Nico Rosberg took a comfortable Japanese Grand Prix victory to extend his championship lead over arch-rival Lewis Hamilton, after the defending champion’s race was compromised by a poor start that left him eighth at the end of the first lap.
The Briton recovered to finish third behind Red Bull Racing’s Max Verstappen but Rosberg now leads his Mercedes team-mate by 33 points with four races to go. Rosberg’s win and Hamilton’s third-place finish means that Mercedes now have an unassailable lead in the Constructors’ Championship.
At the start of the race Rosberg made a clean getaway, but Hamilton’s start was dreadful. He bogged down badly and was immediately overrun by rivals. Verstappen moved to second, Force India’s Sergio Perez flew past into third and Daniel Ricciardo held fourth. Hamilton dropped to eighth place.
Vettel, who had started sixth due to the grid penalty had had incurred after the previous race in Malaysia, was soon on the march, however. He muscled his way past Ricciardo on lap one and on the following tour breezed past Perez to take third place.
Hamilton, too, was attempting to make his way forward and on lap seven he overtook Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg to claim sixth place. He now had two seconds to make up to P6 man Kimi Raikkonen.
Verstappen and Ricciardo were the first of the top-10 starters to shed their opening stint soft tyres, with Red Bull Racing pitting their drivers at the same time at the end of lap 11. Both took on hard compound Pirelli tyres.
Their halt for tyres triggered a steady stream of pit stops as the main contenders all filed towards pit lane over the following few laps. All took hard tyres.
After 23 laps Rosberg was comfortably in the lead, holding a four-second advantage over Verstappen. Vettel was 2.7s further back in third place, while Hamilton had worked his way back up to fourth ahead of Ricciardo and Raikkonen.
That order was maintained through the second stint but while Rosberg maintained control ahead of Verstappen, Hamilton managed to pass Vettel in the next and final round of pit stops.
Perhaps anticipating the move, Vettel took on soft tyres in his second stop and set off in close pursuit of Hamilton in the opening laps of his final stint. The Briton, though, defended resolutely in the opening laps of the stint and then began to pull away from the Ferrari as the German’s tyres began to drift from their optimum performance level.
After the second stops and behind the front four, Raikkonen was now looking comfortable in fifth, six seconds behind Vettel but 14 seconds clear of Ricciardo. Perez was now seventh ahead of Hulkenberg, Massa and Bottas.
The biggest battle in the closing stages was between Verstappen and Hamilton. The Mercedes man closed to within DRS range of the Red Bull Racing driver and at the end of the penultimate lap he launched an assault around the outside of the Dutch driver. Verstappen was not for moving, however, and Hamilton was forced to overshoot the chicane and he lost ground to the Red Bull driver.
Ahead, Rosberg was comfortable and after 53 laps he crossed the line to take his ninth win of the season with almost five seconds in hand over Verstappen.
Hamilton’s third place, meanwhile, was enough to give Mercedes an unassailable lead in the battle for the Constructors’ title and they are now set to pick up their third crown in a row at the final round in Abu Dhabi.
Ferrari secured fourth and fifth, with Vettel ahead of Raikkonen, but Verstappen’s second place and sixth for Ricciardo means that Red Bull Racing extend their advantage over the Scuderiato 50 points in the battle for second place.
Perez and Hulkenberg sealed seventh and eighth places respectively and with Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas only managing ninth and tenth, Force India extend their lead over Williams to 25 points in the battle for fourth place.