Fortune finally favoured Max Verstappen in Malaysia as the Red Bull driver who has endured a trying season secured his second grand prix victory at Sepang. He and the legion of Dutch fans were all smiles afterwards. But the form on display from both Red Bull and Ferrari has left only frowns at Mercedes in their wake, as Lewis Hamilton and his team were forced to consider why they had been comprehensively beaten on a track at which they were expected to dominate and how it has rendered their championship challenge a far from foregone conclusion.
Ostensibly, Hamilton’s second place to Verstappen was a good result. He has extended his lead over his title rival Sebastian Vettel to 34 points with five races remaining. But while Vettel scythed through the field after starting from the back of the grid to take fourth, Hamilton could do nothing about Verstappen and on this form might have been outpaced by both Ferrari’s had they started at the front.
Mercedes and Hamilton took their points advantage but were far from celebrating. They had entered the race with the possibility of putting an almost insurmountable lead on Vettel but ended it rather licking their wounds and contemplating just how much work they have to do before the meeting at Suzuka next weekend.
Hamilton believed that even the second they achieved had been “lucky” and suggested that the team had been far from at their best across the weekend. His team, in turn, were left unusually perplexed as to why they struggled when not only Ferrari had such strong pace but also the Red Bull proved superior.
However, Ferrari too endured a far from satisfactory weekend. A turbo problem put Vettel out of qualifying and his team-mate, Kimi Raikkonen, was unable to start the race from second place after he suffered what is believed to be a similar problem. Then, after Vettel’s charge back into the points, what might have been considered a highly successful exercise in damage limitation was somewhat tarnished when he collided with the Williams of Lance Stroll after the race had concluded and the pair were returning to the pits on the slowing down lap.
Vettel did not look at fault, holding his line as Stroll moved outwards looking to pick up discarded rubber with his tyres, in order to make the weight limit. The stewards declared neither driver to blame but it may prove costly for the German. He took major damage to the left rear of his car and if a replacement gearbox is required, he will likely take a grid penalty in Japan.
Ordinarily this would be classed as a disastrous weekend for the Scuderia but it was mitigated by the fact that Vettel was able to show such strong pace throughout. They were using an upgraded engine and several new aero upgrades and have taken the positives from that in looking forward to the final five races.
“I am still optimistic, because we know that we have a quick car,” Vettel said. “It’s been a difficult weekend, but nevertheless the speed is there.” A view echoed by the team principal Maurizio Arrivabene. “All weekend, it was clear we had a very competitive car,” he said. “That could be seen from our pace in free practice, Kimi’s front row in qualifying and Seb’s amazing fightback in the race.”
Championships are not won on such performances but they have at least kept themselves in the fight and put down a marker that strongly suggests they will be able to take Mercedes to the wire.
Red Bull have been long out of that title battle and after seven retirements Verstappen had begun to look like his season could not end soon enough. The win was just the fillip he required, however, and was thoroughly deserved. He drove a mature and controlled race and having turned 20 on Saturday there was no sign of the impetuous teen as he took the lead from Hamilton on lap four with a considered move under DRS into turn one.
He was thereafter untouchable and Red Bull have finally shown they may yet play their part in the championship battle. They had been struggling with correlation of data for their car, with information from computational fluid dynamics and the wind tunnel giving results that were not being matched on track. Their team principal, Christian Horner, has stressed that he believed they were closer to solving their problems and Verstappen’s win is evidence they are proving successful.