‘MAD MAX’ HITS BACK

An­other Fer­rari im­plo­sion opened the door for Max Ver­stap­pen to claim his sec­ond grand prix vic­tory

F1 Racing (UK) - - RACE DEBRIEF -

Af­ter a sea­son that has been marred by tremen­dous mis­for­tune, by no means all of it self-in­flicted, Max Ver­stap­pen se­cured his sec­ond grand prix vic­tory in em­phatic style at what looks to be the last ever Malaysian Grand Prix. He took the lead on lap four, scyth­ing past pole­set­ter Lewis Hamil­ton at Turn 1, and was never threat­ened at the head of the field there­after.

His Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ric­cia­rdo lost ground on the open­ing lap and had to set­tle for third place, be­hind a strug­gling Hamil­ton. Fol­low­ing Ric­cia­rdo was the sole Fer­rari of Se­bas­tian Vet­tel, who had se­cured fourth, hav­ing started last on the grid thanks to an en­gine prob­lem on Satur­day. QUAL­I­FY­ING Af­ter a strong Fri­day, the prob­lems for Fer­rari be­gan in the dy­ing mo­ments of FP3 on Satur­day lunchtime. A sus­pected elec­tri­cal fault forced Vet­tel to cruise back to the pits stuck in sec­ond gear. Fer­rari de­cided to change his en­gine to avoid a re­peat for qual­i­fy­ing, but given the com­plex­i­ties of the power unit, it was a race against time to get his SF70H ready in just two hours.

It was a great ef­fort for him to exit the pits, but on his Q1 in­stal­la­tion lap he im­me­di­ately knew some­thing was wrong and ra­dioed back say­ing: “It feels like I have no turbo.” At­tempts to fix what turned out to be a frac­tured air in­take came to no avail and Vet­tel was re­signed to shak­ing his me­chan­ics’ hands, while the re­main­der of qual­i­fy­ing con­tin­ued with­out him. He would start 19 places be­hind ri­val Hamil­ton.

An­other stel­lar lap in Q3 net­ted Lewis his land­mark 70th pole in F1, against the run of form: Mercedes had been 0.5s off the front-run­ning pace dur­ing prac­tice. His clos­est chal­lenger was the sec­ond Fer­rari of Kimi Räikkö­nen, who would prob­a­bly have eclipsed the Mercedes if he hadn’t drifted wide at the fi­nal cor­ner. The fin­ish­ing mar­gin be­tween the pair was just 0.045s.

A sim­i­lar gap split the two Red Bulls on row two, Ver­stap­pen ahead of Ric­cia­rdo, and then Valt­teri Bot­tas. Force In­dia’s Este­ban Ocon was sixth on Satur­day evening, out­qual­i­fy­ing team-mate Ser­gio Pérez in P9 and just ahead of Mclaren’s Stof­fel Van­doorne. It was the Bel­gian’s best F1 qual­i­fy­ing per­for­mance to date and he was 0.122s quicker than team-mate Fer­nando Alonso, who was hav­ing an off-week­end, in tenth.

Mak­ing his For­mula 1 de­but was French rookie Pierre Gasly at Toro Rosso, and from a qual­i­fy­ing per­spec­tive he did a cred­itable job. He lined up 15th and one place on the grid be­hind his team­mate, Car­los Sainz, just 0.156 sec­onds adrift. RACE As the field lined up, the sec­ond Fer­rari was miss­ing from the front row. Räikkö­nen had men­tioned a lack of power on his way to the grid and re­tired with a sim­i­lar prob­lem to that which had af­flicted Vet­tel in qual­i­fy­ing. Hamil­ton was clean away at the start, with Ver­stap­pen and Bot­tas di­rectly be­hind him. Ric­cia­rdo strug­gled on a part of the track that was still damp af­ter ear­lier rain, and lost out to the sec­ond Mercedes.

Up front, Ver­stap­pen quickly as­serted his author­ity, pass­ing Hamil­ton into T1 on lap 4. From there, he wasn’t threat­ened again at the head of the field. His Red Bull team-mate had suf­fered from that slow get­away and spent eight laps cooped up be­hind Bot­tas’s Merc. Once past, he didn’t have the pace to chase Hamil­ton and his race would be to fend off Vet­tel for the fi­nal podium po­si­tion.

The lone Fer­rari started on the soft tyre and was short-fu­elled, run­ning an al­ter­na­tive strat­egy to the rest of the field. Vet­tel then made up six places on the open­ing lap (seven, if you in­clude the place gained through his team-mate’s mis­for­tune) and had ad­vanced an­other seven po­si­tions by lap 13.

By lap 32, Vet­tel was run­ning fourth, 13.7s be­hind Ric­cia­rdo, and had started to eat into his lead. Ten laps later Vet­tel set a new lap record for Sepang and closed the gap to 5.1s. Be­tween laps 43 and 46, the mar­gin re­duced from 3.6s to 2.2s to 0.9s, and that was when he had a look at pass­ing.

“AT FER­RARI AND MERCEDES, THERE WERE FURROWED BROWS… FER­RARI MUST IM­PROVE THEIR RE­LI­A­BIL­ITY, WHILE MERCEDES NEED TO SORT OUT THE DE­FI­CIEN­CIES IN THE W08

“The plan was to keep him be­hind,” said Ric­cia­rdo after­wards. “I saw Seb com­ing, so I closed the door, which didn’t seem over­ag­gres­sive from my side. I ex­pected him to keep com­ing and to at­tack at the end, but I guess he killed his tyres.”

In the end, Vet­tel had to set­tle for fourth, lift­ing and coast­ing to the flag to save fuel. But his bad luck con­tin­ued on the slow-down lap. As he pulled along­side Lance Stroll’s Wil­liams, the pair made contact, which ripped the left-rear off the Fer­rari. It was a bizarre end to a trou­bled week­end.

There were no such con­cerns for Ver­stap­pen, who crossed the line to take the sec­ond win of his ca­reer, to the joy of his or­ange-clad Dutch fans. There was good cheer at the Red Bull hospi­tal­ity unit af­ter the race, but at Fer­rari and Mercedes there were furrowed brows. Nei­ther were par­tic­u­larly proud of their week­end’s work; Fer­rari must im­prove their re­li­a­bil­ity, while Mercedes need to sort out the de­fi­cien­cies in the W08.

“It’s not a lame duck,” said Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff after­wards. “Let’s not for­get it’s the car lead­ing the driv­ers’ and con­struc­tors’ cham­pi­onship, but there are times when it un­der­per­forms, and we need to un­der­stand why.”

When asked whether he was wor­ried about Fer­rari’s pace, with five races to go, Wolff added: “I’m al­ways wor­ried.”

En­gine woes for Vet­tel and Räikkö­nen ruin Fer­rari’s week­end (top); Hamil­ton gets away cleanly from pole (above left) but Red Bull pres­sure Mercedes (above) with Ver­stap­pen edg­ing into the lead on lap 4 (be­low)

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