Lewis Hamilton produced an exhibition in Japan to record his eighth victory of the season and edge ever closer to clinching this year’s Formula One world title.
Hamilton appeared to have his work cut out after he qualified behind pole-sitter and his main rival Nico Rosberg for Sunday’s race at a sun-drenched Suzuka.
But despite starting on the dirtier side of the track, Hamilton, who now joins his idol Ayrton Senna on 41 career victories, drew alongside his Mercedes team-mate before muscling his way through at turn two.
Rosberg dropped to fourth after falling off the track in his attempt to cling on to the lead, but he battled his way back to finish second with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel completing the podium places.
Hamilton’s Mercedes team were left scratching their heads after an off-colour performance in Singapore only seven days ago.
But the Silver Arrows, who have dominated Formula One for the best part of two seasons, returned to their emphatic best here and with it sealed their eighth one-two of the campaign.
Hamilton, who led every lap in Suzuka, is now 48 points ahead of Rosberg with only five races remaining. It is not beyond the realms of possibility that he could clinch his third world championship with races to spare.
A hat-trick of titles would see Hamilton join Senna, Sir Jackie Stewart and Niki Lauda in the pantheon of all-time Formula One greats.
He punched the air as he took the chequered flag. “Fantastic job guys, absolutely faultless performance all weekend as usual,” the Briton said over the team radio. “It is great to be back up here. Thank you so much for all the hard work.”
Hamilton, who joined his idol on 41 career wins at a track where the Brazilian won all three of his world titles, added o the podium: “”I am so happy right now.
“For me to come to a race where I use to love watching Ayrton drive and to match his wins – I can’t really describe. It does not feel real at the moment.”
Hamilton, who retired from last week’s race in Singapore, added: “It was important to strike back. The Ferraris were incredibly quick at the last race. We did not bring our A-game so we really had to take a step back in these last few days and make sure we brought it here.
“I could not have done it without this team, it is remarkable what they have done. The car was beautiful to drive.”
Rosberg past Bottas at the chicane on lap 17 before emerging ahead of Vettel at the final round of pit stops.
“Lewis got a better start,” he said. It was good battle into turn one, he had the inside line and made it stick in turn one and two. That was the end of it there. Fourth would not have been acceptable and second was the best-possible outcome after that. I am happy with the fight back.”
On the championship race, Rosberg added: “It is going the wrong way definitely. I had to win today but it did not work out. I need to win next time out.”
For Hamilton’s old team McLaren it was yet another embarrassing race in a season which will definitively rank as the worst of their coveted history.
No-one expected it to be as bad as this, and in Honda’s back yard, it appeared to tip Fernando Alonso, a double world champion, over the edge.
The Spaniard, who crossed the line in 11th, vented his frustration over the team radio as he slid back down the field in his gutless Honda-powered McLaren.
“I am getting passed down the straight like a GP2,” he exclaimed in reference to Formula One’s feeder series.
Moments later as Max Verstappen, who at 17 is half the Spaniard’s age, swept past him on the main straight, Alonso yelled: “GP2 engine. GP2. Arggh.”
It was a stinging, and very public swipe at Honda, whose Japanese-supporting fans used to make the pilgrimage to Suzuka to watch Senna and Alain Prost battle for victories and championships in the 1980s.
But this McLaren-Honda package could not be further from challenging for titles. Both Alonso and Jenson Button, who finished 16th and whose future remains unclear, finished one lap down on Hamilton.
McLaren’s beleaguered chief executive Ron Dennis made his first appearance at this weekend’s grand prix after being confined to his hotel room with a virus. He probably wished he had stayed in bed.
Elsewhere, Kimi Raikkonen finished fourth for Ferrari with Valtteri Bottas fifth in his Williams. His team-mate Felipe Massa and the fast-starting Daniel Ricciardo banged wheels on the run down to turn one. Both suffered punctures and both spent the remainder of the race running towards the back of the field.
Nico Hulkenberg finished sixth for Force India. Romain Grosjean, whose Lotus team are to appear at the High Court on Monday over an unpaid tax bill, was seventh with his team-mate Pastor Maldonado eighth.
The Toro Rosso duo of Verstappen and Carlos Sainz completed the points-paying positions. The Dutchman passed his team-mate in the closing stages with a fine move into the chicane.
Daniil Kvyat, who was involved in a huge shunt in Saturday’s qualifying session, started from the pit lane after his Red Bull mechanics worked through the night to change his chassis, gearbox, engine and a number of other components. He ended the race in 13th.