For the last time in the foreseeable future, F1 has graced the Sepang circuit in Malaysia with its presence, producing a race with some initially unexpected results, and a case of shooting one’s self in the foot. For the second race in succession, Ferrari had the initiative, and for the second time in a row they squandered it.
Whereas in Singapore driver error was to blame, here it was due to technical reasons. After Vettel had looked very quick in practice, a transmission problem conspired to rule him out of qualifying completely, forcing him to start last. This was bad luck for the German and it could not have come at a worse time – on a track where things had expected to be close, Ferrari actually looked to have an advantage on Mercedes. It was up to Raikkonen to hold up Hamilton’s title charge, but trouble developed for the Finn as the cars sat on the grid – he was wheeled off, with the bope of starting from the pit lane, but that hope would fade.
So this left Hamilton (who had narrowly beaten Raikkonen to pole) to start with Verstappen and Ricciardo’s Red Bulls begins him. After a strong start from Valtteri Bottas to steal third, soon both Mercedes would come under pressure from the Red Bulls – Verstappen would take Hamilton for the lead within a few laps, whilst Ricciardo would get by Bottas a few laps later. The Red Bulls had looked pretty good in their own right during practice, and now one of them led a race, on merit, for the first time since 2013. Verstappen began to edge clear of Hamilton, who in turn kept clear of Ricciardo, who was in turn easing away from a disappointing Bottas.
Meanwhile Vettel would begin to scythe his way through the field. The slower cars offered little resistance, though old rival Fernando Alonso did make a nuisance of himself for a few laps, despite, as ever, lacking power in his McLaren. Whereas virtually everyone was starting on supersoft tyres, Vettel started on softs, inverting the strategy, yet despite being on the slower tyre he was able to resume climbing up the field once he cleared Alonso. At the front, Verstappen continued to pull away.
For the top three things would remain fairly static for the most part, without much intrigue or excitement. However Ricciardo would have a brief tangle with Vettel, who had managed to climb to fourth, including dispatching Bottas without too much difficulty. By this stage Vettel was on the quicker supersoft tyre and Ricciardo was on the slower soft compound, but the supersofts are more fragile, and Ricciardo (at one point aided a little by a lapped Alonso, who didn’t leap immediately out of Vettel’s way) was able to fend off the one and only meaningful attack Vettel made. From there, Vettel’s tyres gave up, leaving the top three to remain as they were.
Hamilton could do nothing about Verstappen, but after practice had suggested Vettel might claw back a decent chunk of the gap, instead his championship lead increased to 34 points with five races to go. Vettel’s performance was exemplary, and an excellent piece of damage limitation, but for the second race in a row big opportunities have been missed. Meanwhile, Red Bull scored a rare double podium, and Verstappen’s comfortable, mature win, serves as a reminder of the young man’s talent. Married to a better engine, it’s clear the Red Bull drivers would be in the title race.
Next up is Japan, a track that should favour Mercedes, but then again, Malaysia should have. As we bid goodbye to the nation, Ferrari are left to wonder what might have been.