The last ever Formula One for the foreseeable future at the Sepang circuit was set to be a real entertaining race. For a start championship challenger Sebastian Vettel had not managed to take a qualifying run at all, putting him at the tail of the start grid. Then to complicate matters further for Ferrari, team mate Kimi Raikkonen’s car would not start, putting paid to the immense effort that saw him get P2 position for the start.
So the race began with Lewis Hamilton heading the pack in his 70th pole position start, with the empty slot left by Kimi serving to tempt both the Red Bulls on the second row to make a dash for the first corner at the start. Verstappen managed to gain the second slot after Hamilton, but it was Valtteri Bottas who sprang into a very advantageous third position ahead of Daniel Ricciardo.
Of course, Sebastian Vettel wasn’t about to let his tail end position hold him back from charging up the ranks, only to be held off by the slower car, yet fighting demeanour of Fernando Alonso. He had made sure to start the race on the yellow striped soft tyres as opposed to the supersofts adopted by the leaders. When Vettel pitted, he switched over to the grippier tyres while the three ahead of him did the converse.
The largely one stop race run by the pack cut down on Vettel’s charging pace and Ricciardo managed a fascinating turn of pace after his tyre change, allowing him to build and maintain a ten second lead over Vettel, who had himself used his stop to pop out ahead of Bottas.
The chequered flag saw Max Verstappen win his second gran prix ever, timed for his 20th birthday, followed by Lewis Hamilton who chose to conservatively build his championship points rather than try to challenge Verstappen after he was overtaken. Hamilton admitted that he was aware that the Mercedes cars weren’t as competitive against either the Ferraris or the Red Bulls, so he chose to play the long game. “We knew going into the race that we didn’t have the quickest car,” said Hamilton. “Our deltas… Ferrari were eight-tenths faster than us, and the Red Bulls also five or six-tenths quicker, so there wasn’t really much I could do there.
“I had to really make a decision when Max was closing me down, to not fight him and risk him crashing into me, because he’s going to give it everything – he’s got nothing to lose, whereas I’ve got everything to lose. So I didn’t make it very hard for him.”
With Ricciardo bringing in the third spot on the podium, Red Bull have managed a handy double podium, while Ferrai have to console themselves with the hard fought fourth that Sebastian Vettel presented them. However Vettel was involved in a post-race incident on the in lap as he tried to swing past Lance Stroll only to find the Williams take out his left rear wheel altogether. The stewards have ruled that no further action will be taken on that.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner was ecstatic. “A great performance by the whole team today and fantastic to see Max get a well-deserved victory, after enduring so much bad luck throughout the season. I said when Max’s luck would change it would change in a dramatic way and it’s difficult to believe the last time he was on the podium was at the beginning of April in China. Today he drove a truly dominant race, making a sensational pass on Lewis and then really controlling the race from there. Daniel, after starting on the wet side of the grid, initially dropped a place to Valtteri but worked hard to get the pass done, which is incredibly hard at this circuit, and then managed to save enough in hand to fend off a fast-recovering Sebastian at the end of the race. It’s tremendous for us to sign off the last grand prix in Malaysia with a double podium and a victory, the fifth that we’ve achieved here. Our thanks to the Malaysian Grand Prix and to the many fans in Malaysia who support Red Bull; we celebrate with you today.”