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Six key questions ahead of the race in Malaysia

02 Oct 2016

Can Red Bull or Ferrari really challenge Mercedes? Will Lewis Hamilton carry his strong qualifying form into the race? And what can Jenson Button make of his landmark F1 outing? We consider the key talking points ahead of the 2016 Formula 1 Petronas Malaysia Grand Prix…

Can Hamilton capitalise on Sepang momentum swing?

As he felt the momentum swing back towards him, as it had been in Italy, Lewis Hamilton pushed super-hard all through FP3 and qualifying on Saturday - and admitted that he felt that he could have gone even quicker.

"The car felt fantastic," he said, having had to abort his final run after locking the right front wheel and having to ease off. "I really enjoyed the lap but it could have been faster. I'm very happy and grateful for my lap but you always want to finish that last lap. There's more time there."

Team mate Nico Rosberg, meanwhile, admitted that errors upset his chances of pole. His first run was compromised by running wide in one corner, then getting oversteer in the final one which has been reprofiled with negative camber. Oversteer again hampered him there on his second run.

“I would have come close but unfortunately I had a mistake in the last corner, something just wasn’t going right there,” he said. “I couldn’t get the settings right, always got a big oversteer moment into there but anyways, second place, got to live with that now. As we know from this year, second place doesn’t mean that victory is not possible tomorrow. We’ve seen that so many times. So I’m still very optimistic for tomorrow.”

So much will depend on the start, and whether the Mercedes clutches behave themselves, but both Silver Arrows drivers are very optimistic for the race - even if they expect their rivals to be in the hunt.

“The clutch system is the same one we’ve generally had all year so there’s no changes to it, it’s just race-on-race we’re trying to understand it a bit more and more and trying to predict what it’s going to deliver,” Hamilton said. “Nico got a great start in Monza, but we’ve both generally got good starts in the last race so we are improving gradually.”

How did Red Bull beat Ferrari in qualifying?

Ferrari looked faster than Red Bull on Friday (Raikkonen third, Vettel fourth, Ricciardo sixth and Verstappen seventh in FP1, then Vettel third, Raikkonen fourth, Verstappen fifth and Ricciardo eighth in FP2), but Verstappen was second only to Hamilton in FP3. Then the Ferraris were ahead again in Q1 (Raikkonen third, Vettel fourth, Ricciardo seventh and Verstappen 12th). But the tide turned for the blue cars in Q2 (Verstappen third, Ricciardo fourth, Raikkonen fifth, Vettel sixth), and it stayed that way in Q3 (Verstappen third, Ricciardo fourth, Vettel fifth, Raikkonen sixth). So what changed?

“We were pretty close to the Mercedes on the front row and I’m really enjoying the new surface here, the car is working very well on it,” Verstappen said. “For both of us to be on the second row, in front of Ferrari, means we can be very pleased with today’s work. Out of the past three or four races this has been my best long run pace on a Friday, we haven’t changed much on the car so it should be similar tomorrow. After Singapore I talked with the team and we changed some things on the car and it seems to have worked, hopefully we can keep improving in this way.”

“It was quite an exciting quallie session and my lap was pretty clean,” Ricciardo disclosed. “I pushed quite a bit in the first two sectors; I think I got more out of the tyres compared to the last sector where I struggled for traction and lost a little bit of time. From where we were yesterday, I am pretty happy. We made quite a few changes overnight and they definitely helped me out today, so I was feeling a lot more comfortable in the car.”

Vettel admitted that Ferrari expected it to be tight: “We thought that we could have the upper hand in the end. So I am disappointed to see both Red Bulls in front of us, but they were just a bit quicker. There was not a lot missing, but just enough, just over a tenth. We need to have a look into our data and see if we can pick it up later... In the end, we were hoping to be one row higher up, so in second, right behind the Mercedes.”

Do they both have the race pace to fight Mercedes?

Lewis Hamilton isn’t under any illusions: he’s expecting strong opposition from Red Bull and Ferrari in the race.

His stunning pole margin over Max Verstappen’s Red Bull was 0.414s, while the gap to Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari was 0.734s. But both rivals demonstrated very competitive race pace on Friday afternoon, when it was at times up to 18 degrees Celsius hotter than qualifying.

"I think they will be very quick, they have been quick all weekend," the world champion said. "Providing the conditions are like this, the course is better, a lot smoother and seems to work better with the tyres than it has done in previous years.

"It'll be a close race because they had very good long runs but we're looking quite strong also, so hopefully that is the case tomorrow."

Verstappen was cautious about Red Bull’s chances of upsetting the Mercedes applecart. “I thought it was going to be a tough race for us before we came here. Now it seems like the balance of the car is there, the long runs seem good and we have improved our short run pace a lot.”

The Dutchman has had poor starts in the last three races, but added: “We have made some changes to the clutch so we shall see if it has improved, so far everything looks positive. The set-up feels really good here and we will no doubt check everything tonight to make sure we are in the best position possible on race day. I always have confidence, even if I drop back to last.”

“Our race pace is looking good too as we saw from Max’s sessions yesterday,” Ricciardo agreed. “We should have a nice battle for the podium and we’ll try to stay ahead of the Ferraris. They are normally pretty good on their tyres here but we have an extra set of soft tyres for the race which should work well for us. As a team we are pumped to lock out the second row at this circuit, and we should have a good race on our hands.”

Being out-qualified by both Red Bulls was surely a blow to Ferrari, but Sebastian Vettel said: “For the race, nevertheless, we should have a good speed: the strategy will also be important. There is a bit of room for manoeuvre, as everybody has to use the harder tyre, which might make it interesting. And then there is also the fact that we are in Malaysia, so there might be some rain, or just the heat as a factor.”

Who will be ahead as the Force India-Williams battle rages on?

They have already swapped places a couple of times, and the fight for fourth in the standings between Force India on 112 points and Williams on 111 shows no sign of abating.

With Sergio Perez and Nico Hulkenberg seventh and eighth on the grid, the former start on top, as the latter have Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas in 10th and 11th. But things can change.

Force India deputy team principal Bob Fernley described it as an extremely satisfying performance, which sets them up nicely for a strong race.

“The team have done an excellent job of dialling the car into this circuit and both drivers delivered clean laps when it mattered,” he said. “Locking out the fourth row of the grid is a fair reflection of the speed we have in the car and I’m optimistic we can race well to bring home some important points."

Over at Williams, head of performance engineering Rob Smedley said: “Qualifying was disappointing because I think the car was good enough for seventh and we weren’t able to do that as a team. That does leave a bitter taste in your mouth. That said, the team did a good job across the whole weekend. We had a little bit of homework to do following Friday on the low fuel runs. I think we’ve done a reasonable job of getting into the mix. Valtteri didn’t get his lap together in Q2 for various reasons, so didn’t get through to Q3. Felipe’s Q2 lap would have been good enough for eighth in Q3. There was a little bit of track improvement for the final session, and everyone else improved but unfortunately we didn’t.

“Ultimately, it’s disappointing because we should be further up the grid than where we are. However, the main thing is that we are in the mix. We’re fighting at the back end of the top 10, and we’re aiming to have a good race to pick up all the points that we can.”

What will Button’s 300th Grand Prix yield?

Ninth on the grid for Jenson Button’s McLaren was the result of plenty of hard work. The car was off the pace during Friday practice, and engineers burnt the midnight oil to improve the balance for Saturday, and the Englishman revelled in the car’s improved handling to comfortably ease into Q3.

“Jenson drove superbly in qualifying, extracting the absolute maximum from the car after a difficult and unpromising first day’s practice,” racing director Eric Boullier said. “It’s a testament to the work of the whole team that we managed to transform our fortunes overnight, with both drivers reporting that the car’s driveability had been significantly improved between Friday and Saturday.

“With Jenson, it was fun and satisfying to be able to really attack all the way into the closing minutes of Q3. It’s definitely a sign of what’s to come from the McLaren-Honda partnership.”

Button himself believes a good haul of points is there for the taking.

“I really enjoyed qualifying!” the 2009 world champion smiled. “It’s never nice to be just 0.029s behind the car in front, but that wasn’t too bad - we were either going to be eighth or ninth, and we ended up being ninth. I’m happy with that.

“Hopefully we can show well in the race - there’s no reason why we can’t fight the cars around us.”

What’s the best strategy going to be?

Pirelli have recommended the number of laps that should not be exceeded on each of their compounds. They are: 28 laps for the hards, 23 for the mediums and 17 for the softs.

On that basis, the quickest strategy is a three-stopper with three stints - one of 14 laps and two each of 16 - on the softs and a 10-lap stint on the hards, the mandatory compound this weekend.

Next best is a two-stopper with two 15-lap stints on softs and one 26-lap stint on the hards.

The slowest is another two-stopper, with one 14-lap stint on softs, one 23-lapper on the mediums, and a 19-lapper on the hards.

The top ten qualifiers all set their best Q2 times on the softs and hence must start the race - assuming it’s dry, which is not a foregone conclusion - on that compound.