Monday 20 January 2020

Nico Rosberg pulls clear in title race after Lewis Hamilton's nightmare start

Mercedes' driver Nico Rosberg of Germany celebrates winning the race. REUTERS/Toru Hanai
Mercedes' driver Nico Rosberg of Germany celebrates winning the race. REUTERS/Toru Hanai

Philip Duncan

Lewis Hamilton's championship challenge is now out of his hands after yet another horror start saw him slip even further behind Nico Rosberg in the title race.

Rosberg sauntered to his ninth victory of the season in Sunday's Japanese Grand Prix and while Hamilton recovered to finish third, the Briton is now 33 points behind his Mercedes team-mate.

Indeed Hamilton could win each of the four remaining races and still come up short in the championship.

Max Verstappen crossed the line in second, despite a late lunge from Hamilton at the chicane on the penultimate lap, while Mercedes wrapped up their third consecutive Constructors' Championship after taking an unassailable points lead over Red Bull.

Hamilton's championship defence has been plagued by engine problems and bad starts. Seven days ago in Malaysia he retired with just 15 laps to run after his engine blew up while leading, and here he dropped six places to eighth following another woeful getaway.

The Briton, who walked out of his press conference with the written media on Saturday night without answering a question in response to criticism courted following his antics on Snapchat earlier this week, was faced with a damp grid slot following overnight rain.

Hamilton felt obliged to inspect the area following the drivers' pre-race parade, and it looked as though it may have played on his mind. When the lights turned to green, Hamilton, for the fifth time this season - following poor starts in Australia, Bahrain, Canada and Monza - was painfully slow to get going.

By the time he got down to turn one he had been passed by both Red Bulls, both Ferraris and both Force India cars. Rosberg, who started from pole after topping every practice session, had no such concerns as he retained the lead and never looked back.

The same could not be said for his championship rival.

"Sorry, guys", a downcast Hamilton said over the team radio. "No stress, Lewis," came the reply from his race engineer Pete Bonnington.

With Rosberg cruising off into the distance, at one stage it appeared as though Hamilton would settle for the minor points, but on lap seven the world champion finally burst into life when he passed Nico Hulkenberg.

Both Sergio Perez and Kimi Raikkonen pitted for their opening stops one lap earlier then Hamilton, but they emerged behind Jolyon Palmer which enabled the world champion to leapfrog the pair when he came in for his change of tyres.

On the same lap he fought his way past Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo for a net fourth.

Hamilton then began his pursuit of Sebastian Vettel, which appeared as though it may prove to be a tall order. But a quick stop by his Mercedes team - as well as a sluggish response for Ferrari and a questionable move to the soft, less durable tyres - saw Hamilton undercut Vettel and move into third.

Max Verstappen was up next for the Briton. On the last but one lap, Hamilton attempted to pass the Dutchman at the chicane but Verstappen blocked his route and Hamilton was forced to take to the escape path. "Max moved under braking," Hamilton complained.

Hamilton hung on to third, but he is now left facing an ever-growing task to prevent an impressive Rosberg from marching to his first world title.

Vettel crossed the line in fourth ahead of Raikkonen and Ricciardo. British rookie Palmer finished 12th, while Jenson Button's miserable weekend here culminated in him coming home a lowly 18th.

"A big congratulations to the team and I am proud to be a part of it," Hamilton said. "I did the best I could from where I was in the race. I am happy to be in the points."

Regarding the daunting margin to Rosberg in the championship, Hamilton added: "I will give it everything I have got as I did in the race and we will see what happens."

Rosberg added: "What an awesome weekend, for sure. It felt great from the word go, especially on this legendary track. Congratulations to the team."

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