Lewis Hamilton may now be a Formula One veteran closing in on a fourth world championship but he has praised Max Verstappen for keeping him young at heart.

Victory at the Japanese Grand Prix on Sunday moves Hamilton to within touching distance of the title as his closest rival Sebastian Vettel retired for the second time in three races.

Instead of a tussle between the title protagonists, it was Verstappen in his Red Bull who once again got up the nose of the apparent champion in waiting.

In the previous race in Malaysia, Verstappen – who had turned 20 the day before – passed Hamilton early on with a risky move into turn one before driving off to his second victory in F1.

This time in Suzuka he could not find a way past the Mercedes despite closing to within a second in the final laps.

But, in the absence of a title fight on track – with a spark plug failure seeing Vettel retire and fall 59 points behind Hamilton – the Brit has been enjoying a scrap with Verstappen.

“We didn’t have a massive fight out on track but we all know how quick Max is,” he said.

“I was like ‘he won the last race, I’m not letting you have this one’.

“It was really just about not making mistakes. I was driving down the back-straight at one point and I’m thinking ‘Jeez, the guy behind me is so much younger than me, I’ve got to make sure I kind of man up and show my age and make sure that I stay ahead. Show that I’m actually still young at heart.’

“That was kind of my thought process. ‘I’m not letting this little…’ that was the kind of thought I was having.

“I’m enjoying being in an era with such great young talent coming through. He’ll be here far beyond after I stop. But until then, I will try and not give him too many poles or too many wins.”

Verstappen has been tipped by many as a future world champion after making his debut in the sport at the age of 17.

His battle with Hamilton comes in the absence of Vettel’s presence at the sharp end of the field.

The German made the start on Sunday despite the spark plug problem being identified but it was clear from the start that the issue was terminal.

He retired once again having crashed out on the opening corner in Singapore and taken fourth place in Malaysia after starting from the back following an engine problem.

Hamilton now holds a 59-point lead over the German, with 100 points available from the final four races.

He can claim the title at the next race, the US Grand Prix, if he wins and Vettel finishes sixth or lower – with second also good enough if the Ferrari comes home no higher than ninth.

Despite Ferrari’s recent woes, Mercedes head of motorsport Toto Wolff insists the team are in no mood to celebrate just yet.

“There are four more races to go so let’s clap ourselves on the back after the championship is won,” he said.

“If everything runs as normal it is a huge advantage but you can see how quickly it goes (wrong) with Sebastian.

“It is what makes it exciting there is always a degree of the unexpected that can happen and in so far as 100 points left to score, we won’t take the good from the battle until it is done.”

This article first appeared in the Independent. To get the latest articles when they appear, buy the print edition every Sunday or subscribe to our online edition HERE.