Birthday boy Verstappen shows his class

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IT’S BEST to keep out his way when the Dutch GP speedster is on the prowl. PETER COSTER reports:

FAST AND FURIOUS. If you are in his way you could be punted out of the way, whether he is passing you or you are trying to pass him. Take-it-to-the-Max Verstappen won the Malaysia Grand Prix, not when the chequered flag fell, but when world championship leader Lewis Hamilton decided the better part of valour was to let him through on the fourth lap.

Hamilton said he wanted to protect his lead over Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel rather than risk tangling with the Dutch driver, who had nothing to lose.

Verstappen celebrated his 20th birthday the day before the race with a kid’s grin and a chocolate cake, but his victory has started comparisons with seven-times world champion Michael Schumacher and triple-world champion Ayrton Senna.

These drivers were often dangerous to pass. Both took out other drivers rather than surrender a place.

Senna died when a welded steering column in his Williams snapped in the Italian Grand Prix at Imola in 1994. Schumacher suffered a brain injury while skiing in 2013 and has been under private care at his home, although little is known about his condition.

Verstappen is already regarded as one of the fastest drivers in Formula One, if not the fastest, and has now out-qualified teammate Daniel Ricciardo for the past six races, although he has retired through mechanical failures or crashed out of seven races.

Max Verstappen celebrates after winning the Malaysia Formula One Grand Prix. Pic: Mark Thompson/Getty Images

His pass on Hamilton was deep into the braking zone and while it was precise and seemingly measured, that might not have been the case had Hamilton tried to force him wide.

Ricciardo excused being behind Verstappen on the grid, saying the tenth of a second that separated them in qualifying was his birthday present to his younger teammate.

Hamilton got away cleanly from pole followed by Verstappen while Ricciardo was outpaced by Mercedes driver Valtteri Bottas who shot past on the drier side of the track from fifth on the grid. Vettel started last after an engine change because of an engine problem that sidelined teammate Kimi Raikkonen.

Vettel then swept through the field and was on Ricciardo’s tail towards the end of the race only to pull back after his tyres went off.

Ricciardo was up to 20 seconds behind Hamilton after he was kept out on the circuit for an extra four laps before being cleared to come in for a pit stop and this spelt the end of any chance of making it a one-two finish for the Red Bull team.

But one and three was more than acceptable. Mercedes had its problems at Malaysia as did Ferrari; to such an extent that some people in the organisation are to be replaced.

Red Bull have what could be a developing issue in keeping its drivers happy, not an easy task when driver egos are involved.

Verstappen was losing patience with Red Bull after a series of DNFs, not all of which were his fault, and might have been swayed by approaches from either Mercedes or Ferrari.

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Now he is a winner again after his debut victory in Spain last year. Red Bull team chief Christian Horner is lavishing praise on his young driver and says Verstappen and Ricciardo are Red Bull’s best pairing in its 12 years in motor sport.

That puts them ahead of Vettel, who won four world drivers’ championships for Red Bull, and nine-times GP winner Mark Webber. Red Bull also won four constructors’ championships during their five-year partnership.

Some of what Horner says can be taken as trying to keep his drivers focused and willing to stay with a team whose engines were shaded by Mercedes and now Ferrari; that is when the Prancing Horse cars are on the track and not in the garage or at the back of the grid because of glitches that should have been resolved in the workshop and discovered before race weekend.

With five races to go, the next at Suzuka in Japan, Hamilton is 34 points ahead of Vettel, who lost his championship lead when he turned in on Verstappen at Singapore. The German driver has complained about Verstappen’s sometimes reckless driving, particularly after the Mexico and Brazilian races last year.

In Malaysia, it was refreshing to see that Verstappen, no longer a teenager, was a modest young man overjoyed at his victory.

His father and sister were in tears to see him standing on the top step of the podium. One fan was clapping enthusiastically with a pair of Dutch clogs.

Jos Verstappen was a Formula One driver for several teams, including Benetton and Tyrell, and was the most successful Dutch racing driver until his son’s entry to GP racing.

Jos Verstappen has had problems off the track, including a suspended sentence after threatening his former wife. He was then arrested on attempted murder charges, later dropped, after allegations that he drove a car at his ex-girlfriend, now his wife.

Max Verstappen and his sister Victoria are the children of his former marriage.

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Author: Peter Coster

PETER COSTER is a former editor and foreign correspondent who has covered a range of international sports, including world championship fights and the Olympic Games in Los Angeles.

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