Sean Kelly, C4F1 Statistician
As birthday presents go, victory in Sunday’s Malaysia Grand Prix has to rank among the best Max Verstappen has received in his 20 years so far.
Following an audacious pass on Lewis Hamilton for the lead at the start of lap four, the Dutchman never looked troubled as he cruised home to a second career victory by almost 13 seconds over Hamilton – for whom second place could almost be considered a win, given the misfortunes of chief title rival Sebastian Vettel.
Verstappen’s triumph was certainly well-deserved. Coming into Sunday, the Red Bull driver had retired from 50% of the races this season, leaving him 94 points behind his teammate (and 2016 Malaysia GP race winner) Daniel Ricciardo. His only previous podium this year came in China, all the way back on April 9.
On Saturday – Verstappen’s actual birthday – his pole chances were blown away by majestic laps from Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen, but he still outqualified Ricciardo for the 11th time this year, becoming the first driver ever to clinch a season head-to-head qualifying battle against Ricciardo in his career.
His race day success coincidentally saw him lead 51 laps, the exact same number of laps Verstappen had led in the rest of his F1 career to-date. With the win, he became the fifth different race winner of 2017, joining Ricciardo, Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Sebastian Vettel. This is the highest number in the turbo hybrid era (and Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen still hasn’t won in 2017, nor has he done so since the end of the V8 era).
Perhaps the most surprising stat of the entire weekend was that Verstappen’s win made Sepang – now set to disappear from the F1 calendar for at least the foreseeable future – the only circuit on which Mercedes AMG have failed to win for three consecutive seasons since the turbo hybrid era began in 2014.
Red Bull claimed back-to-back successes on a single circuit for the first time since Sebastian Vettel clinched the 2013 title with victory in India, having also won the 2012 event. Red Bull also got both cars on the podium in Malaysia for the second year running, as Daniel Ricciardo claimed a top three finish for the eighth time in 2017, adding to his win last year.
Lewis Hamilton matched Michael Schumacher’s Malaysia GP record five pole positions in qualifying with what may stand as the outright track record at Sepang for decades to come (at least if F1 does not return).
His pole time of 1:30.076 was 9.612 SECONDS (!) quicker than Schumacher’s pole time the inaugural Sepang event back in 1999, which itself was 0.947s quicker than anyone else managed that weekend! Hamilton may have had to give best to Verstappen on race day, but second place moves him closer to a fourth world title, increasing his points lead to 34.
The Englishman has now gone a full year without failing to score or posting a retirement, as the last such occurrence came when his engine failed while leading at Sepang in 2016. His 20-race scoring streak is the longest of his F1 career, although interestingly Sunday was the first time Hamilton was on the podium without actually winning since Bahrain, the third race of the year.
He may not have finished on the podium, but Sebastian Vettel’s storming comeback drive from last on the grid was the standout performance of Sunday, and he came close to becoming the first man to ever finish on the podium in Malaysia when starting outside the top ten on the grid.
Vettel’s fourth place came after a mechanical problem saw him knocked out in Q1 for the first time since Singapore last year (also car-related). He came close to dislodging Daniel Ricciardo for third late on, but the fact that he didn’t was great news for numerologists. After Sunday, Vettel has 46 wins in his career, and then exactly 25 second places, 25 third places and now 25 fourth places as well!
In reality, any points finish for the German was a positive, having been out at the first corner of this race last year, out on the first lap in Singapore two weeks ago, and out of qualifying in Malaysia without setting a time. In contrast, his teammate Kimi Raikkonen has now completed approximately 300 metres in the last two Grands Prix combined.
Raikkonen’s superb Q3 lap only just failed to usurp Hamilton for pole (which00 would have been his first-ever pole in 15 visits to Malaysia), and the 2003 and 2008 race winner was set to be a major player in the race, only for Ferrari’s mechanical gremlins to strike on the way to the grid, leading to the Finn being dramatically pushed back to the pits just minutes before the start.
Once in the garage the car never re-emerged, leaving Raikkonen with his first did-not-start credited to him since the infamous 2005 United States Grand Prix in which all the Michelin-shod competitors withdrew. This may be the weekend where the chances a Ferrari constructors’ title realistically ended, as they are now 118 points behind Mercedes with only five races remaining.
The size of that gap was partly down to Valtteri Bottas’ fifth place, but although he’s now finished in that position at the last three Malaysia GPs in a row, it was a strangely anonymous performance from the Finn, finishing 56 seconds behind Verstappen, and 43 seconds behind his own teammate Hamilton. He’s also yet to get within 0.541s of Hamilton in qualifying since the end of the summer break.
It has been a trying few weeks on personal and professional fronts for Sergio Perez, after a major earthquake in his home nation of Mexico, as well as competing in the oppressive Malaysia heat and humidity despite battling illness. Given the circumstances, sixth place was an excellent return, matching his result from the 2016 race.
He began the day tied on points with Max Verstappen in the drivers’ championship, and if his chances of an unlikely top six finish in the drivers’ championship receded with Verstappen’s victory, Force India are all-but-certain to finish in the top four in the constructors’ equivalent for the second consecutive season – they have more than double the points of fifth-placed Williams (133-65).
The ill-starred McLaren Honda reunion will come to an end after this season, but Malaysia was a really positive weekend for the alliance. Both cars reached Q3 for the second consecutive race, and in a surprise result it was Stoffel Vandoorne leading the charge, qualifying a career-best seventh, three places and 0.122s ahead of Fernando Alonso.
Vandoorne was fifth at the end of the first lap – the highest he’s ever been in a Grand Prix to date – and although he ultimately dropped behind Sergio Perez and Sebastian Vettel, he finished seventh for a second race running, moving him ahead of Alonso in the championship.
This raises the genuine prospect that Alonso could be beaten over the course of a season by a man with only one Grand Prix to his name prior to 2017, underscoring the talent that was obvious in Vandoorne when he romped away with the 2015 GP2 title with four races to spare.
In another stat you wouldn’t necessarily associate with McLaren, Vandoorne has also finished eight of the last nine races. If this had been their performance level at the start of the year, things might have been so different…
Williams had a better-than-expected weekend as Lance Stroll and Felipe Massa came home eighth and ninth. For Massa, this was a 12th top ten finish on the track where he scored his first career F1 points way back in 2002, while for Stroll this was his sixth points finish in the last nine races.
Filling out the top ten, perhaps inevitably, was Esteban Ocon, who recorded a 24th F1 race finish in 24 races – one short of Max Chilton’s all-time record for consecutive finishes to start an F1 career. He has now been running at the finish of his last 42 single-seater races. His last retirement was on the first lap of the 2014 Macau F3 race.
Ocon’s finishing streak is overshadowing just how good his race performances have been. He has 14 points finishes this year, a number beaten only by championship-leader Lewis Hamilton (15).
No analysis of this race would be complete without mentioning the bizarre cooldown lap collision between Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll, especially as it could have knock-on effects for the championship. Because Vettel was a classified finisher, if he requires a new gearbox for the Japanese GP he would incur a five-place gearbox penalty.
Add that penalty to his first lap retirement in Singapore and his mechanical failure in qualifying in Malaysia, and you could be forgiven for thinking fortune is on the side of Lewis Hamilton as the championship enters the home stretch.
One person assuredly out of luck is Daniil Kvyat. In the space of 18 months he’s been demoted from a plum drive at Red Bull back down to Toro Rosso, and in Malaysia he found himself out of a drive altogether, as Toro Rosso elected to run reigning F2 champion Pierre Gasly.
By bizarre coincidence, the two occasions on which Kvyat has been stood down are the two Grands Prix won by Max Verstappen, the man who usurped him from Red Bull. If he sent Verstappen a birthday card this weekend, enclosing a gift voucher will have been unnecessary…