Daniel Ricciardo capitalized on an engine failure for Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton in the closing stages at Sepang to pick up his first win of the 2016 Formula 1 season in a dramatic Malaysian Grand Prix.
Hamilton looked poised to retake the lead of the drivers’ championship after seeing Mercedes teammate and title rival Nico Rosberg get spun at the first corner.
However, an engine failure with 16 laps remaining saw Hamilton retire, allowing Rosberg to extend his points advantage despite only crossing the line third.
Victory looked poised to be contested for by Hamilton and Max Verstappen, only for Ricciardo to perfect his strategy and fend his teammate off for position. When Hamilton hit trouble, the Australian found himself in the pound seats, from where he went on to score his fourth grand prix victory.
Rosberg’s hopes of victory ended almost immediately when a banzai move by Sebastian Vettel at the first corner saw him first hit Verstappen and then the Mercedes driver, sending him into a spin. Vettel was forced to retire immediately with a broken front-left wheel and suspension, while Rosberg found himself outside of the top 10.
Hamilton had managed to stay out of trouble at the first corner to retain the lead when the race moved under the Virtual Safety Car following the incident. Once the race resumed, the Briton led from the Red Bull pair of Ricciardo and Verstappen, with Kimi Raikkonen sitting fourth as the sole remaining Ferrari in the race.
The first-corner fracas allowed a number of drivers to move up into the top 10 early on, most notably Fernando Alonso, who rose to P10 after just five laps despite starting last. The Spaniard passed Romain Grosjean for ninth with relative ease soon after, with the Frenchman losing time amid an ongoing brake issue. His race ended on lap nine when his brakes failed altogether, sending him into the gravel and resulting in another Virtual Safety Car period.
A number of drivers made use of the VSC to take their first pit stop, including Verstappen and Rosberg. Hamilton opted to stay out, meaning he had to push hard upon the return to green to ensure that Verstappen did not jump ahead. Rosberg dropped outside of the points again after pitting, but was soon able to rise back inside the top 10 as others came in to change tires.
Hamilton came in to make his first pit stop at the end of lap 20, filing back out behind Verstappen. Now on the hard tire, Mercedes appeared to be considering a one-stop strategy for Hamilton in response to Red Bull’s move under the VSC. For now though, the advantage lay firmly with Verstappen as he assumed the lead one lap later following Ricciardo’s stop.
Verstappen was given the call to push following Hamilton’s stop as the Briton began to reduce the gap with his fresh set of hard tires. Red Bull opted to get the Dutchman’s final stop out of the way at the end of lap 27, dropping him into clean air. While Verstappen was now able to push, Hamilton was left with the task of managing his tires to the end, his set seven laps older than those of Hamilton.
Rosberg had long been resigned to a race of damage limitation, but the German had managed to battle his way back into the top five before making his second and final stop on lap 31. With another set of hards fitted to his car, Rosberg had the pace to get past Raikkonen for P4 when the Finn began to struggle with the power on his car. An aggressive pass into Turn 2 saw the German move ahead.
Up front, Hamilton began to turn the screw. A sequence of fast laps saw the Briton move over 23 seconds clear over Verstappen, who found himself latched onto the rear of Red Bull teammate Ricciardo for second. The pair went side-by-side for almost half a lap, but Ricciardo did not give up the place, allowing Hamilton’s advantage to grow.
But Lady Luck had other ideas. At the start of lap 41 and with the race win all but his to take, Hamilton’s car began to release smoke from its rear before his engine caught fire. The Mercedes W07 Hybrid ground to a halt at the first corner, leaving Hamilton with no choice but to hop out of his car and retire from the race. Just when the championship lead had been his to take, Hamilton’s hopes of a fourth title now lay in tatters.
What had been the battle for second between Ricciardo and Verstappen now became the battle for the race win. Red Bull opted to bring both drivers in under the Virtual Safety Car and fit them with soft tires, giving Ricciardo a buffer of around two seconds. Rosberg was also brought into the pits for fresh tires, his championship lead now looking set to grow beyond 20 points, only for the stewards to give him a 10-second time penalty for his aggressive pass on Raikkonen. He now had to push to extend his advantage over the Finn in P4.
Now leading, Ricciardo was able to manage the gap to Verstappen behind through the closing stages. Despite coming under pressure from his teammate in the final few laps, the Australian kept his cool to cros the line and claim his first win in over two years.
By finishing second and capping off a Red Bull one-two, Verstappen ensured that Mercedes’ constructors’ championship celebrations had to be put on ice until the next race in Japan at the earliest.
Despite his 10-second time penalty, Rosberg was able to complete the podium in third place for Mercedes after pulling clear of Raikkonen in the final few laps. As a result, his lead over Hamilton now stands at 23 points in the drivers’ championship.
Behind Raikkonen was fellow Finn Valtteri Bottas, who perfected a one-stop strategy to cross the line fifth for Williams. Sergio Perez was P6 for Force India, which with teammate Nico Hulkenberg in eighth was enough to extend the team’s advantage over Williams in the race for fourth in the constructors’ championship.
Fernando Alonso’s fightback ended in seventh, marking a remarkable turnaround in fortunes from Saturday, while McLaren teammate Jenson Button finished P9. Fellow Briton Jolyon Palmer was 10th, scoring his first point in Formula 1 in the process.
Carlos Sainz Jr. led Toro Rosso’s charge, finishing 11th as teammate Daniil Kvyat struggled with a late brake issue, eventually being classified 14th. Marcus Ericsson was 12th for Sauber while Felipe Massa finished 13th for Williams after being forced to start from the pit lane due to an issue on the grid and then suffering a puncture.
Manor’s drivers were evenly-matched throughout the race, with Pascal Wehrlein winning the intra-team battle in P15 ahead of Esteban Ocon. Haas had a day to forget as Esteban Gutierrez suffered a front-left wheel failure, forcing him to retire just moments after Hamilton’s stoppage.
The race of the championship continues next weekend with the Japanese Grand Prix at Suzuka.