Max Verstappen claimed a second career victory in Formula 1 at the Malaysian Grand Prix as Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton extended his championship lead over Sebastian Vettel to 34 points.
After self-imploding under the floodlights in Singapore seven days previously, Ferrari’s footsteps seemed dogged from the moment they arrived in Kuala Lumpur after another difficult weekend for the Scuderia.
Vettel’s title aspirations were dealt another blow with an engine failure during the first qualifying session, resigning the four-time World Champion to the back of the grid. Team-mate Kimi Raikkonen managed to secure a front row slot alongside Hamilton’s 70th career pole position, but was wheeled off shortly before the start with a turbo failure.
Though Vettel would fight back to finish fourth with an obviously competitive car, a bizarre collision with Williams’ Lance Stroll on the warm-down lap at the end of the race caused heavy damage to the rear-left suspension of the Ferrari, and could see Vettel incur grid penalties in Suzuka if a replacement gearbox is required to complete the repairs.
For Hamilton, the race panned out in calm fashion – a far cry from the scenes of last year. Verstappen’s bold move – a dive to the inside under braking at Turn 1 – in the early stages proved to be the extent of the drama as the Brit cruised to a relatively simple second place, and in doing so opened up another four points over Vettel.
The victory – Verstappen’s second in Formula 1 – comes after a frustrating season of misfortune and technical inconsistency from Red Bull and engine partners Renault, but the Dutchman will now look to end the season on a high ahead of a potential title challenge with new title sponsors Aston Martin in 2018.
Verstappen’s team-mate Daniel Ricciardo claimed the final spot on the rostrum after an early pass on then-third Valtteri Bottas (Mercedes), though the time lost behind the Finn likely cost the popular Australian his shot at victory in Sepang.
Sergio Perez continued Force India’s consistent points haul in sixth ahead of a season-best seventh for McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne.
The Williams duo of Stroll and Felipe Massa – who is set to compete with Robert Kubica and Paul di Resta for his drive in 2018 – came next in eighth and ninth, with Esteban Ocon rounding out the top ten on his 24th consecutive finish.
Pierre Gasly impressed on his debut in place of Daniil Kvyat in 14th, with team-mate Carlos Sainz the only other retiree with electrical gremlins.
“It is amazing to win the race today,” said Verstappen.
“Straight away I could see our pace was good and that Lewis was struggling with traction. I just went for it and used all the battery power I could to get past him. I knew that he was fighting for the championship and wouldn’t take too many risks, so I went for it. As soon as I passed Lewis I knew from there onwards I could control the race.
“The car was really good and our pace on the soft tyre was better than I expected. It was a very physical race and very warm in the car, plus I haven’t been feeling that well this weekend but we managed to bring it home.
“You can never predict how the rest of the season will go but we keep improving the car and it is looking positive. So hopefully from now onwards we can build on this for the rest of the year and then have a good start to next season. I didn’t expect yesterday that we would be so quick today and to win here was unexpected, so I’m very happy.”
The circus moves on next to Suzuka in Japan as the season finale in Abu Dhabi ticks ever closer.