SEPANG: Max Verstappen celebrated his birthday by winning the Malaysian Grand Prix in style on Sunday, while Lewis Hamilton finished second to extend his championship lead over Sebastian Vettel.
Vettel started the race from last but drove brilliantly to take fourth place behind Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo and limit the damage to his own title hopes. Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen did not even start, despite qualifying in second place. Moments before the race, mechanics wheeled Raikkonen’s car back to the garage but could not get it ready.
Hamilton secured the 70th pole of his career in qualifying, and his fourth straight in Malaysia, while Vettel failed to set a time because of an engine problem.
The day after turning 20, Verstappen turned on the style, making a fine move to overtake Hamilton on lap 4 and then held his nerve with his father watching from the team garage.
Hamilton’s only win in Malaysia was in 2014. He led comfortably last year but retired with engine failure.
Vettel’s last win came at the Hungarian GP before the summer break, moving him 14 points clear of Hamilton. But the British driver has won three of four races since and now leads Vettel by 34 points with five races remaining.
“Welcome to being a 20-year-old,” Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said. “Great start to a new decade for you.”
His father, the former F1 driver Jos Verstappen, looked emotional as his son stood on the podium. Horner also appeared teary-eyed.
Dutch fans poured onto the grid to join in the celebrations, with one fan applauding with a pair of clogs.
Vettel saved Ferrari’s blushes with a superb drive but, as if Ferrari’s luck could not get any worse, Williams driver Lance Stroll smashed into the side of him on the warm-down lap, cutting the Ferrari almost in half.
“That’s impossible,” a stunned Vettel said. “Stroll’s not looking where he’s going. He’s shunted into my car.”
In a light-hearted moment, the German driver hitched a lift back to the paddock the novel way — by sitting on the side of countryman Pascal Wehrlein’s Sauber.
Verstappen won the Spanish GP on his Red Bull debut last year, and became the youngest driver on the front row when he qualified second for Monaco. He was still 18.
Up until Sunday, however, his season had been blighted by engine problems. Since placing third at the Chinese GP — the second race this season — he failed to finish seven times.
Two weeks ago, he was taken out on Turn 1 by Vettel and had to retire.
But his luck held this time, and he delivered an exceptionally composed performance in keeping with the predictions that he will become a future great.
Despite being one of the favorite tracks for drivers, the Sepang circuit will no longer host races due to dwindling attendances.
It will hold particularly fond memories for Verstappen, but not for Ferrari.
Hamilton made a clean start — although with no car next to him on the front row, that was hardly difficult.
Verstappen drew cheers from the Sepang crowd after sweeping past Hamilton, who failed to defend his position aggressively enough.
Valtteri Bottas made a great start from fifth to third, overtaking Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo, but was soon under pressure from the Australian.
Since signing a new Mercedes contract for next year, Bottas has hit a poor spell of form and he finished fifth.
Vettel drove like someone keen to defy the odds.
He found just enough room to squeeze inside two-time F1 champion Fernando Alonso on lap 10 — a textbook overtaking move — to move 10th and into the points. At this point, Raikkonen was already in his shorts and walking back to the Ferrari motorhome.
Vettel might even have caught Ricciardo, moving to within one second of the Australian driver late on, but Alonso — a backmarker at this stage — held him up for a few seconds.
“Come on Alonso. Really? I know you are better than that,” Vettel said.
Behind the podium battle, drivers lost their cool in the humid conditions.
Alonso called Kevin Magnussen “an idiot” after overtaking him, while Force India’s Esteban Ocon ranted about Felipe Massa of Williams. Then, it was Magnussen’s turn as he labeled Jolyon Palmer “a lunatic” after tangling with the Renault driver.
Toro Rosso’s Carlos Sainz Jr., meanwhile, retired with an engine problem — two weeks after a career-best fourth place in Singapore. –AP