Are Ferrari losing ground to Mercedes?
Ferrari came to Sochi full of optimism. They had a new front wing, had spent three tokens modifying their power unit, and had previous form - arguably both their cars should have been on the podium here in 2015.
On Saturday, that confidence was scotched.
The warning signs had been there in practice, with Mercedes leading the way - but qualifying showed just how big Ferrari’s deficit to Mercedes was, with Rosberg half a second clear in Q1. The gap only grew as the session went on, with the German 0.7s ahead at the end despite spoiling his final, and best, run.
Vettel naturally put a brave face on that, while Rosberg said the unique nature of Sochi Autodrom meant drawing conclusions was dangerous. The fact remains, though, that Ferrari came here hoping to be as fast as Mercedes - and it does not appear they are. The race may reveal more about the two contenders’ ultimate pace, however, especially if there are fewer pit stops here to confuse the issue.
Can Hamilton summon another fight back?
According to Mercedes, the reigning world champion suffered a recurrence of the ERS problems that wrecked his qualifying hopes in China a fortnight ago. This time the Briton was at least able to compete in Q2, where he finished second fastest - meaning he is provisionally set to start from 10th, rather than the back of the grid as in Shanghai.
That could yet change, however - the team will not be sure until the build-up to the race whether Hamilton will need another new engine. If the change is forced upon him, another back-row start could beckon - and on a circuit where overtaking is difficult, that could be a severe setback.
“It’s a very bizarre situation,” team boss Toto Wolff admitted, “because it seems like we had the same failure that we had in Shanghai, which looks like we need to reassess the root cause of the failure. It’s not that particular bit in the MGU-H… At least that’s my best guess.
“It’s motor racing, but it’s very unfortunate that it happens to Lewis now again. He seems to have all the bad luck and the other side of the garage seems to have all the luck.”
Do Williams have a shot at the podium?
Modifications on the FW38 chassis, allied to the power boost facilitated by the latest Mercedes fuel system, helped Williams to their best qualifying performance of 2016 - indeed Bottas will start from the front row for the first time since mid-2014, and only the third time in his entire career.
Not only that, but Williams also finished well clear of Red Bull, who have been threatening to usurp them in the constructors’ fight. They have the best aggregate qualifying as a team, with Bottas second and Massa fourth on the grid. They have made great starts in recent races. And their long-run pace was extremely promising on Friday. It’s all pointing in a very positive direction.
Much will also depend, of course, on how well Vettel and Hamilton can overcome their respective difficulties. “I’m pleased with today,” Bottas said. “It gives us a good position for the race tomorrow to really make some good points. We need them…”
Why did McLaren drop back in qualifying - and are their hopes of cracking the top ten realistic?
McLaren looked strong in FP3 with Button in eighth place, and he and Alonso easily got through to Q2. But when the moment of truth came the Englishman missed a Q3 slot by an agonising 0.095s.
Button suggested that the team may have been too cautious with their aero set-up as the falling temperature provoked hurtful understeer which, he believed, more front wing simply may have turned into oversteer.
Alonso was more outspoken. "We were one-and-a-half tenth from Q3 but, unfortunately, there are so many cars today fighting for that 10th place, and we were the fifth of those,” he said. "But we didn't deserve any more today. We were not quick enough."
Will they be quick enough in the race? Perhaps not if Button is a reliable guide - he suggested they need to keep within DRS range of the pack ahead in order to avoid being spat out and left floundering…
With fewer pit stops on the cards, will the drama be reduced?
On paper, possibly - especially if teams attempt to do what they have done here in the past and get away with just a single pit stop by starting on the supersoft tyres and switching to the softs, or vice versa. But if that’s the case, everyone will be racing flat out, which can create its own problems - just look at how many incidents there were over the first two days to see how tricky Sochi can be at full attack.
Theoretically, a two-stopper could be faster provided traffic isn’t a hindrance, so there may be some drivers who opt to roll the dice there. And with Vettel and Hamilton starting out of position, there will be much to watch, especially in the early going.
“Obviously we benefit from what happened to Lewis, which allowed us to go P2 and helps with the penalty,” Vettel said. “We are a bit closer, starting on the clean side of the track. I think we can have a good race from there. It should be quite exciting. The car feels good and yeah, I think all weekend it has been quite strong.”
There has also been a safety car in every race here. Admittedly the sample set is small, but the message is clear: nothing is guaranteed.