When the lights went out, Hamilton made the better start of the two Mercedes drivers and he and Rosberg went through the first corner side by side. Then, when the pair powered towards turn two Hamilton held hard to the racing line and Rosberg was forced over the kerbs and off track. The loss of pace dropped him to fourth behind Sebastian Vettel and Valtteri Bottas.
Behind them there was more drama as Red Bull Racing’s Daniel Ricciardo, who had made a good start, attempted to thread his way between Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen and Williams’ Felipe Massa on the approach to Turn One. There was no room, however, and Ricciardo collided with Massa, puncturing his rear left tyre while Massa damaged his front right. Both would pit at the end of lap one for repairs.
Sergio Pérez was also in trouble. He went off at Turn One after tangling with Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz and Force India team-mate Nico Hulkenberg.
As the field crossed the line for the first time, the order was Hamilton ahead of Vettel with Bottas third in front of Rosberg, Räikkönen and Lotus’ Romain Grosjean. Pastor Maldonado was seventh in the second Lotus ahead of Hulkenberg, while McLaren’s Fernando Alonso was ninth and Sainz tenth.
At the front Hamilton was busy building a gap back to Vettel and by lap 10 he already had six seconds in hand over the Ferrari driver. Rosberg, meanwhile, was asking his engineers if he could turn up his engine in order to clear Bottas. He was given the green light but as the first pit stop window opened he could find no way past the Finn.
Kvyat was the first to make a regulation stop, the Russian shedding his starting mediums for hard tyres. His visit to pit lane triggered a steady flow of cars to the pits.
The Mercedes drivers were the last of the frontrunners to pit, with Rosberg stopping on lap 16 for hard tyres and Hamilton pitting for mediums at the end of the following tour.
Rosberg emerged close behind Bottas and despite the Finn being on the faster tyres he appeared to cede position to Rosberg as the pair went into the final chicane.
The order on lap 20, after the first round of stops, saw Hamilton leading by 9.2 seconds from Vettel, with Rosberg a further 2.6s back. Bottas was now fourth ahead of Räikkönen, Hulkenberg, Grosjean, Maldonado and Sainz, with Alonso now occupying 10th position.
The biggest battle at this stage of the race was between Daniil Kvyat in P11 and Toro Rosso’s Max Verstappen who was pressing the Russian. Both drivers had begun the race towards the back of the field – Verstappen due to a penalty and Kvyat because of the need for a complete car rebuild and a pit lane start following a heavy crash in qualifying.
Kvyat’s problems were continuing in the race as during his dogfight with Verstappen he was told not to use his overtake button and he spent the next few laps defending desperately as Verstappen launched attack after attack. Kvyat eventually gave way and made his second visit to the pits on lap 22.
Verstappen’s next target was Alonso and the Spaniard too put up a robust defence. There was no denying the young Dutchman, however, and at the start of lap 26 Verstappen passed the McLaren driver under DRS on the pit straight to claim P10.
In P9 at this point was Sainz, though he had a solid 22s advantage over his team-mate. That gap was almost halved, however, when the Spanish driver erred as he dived for the pits at the end of lap 27. He clipped the bollard at the pit entry and damaged his front wing. His stop, therefore, was a long one as he required a new nosecone, and by the time Verstappen made his second stop he had lost some nine seconds to his team-mate.
At the front the order was changing. Rosberg’s pace after his stop was such that Vettel’s second place was under threat. Sensing the danger the Ferrari driver lit up all four tyres as he hit the speed limiter as late as possible when he dived into the pits. His pit crew too responded with a fast stop but it wasn’t enough and as the German reached the pit exit Rosberg swept past to take P2.
The order after the second round of stops saw Hamilton at the front with a 9.7s advantage over Rosberg. Vettel was now third ahead of team-mate Räikkönen, with Bottas fifth. Hulkenberg was in sixth place ahead of Grosjean, Maldonado, Sainz and Verstappen.
Verstappen was running much quicker than his team-mate and by lap 42 he had closed to just 2.0s behind the Spanish driver and by lap 44 he had moved to within DRS range. He eventually passed Sainz on lap 45 into the chicane to take ninth place.
Behind the points positions a queue was forming behind Marcus Ericsson in P12 with Pérez, Kvyat and Ricciardo all itching to push past the Swede. Pérez was the first muscle his way past with a good move at Spoon as the Sauber driver ran wide.
The better move, however, was made by Kvyat. Despite battling fading brakes the Russian bided his time and after letting second-placed Vettel past to lap him, Kvyat clung to the back of the Ferrari and when Ericsson moved across to let the German through at the chicane, Kvyat pounced, running wheel-to-wheel with Ericsson through the chicane and emerging in P13 as they headed for the start-finish straight.
Vettel pushed hard to reel in Rosberg and got to within two seconds of the Mercedes man in the closing stages but the points order remained unchanged in the final laps and Hamilton took his third Japanese Grand Prix win with 18.9s in hand over Rosberg with Vettel third for the fifth time this year.
Räikkönen followed in fourth with Bottas fifth ahead of Hulkenberg, Grosjean and Maldonado. Verstappen was ninth, while his Toro Rosso team-mate Carlos Sainz took the final point on offer.
|6||Nico Hulkenberg||GER||Force India||+55.559s||8|
|9||Max Verstappen||NED||Toro Rosso||+95.315s||2|
|10||Carlos Sainz||ESP||Toro Rosso||+1 lap||1|
|11||Fernando Alonso||ESP||McLaren||+1 lap||0|
|12||Sergio Perez||MEX||Force India||+1 lap||0|
|13||Daniil Kvyat||RUS||Red Bull Racing||+1 lap||0|
|14||Marcus Ericsson||SWE||Sauber||+1 lap||0|
|15||Daniel Ricciardo||AUS||Red Bull Racing||+1 lap||0|
|16||Jenson Button||GBR||McLaren||+1 lap||0|
|17||Felipe Massa||BRA||Williams||+2 laps||0|
|18||Alexander Rossi||USA||Marussia||+2 laps||0|
|19||Will Stevens||GBR||Marussia||+3 laps||0|
Fastest Lap - Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 1m 36.145s (lap 33)