When you can make your 71st grand prix victory – and your fourth on the bounce – look as easy as Lewis Hamilton did at a sunlit Suzuka this afternoon, you know that you are moving ever closer to a fifth world championship title.
There are still four races left and another 100 points on the table, but after Sebastian Vettel had another afternoon from hell and could only muster a distant sixth place, Hamilton’s lead was extended to 67 points.
Speaking of the success that takes him to within 20 of Michael Schumacher’s long-standing record of 91 wins, he beamed: “I loved it! I’m very, very happy. The whole weekend was an incredibly strong one from the team, and a great one-two for Mercedes. There is real strength in depth there. And this is the best track in the world. I don’t know why they don’t make tracks like this anymore!
“We had great pace and I was able to look after my tyres, and able to manage by race.”
Indeed, so dominant was the Hamilton/Mercedes combination that he was clearly sandbagging and saving his engine, though as he did recently in Russia, he complained a couple of times that it seemed to be hesitating.
“I asked the team about the hesitations and they said it was okay,” he said. “I’ve been racing a long, long time, but this feels like the first one.”
The facility with which he scored this victory was evident in the way he took the lead from the start, and was able to hold it even after his pit stop to switch from soft to medium-compound Pirelli tyres. This came on the 24th lap, after rival Max Verstappen had stopped on the 21st and team-mate Valtteri Bottas on the 23rd.
The Finn, who gifted Hamilton victory in Russia last weekend, rode shotgun throughout. But some much-needed drama was injected into the dull contest up front when an odd virtual safety car deployment was made on the 41st lap when marshals appeared unable to push Charles Leclerc’s broken Sauber behind the wall by which the Monegasque had parked it. That, allied to some rear tyre blistering, almost left the Finn prey to Red Bull’s Verstappen, who had the sort of adventurous afternoon that only he can have.
The 21 year-old Dutch star battled early on with Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari and defended a little bit too much for the race stewards’ liking as racing resumed on the fourth lap after a brief safety car intervention to clear up debris from a couple of midfield incidents. Verstappen went into the final chicane too quickly and slid over part of it as he turned into the initial right-hand section. That tempted Raikkonen into trying to go round the outside of the Red Bull in the left-hand section, but that coincided with Verstappen regaining the road. They collided, and both cars sustained some aerodynamic damage
To his chagrin, Verstappen was given a five-second time penalty, but by the time he had to serve it during his pit stop on the 21st lap, he was well clear of Raikkonen’s Ferrari, which had pitted as early as the 17th.
Four laps later Vettel, who had made a great start from eighth on the grid and climbed to fourth as the clash with Verstappen caused Raikkonen to falter momentarily, tried to overtake Verstappen going into the left-handed Spoon Curve. Contact was made which saw the Red Bull bounced wide and the Ferrari spin. That damaged both cars, but as Verstappen continued in third place, Vettel plunged from fourth all the way down to 19th place.
“We didn’t really have a chance to win today,” Verstappen said, “and then I had to nurse the car a bit with the damage. Our strategy was a bit difficult, starting on the supersoft tyres and then going to the softs, but once we were on the softs we really had some pace.
“With Raikkonen I braked a bit too late and went over the corner and did everything I could to get back on track and thought I had done it in a safe way. Kimi did it on the wrong line and tried to go round me, and he could have waited for me to understeer in front of him and then switched behind me. The five second penalty was ridiculous, I think it was really stupid.
“As far as the incident with Seb at the Spoon Curve, you cannot overtake in that corner, and I even gave him space, but he understeered into my car and we touched. I don’t make the rules, but the incident was quite similar to the one I had with him in China. When he drove into the side of my car, he could have been a bit more careful.
“There was quite a lot of damage to the floor but we were able to keep good pace and I was quite happy with the race from then onwards. Managing damage from a collision like that is not easy, but I still think without that or the penalty we would have finished third, because it’s always so difficult to overtake on this track.”
Verstappen’s pursuit of the troubled Bottas kept up interest in the final laps, but he eventually finished 1.3s behind the second Mercedes, which was itself 12.9s behind its victorious sister. Vettel had to be content with a distant sixth place.
The stewards ruled that there was no need for further action in his incident with Verstappen, but not surprisingly the German held a different view from them and the Dutchman.
“I was obviously pushing to get past but I wasn’t desperate to get past,” he told Sky Sports F1. “I knew he had a penalty but I also felt that we were faster.
“The gap was there but as soon as he saw me obviously he defended. But I had the inside. As soon as he realises somebody is close or next to him, he tries to – in my opinion – push when you shouldn’t push anymore.
“But it’s not always right that the other guy has to move. We’re all racing, the race is long. For me, the gap was there – otherwise I wouldn’t do it. I think I got through the whole field without any trouble. Sometimes closer, sometimes with more margin. It’s normal that it sometimes gets close but you need to always give the space and in that case I couldn’t go anywhere and then we touched.
“This is part of racing, don’t get me wrong. I don’t regret the move, obviously with that outcome you would do it differently because with hindsight it’s always easy.
“But the gap was there, his battery was clipping [running out of harvested energy boost], I was boosting, I saved my battery, I had more speed, I would have made the corner. I was side by side and then he didn’t give enough room, and then we touched.”
Raikkonen was also critical of the Dutchman.
“He ran wide and he went off the track and I just went on the outside at the next corner, leaving him space on the inside. He knew that I was there and he just drove into me and pushed me off the track.”
After Hamilton’s ninth win of the season, the arguments are fast becoming academic, however, and the facts are brutally simple.
All he needs now to put the seal on yet another title-winning season, which will see him match the great Juan Manuel Fangio’s five crowns, is to win in Texas in a fortnight with Vettel finishing lower than second place.
“I’m still going to take it one race at a time,” Hamilton said as he gazed lovingly at his Mercedes as it ticked and cooled. “Each week you look for a positive weekend, but at the next grand prix you are not sure how you are going to perform. But we have gone from strength to strength this year, and the track in Austin has been very kind to me in the past, so I can’t wait to unleash this beast there.”