=
2017 Malaysian Grand Prix
Sepang Circuit, Kuala Lumpur
text | Richard Kelley
Photos | Thomas Lam
Translation | Thomas Lam
Edit | Henry Lau
Design | Franco Au-Yeung

One day after turning 20-years old, Max Verstappen gave himself the ultimate birthday gift, his second career Formula 1 win in the Malaysian Grand Prix. The race saw massive swings of emotion; Sebastian Vettel’s stirring comeback after his Ferrari missed qualifying and started last and Kimi Räikkönen’s car failing to take the start to continue the Scuderia’s run of bazaar misfortune.

Pole sitter and second place finisher Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes had no answer to the rapid Dutchman’s pace, yet increased his lead in the championship by six ahead of Vettel. Hamilton now leads Vettel by 34 points with five races remaining.

Expectations

Beginning in 1990, Malaysia began a national push to become a fully industrialised nation by 2020, and they sought to achieve that end through automotive business. Malaysia saw its premier oil company, Petronas invest in Formula One through first Sauber and then Mercedes, while Malaysia’s national automotive firm, Proton, bought Grand Prix heritage firm Lotus Engineering. The nation also committed to building the Sepang International Circuit, a FIA-graded Grand Prix track, with designer Hermann Tilke. It debuted in 1999.

His creation combines long high-speed straights, twin DRS-zones and tight twisting complexes. However, he also gave it a broad width enabling overtaking and a smooth track surface that was gentle on tyres. During its 19 race F1 rotation, there have been 11 different winners. The Malaysian government is removing Sepang from the FIA calendar after this season. While negotiations continue between F1 owners, Liberty Media, the owners are treating the 2017 Malaysian Grand Prix as the circuit’s swan song. It will be missed.

Engineers set up the cars for Sepang by dialling in low-speed mechanical grip for Turns 1 and 2, and high-speed aerodynamic trim for the long straights to take particular advantage of the double DRS zones to pass. Then, they make sure that there is just enough roll to have accurate turn-in for Turn 6. With driver’s losing more than five percent of their body weight due to the tracks ferocious heat and humidity, the cars must maintain optimum levels of power steering and braking to ease fatigue.

Qualifying

Kimi Räikkönen stands as the only driver to have started in the top five in every race in 2017. In Sepang, he also held up Ferrari’s honour following Sebastian Vettel’s power unit failure. He would start second, next to a baffled Lewis Hamilton. Both he and teammate Valtteri Bottas had struggled with their no-grip Mercedes on Friday’s ultra-humid FP1-FP2. Saturday was a different story.

“We had no idea how it was going to go – and I’m sorry for what happened to Seb,” said Hamilton. “But we turned it around, and I’m grateful.”

Verstappen beat his team-mate Ricciardo by 0.050s to take third place and would start on the second row.

“It’s good for us to be in this position in qualifying. On my birthday to be third here is perfect,” said newly 20-year-old Verstappen. His orange-covered fans’ post-qualifying celebrations seemed in agreement.

Bottas would start fifth, next to Force India’s Esteban Ocon who out-qualified ninth place, Perez. Ocon remains the only driver to never drop below his starting position on the first lap of a Grand Prix this season.

Overview

Max Verstappen romped to a dominant victory in the Malaysian Grand Prix, finishing 12-seconds clear of championship leader Lewis Hamilton and more than 22-seconds ahead of Red Bull teammate Danial Ricciardo.

Incredibly, with just six minutes to go before the start, Ferrari crewmen pushed the Ferrari of the second qualifier Kimi Räikkönen behind the pit wall after Räikkönen, running with an old turbo unit, reported he had no power during the reconnaissance lap.

By all appearances, Räikkönen’s power unit fell victim to the same cracked manifold failure suffered by Vettel in FP3-Q1. Given the torrid pace of both Ferraris in FP1-FP2, Vettel should have had the pole to lead Räikkönen to a “Scuderia Sunday” 1-2. It was not to be.

Despite the Ferrari technicians’ herculean effort to restore power for qualifying, Vettel’s SF70H failed to complete a lap, forcing him to start 20th and last on the grid.

With Vettel’s qualifying setback, Räikkönen carried the weight of the world on his shoulders; he needed to win and take as many points away as he could from Hamilton. Now that was all up in smoke.

At the start, Verstappen leapt from third on the grid to second thanks to the space left by Räikkönen’s grid retirement and comfortably trailed Hamilton into the first turn. Bottas was up from fourth to challenge Verstappen wheel-to-wheel, but the Dutchman would have none of it. By lap 4, Verstappen had built up his full momentum, outbraking Hamilton into Turn 1 and then quickly establishing an eight-second buffer between himself and the current championship leader.

On Lap 9, Ricciardo was moving up too. He attacked Valtteri Bottas going wheel-to-wheel just inches apart through Turns 1 and 2, finally being able to claim the spot at Turn 4. Bottas carried on quietly to his fifth-place finish, 44-seconds behind his teammate.

Following tyre change pitstops, Verstappen easily reestablished that gap over Hamilton. From there, he cruised to victory, taking the flag 12.7-seconds ahead of the Brit.

Sebastian Vettel put in a heroic drive from last on the grid to challenge fourth qualifier Daniel Ricciardo for third place. He had burst up from last on the grid, using the slower soft tyres to claim twelfth by lap 4; sixth by lap 14.

After changing to the faster super-soft tyre on L28, Vettel lit up the track, stringing together the fastest race laps in Malaysian GP history to chase down Ricciardo for third place. However, Vettel’s tyres began to lose grip on lap 49 just as he closed the gap to within 0.5-seconds behind Ricciardo in Turn 1. Riccardo placed his Red Bull strategically, not providing the German with even a sniff of the position. From there, Vettel’s tyres cried “enough” as the gap between them increased to 14.8-seconds at the checkers.

Rounding out the finishing order was Sergio Perez in sixth, racing with a painful stomach virus. McLaren’s Stoffel Vandoorne put in his best F1 performance to date to claim seventh ahead of the battling William’s twins, Lance Stroll and Felipe Massa. Force India’s Estaban Ocon continued his patient point collection, here taking the last point in a very outpaced car.

Timing

Up until Sepang, it had been a disastrous season for Verstappen who had scored just one podium in 2017 and trailed teammate Ricciardo by 96 points in the drivers’ standings. Verstappen purposely selected a different setup than Ricciardo in Sepang, choosing a high downforce setup compared to Ricciardo’s low downforce/high-speed approach. With it, Max had a difficult FP3, as he struggled with the balance of the car, but from Q1 to Q3 his car was on rails, and that grip carried through to the race and his second win.

Youth

With Verstappen’s Sepang victory, he becomes both the first and the second youngest driver to win a Grand Prix. His first victory came last year in Spain at 18 years, 228 days. That also made him the youngest driver to lead a race and the youngest podium finisher. His Malaysian win gave him position number two as well.

Verstappen displaced Sebastian Vettel as the youngest winner who, before Verstappen’s charge, held the record at 21 years, 73 days. Verstappen now has 437 days remaining to cement the third position and perhaps the fourth position as well. As his contract ends in 2018, I imagine he’s wondering how many more “youngest” victory and championship records he might ring up with a Ferrari or Mercedes.

Speed

Ferrari came to Malaysia hungry for redemption from the Singapore debacle. They brought ungraded power units for both Vettel and Räikkönen which had run without problem on the test bed in Maranello before being shipped to Malaysia The first indication of an issue only came up during Q1 with the broken manifold that fed air from the compressor to the internal combustion unit.

Knowing that Vettel’s last-on-the-grid starting position carried with it freedom from further “position” penalties, Ferrari also installed a new internal combustion engine, a new MGU-H and a new turbo. Vettel’s explosive speed in Malaysia should carry forward the remainder of the season, with Suzuka, being forecast as wet, allowing the Ferrari’s chassis balance and wide set-up window to provide Vettel with a chance to regain ground.

Grip

Should Suzuka and or Brazil be wet, look for both Red Bulls to be in a position to help Vettel’s championship hopes as well by pulling points from Mercedes. Comparing the recent Singapore-Malaysian Red Bull Renault package with this season’s debut chassis in Melbourne, this is now the best wet-weather car in the field.

Hope

To paraphrase Charles Dickens, “it was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of patience and experience, it was the age of impetuosity and speed, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the October of hope… it was the September of despair.”

It’s now on to a possibly wet Japan, a warm Austin and a humid Brazil. Time to forget about September. October is Ferrari’s month of “Great Expectations”, and Mercedes knows the title fight is not over by any means.