SUZUKA, Japan -- Lewis Hamilton is on the brink of a fourth world title after extending his championship lead to 59 points with victory at the Japanese Grand Prix while title rival Sebastian Vettel retired with an early engine issue.
Hopes of a classic duel between the two championship contenders evaporated in the early stages as it became clear Vettel's car was down on power. Ferrari had detected a spark plug issue on the way to the grid and removed the engine cover from car No.5 in an attempt to rectify the problem before the start.
But as soon as the lights went out, it was clear Vettel was down on power with the team attempting to relay instructions via pit-to-car radio to improve the situation. An early Safety Car on lap two -- caused by Carlos Sainz spinning off on the opening lap -- gave Vettel hope that the issue might resolve itself at lower speeds, but as the race resumed on lap four the Ferrari started hemorrhaging positions. By the fourth lap Vettel had slipped to sixth, forcing the Ferrari pit wall to cede to the inevitable and retire the car.
In a championship in which Ferrari and Mercedes have been so closely matched, Vettel has seen his title hopes torn to shreds at the last three rounds. Just four races ago the German led the championship by sevenpoints, but with four grands prix remaining he now has a 59-point gap to recover. Meanwhile, Mercedes looked stronger than at any other point over the last three races, with Hamilton holding off Red Bull's Max Verstappen in second while Valtteri Bottas recovered from sixth on the grid to finish fourth.
With Vettel out of the picture so early in the race, it was left to Red Bull to take the fight to Hamilton with Verstappen emerging ahead of teammate Daniel Ricciardo through the first corner to inherit second place from the Ferrari when it slowed. For the majority of the race, Hamilton was able to manage the gap, but a late puncture for Lance Stroll's Williams caused a Virtual Safety Car with just a handful of laps remaining.
Although the VSC in itself didn't close the gap between the top two, Hamilton experienced a loss of tyre temperature and reported a vibration from the rear of his car when racing resumed with four laps remaining. Verstappen smelt blood and when in search of a second consecutive win, but his charge was hampered as the leaders came to lap Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa and he got stuck in traffic. Hamilton ultimately crossed the line 1.2s clear of the Red Bull, taking his fourth win in five races.
Ricciardo took third place, a further eight seconds back, while Bottas recovered from his gearbox penalty on Saturday to finish fourth. Kimi Raikkonen also battled back from a gearbox penalty to finish fifth, providing a good deal of the race's entertainment as he came through the field.
Force India scored a solid double points finish with sixth and seventh for Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez, while Haas capitalised on the slow pace of Massa in the closing stages to snatch eighth and ninth. Massa clung onto tenth despite coming under attack from Alonso in the closing stages as the McLaren-Honda driver battled back from last on the grid to 11th at the finish.
Heading to U.S. Grand Prix in two weeks time, Hamilton needs to outscore Vettel by 17 points to be crowned champion with three races remaining. More likely, however, is a Hamilton title victory in Mexico if he can finish within nine points of Vettel at the next two rounds.