So much for the hotly contested championship.
It looked like Formula One would bring a tight season-points battle to Austin between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel — the only two men who have won the United States Grand Prix at Circuit of the Americas.
That was before the Japanese Grand Prix early Sunday when Hamilton won but, more importantly, Vettel suffered an early mechanical failure and retired after four laps.
Now the Oct. 22 U.S. Grand Prix, the next race on the F1 schedule, could be a coronation for the three-time world champion from Great Britain.
The Mercedes ace is 59 points clear of Ferrari’s Vettel with four races left.
“It’s kind of unbelievable, really,” Hamilton remarked to reporters in Suzuka, Japan. “I could only have dreamed of having this kind of gap.”
If Hamilton wins in Austin and Vettel finishes fifth or lower, the 32-year-old from Stevenage, England, will clinch. Hamilton has captured four of five F1 events at COTA while Vettel won the other, in 2013.
Mercedes increased its lead in the constructors standings to 145 points over Ferrari, an advantage that is basically insurmountable.
Vettel’s calamitous day was caused by a spark plug problem that diminished his engine’s power. He also had mechanical issues in the previous race at Malaysia, but he fought back from the back of the grid in that one to finish fourth. This time officials waved him off the track because of a lack of speed.
“It is obviously a pity the last two races with the reliability issues,” Vettel told reporters. “But you know, it’s like that sometimes. Of course it hurts, and we’re all disappointed.”
Before Japan, the four-time world champion from Germany was 34 points out of the lead.
Malaysia GP winner Max Verstappen took second place, 1.2 seconds behind Hamilton, who was on the pole. Verstappen’s Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo was third.
“The track was fantastic, and the team did an unbelievable job,” said Hamilton after his eighth win of the season. “Max drove an outstanding race. Obviously, it wasn’t easy for us. He had a really quick pace late.”
Without Vettel to worry about, Hamilton built a four-second lead over Verstappen through 15 laps. Verstappen trimmed the gap to 1.1 seconds at the start of the final lap, but traffic allowed Hamilton to escape.
“I was able to hold him behind me, but he got very close,” said Hamilton, whose teammate Valtteri Bottas was fourth. Bottas is third in the season standings, 72 points in arrears.
Haas F1 Team, the U.S. entry, enjoyed an excellent day, delivering just the second double-points performance in the 2-year-old team’s history. Kevin Magnussen took eighth for four points, and Romain Grosjean was ninth for two points.
That lifted the fledgling North Carolina-based team above Renault and into seventh place in the constructors standings by a single point (43-42).
“It was flawless,” said Haas team principal Guenther Stein. “It’s the best we can do, and we did it.”
U.S. Grand Prix
When: Oct. 20-22
Where: Circuit of the Americas
Friday: Formula One practice, 10-11:30 a.m. … Formula One practice, 2-3:30 p.m.
Saturday: Formula One practice 11 a.m.-12 p.m. … Formula One qualifying, 4-5 p.m.
Sunday: U.S. Grand Prix, 2-4 p.m.
Support races: Formula 4 and Masters Historic events all weekend.
Major concerts: Justin Timberlake, Saturday, 7 p.m. … Stevie Wonder, Sunday, 6 p.m.
Weekend passes: Three-day premium grandstands, $445 and up; three-day bleacher seating, $275 and up; three-day general admission, $175
Single-day tickets: Friday, $50-$150; Saturday, $175-$350 (includes Justin Timberlake); Sunday, $109-$350 (includes Stevie Wonder)