By Gary Becker
Max Verstappen is no longer a teenager and he is no longer suffering through a season seemingly endless early race retirements as the Red Bull Racing driver celebrated his 20th birthday from the top step of the podium after a dominating win in the Malaysian Grand Prix at the Sepang International Circuit. Verstappen started third on the grid and on lap four of the 56 lap race passed pole sitter Lewis Hamilton for the lead. From that point in it was Verstappen's race.
“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 tire 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.”
Following Verstappen most of the race but never able to mount a serious challenge for the lead after briefly taking the point at the start of the race, Hamilton crossed the finish line in second but was able to add to his Driver's Championship points lead.
"It was a much better weekend than we had anticipated after our Friday, considering the issues we did have with the car this is a good result." Hamilton said "But still we have a lot of work to do with the car, some of the corners really magnified the issues we have. These next races are going to be crucial in terms of ironing out some of the creases we have with the car. I was having some problems with de-rates at the beginning of the race, so I was struggling with battery power. Valtteri seemed to struggle a lot more; I was able to pull a little bit more out of it. Naturally, I wanted to win the race, winning the races is still the goal. So even to be second is not that satisfying. Today was a step towards in trying to win the world championship and every point counts."
Finishing third was Daniel Ricciardo in the second Red Bull car. Sebastian Vettel was able to close on Ricciardo but as with the other two leaders, Vettel was never able to seriously challenge Ricciardo for the final step on the podium.
“I enjoyed the race today." Ricciardo said "At the beginning I had hope that I could finish second but then after the pit stop it was just about holding on to third as Seb was coming. I was always going to get my elbows out and make it as hard as I could but I was surprised that there was only one proper attack from him. Maybe he used all the tires to get up to me and then after the attack I guess he had some problems. If I’m honest I would have liked a bit more of a fight until the closing stages just to have made it a little more exciting as the last few laps were kind of lonely. This double podium is a very positive result for us today. Obviously Max got the big one and drove well so congrats to him for the win; he drove strong all weekend. There were a few extra bits available for the cars here and I think we’re going to try that again in Suzuka; it looks positive for us at the high downforce circuits.”
After Verstappen passed Hamilton for the lead early in the race there was little action among the leaders as the real racing was going on back in the pack. Vettel started last on the grid due to a power unit failure during qualifying. Once lights went out to the start the race Vettel wasted little time marching toward the front of the pack. By the end of the first lap Vettel had passed seven cars. By lap 21 he was fifth and by lap 30 he was fourth and closing on Ricciardo.
“I am still optimistic, because we know that we have a quick car." added Vettel "Of course it was a shame for Kimi who couldn’t take the start, and for me having to begin my race from the back of the grid. We tried to fight for the podium, pushed very hard, but in the end the tires were starting to give up and we couldn’t be really there. However, it is promising to see the car is good, even if both Kimi and I hit trouble this weekend. I don’t know yet if the issue is the same on both cars, we’ll need to have a look. For sure it’s not ideal having one car out yesterday and another one today. So, there’s something we need to understand. It’s been a difficult weekend, but nevertheless the speed is there. So far we’ve had a pretty good record for this year regarding reliability. I am not that worried to be honest, but we need to get on top of the problem.”
Raikkonen's problems started and finished early as he lined up on the front row of the grid, but warning signs showed up on his lap out of the garage and a problem on his SF70H meant he was unable to take the start.
“We don’t know what happened today, it’s too early to say." said a disappointed Raikkonen "The car had been working perfectly all weekend and suddenly, out of nothing, we had an issue. It’s one of those things that unfortunately can happen. Car and speed wise we have been very good, but then unfortunately Seb had problems yesterday and we had ours today. I’m pretty sure that I would have had a very good car today, but obviously you never know and it’s pointless to start guessing. We have a good package, but we have to take the most out of it. What happened today is very disappointing and hurts all of us, but there’s nothing we can change right now. The next race is a new challenge again, we’ll go there as in any race weekend, and then we’ll see where we are.”
Hamilton with 281 points leads the Drivers’ Championship by 34 points from Sebastian Vettel who has 247 points, with Valtteri Bottas in third with 222 points. Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS Motorsport with 503 points extended the lead over Ferrari with 385 points in the Constructors’ Championship to 118 points.
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