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What to Watch for - Malaysia

29 Mar 2015

From Sebastian Vettel’s hopes of providing an upset to the ever present threat of rain, and from Max Verstappen’s record-breaking bid to the unpredictability of race strategy, we break down the key themes to look out for in Sunday’s 2015 Formula 1 Petronas Malaysia Grand Prix…

Vettel a big threat to Hamilton if it rains
They say that rain is a great leveller, and so it proved in qualifying in Malaysia when the three- to four-tenth of a second deficit Ferrari were giving away to Mercedes around Sepang was all but washed away by Sebastian Vettel.

The quadruple world champion came within a whisker of delivering the Italian team a first pole position since the 2012 German Grand Prix, but in the end he had to settle for second place between the silver cars of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg.

“Mercedes are very strong and have an advantage, but it would be nice to give them a hard time tomorrow,” said Vettel afterwards. “It has been a bit too chilled for them in the last few months.”

Despite displaying very encouraging race pace in Friday’s dry practice sessions, Vettel’s sudden upswing in performance during the qualifying deluge suggests that his best chance of causing an upset and beating Hamilton is to hope for more rain on race day. Conversely, if it stays dry, then he could have a battle on his hands keeping Rosberg behind. One thing’s for sure: wet or dry, Mercedes will be taking Vettel’s challenge very seriously.

Every team to have eyes on the skies
Not that it was needed, but qualifying served up a dramatic reminder of just how volatile the Malaysian climate can be, as conditions lurched from sweltering heat to monsoon rain in the space of three laps.

Such wildly unpredictable conditions have turned races on their heads before, and teams and drivers will be kept on their toes throughout Sunday’s Grand Prix as a result. Should rain return - early forecasts suggest chances could be as high as 80 percent - then an ability to call conditions, and be in the right place at the right time, will be fundamental.

Verstappen poised to become a record breaker
A power unit issue robbed Max Verstappen of the chance to become F1 racing’s youngest points scorer in Australia, but thanks to an astonishingly composed performance in tricky conditions in qualifying, the 17-year-old Dutchman is in the perfect position to have another crack at the record in Malaysia.

Despite never having driven at Sepang before, let alone in the wet, Verstappen will start Sunday’s race from sixth, which coincidentally was the best grid slot attained by his father Jos over 106 Grand Prix outings in the late Nineties and early Noughties.

If the weather stays dry, such a starting position might mean the Toro Rosso driver spends much of the afternoon defending attacks from behind, particularly as his long-run pace didn’t look too favourable in practice. But if it’s wet, who knows what the precociously talented youngster might achieve…

Button and Alonso set for intra-team battle
In terms of overall pace and reliability, McLaren appear to have made good progress in Malaysia, but even so, it wasn’t entirely surprising to see Jenson Button and Fernando Alonso recording the 17th and 18th fastest times in qualifying.

Given that the MP4-30 doesn’t appear quick enough to keep up with those ahead but still looks considerably faster than the Marussias behind, Button and Alonso may end up staging their own private battle for supremacy towards the rear of the field.

Having just returned from a concussion, Alonso still has much to learn about his new car, including start, formation lap and pit stop procedures, and that could hand the edge to Button. But don’t expect the Spaniard to back down from a fight, even though mileage is still the team’s number one priority.

No clear optimum strategy
“The race is going to be interesting,” Nico Rosberg explained following qualifying, “because there is going to be more stops than Melbourne - and that gives me a good chance to move up the order if I have the race pace, which I expect.”

While Rosberg’s focus is on his own race, his sentiment rings true for the entire grid: the wide range of possible strategies, and uncertainty about which will work best, throws up the chance of several surprises on Sunday. If tyre degradation can be controlled, a two-stop strategy might just prove fastest, but it would present a heavy gamble given the drop off in tyre performance almost the entire field struggled with in long-run simulations.

According to Pirelli, three-stopping is therefore probably most likely (if conditions stay dry throughout), but again there is uncertainty as to whether staying on the mediums until the final stint, or switching to hards from the first stop onwards, will be quickest. And while teams try and crack such complexities tonight, there is another factor to consider: the qualifying storms will also have washed away the rubber laid down previously, making it even more difficult to plot a decisive plan for Sunday.

Raikkonen targeting swift ascent up the order
Ferrari’s Kimi Raikkonen was the highest-profile victim of the Q2 downpour, as traffic scuppered his only flying lap and consigned him to 11th. It was a damp conclusion to the excitement he provoked on Friday with a long-run simulation that was at least on a par with, if not quicker than, both Mercedes drivers’ efforts.

But while the fight for victory may be the poorer for his absence, his attempt to scythe up from 11th on the grid will be fascinating to watch. Central to his hopes will be his ability to nurse his tyres while still maintaining his lap time - a trait that looked so ominous on Friday. But while having one of the fastest packages in the field will be a major asset, Raikkonen will need to marry patience with precision if he is to avoid being caught behind slower rivals.

“For sure we have the speed,” he reflected after qualifying, “but we are quite far from the front, and when you start in this position it is not going to be an easy race.”