‘MAD MAX’ HITS BACK
Another Ferrari implosion opened the door for Max Verstappen to claim his second grand prix victory
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)