Hamilton keeps foot down in final Japan practice

A fifth world title is now squarely in Lewis Hamilton's sights. Although Vettel can still match Hamilton's tally of nine race wins this year by winning the season's final four rounds (he now has five victories), the Mercedes driver would still have one more second place to his name (three to two).

Verstappen had such a great third and final qualifying session for the 53-lap race around the 18-turn, 3.609-mile (5.807-kilometer) Suzuka Circuit road course in Suzuka, Mie Prefecture, Japan largely due to the fact that a bad strategy gamble was taken by Scuderia Ferrari during this session. Vettel knew he had to win here but after qualifying badly the odds were already against him. We started off well where we finished in Sochi, and the drivers just feel good with the auto.

If Hamilton wins the next race in the United States he will be champion with three races to spare in case Vettel finishes lower than second.

Meanwhile, Hamilton - who along with team mate Valtteri Bottas had gone out straight away on the super-soft tyres to beat the rain - was lighting up the timing screens. It will not necessarily be remembered as a classic but their ideal execution all weekend was an object lesson to Ferrari as to why their title hopes have been dashed.

Vettel realistically needs a victory to keep alive his fading hopes of pipping Hamilton to a fifth world title and the German at least closed the gap after Friday's Mercedes whitewash.

While Mercedes have been far from error-free, Wolff says their approach to calling out mistakes and fixing them is in contrast to their rivals.

Having quickly progressed from eighth on the grid following his poor qualifying, Vettel was attacking Verstappen for third at Spoon corner on the first lap after an early safety auto at Suzuka when they tangled and the Ferrari spun.

Suzuka was expected to provide a good measure of just how Ferrari and Mercedes now match up to one another and on this evidence Mercedes have clearly regained the advantage. "The Red Bulls were really quick here a year ago and naturally so, the Ferraris". Be sure not to miss it, as just four races will remain on the 2018 Formula 1 schedule once it reaches its conclusion.

Shout-out to Toro Rosso - great effort from them to start P6 (Brendon Hartley, securing his best-ever result in F1 qualifying) and P7 (Pierre Gasly).

Vettel managed to get down the inside of Verstappen going into Spoon but was not ahead when the Red Bull turned in and contact was made. Verstappen was subsequently given a five-second penalty for not returning to the track safely.

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. Vettel spun off and had to rejoin in 19 - last place. Vettel appeared to want to avoid letting Mercedes open up too much of a gap in front, which he had to do given his deficit in the championship fight.

Vettel dived to the inside into Spoon Curve but the pair collided; Verstappen continued and came home third while Vettel dropped to the rear of the field and classified sixth. He was putting in some of the fastest laps and on lap 35 was in 6 but a full 40 seconds behind his teammate in fifth.

Magnussen came out worse, picking up a rear-left puncture that dropped him to last as he limped back to the pits, and the debris he scattered across the track in the process forced race control to deploy the safety auto.

Hamilton's victory in Japan means he has an nearly insurmountable lead in the championship, if he didn't already.

Esteban Ocon was eighth, ahead of Vettel, with his Force India teammate Sergio Perez rounding out the top 10.

  • Angelo Rivera