SUZUKA, Japan -- Mercedes clinched its sixth consecutive constructors' championship on Sunday with a Valtteri Bottas victory at the Japanese Grand Prix.
The race went ahead despite Typhoon Hagibis skirting past Suzuka on Saturday, with both qualifying and the grand prix held on Sunday. For the second race in a row, Ferrari failed to convert pole position into a win as Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc both made a slow start from the front row of the grid and Leclerc clashed with Max Verstappen in the first corner.
Vettel finished the race second after holding Hamilton off for the last five laps in an epic duel for the final two spots in the podium. The Ferrari and Mercedes were split by 0.4s as they crossed the line, with Alex Albon nearly a minute behind in a distant fourth place for Red Bull. Carlos Sainz finished fifth for McLaren ahead of the recovering Leclerc and Daniel Ricciardo who battled from 16th on the grid to seventh.
Mercedes needed to outscore Ferrari by 14 points to claim the title, and after finishing first and third with the fastest lap for Hamilton, outscored their rivals by 15 points.The collision between Leclerc and Verstappen also meant both drivers dropped out of contention for the title, meaning one of the Mercedes drivers (almost certainly Hamilton as he has a 64-point lead over Bottas with four race remaining) is guaranteed to win the title. As a result, Mercedes will become the first team in Formula One history to win six consecutive constructors' and drivers' championship.
Bottas' victory was secured on the run down to the first corner as he made a lightning-fast start from third on the grid to pass Vettel, who appeared to misjudge his getaway by jutting forward, stopping and starting after the lights had gone out. The stewards looked into the possibility of a jump start by the Ferrari driver but deemed no further action was needed.
Alongside Vettel, Leclerc also made a slow getaway and collided with Verstappen as the Red Bull driver tried to pass him around the outside of Turn 1. Verstappen spun off onto the grass, with the damage resulting in his eventual retirement on lap 14, but Leclerc managed to continue in third place with damage to his front wing endplate.
A large chunk of the Ferrari's wing flew off on the back straight on the second lap, smashing into Hamilton's car behind and taking out his right wing mirror. Ferrari pitted Leclerc a lap later, dropping him to the back of the field and into a comeback drive that ultimately finished in sixth place, one lap behind Bottas.
That made the race a three-way battle, with Bottas building a 7.0s lead over Vettel in the first stint while Hamilton in third kept the pressure on the Ferrari. The Ferrari pit wall reacted to the situation by taking the initiative on strategy and pitting Vettel on lap 16 for soft tyres, committing to a two-stop strategy in the process.
Mercedes mirrored Vettel's strategy with Bottas by pitting the lead car a lap later, but hoped to go longer with Hamilton and stick to his original plan of a one-stop. However, Saturday's typhoon had effectively washed the track clear of rubber, meaning tyre degradation was much higher than expected, and on lap 21 Hamilton was forced to pit and convert to a compromised two-stop strategy.
Hamilton came out of the pits 20 seconds behind Bottas and immediately questioned his strategy over pit-to-car radio. The only silver lining for him was that he would be able to go longer into the race on his new medium tyres and take on softs to battle Vettel at the end -- but even that seemed like a tall order.
Vettel made his second pit stop on lap 31, with Ferrari fitting a fresh set of mediums, before Bottas swapped his mediums for softs at his second stop on lap 36. That meant Mercedes were running one two, with Hamilton, who had yet to make his second stop, leading Bottas by 9.5s.
For a while it looked like Hamilton might attempt to go to the end of the race without making a second pit stop, and Bottas even questioned the team over whether his teammate would pit again. Official F1 TV graphics suggested Hamilton had plenty of life left in his tyres towards the end of his stint, but on lap 41 he radioed the team to say he was losing performance and one lap later he came into the pits.
Hamilton emerged 5.3s behind Vettel, but on fresh soft tyres was much faster than the Ferrari on aging mediums. He quickly closed the gap to Vettel, but despite coming close on a number of occasions couldn't find a way past. Bottas crossed the line 13.3s ahead of the battle for second to take his third win of the season and keep his diminishing championship hopes alive.
Sergio Perez and Pierre Gasly collided on the final lap at Turn 1, but some confusion over the timing of the chequered flag meant Perez was still classified ninth at the finish. The glitch, which saw the chequered flag displayed on the timing screens one lap before the allotted 53 laps, had no impact on the drivers at the front, although the race was classified as 52 not 53 laps. It is likely to cause controversy further down the grid as it also meant Renault's Nico Hulkenberg missed out on ninth place and Renault missed out on a point. Lance Stroll in the second Racing Point car missed out on tenth and a single point, but his teammate Perez took two points as a result -- effectively ensuring Racing Point a better result.