The final Malaysian Grand Prix saw Max Verstappen celebrate his birthday in style by claiming a superb win at the Sepang International Circuit.
After overtaking championship leader Lewis Hamilton in the opening laps to take the lead, Verstappen who turned 20 yesterday, delivered a faultless drive to march unchallenged to the chequered flag ahead of the Mercedes driver and Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo.
Hamilton’s second place now gives him a 34-point Drivers’ Championship lead over Sebastian Vettel after the Ferrari driver fought his way from last on the grid to fourth place at the flag.
There was drama before the start as on his laps to grid, Kimi Räikkönen reported a loss of power. Ferrari attempted to resolve the problem on the grid but eventually the decision was taken to roll the Finn’s car back to the garage to fix the issue. In the end, however, no solution could be found and Räikkönen, who as set to start from second on the grid was forced to retire before the start.
When the lights went out, pole position man Hamilton held his advantage and led from Verstappen. Bottas made a good start and managed to get past fourth-on-the-grid Daniel Ricciardo. Further back, Vettel quickly began to carve his way through the pack and by the end of lap one he was up to 13th place from 20th on the grid.
Verstappen, though, was the man on the move and on the next tour he used DRS well to attack Hamilton in Turn 1 and the Red Bull driver assumed the race lead. Ricciardo also attacked Bottas but the Finn resisted the threat and held third place. Vettel, meanwhile, continued to press forward and by lap seven he was in 11th place behind Fernando Alonso’s McLaren, and by lap 10 the German has dismissed the McLaren driver and passed Haas’ Kevin Magnussen to take P9.
Ricciardo also found a way to move ahead, launching an attack on Bottas into Turn 1. The Finn fought back and they tussled hard through the next three turns before Ricciardo at last drew ahead and firmly shut the door on any further resistance.
Vettel’s march continued. By lap 14 Vettel was setting purple sector times and was running in sixth place, just under 30 seconds behind leader Verstappen, and 23s adrift of title rival Hamilton. On lap 21, Vettel made his next move, tucking in behind Force India’s Sergio Perez and passing the Mexican under DRS into Turn 1.
The Ferrari driver then quickly closed on fourth-placed Bottas but before he could pass the Finn on the track, Hamilton triggered a round of pit stops for the frontrunners on lap 27 by moving to softs. Verstappen followed on lap 28 with Vettel also heading towards the pit lane. But while the Red Bull driver swapped starting supersofts for soft tyres, Vettel made the opposite switch. Bottas was the last of the top five to pit and when he did so he had lost fourth place to Vettel. At the front, Verstappen now led Hamilton by 6.5s, with Ricciardo a further 11.7s back.
The race among the top three then settled as Verstappen held the gap to Hamilton at around nine seconds and Ricciardo edged towards to the Mercedes driver.
Vettel, though, was continuing to push ahead and by lap 42 he was just 4.4s behind Ricciardo and on lap 46 the German slipped inside DRS range of the Australian’s Red Bull.
Ricciardo’s defence was solid, however, as he bypassed traffic and dropped backmarkers into the space between himself and Vettel and then invited attacks in an effort to make the German burn his tyres. The tactic evidently worked as the final laps began Vettel drifted out to three seconds behind the Australian.
Ahead, Verstappen was coasting and after 56 laps the Dutchman crossed the line to take his second career win in his 55th grand prix.
Hamilton held a useful second to open out a 34-point lead over Vettel who finished fourth behind Ricciardo. Just as there had been drama before the race began for Ferrari, there was more after the flag as on the slow down lap Land Stroll collided with Vettel, destroying the rear of the German’s car.
Behind Vettel, Bottas took fifth place, with Perez finishing a solid sixth after starting the race in ninth place. Stoffel Vandoorne took seventh ahead of Stroll, Williams team-mate Massa and the second Force India of Esteban Ocon.