Lewis Hamilton moved to the brink of a fifth world championship with a dominant lights-to-flag victory at the Japanese Grand Prix.
Hamilton led serenely throughout as his title rival Sebastian Vettel ran into trouble in his attempt to gain ground from his eighth place on the grid.
The German recovered to finish sixth after spinning to the back of the field when he collided with Red Bull’s Max Verstappen trying an ambitious move for third place into the difficult Spoon Curve.
That puts Vettel 67 points behind Hamilton and means the Briton would win the title at the US Grand Prix in Austin, Texas, in two weeks’ time if Mercedes finish one-two for the third successive race.
All action behind Hamilton
It was a soporific race at the front, Hamilton so in control on his way to his sixth win in seven races that he at one point asked his team if they were still there, so little did they need to talk to him.
But behind him, there was action aplenty, much of it focused on Vettel.
Vettel knew he had to make up ground quickly if he was to have any hope of stopping Hamilton’s apparently unstoppable march to the title which for a long time looked as if it could be the Ferrari driver’s.
And he drove well in the early laps. He was up to sixth by the third corner, passing both Toro Rosso, then fifth when he passed Romain Grosjean’s Haas into Spoon.
Vettel was then promoted to fourth at the end of the first lap when Max Verstappen locked his front wheel going into the hairpin, ran wide and pushed Kimi Raikkonen off when rejoining the track, allowing Vettel to slip past his team-mate.
There was a short safety-car intervention to clear up debris left by a collision between Kevin Magnussen’s Haas and Charles Leclerc’s Sauber and bodywork strewn around the lap by the Dane as he returned to the pits with a puncture.
After the restart, Vettel was behind Verstappen and he saw an opportunity to pass into Spoon when the Red Bull slowed approaching the corner as the engine went into energy harvesting mode.
Vettel dived for the inside, Verstappen half defended but left space. The Ferrari was mostly alongside entering the corner, only for the two to collide.
Verstappen continued without losing much time but Vettel spun to the back of the field and was now consigned to a long afternoon fighting back.
The pace advantage of the Ferrari meant he easily climbed back up to sixth by half-distance but that was as far as he could get – and Ferrari declined to order Raikkonen in fifth to slow to let his team-mate by, to gain a couple of extra points.
Verstappen pressures Bottas
Hamilton was in total control, but while Mercedes looked to be heading to an easy one-two after the pit stops, his team-mate Valtteri Bottas found himself under pressure from Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
After a virtual safety car, called after Leclerc pulled off with a mechanical failure, Bottas began to run into blistering problems with his tyres.
Bottas dropped back from Hamilton and Verstappen was soon on Bottas’ tail but although he pressured the Finn to the end, the Red Bull driver could not get through.
It was an impressive drive from Verstappen, despite a five-second penalty served at his pit stop for rejoining the track dangerously in the incident with Raikkonen.
Verstappen’s team-mate Daniel Ricciardo also drove well, quickly making up ground from his 15th place on the grid following an engine problem in qualifying.
The Australian eventually taking a strong fourth place as Red Bull out-strategised Ferrari, who had another disappointing race overall in a season that promised so much but which has unravelled dramatically in its second half.
Force India’s Sergio Perez won the battle for best of the rest, from Haas’ Romain Grosjean, the second Force India of Esteban Ocon and Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly.
Driver of the day
What happens next?
From sublime Suzuka, to amazing Austin. The US Grand Prix is one of the best races of the year – a great track just outside a wonderful city. And Hamilton has pretty much ruled it since its debut on the calendar in 2012. Can he tie up the title in a country which he calls home for at least part of the year? He’s going to do it soon.