Nico Rosberg took a comfortable Japanese Grand Prix victory to extend his championship lead over arch-rival Lewis Hamilton with the defending champion’s race being compromised by a poor start that left him eighth after the first corner.
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.
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, Perez flew past into third and Ricciardo was fourth. Hamilton dropped to P8.
Vettel, who had started sixth due to the grid penalty he had incurred after the previous race in Malaysia, was soon on the march. 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 who had taken an unscheduled gearbox change penalty dropping him five places on the grid
Verstappen and Ricciardo were the first of the top-10 started to shed their opening stint soft tyres, with the Red Bull pitting at the same time at the end of lap 11. Both took on hard compound Pirelli tyres.
Their stop 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 second round of pit stops.
Perhaps anticipating the overtake, 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 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 firth with Vettel ahead of Raikkonen and despite Verstappen’s second place4 and sixth for Ricciardo means that Red Bull Racing advantage over the Scuderia narrows. The Maranello outfit is now just 24 points points behind the Milton Keynes squad 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.
Japanese GP Provisional Results
1. Nico Rosberg Mercedes 2. Max Verstappen Red Bull/Renault 3. Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 4. Sebastian Vettel Ferrari 5. Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 6. Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull/Renault 7. Sergio Perez Force India/Mercedes 8 Nico Hulkenberg Force India/Mercedes 9. Felipe Massa Williams/Mercedes 10 Valtteri Bottas Williams/Mercedes 11 Romain Grosjean Haas/Ferrari 12 Jolyon Palmer Renault 52 13 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso/Ferrari 14 Kevin Magnussen Renault 52 15 Marcus Ericsson Sauber/Ferrari 16 Fernando Alonso McLaren/Honda 17 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso/Ferrari 18 Jenson Button McLaren/Honda 19 Felipe Nasr Sauber/Ferrari 20 Esteban Gutierrez Haas/Ferrari21 Esteban Ocon Manor/Mercedes 22 Pascal Wehrlein Manor/Mercedes
Drivers' Championship Points
1 Nico Rosberg 3132 Lewis Hamilton 2803 Daniel Ricciardo 2124 Kimi Raikkonen 1705 Max Verstappen 1656 Sebastian Vettel 1657 Valtteri Bottas 818 Sergio Perez 809 Nico Hulkenberg 5410 Felipe Massa 4311 Fernando Alonso 4212 Carlos Sainz 3013 Romain Grosjean 2814 Daniil Kvyat 2515 Jenson Button 1916 Kevin Magnussen 717 Jolyon Palmer 118 Pascal Wehrlein 119 Stoffel Vandoorne 120 Esteban Gutierrez 021 Marcus Ericsson 022 Felipe Nasr 023 Rio Haryanto 024 Esteban Ocon 0
Constructors' Championship Points
1 Mercedes 5932 Red Bull/Renault 3853 Ferrari 3354 Force India/Mercedes 1345 Williams/Mercedes 1246 McLaren/Honda 627 Toro Rosso/Ferrari 478 Haas/Ferrari 289 Renault 810 Manor/Mercedes 111 Sauber/Ferrari 0