Sebastian Vettel scored a sensational first win of his Ferrari career at the Malaysian Grand Prix, ambushing the dominant Mercedes team by expertly converting a two-stop strategy to relegate championship leader Lewis Hamilton to second place and Nico Rosberg to third.
Across the weekend, Ferrari’s SF15-T was kinder on tyres than its rivals and Vettel capitalised on the advantage in the race, electing not to stop during an early safety car period and then getting the best out of his starting medium tyres to hold the lead during the race’s opening phase.
The German made his first visit to the pit lane on lap 17, taking on more medium tyres and rejoining in third place behind the Mercedes cars of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, who had both pitted during the safety car period brought about by Sauber’s Marcus Ericcson beaching his car on the edge of the gravel trap in turn one.
A strong second stint saw Vettel maintain his challenge but when Hamilton took on medium tyres for his next stint the gap closed as the Mercedes driver closed in on the German by upwards of a lap per second.
Vettel then took on hard tyres in his second stop on lap 37, but when Hamilton then made his third stop with 18 laps to go – having to take on hard tyres with only heavily used mediums as the alternative - Mercedes’ challenge evaporated.
Vettel controlled the gap with ease and eventually took the chequered flag with eight seconds in hand to claim his first victory since Brazil 2013 and Ferrari’s first win since Spain of the same season.
“A phenomenal day. It feels incredible,” said Vettel afterwards. “To see the guys when I was on the podium, to look down, it was an incredible atmosphere. I can only recall from the victories Fernando had with Ferrari and recall especially the victories Michael celebrated with the team – I think there were one or two – it’s incredible.
“The strategy today was also ace,” he added. “Mercedes pulled in [during the safety car period], which I think we were a bit surprised by, but we saw on Friday that they weren’t too happy on the medium compound and Lewis was struggling in the first stint and I was able to keep up with him, which I enjoyed a lot.
“And then I knew I had to deliver, trying to make those tyres last and trying to go as fast as I can. Second stint he was chasing me down, which was tough, so he had a string second stint. In the end I think I was able to rebalance the car a little more and I was able to, yeah, have a solid gap the last couple of laps.”
Hamilton, meanwhile, admitted that he had struggled with the balance of his car all afternoon.
"All day I was struggling with the balance," he said. "It was very, very uncomfortable, a lot of understeer, I couldn't look after tyres. When I went to option tyre the car was better I was able to be a bit more consistent. I was able to close the gap. We went on the other tyres at the end, which weren’t good for me. I tried my best and the team made best choice they could."
There was plenty of action behind the podium finishers. Kimi Raikkonen recovered from a first-lap puncture to finish fourth. The Finn used a three-stop strategy and hustled his way through the field to close in on the leaders but the time lost early couldn’t be recovered and he finished 41 seconds behind Vettel.
Williams’ Valtteri Bottas finishing fifth, winning a late-race tussle with team-mate Felipe Massa. It was a curiously uncompetitive weekend for the Grove team, however, and they certainly now look to have ceded ‘best of the rest’ status behind Mercedes to Ferrari.
Behind Massa was the other hero of Sepang, the sport's youngest ever points scorer Max Verstappen. The 17-year-old passed his team-mate Carlos Sainz in the late stages having recovered from a fraught run through the early laps.
Daniil Kvyat led home Red Bull team-mate Daniel Ricciardo after a difficult day for the Milton Keynes squad. Kvyat was lucky to see the flag having been pitched in the air while passing Nico Hulkenberg's Force India. Both cars suffered with excessive brake wear and Ricciardo hung on for the final point.
Behind the points scorers, Romain Grosjean finished 11th for Lotus, with Sauber’s Felipe Nasr 12th ahead of the Force Indias of Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg. Manor’s Roberto Mehri was the final finisher in 15th place.
The McLaren’s of Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso failed to finish, with Alonso told by his team to retire his car after 21 laps and Button cruising back to the garage having reported a loss of power after 41 laps.
The Formula 1 circus will be back in action after a two week break, at the Shanghai circuit in China.
Result and standings:
1 Sebastian Vettel Ferrari2 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 3 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 4 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 5 Valtteri Bottas Williams/Mercedes 6 Felipe Massa Williams/Mercedes 7 Max Verstappen Toro Rosso/Renault 8 Carlos Sainz Toro Rosso/Renault 9 Daniil Kvyat Red Bull/Renault 10 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull/Renault 11 Romain Grosjean Lotus/Mercedes 12 Felipe Nasr Sauber/Ferrari 13 Sergio Perez Force India/Mercedes 14 Nico Hulkenberg Force India/Mercedes 15 Roberto Merhi Marussia/Ferrari - Pastor Maldonado Lotus/Mercedes - Jenson Button McLaren/Honda - Fernando Alonso McLaren/Honda - Marcus Ericsson Sauber/Ferrari - Will Stevens Marussia/Ferrari DNS
1. Lewis Hamilton 432. Sebastian Vettel 403. Nico Rosberg 334. Felipe Massa 205. Kimi Raikkonen 126. Felipe Nasr 107. Valtteri Bottas 108. Daniel Ricciardo 99. Nico Hulkenberg 610 Max Verstappen 611 Carlos Sainz 612 Marcus Ericsson 413 Daniil Kvyat 214 Sergio Perez 115 Romain Grosjean 015 Jenson Button 017 Roberto Merhi 0
1. Mercedes 762. Ferrari 523. Williams/Mercedes 304. Sauber/Ferrari 145. Toro Rosso/Renault 126. Red Bull/Renault 117. Force India/Mercedes 78. Lotus/Mercedes 08. McLaren/Honda 010 Marussia/Ferrari 0