Max Verstappen’s Malaysian Grand Prix win testament to his determination | Giles Richards

The driver controlled his pace out front, matched Lewis Hamilton in every department and showed why he is a prodigious talent with a competitive car

Positivity pays for Verstappen

It has been a torrid year for Max Verstappen, who, following pre-season hopes that he would be in a championship fight, were swiftly dashed after seven DNFs. Taking the much-deserved win in Malaysia was a testament to how, despite his sometimes obvious frustration, he has kept his mind on the game. He had said at the Hungarian Grand Prix that he was focusing on making the best of every weekend regardless of the setbacks and when he finally had an opportunity to do so he made it count.

He drove a skilful and mature race that belies the fact he has just turned 20. He controlled his pace out front, able to match Lewis Hamilton whenever the British driver upped the ante, and showed why he is such a prodigious talent with a properly competitive car. His relief and joy were palpable and rightly so, as Christian Horner, the Red Bull principal, acknowledged. “It’s great for Max, he has endured so much bad luck,” he said. “But he has never let his head drop too much. I am so pleased for him. Last time he was on the podium was in April. This is just the injection that he needed.”

Mercedes must work fast

After a weekend that left Mercedes once again scratching their heads as to why they could not extract the performance they needed, they must address it quickly. Suzuka is next weekend, leaving them little time to ascertain how they can adapt to what Hamilton called a “fundamental issue” with their car. The British driver was positive after the post-race debrief but strongly believes that the “diva”‑like characteristics of his ride are inherent to this year’s design.

So there will be no straightforward fix for Japan. But the upgrades they brought to Malaysia clearly made the situation worse at this track and they must now consider how best to use them for the next round. The team’s executive director, Toto Wolff, admitted that they were at best P5 on pace, behind both Red Bull and Ferrari and that tyres and temperatures were yet again integral to why their machinery presents such a conundrum.

Ferrari take heart from difficult days

By any usual standards this was a shocking weekend for Ferrari. They had installed a new, upgraded engine but suffered two hugely costly failures. Sebastian Vettel’s turbo problem put him to the back of the grid, and what is believed to be a similar issue prevented Kimi Raikkonen from even starting the race. Having recovered to fourth, and with Hamilton only second, Vettel had succeeded in minimising his losses as far as might have been expected. However, his collision with Lance Stroll at turn five on the slowing down lap may diminish much of the impressive efforts he had made during the race.

He took major damage and will face a grid penalty if a new gearbox is required for Suzuka. Yet Vettel and the Ferrari principal, Maurizio Arrivabene, remain upbeat. Their engine showed great promise and the race pace was hugely impressive on a track expected to favour Mercedes. Without their problems their form had the potential for a one-two in Malaysia. They remain up against it in the championship battle but have at least suggested they are able to make a fight of it in the remaining five races.

Sebastian Vettel started from the back of the grid at the Malaysian Grand Prix.
Sebastian Vettel started from the back of the grid at the Malaysian Grand Prix. Photograph: Pixathlon/HZ/SIPA/REX/Shutterstock

Young guns firing

A performance that justifies McLaren’s faith and confidence in Stoffel Vandoorne will have been hugely pleasing to the team and driver. He out-qualified his team-mate Fernando Alonso, in seventh to the Spaniard’s ninth and beat him on the track. The Belgian ran as high as fifth before closing out a classy display with seventh place in the race. The 25-year-old has always had strong ability, he won the GP2 championship in 2015 by a 108-point margin over Alexander Rossi, but has struggled to show it in his first full season in F1.

The McLaren has very much been built around Alonso and beginning his career with the lack of power and reliability problems of its Honda power unit was a baptism of fire for Vandoorne. He has struggled but in Malaysia proved his mettle and outraced his team-mate, who could manage only 11th. Credit, too, to Pierre Gasly, who made a strong F1 debut for Toro Rosso. He finished in 14th despite enduring back pain throughout the race because of an uncomfortable seating position. He will drive again for Toro Rosso at Suzuka before returning to the same track two weeks later, where he has a chance to win the Japanese Super Formula series.

Racing matters most

It may have been a fairly long-winded way to state the obvious but when, over the weekend, F1’s owners revealed the results of a major survey of fans it turned out that racing was the most important aspect of the sport. Their survey – conducted across 14,000 people from the UK, US, Germany, Italy, Brazil, China and Russia – concluded that for 55% it was the racing that appealed most. A third of those polled also wanted to better understand the technology behind the cars, which displays a singular failure of the sport to properly promote the hugely complex and technologically advanced power units of the turbo-hybird era.

It also focused on “segmentation”, dividing fans according to responses with the two most engaged groups dubbed “excitables” and “purists”, sobriquets which would doubtless cause most horror. Perhaps most interesting, however, was that a significant proportion of those two groups were from the US and China – both areas where the sport has always felt it needed to make more of an impression. Certainly it is a strong indicator at least that the Formula One Group’s intention to increase the number of GPs in the US has some numbers to back it up.


Giles Richards

The GuardianTramp

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