SUZUKA, Japan (Reuters) - The question of whether Lewis Hamilton will win his fourth Formula One world championship this year now looks more a matter of when and where after his Japanese Grand Prix triumph on Sunday.
Fifty nine points clear of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel with four races remaining, the Mercedes driver can wrap things up at the next race in Austin, Texas, in two weeks if everything goes to plan.
Anything can happen in Formula One, but it will take a monumental collapse for the 32-year-old Briton to be overhauled by a rival whose challenge has imploded.
Vettel knows the score, even if he has not given up hope entirely.
“I don’t need to be a genius or a mathematician,” he said when asked about his chances.
And yet Hamilton and Mercedes, a whopping 145 points clear of Ferrari in their constructors’ battle, will still cling to their mantra of one race at a time and no chickens counted until they hatch.
“There’s no change in approach,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said on Sunday.
“We’ve benefited from Ferrari’s misfortune and reliability woes in the last three races, but it doesn’t mean that we are clapping ourselves on the back. On the contrary, I think we need to continue to push.
“You can see how quickly it goes with Sebastian.”
Vettel had lined up in Suzuka on the front row alongside Hamilton but a humble spark plug, one of the cheapest components on a car packed with hi-tech wizardry, stopped his challenge after four laps.
Engine failure in qualifying in Malaysia and a first-corner collision in Singapore put paid to any hopes of victory in those races.
If Hamilton wins in Austin and the German fails to finish higher than sixth, it is game over. Mexico follows a week later and then Brazil with the chances of a decider in Abu Dhabi looking minimal.
Sunday’s twist took the sting out of what was, until the August break, a close fight between four-times champion Vettel and triple titleholder Hamilton.
And then Formula One went on holiday and everything changed.
In the five races since the break, Hamilton has won four times and taken 118 points compared to a mere 45 for Vettel. The German had led his rival by 14 points after Hungary at the end of July.
In the last four races alone, Vettel has given away 66 points to Hamilton.
The Briton, who has finished his last 21 races in the points, said he could only have dreamed of holding such an advantage and credited his team for their efforts.
“They’ve done a phenomenal job, reliability has really been on point,” he said.
Editing by Alan Baldwin and Ed Osmond