Men in fluorescent tops had almost finished packing Formula One’s travelling paraphernalia into boxes, when, out of the gloaming, Lewis Hamilton finally emerged from one of the longest debriefs of his career.
Why so? For if you looked at the championship standings, they would tell you that he had increased his lead over Sebastian Vettel from 28 to 34 points at a torrid Malaysian Grand Prix weekend for Ferrari.
Those statistics may yet prove the most important matter when the season is over and done with, but the notion that Hamilton can kick back with a fourth world title in his grasp was not remotely in the minds of anyone at Mercedes last night. They are in something of a bind and want a quick fix.
Sparks flew between Max Verstappen (L) and Lewis Hamilton as the young Dutchman stole pole from the Mercedes star
A victorious Verstappen (R) drinks from his champagne bottle as third-place Daniel Ricciardo celebrates with the 20-year-old
Hamilton, who came second on Sunday, celebrates on the Malaysian Grand Prix podium alongside the Red Bull pair
Verstappen has endured a tricky season with Red Bull but thoroughly deserved his win – pictured celebrating with his trophy
Before raking through that, we should hail Max Verstappen, who was 20 on Saturday but drove like a seasoned campaigner to register his second victory.
It was achieved with a bold overtake on Hamilton, who admitted later that title matters deterred him from unduly risking his paintwork by taking on the young buccaneer. It was the mature choice.
Verstappen’s move came at the start of the fourth lap, when he darted through the inside with the help of the DRS boost device. Cue frantic applauding in the Red Bull garage and Verstappen’s excited radio transmission: ‘That’s how you do it.’
The overtake made, Verstappen was imperious at the front, his Red Bull too fast for Hamilton’s often unassailable machine. The Briton finished second. However, his fight was not with the Dutchman but Vettel, who charged from 20th to finish a remarkable fourth.
Verstappen, who celebrated his 20th birthday on Saturday, joins his Red Bull team after clinching the race victory
Hamilton finished second to extend his lead in the championship standings and he congratulated Verstappen after the race
MALAYSIAN GRAND PRIX RESULTS AND STANDINGS
1. Lewis Hamilton (Britain) Mercedes 281
2. Sebastian Vettel (Germany) Ferrari 247
3. Valtteri Bottas (Finland) Mercedes 222
4. Daniel Ricciardo (Australia) Red Bull 177
5. Kimi Raikkonen (Finland) Ferrari 138
6. Max Verstappen (Holland) Red Bull 93
7. Sergio Perez (Mexico) Force India 76
8. Esteban Ocon (France) Force India 57
9. Carlos Sainz Jr (Spain) Toro Rosso 48
10. Nico Hulkenberg (Germany) Renault 34
11. Felipe Massa (Brazil) Williams 33
12. Lance Stroll (Canada) Williams 32
13. Romain Grosjean (France) Haas 26
14. Stoffel Vandoorne (Belgium) McLaren 13
15. Kevin Magnussen (Denmark) Haas 11
16. Fernando Alonso (Spain) McLaren 10
17. Jolyon Palmer (Britain) Renault 8
18. Pascal Wehrlein (Germany) Sauber 5
19. Daniil Kvyat (Russia) Toro Rosso 4
20. Marcus Ericsson (Sweden) Sauber 0
21. Antonio Giovinazzi (Italy) Sauber 0
22. Pierre Gasly (France) Toro Rosso 0
1. Max Verstappen (Holland) Red Bull 1:30:01.290
2. Lewis Hamilton (Britain) Mercedes +00:12.770
3. Daniel Ricciardo (Australia) Red Bull 00:22.519
4. Sebastian Vettel (Germany) Ferrari 00:37.362
5. Valtteri Bottas (Finland) Mercedes 00:56.021
6. Sergio Perez (Mexico) Force India 01:18.630
7. Stoffel Vandoorne (Belgium) McLaren 1 lap
8. Lance Stroll (Canada) Williams 1 lap
9. Felipe Massa (Brazil) Williams 1 lap
10. Esteban Ocon (France) Force India 1 lap
11. Fernando Alonso (Spain) McLaren 1 lap
12. Kevin Magnussen (Denmark) Haas 1 lap
13. Romain Grosjean (France) Haas 1 lap
14. Pierre Gasly (France) Toro Rosso 1 lap
15. Jolyon Palmer (Britain) Renault 1 lap
16. Nico Hulkenberg (Germany) Renault 1 lap
17. Pascal Wehrlein (Germany) Sauber 1 lap
18. Marcus Ericsson (Sweden) Sauber 2 laps
Not Classified: Carlos Sainz (Spain) Toro Rosso, Kimi Raikkonen (Finland) Ferrari
Sebastian Vettel, 1:34.080, lap 41
Constructors Points 1. Mercedes 503, 2. Ferrari 385, 3. Red Bull 270, 4. Force India 133, 5. Williams 65, 6. Toro Rosso 52, 7. Renault 42, 8. Haas 37, 9. McLaren 23, 10. Sauber 5
This brings us to the point of the debrief that was still going on two hours after the race ended: the Red Bulls and, more significantly, the Ferraris had a huge speed advantage over Mercedes.
Hamilton came straight to his media briefing to deliver some pretty strong words. His voice was slightly hoarse, as he said: ‘When you have a difficult day, when the s*** really hits the fan, that’s when there are more questions in the debrief, more detail you go into.
‘Today was really useful for us to speak about certain issues that we’ve had through the weekend that are just not acceptable for this great team.
‘We all know that and we need to work on those areas.’
The high temperatures clearly affected Mercedes on a track whose topography did not totally suit them either — its slow corners require the downforce that Ferrari and Red Bull have in spades.
Mercedes fiddled with their aerodynamic package all weekend, especially after Friday’s awful practice session, to seek a remedy.
Putting his car on pole was a brilliant performance by Hamilton, though even here he was helped by Vettel suffering a power problem and not setting a time. The German, therefore, started at the back, a race after he crashed in the opening seconds, in Singapore.
Verstappen flexis his muscles after adding lustre to his burgeoning name with a fine performance, his second career victory
The Red Bull prodigy held his nerve as he began to pull away from the Championship leader and set the pace in Malaysia
The Dutchman pressed ahead of Hamilton and stormed to victory for Red Bull in the Malaysian Grand Prix
Hamilton had burst out of the traps, but his Red Bull rival Verstappen was instantly on his tail and pressured from the off
The two stars of the sport went head to head in an immediate duel, with Verstappen coming out on top
Ferrari’s problems multiplied at the start of the race when Kimi Raikkonen, who was due to start second, suffered a mechanical problem and was pushed off, out of it.
With five rounds remaining, Hamilton need not panic as he heads for China en route to the Japanese Grand Prix next Sunday. But nor can he relax. He said: ‘A lot of analysis will happen in the next few days in terms of what we do for the next race.
‘I think Suzuka is a much cooler circuit generally and the corners are a little bit different from here. Then Mexico later this month is a concern because it needs full downforce. There’s nothing I can do. The guys are the ones, all the team, guys back at the factory who’ll download all the data and review the race. But, honestly, I feel positive.’
No such cares for the Verstappen clan at the adjacent paddock home. Max’s father, Jos, just about fought back the tears as the Dutch national anthem was played. Max’s sister, Victoria, an 18-year-old Belgian schoolgirl, dissolved.
It was hard to read Max’s own disposition on the podium because he was sweating an Olympic swimming pool, like all the rest of the drivers in the humid air that causes them to lose half a stone in 56 laps.
Sebastian Vettel managed to pull back some places following his nightmare in qualifying on Saturday
The German pushed hard to put pressure on the podium finishers and try to catch his arch rival Lewis Hamilton
In fact, Verstappen’s dehydrated team-mate, Daniel Ricciardo, who finished third, took such a big glug of podium champagne that he seemed a touch giddy as he faced the press, pouring a bottle of water over Verstappen’s head.
Red Bull team principal Christian Horner drew comparisons between Verstappen and his former world champion driver Vettel, saying: ‘They are dissimilar characters. But Sebastian was very strong in delivering under big pressure situations.
‘Max has this ability too. He was so cool today in leading the grand prix. And this year his performances, particularly on a Saturday, have been massively impressive.
‘We know that Daniel is one of the best out there. So to have the two of them pushing each other the way that they are is a dream situation for the team.’
Ferrari were dealt another blow as Kimi Raikkonen had issues with his car and was forced to bow out prematurely
The Finn was expected to start second on the grid on Sunday but Ferrari were unable to overcome the mechanical issues
Vettel’s Malaysian Grand Prix ended in bizarre circumstances following a late crash following conclusion of the race
The rear left wheel of the Ferrari was left completely ruined and bent upwards over the car
Vettel’s on-board camera showed the extent of the impact, though Lance Stroll in the Williams appeared unscathed
The German was forced to get out of the vehicle which lay by the track side in a terrible state
Pascal Wehrlein, the Sauber driver, soon pulled up and offered his counterpart a lift back down into the pits
Vettel hopped aboard and the pair took off down the track followed by the safety car
The crowd loved the sportsmanship on show, but team Ferrari were left livid by the clash
Vettel was far from impressed and told media the collision was ‘completely unnecessary’
Stroll, speaking after the entertaining race, admitted the situation was a confusing one with no intent on either part