Valtteri Bottas beat slow starting Sebastian Vettel away from the lights to set up a dominant Japanese Grand Prix victory, which allied to third place Lewis Hamilton took Mercedes to a sixth consecutive FIA Formula One Constructors’ Championship title.
When the lights went out for the start it was Mercedes’ Valtteri Bottas who reacted quickest. He rounded the slow-starting Ferraris of pole sitter Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc and stole the lead metres after the starting line. Initially it looked like Vettel might have moved outside his grid slot before the lights went out, but the German was eventually cleared of any wrongdoing by the race stewards.
Having lost out off the line, Vettel slotted into second place and third-placed Leclerc immediately came under pressure from Red Bull’s Max Verstappen. The Dutch driver tried to overtake the Monegasque racer around the outside of Turn 1 but there was contact and Max was bounced off track. The Red Bull driver recovered as quickly as possible and rejoined but it was at the back of the field.
Behind the leaders Alex Albon in the second Red Bull also got away poorly from sixth on the grid. As he bogged down, he was passed by both McLaren drivers and by the end of lap one found himself in seventh place.
Albon was soon on the attack and on lap four he muscled his way past Lando Norris through the final chicane. Norris protested that he had been forced off track in the incident but the stewards eventually ruled that no further action was necessary.
Ahead, Leclerc carried on in P3 but eventually gave in to the deteriorating state of his car and on lap three he pitted for a new nose cone and a set of medium tyres. He emerged at the back of the field and began to carve his way forward, rising to P13 by lap 14 as he dismissed the slower cars ahead.
Verstappen, though, was struggling. The Dutch driver reported that his car was “moving massively under braking” following the clash with Leclerc and later that his tyres had been flat-spotted as a result. Eventually the battle became too much and after 14 laps the Red Bull driver retired from the race.
With Leclerc and Max out of the reckoning, Albon was now fifth, but bottled up behind Sainz, who was doing a good job of defending his position.
Albon thus opted for an early stop on lap 15, becoming the first of the leading pack to pit. The Thai driver took on medium tyres and rejoined in P11. He was followed by Vettel, who opted for a new set of softs and then Bottas and Hamilton, both of whom took on medium tyres.
Albon rose through the field again and regained P5 by lap 21 where he again came across Sainz who was eking out a long first stint as he pursued one-stop strategy. Eventually the Spanish driver finally peeled off towards the pit entry for his sole stop of the race on lap 26 and Albon began to carve out a gap ahead of his second stop.
At the front Vettel was now coming under pressure from Hamilton. Ferrari therefore pitted the German for a second time on lap 31. He took on medium tyres and rejoined in third, 20 seconds behind the championship leader. Bottas made his second stop on lap 36 and took on a set of soft tyres. Hamilton assumed the lead of the race and there were nervous moments for the Finn as Hamilton seemed comfortable on his medium tyres and it looked as if he would chase a one-stop race to victory. Eventually, however, Mercedes called the Briton to the pit lane and after bolting on a set of softs on lap 42 he emerged five seconds behind second-place Vettel.
That gap was erased with four laps to go and the championship leader began to pressure the German. Vettel, though, had a pace advantage on the straights and he was able to keep the Mercedes man at bay in the closing stages.
After 53 laps Bottas crossed the line to take his sixth career win, with Vettel second ahead of Hamilton. Albon then crossed the line to take the best result of his career to date with a well-worked fourth place.
Mercedes, with 612 points to the team’s name, have now etsablished an unassailable lead in the Constructors’ Championship and are thus set to be crowned champions at season’s end. Ferrari lie second with 435 points, with Red Bull currently third on 323 points.