SUZUKA (Japan) • "Box, Sebastian, box." Three words, but the ramifications could be huge for Sebastian Vettel who was forced to pit and retire from the Japanese Grand Prix yesterday with engine problems on the fourth lap at Suzuka.
He could only watch as Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton took victory, extending his lead in the Formula One championship to 59 points. The Red Bulls of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo secured a double podium for the second successive race.
"Honestly, I could only have dreamed of having this kind of gap," said Hamilton when he heard of the gap - the biggest with four Grands Prix left since 2010, when 25 points were awarded to each race winner. "Ferrari have put on a great challenge all year long."
With just four races remaining in the season and 100 points on offer, he is within touching distance of his fourth world title, but is refusing to get ahead of himself.
"One hundred points is a lot of points. There is still a long way to go. Anything can happen in life. I just need to keep my head down," he said.
Vettel admitted the retirement "hurt" but refused to be critical of his team.
"It's normal to be critical, especially if things go wrong because it's part of our job," the German, who had lined up alongside pole-sitter Hamilton on the front row, said. "But I need to protect them (Ferrari) - they've done an incredible job so far. It's just a pity in the two races with the reliability issues. But it's like that sometimes and of course I'm disappointed.
NO LETTING UP
Honestly, I could only have dreamed of having this kind of gap. One hundred points is a lot of points. There is still a long way to go. Anything can happen in life. I just need to keep my head down.
LEWIS HAMILTON, Mercedes driver, says he will not take his foot off the pedal with four Grands Prix remaining.
It's normal to be critical, especially if things go wrong because it's part of our job. But I need to protect them (Ferrari) - they've done an incredible job so far. It's just a pity in the two races with the reliability issues. But it's like that sometimes and of course I'm disappointed.
SEBASTIAN VETTEL, Ferrari driver, admits the championship title race is no longer in his hands.
"We still have a chance this year. Obviously it's not as much in our control as we like but overall, I think the team is in a good way."
JAPANESE GRAND PRIX
1 Lewis Hamilton (Gbr) Mercedes 1hr 27min 31.193sec
2 Max Verstappen (Ned) Red Bull +1.211sec
3 Daniel Ricciardo (Aus) Red Bull +9.679
4 Valtteri Bottas (Fin) Mercedes +10.580
5 Kimi Raikkonen (Fin) Ferrari +32.622
6 Esteban Ocon (Fra) Force India +1:07.788
7 Sergio Perez (Mex) Force India +1:11.424
8 Kevin Magnussen (Den) Haas +1:28.953
9 Romain Grosjean (Fra) Haas +1:29.883
10 Felipe Massa (Bra) Williams +1 lap
11 Fernando Alonso (Esp) McLaren +1 lap
Sebastian Vettel (Ger) 4 laps
OVERALL STANDINGS - DRIVERS
1 Hamilton 306pts
2 Vettel 247
3 Bottas 234
4 Ricciardo 192
5 Raikkonen 148
6 Verstappen 111
1 Mercedes 540pts
2 Ferrari 395
3 Red Bull 303
4 Force India 147
5 Williams 66
He has retired from two of the past three races.
If Hamilton gets 16 more points than Vettel at the next race in Austin, he will clinch his fourth world title. That means if Hamilton wins at the Circuit of the Americas - a track Mercedes are expected to be the quickest at - and Vettel finishes sixth or lower, it will be Hamilton's name engraved on this year's trophy.
Vettel had been late to the driver line-up as the team worked on his car. He missed the national anthem before the race, resulting in a reprimand from F1 stewards.
When he returned to his car, a mechanic was sat in it as the team desperately tried to resolve a spark-plug issue.
It was clear from the outset that the problem had not been solved.
It was the third race in a row that Vettel's hopes had been dealt a battering. In Singapore, the 30-year-old crashed out on the opening lap after colliding with team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, who had tangled with Verstappen.
Two weeks later in Malaysia, the Ferrari driver finished fourth after engine problems in qualifying left him at the back of the field.
There was no recovery drive this time. Still, it was not the easiest of wins for Hamilton.
He had pitted at the end of lap 22 and came out in third behind team-mate Valtteri Bottas and Ricciardo in the lead. By lap 27, Hamilton had caught Bottas but was getting caught in his dirty air, allowing Verstappen to close the gap.
The Briton, however, showed the young pretender who was boss, fending off the 20-year-old in the closing laps.
"Today I was like - he won the last race, I'm not letting (him) have this one," said Hamilton, second to the Dutchman in Sepang, after hanging on to win by 1.2 seconds. "I was driving down the back straight at one point and I'm thinking, 'Jeez, the guy behind me is so much younger than me, I've got make sure I kind of man up and show my age'."
He showed too that he is the champion-elect.
THE TIMES, LONDON, REUTERS, AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE