Malaysian Grand Prix: Max Verstappen earns much-awaited victory in fitting farewell to Sepang

The final Malaysian Grand Prix had drama, excitement and racing all around as Max Verstappen scored a well-earned victory ahead of championship leader Lewis Hamilton.

Mithila Mehta and Kunal Shah October 02, 2017 13:18:39 IST
Malaysian Grand Prix: Max Verstappen earns much-awaited victory in fitting farewell to Sepang

The F1nale of the Malaysian Grand Prix was a fitting one. We had drama, excitement and racing all around as Max Verstappen scored a well-earned and much-awaited victory ahead of championship leader Lewis Hamilton and teammate Daniel Ricciardo.

Verstappen, who has otherwise had a dismal season thanks to unreliability and on-track skirmishes, became the fifth different driver to score a race victory this season. From the top teams, Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen is the only driver yet to step on to the top step of the podium. Interestingly, social media was quick to point out that had racing been normal and team orders weren’t at play, Raikkonen could have scored at least five wins this season — Monaco, Azerbaijan, Hungary, Singapore and Malaysia.

Malaysian Grand Prix Max Verstappen earns muchawaited victory in fitting farewell to Sepang

Redbull's Max Verstappen celebrates winning the race between teammate Daniel Ricciardo and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton. Reuters

Verstappen’s second career win also incidentally came a day after his 20th birthday. The 2016 Spanish Grand Prix was Verstappen’s maiden victory in Formula 1. It came on a weekend when Red Bull Racing demoted Daniil Kvyat to their junior team (Toro Rosso) and promoted the in-form and talk-of-the-paddock, Verstappen. Ironically, for the 2017 Malaysian Grand Prix, Kvyat was further dropped from the junior team to give 2018 prospect and 2016 GP2 winner, Pierre Gasly, a debut opportunity.

While many could argue that Verstappen’s first win was more due to luck than pace (remember, Hamilton crashed into Nico Rosberg to register a double-DNF for Mercedes), his win in Malaysia was finely crafted and well executed on all counts. The young Dutchman started well, defended Valtteri Bottas’ opening lap charges and bravely overtook Hamilton on lap 3 for the lead of the race. It isn’t often in Formula 1 that we are treated to an overtake for the lead of the race!

While Hamilton lost the on-track battle with Verstappen, he further extended his advantage in the Drivers’ Championship war with Sebastian Vettel by six points by finishing second. Strangely, he was about 13 seconds off the winner’s race time.

Vettel’s ill-luck in the last fortnight has worked in Hamilton’s favour, but credit to the Englishman for producing championship-worthy drives to limit damage to his title hopes on two consecutive race weekends when his Mercedes wasn’t the fastest car on the grid. Instead of losing points to Vettel in Singapore and Malaysia, Hamilton gained a net total of 31 points. His lead currently stands at 34 points; there are only five rounds remaining and 125 points up for grabs.

If Hamilton’s post- Summer break form has been noteworthy, his teammate Bottas’ form has been forgettable. The Finnish driver finished a distant fifth, nearly a minute off Verstappen’s race time, but crucially 44 seconds off Hamilton’s pace. What made matters worse was that Vettel, who started last, managed to comfortably beat Bottas to finish fourth.

Maybe the difference between Hamilton and Bottas’ performances indicates how much of Mercedes’ current pace is down to Hamilton’s talent. Also, it would be interesting to note that Bottas’ car was fitted with Mercedes’ upgrades — did they not deliver as expected in Sepang? This was supposed to be a ‘Mercedes’ track, but the reigning world champions were third fastest, at best.

The ever-chirpy and humourous Ricciardo finished third and helped Red Bull Racing register their first double-podium finish of the season. The former World champion team’s last double-podium was at the 2016 Malaysia Grand Prix — proof that the out-going venue has been a happy hunting ground for them. Ricciardo’s overtake on Bottas to claim third place and a fantastic defending move when Vettel charged his way through the pack to try claim that third place were perfect examples of textbook motor-racing.

While questioning Mercedes’ upgrades, have Ferrari traded reliability for pace in their attempt to claw back the massive deficit in the Drivers’ Championship? Vettel’s power unit issues on Saturday didn’t permit him to qualify for the race (Ferrari sought special dispensation from the FIA) while Raikkonen’s power unit issues meant that he didn’t get to start the race! Based on Friday's form and performance data, this race was Ferrari’s to win, but their woes reminded us of a classic motorsport quote — to finish first, you need to first finish!

Vettel, who started last on the grid thanks to his absence in qualifying, produced a Michael Schumacher-esque drive on a reverse tyre strategy to finish fouth. Unfortunately for Vettel, there was no rain or a safety car period to further aid his progress up the field and help him finish ahead of Hamilton — his sole objective for the remaining races of the season. As sublime a drive as Vettel’s may have been, it might be forgotten in time to come since it didn’t do any good to his championship hopes.

If their power unit dramas weren’t enough, Ferrari and Vettel’s final dramatic act came after the race, on their in-lap. Vettel, who was driving off-line to pick up marbles of rubber (drivers often do that post race to add weight to their car), saw Lance Stroll drive into his left rear causing his rear assembly to be dislodged completely. Vettel, who hitched a ride back to the pits sitting atop the sidepod of Pascal Wehrlein’s Sauber, could be risking an unwanted five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change, if his gearbox picked up damage from the shunt with Stroll.

The FIA cleared both drivers of blame for that shunt but Ferrari did seek a special nod to change Vettel’s gearbox without incurring a penalty since the shunt was post race. However, since the ruling doesn’t cover such a post-race circumstance, Ferrari’s request was disallowed.

Force India’s Sergio Perez was the best-of-the-rest as he finished sixth, while his team-mate Esteban Ocon finished 10th. This was Force India’s 12th double-points finish of this season. Mclaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne scored points for the second race in succession after he finished seventh, ahead of his illustrious teammate Fernando Alonso, who didn’t score any points for finishing 11th.

Stroll and Felipe Massa finished eighth and ninth to register a double-points finish for Williams, but with Stroll beating Massa three times in the last three races, will Williams look to Robert Kubica or Paul Di Resta as Massa’s replacement in 2018? Will Massa retire for the second year in succession?

After 19 glorious years, Malaysia bid Formula 1 a goodbye thanks to low local interest and the government’s decision to stop further funding of the race. In fact, the local race promoters went on to admit that they wouldn’t host Formula 1 even if it were offered to them for free. While this may be good for the business of Malaysia and Formula 1, it is certainly a loss for the sport of Formula 1. Sepang has been one of the better Asian circuits on the calendar and most definitely one of the best ones designed by Hermann Tilke. Let’s hope that Formula 1 and Malaysia find a way to bring the race back into our lives.

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