down to 19th.
Verstappen survived relatively unscathed, and came into the pits on lap twenty-two to serve his five-second penalty and change onto the soft tyres. Valtteri Bottas made his pit stop the lap afterwards, and switched onto the medium tyres.
By lap 34, Vettel had fought his way back into the top ten, and overtook Grosjean going into Spoon – this time cleanly – to take seventh place.
After another Virtual Safety Car, this time for the stranded car of Charles Leclerc, Verstappen made an effort to get past Valtteri Bottas for P2. Despite Bottas making an error going into the last chicane and struggling with a blister on his rear tyres, he managed to hold on.
After fifty-three laps it was a dominant victory for Lewis Hamilton, once again extending his championship lead as Vettel disappointed with an eventual sixth place. Bottas and Verstappen completed the podium, with Ricciardo, Räikkönen, Vettel, Perez, Grosjean, Ocon and Sainz rounding out the top ten. Driver of the Day could only go to Daniel Ricciardo, who finished in fourth after starting from fifteenth.
In the drivers’ championship, Hamilton now leads Vettel by 67 points with only four races to go. Next up is the United States Grand Prix at the Circuit of the Americas in two weeks time. If Hamilton outscores Vettel by eight points or more in that race, Hamilton will win the championship.