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“After stalling at the start I thought it was over,” revealed Max Verstappen after Sunday’s race in Marina Bay. “But I just kept on pushing…”
The Dutchman’s fightback began the moment Toro Rosso re-fired his beleaguered STR10 in the pit lane, as evidenced by his first proper flying lap of the race. Verstappen stopped the clocks at 1m 52.573s on lap 2 - a time bettered only by race leader Sebastian Vettel, who was in the process of extending his advantage at the head of the field.
However, even with such rapid pace, what Verstappen needed to get back into points-scoring contention was a slice of good luck - and he got it on lap 13 when Force India’s Nico Hulkenberg and Williams’ Felipe Massa collided at Turn 3.
Initially the field were slowed under virtual safety car conditions as Hulkenberg’s stricken machine was recovered, but eventually the actual safety car had to be deployed to allow marshals to clear the track of debris. This proved to be a crucial intervention, as Verstappen - running 19th and the only driver a lap down - was subsequently allowed to unlap himself.
When racing resumed on lap 19 Verstappen was still last, but now on the same lap as the rest of the field and just 30s or so back from the tail-enders. Remarkably, it took the rapid rookie, who had stopped for a set of new soft tyres on lap 12, just six laps to reel in and overtake the Marussias of Will Stevens and Alexander Rossi - but the youngster’s best moves were still to come.
Verstappen made his second and final stop at the end of lap 35, taking on another set of used supersoft rubber just as the safety car was deployed for a second time because of a spectator on the track. The Toro Rosso emerged from the pits in 13th, though he’d move up to 12th when team mate Carlos Sainz stopped for fresh tyres later in the caution period.
A points position now well within reach, Verstappen wasted no time in latching onto the gearbox of Felipe Nasr’s Sauber when the race got underway again on lap 41. The Brazilian defended vigorously, but Verstappen was not to be denied, squeezing his way around the outside of his rival with a brilliantly measured move at Turn 14.
With Jenson Button pitting his McLaren with damage, Verstappen was now up to tenth and eager to further disprove the notion that overtaking is impossible at Marina Bay. On lap 43 he dispatched Pastor Maldonado’s Lotus with a neat lunge into the tight Turn 18, and two laps later made similarly short work of passing the other black and gold car of Romain Grosjean. This time Verstappen lined up his victim at Turn 14 before confidently sailing up the inside at the next turn - a classic move from a driver who clearly relishes wheel-to-wheel combat.
With more life in his tyres Verstappen might have provided further fireworks, but as it was he could make no further progress after closing in on the back of Sergio Perez’s Force India. Having forcefully rebuffed a late call from the pit wall to allow team mate Sainz to pass, Verstappen eventually crossed the line in eighth - a quite stunning effort given the circumstances he'd found himself in two hours earlier.
Rarely have four world championship points been harder earned...