Lewis Hamilton has been shocked by Sebastian Vettel’s dramatic decline after his rival’s calamitous crash in the Japanese Grand Prix left the Briton on the brink of world championship glory.
Hamilton, who yesterday claimed his fourth consecutive victory and his sixth triumph in seven spellbinding rounds, is now 67 points clear of the Ferrari driver with only 100 left on the table of this one-sided title battle.
The 33-year-old Englishman needs only eight further points, and will wrap up his fifth title at the United States Grand Prix in a fortnight’s time if he takes the chequered flag in Austin, and Vettel is third or lower.
The German limped home to sixth place here at Suzuka after a clumsy collision with the Red Bull driver Max Verstappen.
Vettel, eighth on the grid after a combination of driver and team errors in Saturday’s dry-wet qualifying, executed an impressive opening lap to climb four places.
But disaster struck just eight circuits into the grand prix when he attempted a gung-ho, and unrealistic move on Verstappen as he decelerated from 190mph at the Spoon curve.
Under braking, Vettel barged into the side of Verstappen’s Red Bull before spinning round in a flurry of sparks. His championship hopes were up in smoke.
Vettel protested his innocence and took aim at the Dutchman, first over the radio, and then following the race, but the stewards tellingly took no action.
Vettel’s move smelt of desperation, and it marked his seventh mistake of an increasingly-erratic campaign which has unravelled since the summer break.
After 10 rounds, Vettel led Hamilton by eight points, but he has lost a staggering 75 to his rival in the space of just seven races.
“In terms of Sebastian’s performance, of course, I didn’t expect him to fade away,” Hamilton said. “I definitely hadn’t anticipated that Ferrari would tail off as they have.
“Their performances have not been as strong as they were before.
“This is what happens in head-to-head battles with top competitors. One cannot always perform at the same level.”
“The ultimate challenge is seeing who breaks and who falters. I am just grateful to have delivered.”After Hamilton won the downhill gallop to the opening bend ahead of his Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, the ninth win of his impressive year was never in doubt.
He will head to Tokyo for a Tommy Hilfiger fashion event on Monday evening, before checking in at the Mercedes factory in Brackley, Northamptonshire on Wednesday. He will then jet across the pond to race at a venue where he is unbeaten since 2013.
“I have imagined and I have dreamt about winning the title all year long,” Hamilton added. “But it is one thing dreaming about it, and another executing.
“We knew we would have a tough battle this year, and you have seen all of the ups and downs, but competition-wise it has been one of the most I have enjoyed in my career.
“My motto is to dream big, and even bigger if you can. On my side, it feels like one of the highs, but I don’t want to stop here
Hamilton crossed the line 12.9 seconds clear of Bottas, who finished the race with Verstappen hot on his heels.
Daniel Ricciardo recovered from 15th to fourth, while Kimi Raikkonen was fifth on a desperately torrid afternoon for Ferrari.