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Pre-Sepang analysis - can McLaren and Ferrari make strides?

27 Mar 2015

Fernando Alonso's controversial comments attracted plenty of attention on Thursday in Malaysia - but in the background, McLaren were also talking up their chances of making substantial progress this weekend. They might not be expecting to challenge Mercedes - a job that will most likely fall to Ferrari and Williams - but there are at least reasons to Alonso and Jenson Button to be optimistic...

As predicted, McLaren were thrust centre stage yesterday afternoon in the Sepang paddock, as the pre-event press conference became a public forum to question Alonso about his pre-season crash.

The Spaniard suggested a steering problem could have been to blame for the accident, and refuted McLaren's early suggestion that a gust of wind had put him off track. Rather than getting the full facts of the much-discussed session, then, Alonso's demeanour made some wonder whether the full story will ever emerge...

But amid the confusion, Jenson Button reflected a growing optimism within the camp as he backed McLaren to take a step forward relative to his 11th place finish, just outside the points, in the Albert Park season-opener.

"If you look at it from afar you probably won't see any changes, but if you look at the lap times compared to others, I think you will see a change," Button said. "The problem is that we are so far behind that you won't see a position change.

"There will be a good chunk in terms of performance and it comes from the power unit and in terms of cooling but also in terms of aerodynamics as we have got some new parts on the car, which will help.

"You could get the snowball effect where suddenly you find more time than you expect because things start working and fall into place, which is exactly what I'm hoping happens."

Having learned much more with their first race distance under their belt, he also felt that Honda can afford to be a lot more aggressive now that they have firm data on issues such as cooling.

"It was very important for us to get stable temperatures for the first time with the power unit and a lot of useful information came from that race.

"Everyone said if they struggled in Melbourne they are going to struggle here and of course it's more difficult, but before Melbourne we didn't have stabilised temperatures. Now we have them, we can work on which direction we need to go with cooling for this race."

As Button and Alonso's comments reverberated in the paddock, the sound of a lone engine firing up at the other end of the pit lane signalled that F1 racing's 10th team were back in business. After all their software problems in Melbourne, Marussia had got all of their systems talking to one another and can look ahead to participating properly in the weekend's events.

Williams also had new developments to announce, confirming not only that Valtteri Bottas is fit to race, but that Adrian Sutil has joined as the team's reserve driver for 2015.

Across at Red Bull, team principal Christian Horner began to backtrack on the idea of Mercedes being reined in with some sort of equivalency formula, a suggestion he made in the heat of post-race disappointment in Australia. Their struggles have been in direct contrast to Ferrari, who come into the weekend a resurgent force.

"I think it's the whole package," Kimi Raikkonen said of the improved form of Ferrari's SF15-T. "It's not just the engine. Yes, we improved that a lot but we improved the chassis itself a lot as well. It's the whole package, you cannot just point to one area that has been improved from last year, it's the whole thing.

"I think it's how everybody works; it's one team and things are going in the right direction and people are pushing and doing a good job. Like I said, it's still early days. We still have to work hard and improve things, but so far we have done a good job."

Meanwhile, Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg continued the game of playing down the advantage of the Silver Arrows on a track where they are again expected to lead the way.

"I don't think it's right to say that," Rosberg said when asked if Mercedes would dominate. "Of course our qualifying pace was very strong, yes, but more important is the race pace, and especially from Kimi we saw an extremely strong stint in Australia, so it's not really fair to say that. I think Ferrari especially have definitely closed the gap and are closer than our nearest rival was last year.

"So it's very difficult to say. It's early days, we need to wait and see how it goes here."

He does believe, however, that Sepang offers greater racing possibilities even if he loses out again on pole position, as he did to Hamilton in Australia.

"Qualifying is definitely important in this internal battle, especially since we have the same cars, but it's not everything. We have seen in the past, even in races, playing around the tyre order or things like that, it's still possible to overtake. And this weekend here, there might be a bit more leeway in the strategy to try to launch a better attack."

Hamilton countered: "Winning the first race is just one small step in a long journey and I'm not reading anything into it. Here, the race is really tough with the heat and humidity. But I feel ready for anything right now and the aim is to repeat last year's performance.

"It took me eight attempts to win this race when I finally made it to the top step last year, and I don't plan on waiting that long again..."

David Tremayne