F1 Malaysian Grand Prix: Vettel outfoxes Mercedes to win Malaysia thriller

An inspired Sebastian Vettel has taken Ferrari to its first F1 victory in 35 races after strategically out-foxing Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg to win an enthralling Malaysian Grand Prix. A decision to remain on track during an early safety car period would prove a shrewd one as Vettel focused on his own two-stop strategy, while Mercedes’ attempt to get the jump by pitting early and getting the less favourable tyres out of the way fell foul as it couldn’t recover the difference in its three stops during the final stages.
Sebastian Vettel
Sebastian Vettel

Coming in only Vettel’s second outing as a Ferrari driver, his performance marks the Scuderia’s first win since the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix and the first non-Mercedes winner since the 2014 Belgian Grand Prix.

A faultless race from start-to-finish, though it was Hamilton that got the better start from pole position, Vettel successfully rebuffed the attentions of Rosberg behind him to hold position in second, while Daniel Ricciardo, the fast-starting Felipe Massa and Danill Kvyat rounded out the early top six.

Further back, scuffles would break out with Pastor Maldonado – who crashed out on lap one in Australia – suffering a puncture at the first turn, a fate that would also befall Kimi Raikkonen at the start of lap two when his left-rear was clipped by Felipe Nasr into the last bend, forcing all three to pit.

With Marcus Ericsson spinning out on lap four, the arrival of the safety car would ultimately change the landscape of the race as Hamilton and Rosberg both dived for the pit lane, the latter being forced to queue behind his better placed team-mate and the pair emerging on the harder prime tyre in an effort to get the jump early on.

Crucially, however, Vettel would decide to stay on track and persevere with the option tyres in an effort to escape with the benefit of a clear track. A strategy replicated by fellow non-stoppers, Hulkenberg, Romain Grosjean, Carlos Sainz and Sergio Perez, it would leave Hamilton in fifth and Rosberg eighth, the latter losing time in his stop to end up behind Daniel Ricciardo and Felipe Massa too.

As the only drivers to gamble on the prime tyre at this stage, progress through the slower pack was relatively conservative, though a flurry for passes for Hamilton on lap ten would see him creep up to second place, while Rosberg would take another four laps to ascend to third place.

Vettel, meanwhile, had used the advantage to get the hammer down, extending his lead to ten seconds by the time Hamilton had clambered his way through the pack, the option showing respectable longevity before he conceded to the pit lane on lap 18 to fit another set of option rubber.

Promoting Hamilton into the lead, eight seconds clear of Rosberg, Vettel rejoined in third place a further four seconds back. However, with fresh option tyres, Vettel was quickly on the tail of Rosberg and within three laps was past into second position with an easy overtake into the final bend.

From here, Vettel charged on to reel in Hamilton – now struggling as the prime tyre wilted -, catching him at a rate of three seconds per lap before overtaking with ease on lap 24 just as the defending champion peeled into the pit lane.

Allowing Vettel back in front, Hamilton returned to the track with comparable – albeit fresher – option tyres, but would have trouble making significant in-roads on his rival. With one stop each remaining, it was anticipated that Hamilton would switch to the option tyre for a quick final stint, unlike Vettel who had to use the harder compound.

However, Mercedes would opt to fit another set of the harder compound given its only remaining set of option tyres were too heavily scrubbed from earlier use in the weekend for the conditions which remained upwards of 50 degrees. It meant – with Vettel back in front due to the pit sequence – Hamilton was forced to test the Mercedes’ pace relative to the Ferrari on the same rubber and hunt him down, with 14 seconds the difference and 17 laps remaining.

It would prove a futile effort though, Hamilton’s gains being measured in tenths rather than the seconds he needed, Vettel keeping it neat at the front to make it to the chequered flag with a sizeable 8.5secs advantage over an audibly irritated Hamilton, who aired his frustrations over tyre choice, strategy and being ‘spoken to in the corners’ on more than one occasion.

Similarly, Rosberg was left floundering in the heat of the day, the German never really recovering from losing time in the pit sequence, ending the race 12secs off the front and four seconds behind Hamilton.

Proof of Vettel and the Mercedes’ swift pace, fourth place Kimi Raikkonen would end up more than 50secs adrift, though the Finn put in his own marvellous performance as he fought back from his early pit-stop, at the very least proving the renewed speed of the Ferrari, if also his own bad luck.

An entertaining race with tussles throughout the field, Williams’ Valtteri Bottas and Felipe Massa’s fight for fifth came down to the very final lap with the Finn getting the better of his more experienced team-mate with a daring last lap overtake.

Similarly, Max Verstappen prevailed in a tense inter-team battle with Toro Rosso counterpart Carlos Sainz, the Dutchman showing a series of smart overtaking passes – including on the Red Bull cars – to belie his experience to secure a remarkable seventh place result in only his second event, while Sainz too can at least take pleasure from his eighth place having started 14th.

Max Verstappen
Max Verstappen

If Toro Rosso enjoyed a strong event, Red Bull endured a fraught one with Daniil Kvyat recovering to ninth place despite being tipped into a spin by Hulkenberg at turn two on lap 25, and finishing ahead of Daniel Ricciardo, who spent much of his day battling a rear guard action as front-wing and braking issues limited his speed.

Missing out on the points, Lotus’ Romain Grosjean ran as high as third at one stage after adopting a similar strategy to Vettel, but was compromised when he was struck by Sergio Perez at turn 12, forcing him into a high-speed spin that he couldn’t recover to the points from.

A scruffy race after his impressive performance in Australia, Felipe Nasr was a distant 12th on a disappointing day for Sauber, while Perez and Hulkenberg couldn’t sustain their early promise as they faded rapidly towards the end in the Force India, only to be handed 10secs penalty for causing their respective incidents.

McLaren, meanwhile, suffered a costly double DNF despite showing promising pace at times, Alonso running up to eighth at one point, only to pull out on lap 21, while Button followed suit on lap 40.