LEWIS Hamilton surged to his 61st career victory after a controlled drive from pole in the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka , while his nearest championship rival Sebastian Vettel had yet another calamitous weekend, his Ferrari failing on the opening lap.
It was Hamilton’s eighth win of the 2017 season, tightening his grip on the world championship.
Fellow Finn Kimi Raikkonen, was the lone Ferrari in fifth.
Ocon, who ran as high as third at one stage, was sixth ahead of Mexican teammate Sergio Perez, with the Haas pair Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean.
With four grands prix to come this season, Hamilton (306 points) leads the Drivers' Championship by 59 points from Vettel (247 points), with Bottas (234 points) a further 13 points behind.
"I could only have dreamed of having this kind of gap," said Hamilton, in a podium interview. The margin is handy but not insurmountable, he suggested later. "There's still 100 points available so I'm still going to keep the pedal to the metal."
Vettel’s recent dreadful run of luck and results continued when he parked his broken Ferrari car on lap four after it lost power.
The issue was discovered on the grid and although Vettel made the start, he dropped back quickly with sloth-like speed in the straights. In a ”dog ate my homework” moment, the team later revealed that a spark plug was to blame.
Another early retirement was Carlos Sainz who crashed his Toro Rosso in what was his last drive for the team – he is off to Renault for the remainder of the season, replacing Jolyon Palmer.
Old-style Suzuka is the circuit most of the grand prix drivers past and present rank among their top two faves (with Spa). It’s easy to see why; high speeds, high grip and demanding of huge commitment, accuracy and a rhythmic flow, 73 per cent of the track is full throttle. And in several parts, the walls are uncomfortably close, as Sainz, Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikonnen discovered in practice and Romain Grosjean learned to his pain in qualifying.
Those 2017 F1 cars, with their fatter rubber and more downforce, looked so damned fast through the slalom corners of Suzuki, an impression confirmed by Lewis Hamilton’s rocket pole time – 1m 27.319s, or three seconds swifter than Nico Rosberg’s pole time of a year ago.
Hamilton seemed genuinely thrilled with his Saturday work; it was his first Suzuka pole in 10 attempts. Mercedes teammate Bottas was next best but a grid penalty for a gearbox change pushed him back to sixth, elevating Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari to the front row alongside his championship adversary.
Also moving forward one grid sport were the Red Bull drivers Ricciardo and Verstappen, the Aussie making a nice bounce back from his disappointment of Sepang where his teammate outpaced him in qualifying and the race.
Then came Sunday.
Verstappen and Esteban Ocon (Force India) beat Ricciardo into the first corner. This compromised the remainder of his race, although he partly redeemed himself with a blinding outside pass on Ocon at Turn One after a restart.
“Overall the race was a thumbs up for me,” said Ricciardo. “At the start of the weekend I said I wanted to get a podium in Suzuka and I got it. I can’t go back on what I said and wish for more, but I need to look back at the start and the actual getaway as that was what cost me the place to Max and Ocon. The first 100 metres could have been better but otherwise the race was pretty lonely in third place.”
“It’s really encouraging for the team to have another double podium, both cars are getting to the finish reliably now and we are also quick. We should be able to put up a good fight in Austin and Mexico and if we can keep this rolling into 2018 then absolutely we should be looking pretty good.”
WRC: Meeke claims second victory of the year
Three rounds after poor form led to him being benched from the Citroën team, Northern Ireland’s Chris Meeke mastered the final two legs of Rally Catalunya - Rally de España to win by 28.0sec from Sebastian Ogier’s M-Sport Fiesta, who can secure the 2017 drivers’ crown – his fifth in a row - at the penultimate round in Britain later this month.
Ogier, who is yet to commit to a particular employer for next season, fended off M-Sport team-mate Ott Tänak to claim second by 5.0sec.
Ogier’s main title rival Thierry Neuville struggled for much of the mixed surface event and on the final morning retired his Hyundai i20 on the final morning with broken suspension.
Malcolm Wilson’s M-Sport World Rally Team moved within touching distance of a first manufacturers’ title since 2007. Ogier and Tänak need only finish in Britain, irrespective of their overall placings, to take the championship for M-Sport.
Although new Hyundai signing Andreas Mikkelesen led at the end of Friday’s opening leg, Meeke’s strong gravel stage pace from the start laid the platform for victory. He swept into the lead Saturday morning when the surface switched to smooth asphalt, and rounded off a dominant display by winning five of Sunday’s six speed tests.
“It’s not so important how many times you’re knocked down, it’s more important how many times you stand up again,” said Meeke, as he celebrated with wife Danielle and two young daughters.
“It’s a special, special win. I remember walking up this road 20 years ago to watch Colin McRae in 1997 in a Subaru. Back then I didn’t even dream I’d drive a rally car here myself.”
Handling problems hampered Ogier but tweaks improved the set-up and he reeled off three stage wins on Saturday afternoon. Tänak was handicapped on the asphalt by a gravel-specification gearbox and the Estonian could not catch his M-Sport colleague.
Tänak’s third in Spain has elevated him to second in the standings, a point ahead of Neuville after a troubled weekend left the Hyundai driver playing ‘catch-up’.
Giving it his all, the Belgian hit a stone and broke the front right wheel, wrecking his championship hopes. “After [Saturday’s] problems we had no choice than to push hard and that’s what we did. There are no regrets,” he said.
Toyota’s Juho Hänninen maintained his good form with fourth in his Yaris, but teammate Esapekka Lappi crashed out of sixth when he slammed into a barrier.
Mads Østberg, who led with his Fiesta on the first day, was fifth, with Citroën’s Stéphane Lefebvre completing the top six.
The championship returns to gravel for the penultimate round at Wales Rally GB on October 26-29.
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