Kimi Raikkonen was a distant fourth in the sister Ferrari, just ahead of Williams’ Valtteri Bottas. Nico Hulkenberg took sixth for Force India, followed by the Lotus duo of Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado. The closely-matched Toro Rossos of Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz completed the top ten.
It was all action at the start. As Rosberg dropped down to fourth behind fast-starting Vettel and Bottas, Hamilton opened up an advantage that he maintained to the end. The world champion was 18.9s ahead at the flag, after Rosberg had fought back to get the undercut on Bottas and then Vettel during his two pit stops.
Hamilton’s third victory in Japan - and his 41st overall, moving him level with Ayrton Senna’s tally - means he now has 277 points to Rosberg’s 229 and Vettel’s 218, with five races left.
Mercedes’ return to form was emphatic, but Vettel fought bravely and was always a threat to Rosberg as they battled through late-race traffic. In the end the Ferrari was only 1.8s adrift of the second Mercedes, as team mate Raikkonen was a further 13s down the road in the other SF15-T after getting the undercut on Bottas during the second stops.
Bottas’s fifth was some consolation for Williams, who effectively lost Felipe Massa at the start when he tangled with Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull approaching Turn 1. Both were out of contention for the rest of the afternoon as they limped back to the pits, the Brazilian with a punctured right-front tyre, the Australian with a punctured left rear.
Nico Hulkenberg drove a smooth and impeccable race to sixth for Force India, ahead of Lotus duo Romain Grosjean and Pastor Maldonado who were seventh and eighth, 1.2s apart.
Max Verstappen was dropped from 15th to 17th on the grid for parking his stricken Toro Rosso on the racing line in qualifying, but fought through to an excellent ninth ahead of Toro Rosso team mate Carlos Sainz, whom he passed at the chicane on the 45th of the 53 laps. The Dutchman lost a lot of time initially bottled up behind Fernando Alonso’s McLaren and the Red Bull of Daniil Kvyat, who started from the pit lane after his heavy qualifying shunt. Verstappen eventually passed Alonso round the outside of Turn 1, and set after his team mate, who had been delayed after hitting a marker cone on the pit entry prior to a stop, necessitating a nose change.
Alonso expressed his frustration at a lack of power several times over the radio, but his gritty drive eventually yielded 11th, just outside the points. The battle for 12th, meanwhile, featured four cars and was eventually won by Force India’s Sergio Perez, who fought back from an off at Turn 1 on the opening lap when he got shoved wide after clashing wheels with Sainz. The Mexican passed Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber, who also got overtaken by Kvyat even though the Russian complained that his Red Bull had no brakes at various points of the afternoon. The Swede clung on to 14th ahead of Ricciardo, who spent all afternoon fighting back.
It was a miserable race for Jenson Button, who couldn’t better 16th in the other McLaren ahead of the recovering Massa, while Alexander Rossi pushed Marussia team mate Will Stevens all the way and eventually took 18th ahead of him after the Englishman’s spectacular half spin in 130R. Stevens very nearly collected Rossi as he recovered, then had to sweep into the pits to serve a penalty for speeding there in his second stop. But he took 19th as Felipe Nasr retired his Sauber in the closing stages to become the race’s sole non-finisher.