Max Verstappen marked his birthday weekend in style on Sunday by claiming his first win this year and the second victory of his meteoric Formula One career at an action-packed and sweltering Malaysian Grand Prix.
The young Dutchman, who turned 20 on Saturday, came home a comfortable first for Red Bull, 12.7 seconds ahead of Mercedes’ pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton.
Verstappen’s teammate, Australian Daniel Ricciardo, completed the podium – his eighth of the season.
Hamilton, who was careful to manage his race without undue risks, increased his lead in the Drivers’ World Championship to 34 points, but he struggled for pure pace and was in subdued mood after the race.
Sebastian Vettel, who suffered engine problems in qualifying, finished fourth for Ferrari after a searing drive through the field from the back of the grid, but he was unable to force his way past Ricciardo’s resistance on a day of Red Bull celebrations at the final Malaysian event.
“After the season I’ve had so far, this victory has come at a very good time,” said an exhausted Verstappen, who had to rest his neck in the closing laps.
“From the beginning, the car felt good and I could see Lewis was struggling.
“I had some speed and I knew I could speed up if I needed to.
“It is just incredible to win.”
Verstappen, who has been forced to retire from half of this year’s races due to mechanical problems, had not enjoyed a podium finish since the Chinese Grand Prix in April.
Vettel ended the afternoon on three wheels after a bizarre incident on the slow-down lap when he was in a collision with Canadian rookie Lance Stroll’s Williams – the Ferrari’s rear left wheel wrenched into the air behind his cockpit.
It was a miserable conclusion to another disappointing weekend for Ferrari after Kimi Raikkonen had been forced to withdraw from the contest at the start when his car was wheeled away from second on the grid with engine problems.
Hamilton, who started from the 70th pole of his career without a car alongside him, took the early lead, but as he struggled with inconsistent battery power he could not resist Verstappen’s attack at Turn 1 on lap four.
“That’s how we do it!” said the Dutchman as a big contingent of his fans celebrated.
“I could have closed that door, but I didn’t want to take any risks,” retorted Hamilton afterwards.
“Big congratulations to Max. He needed that. The race was a tough one – they (Red Bull) just had the upper hand on us today.”
Ricciardo beamed one of his biggest smiles on the podium, where fellow Aussie Mark Webber carried out the interviews.
“That was a great race, and Max drove well all weekend,” Ricciardo said.
“Seb came so quickly at the end and I thought I was going to have a handful.”
Asked about the title race, with five rounds remaining, Hamilton was calm.
“I feel good, but still have work to do and there are some race we can win for sure.”
Behind the top four, Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas came home fifth ahead of Sergio Perez of Force India, who had been feeling unwell before the race, and Belgian Stoffel Vandoorne, who was a promising seventh for McLaren Honda.
Stroll was eighth ahead of his teammate, Brazilian veteran Felipe Massa, with French rookie Esteban Ocon taking 10th place in the second Force India ahead of Spaniard Fernando Alonso in the second McLaren.
Vettel, who hitched a lift back to pits on the side of German Pascal Wehrlein's Sauber, taking his steering wheel with him, now trails Hamilton by 34 points with five races to go after three dismal events for Ferrari in Italy, Singapore and Malaysia.
His drive on Sunday, using a new engine, was spectacular confirmation of his talent, but he was unable to show the speed that his Ferrari had promised earlier in the weekend and may go into next weekend’s Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka facing a penalty for taking a new gearbox.
Vettel was adamant Stroll was to blame for their bizarre post-race shunt.
“That’s impossible!” he said. “Stroll’s not looking where he’s going. He’s shunted into my car.”
The Canadian saw it differently. “Vettel just drove into the side of me,” he said.
The race stewards chose to take no further action.
Verstappen’s victory made him the fifth different driver to win this year – the first time since the new turbo era began in 2013.