Tyre degradation set to be a big factor
Having topped every practice session and then qualifying, Mercedes’ dominance over a single lap has been hammered home this weekend. At Sepang, though, that is no guarantee of success.
As was the case last year, the Silver Arrows are concerned about degradation, particularly given the extreme temperatures and abrasive track surface. FP2 offered a glimmer of hope for rival squads, with Red Bull in particular looking strong over long runs. The question will be how teams handle full race distances - and whether performance has to be significantly dialled back in order to preserve tyre life.
The ever-present threat of rain
Unsurprisingly, the weather could be a huge factor in Sunday’s Grand Prix - particularly if the monsoon conditions which delayed qualifying return.
There’s enough historical precedent, even before stormy forecasts, to suggest it would be no surprise for the heavens to open during the race. That throws up the possibility of safety cars and even stoppages. It would also test the drivers’ skill and talent to the extreme, diminishing the inherent advantage of each car and placing more emphasis on the innate ability to discover grip in treacherous conditions.
Another surge from Bottas
Twice Bottas found himself down the order in Australia; twice he charged back, eventually claiming fifth overall. After a lacklustre qualifying, and a three-place grid penalty, the Finn will have to do it all again in Kuala Lumpur.
The good news for Williams is that it appears he has a car capable of breaking into the points and at the very least lasting the distance. Friday’s long runs suggested Williams was one of several teams in the mix for best-of-the-rest tag behind Mercedes. Question marks remain over Williams’ form in the wet, but if it stays dry expect Bottas to come through the field.
Ferrari moving closer to the front
After Fernando Alonso’s hard-fought fourth in Australia, the signs are that Ferrari have closed the gap to the front at Sepang.
Kimi Raikkonen was second fastest in FP1 and FP2, and was again Mercedes’ nearest challenger in the third and final practice session, while Alonso was little more than a tenth of a second away from beating Nico Rosberg to third in qualifying. The F14 T looks stable over long runs too, suggesting Raikkonen and Alonso could be podium threats on Sunday.
How long will Lotus last?
Lotus’s torrid start to the season has continued in Malaysia, with neither Romain Grosjean nor Pastor Maldonado able to set a time in FP1, and managing just 14 collective laps in second practice.
On Saturday, however, the team made much-needed progress: both men managed steady runs in FP3, with Grosjean even breaking into Q2 during qualifying.
The magnitude of the team’s struggles means points are still a long way from being realistic. A far more pressing concern will be completing a race distance for the first time in 2014. Given the extreme heat, doing so in Malaysia would represent a minor victory for the troubled squad.
Fuel flow still an issue?
With Red Bull’s appeal against Daniel Ricciardo’s Australia exclusion not set to be heard until April 14, the issue of fuel flow - and the sensors that measure it - hangs over the race in Malaysia. Let's hope there are no further issues - during or after the event.
Rookies in the points - again
After hugely impressive debut races in Australia, McLaren’s Kevin Magnussen and Toro Rosso’s Daniil Kvyat have shown no drop off in performance in Malaysia. Both have had their issues - off-track moments and mechanical problems for Magnussen; a Q2 clash with Alonso for Kvyat - but neither driver let it affect their qualifying performance, instead showing impressive levels of composure and maturity.
With Magnussen starting eighth and Kvyat 11th, there’s every chance that both youngsters could be back in the points on Sunday afternoon. One thing’s for sure: their more experienced rivals know they’re not going to back down from a fight.