P3 on grid in Malaysia a ‘good birthday present’ for Max Verstappen

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Max Verstappen has called third place on the grid for the Malaysian Grand Prix a “pretty good birthday present” after turning 20 on Saturday in Sepang.

Verstappen made his F1 debut at the tender age of 17 and became the sport’s youngest ever winner at 18, but can no longer be called a “teen sensation”.

Nevertheless, Verstappen once again displayed his undeniable talent by taking third on the grid in Malaysia despite Red Bull’s fears it would lag behind both Mercedes and Ferrari in the dry.

Verstappen finished just half a second back from pole-sitter Lewis Hamilton, giving him encouragement for the race on Sunday.

“Third in qualifying is a pretty good birthday present today. The whole weekend I was not fully happy with the car and in the last practice session I didn’t have the perfect balance, but in qualifying we managed to pull it together and the car was pretty good,” Verstappen said.

“To be four or five tenths off pole position on this track and knowing they can turn up their engines in qualifying means we are doing a good job. I think on the long runs we are a bit more competitive so I’m definitely looking forward to tomorrow.”

Having retired from six races so far this season, Verstappen’s main aim is getting to the finish line in Singapore and picking up some much-needed points, given he currently sits level with Force India’s Sergio Perez in the constructors’ championship.

“So far on Saturdays I’ve been a happy guy and on Sundays that has changed. Let’s hope it is different tomorrow and I’m sure we can have a good race,” Verstappen said.

“I’m also hoping for no sandwiches!”

Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo will start fourth, having slipped half a tenth of a second back from Verstappen in Q3.

“I did all I could today and I think we both got the most out of the car,” Ricciardo said. “We’re half a second from Lewis around here so I think we can be pretty happy with that. It gives us a chance in the race tomorrow even if it’s dry.

“I would have loved to be on third today, but that half a tenth was actually Max’s birthday gift from me and I wanted to start on fourth really, because that’s where I started last year and I won.

“This is obviously all planned in my mind. I did a bit of a lift of the throttle just before the finish line, so yeah, it’s of course all calculated…”

Jack Miller wins the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix as Fabio Quartararo stops his downward points’ slide

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Jack Miller ran away with the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix at Motegi as Fabio Quartararo stopped his downward slide in the championship when a last-lap accident from his closest rival in the standings caused Francesco Bagnaia to score zero points.

Starting seventh, Miller quickly made his way forward. He was second at the end of two laps. One lap later, he grabbed the lead from Jorge Martin. Once in the lead, Miller posted three consecutive fastest laps and was never seriously challenged. It was Australian native Miller’s first race win of the season and his sixth podium finish.

The proximity to his home turf was not lost.

“I can ride a motorcycle sometimes,” Miller said in NBC Sports’ post-race coverage. “I felt amazing all weekend since I rolled out on the first practice. It feels so awesome to be racing on this side of the world.

“What an amazing day. It’s awesome; we have the home Grand Prix coming up shortly. Wedding coming up in a couple of weeks. I’m over the moon; can’t thank everyone enough.”

Miller beat Brad Binder to the line by 3.4 seconds with third-place Jorge Martin finishing about one second behind.

But the center of the storm was located just inside the top 10 as both Quartararo and Bagnaia started deep in the field.

Quartararo was on the outside of row three in ninth with Bagnaia one row behind in 12th. Neither rider moved up significantly, but the championship continued to be of primary importance as Bagnaia put in a patented late-race charge to settle onto Quartararo’s back tire, which would have allowed the championship leader to gain only a single point.

On the final lap, Bagnaia charged just a little too hard and crashed under heavy braking, throwing away the seven points he would have earned for a ninth-place finish.

The day was even more dramatic for the rider who entered the MotoGP Japanese Grand Prix third in the standings. On the sighting lap, Aleix Espargaro had an alarm sound, so he peeled off into the pits, dropped his primary bike and jumped aboard the backup. Starting from pit lane, he trailed the field and was never able to climb into the points. An undisclosed electronic problem was the culprit.

For Quartararo, gaining eight points on the competition was more than a moral victory. This was a track on which he expected to run moderately, and he did, but the problems for his rivals gives him renewed focus with four rounds remaining.

Next week, the series heads to Thailand and then Miller’s home track of Phillip Island in Australia. They will close out the Pacific Rim portion of the schedule before heading to Spain for the finale in early November.

It would appear team orders are not in play among the Ducati riders. Last week’s winner Enea Bastianini made an aggressive early move on Bagnaia for position before the championship contender wrestled the spot back.

In his second race back following arm surgery, Marc Marquez won the pole. His last pole was more than 1,000 days ago on this same track in 2019, the last time the series competed at Motegi. Marquez slipped to fifth in the middle stages of the race, before regaining a position to finish just off the podium.

In Moto2 competition, Ai Ogura beat Augusto Fernandez to close the gap in that championship to two points. Fernandez holds the scant lead. Alonso Lopez rounded out the podium.

Both American riders, Cameron Beaubier and Joe Roberts finished just outside the top 10 in 11th and 12th respectively.