That was despite Rosberg picking up a 10-second time penalty for a mid-race clash with Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen, who finished fourth. Williams’ Valtteri Bottas took fifth ahead of the Force Indias of Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg, split by McLaren’s Fernando Alonso, who came from the back row to take seventh. Team mate Jenson Button was ninth in his 300th Grand Prix, as fellow Briton Jolyon Palmer took his first F1 point with 10th for Renault.
Ricciardo finally got his payback for his Monaco loss earlier in the year, as he came through a brutal battle with Verstappen which became one for victory after Hamilton’s Mercedes had blown up when well ahead on the 41st lap. It was the fourth win of his F1 career.
It came after an intense Ricciardo-Verstappen fight on the 39th lap, when they ran wheel-to-wheel as the Australian refused to concede to the Dutchman, and a real battle was expected as the Red Bulls assumed the first two places, but when both drivers were given “have a drink” and “take a drink” messages after stopping together under the Virtual Safety Car for the final time at the end of that fateful 41st lap, it was clear the contest was over. The Red Bull team had lost the popular Ricciardo the win in Monte Carlo, but today they made it up to him.
The race had begun with drama, with Hamilton taking the lead but Sebastian Vettel making a huge mess of Turn 1. The Ferrari driver had squeezed up to third ahead of Verstappen, but after minor contact with the Red Bull in the braking zone he damaged his left-front suspension as he shoved Rosberg into a spin. Vettel was out immediately, and would subsequently be hit with a three-place grid drop for Japan for causing the collision, while the championship leader fell to 17th. But this was to be another race that characterised the ever-fluctuating fortunes of the two Mercedes drivers in 2016.
Hamilton led Ricciardo until he pitted for the first time on the 20th lap, switching from soft Pirelli tyres to the mandatory hards. That put Ricciardo into the lead until he did likewise a lap later, whereupon Verstappen went ahead. Red Bull had cannily pitted the Dutchman as early as the ninth lap for a fresh set of soft tyres, and he kept the lead from Hamilton and Ricciardo until he stopped for hards on the 27th lap.
Things were brewing up nicely as Hamilton indulged in a bit of fastest-lap setting ‘Hammertime’, and he had opened up a lead of 22.7s by the 40th lap ahead of his planned second stop. But that never came, and it will forever remain a moot point whether he, or Verstappen, might have been the ultimate victor. As he headed for Turn 1 on his 41st lap, his Mercedes engine belched flame and expired, leaving the man who was about to retake the world championship points lead after a perfect weekend to contemplate a 23-point deficit with five races to go and voice questions of his Mercedes team over the numerous failures he has encountered this season.
That drama seemed to pave the way for a real fight to the finish between the Red Bulls. Instead, their demonstration run led to lots of ‘shoe-drinking’ on the podium, where an elated Ricciardo handed out bootfulls of champagne to team boss Christian Horner, a cheerful Verstappen and even Rosberg, who may have been the happiest of them all after one of the luckiest days of his career.
The German had bumped his way past Raikkonen’s Ferrari to grab fourth in Turn 2 on the 38th lap, but later got a 10s penalty for what stewards deemed an unnecessary collision. Boosting his engine to qualifying mode for a few laps enabled him to open up the necessary gap over the Finn to keep his podium place.
Behind the remaining Ferrari, which was variously troubled by brake temperature and battery harvesting problems, Bottas executed a fine one-stop strategy for Williams in a race in which his team mate Felipe Massa started from the pit lane and finished 13th after his car stalled at the start of the formation lap. That, however, was not enough to put the team back ahead of Force India, as Perez took a hard-fought sixth place and Hulkenberg eighth. The latter was sandwiched between the two McLarens, as Alonso drove a beautiful race to seventh from the back of the grid, and Button took ninth in his 300th grand prix. There was good news for another Briton, as Palmer’s 10th place earned him his long awaited first championship point.
Carlos Sainz was 11th for Toro Rosso ahead of Marcus Ericsson’s Sauber, Massa, brake-troubled Daniil Kvyat in the second Toro Rosso, and the battling Manors of Pascal Wehrlein and Esteban Ocon, the latter having picked up not one, but two five-second time penalties for speeding in the pit lane.
Romain Grosjean spun into the gravel and retirement on Lap 9 after a suspected brake failure on his Haas coming into the final turn, and team mate Esteban Gutierrez looked to have similar issues when the left-front wheel flew from the Mexican’s car at speed on lap 42. Renault’s Kevin Magnussen and Sauber’s Felipe Nasr were the other non-finishers.