Daniel Ricciardo, Red Bull, Sepang International Circuit, 2014

Rain offers best chance of victory for Mercedes’ rivals

2014 Malaysian Grand Prix pre-race analysisPosted on Author Keith Collantine

Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull, Sepang International Circuit, 2014For the second race running a rainy Saturday meant a shake-up of the usual qualifying order. But of course this is only the second race of the season, so exactly what ‘the usual’ is in 2014 is not entirely certain.

What is clear is that it does involve a pair of silver cars going quite a bit faster than everyone else. So when Lewis Hamilton aborted his second run in Q3 that presented an opportunity for Sebastian Vettel – who had been just 0.055s slower on their first runs – to capitalise.

But he missed his chance. Heading into the last corner to begin his final lap Vettel was surprised to find Nico Rosberg on his inside. he backed off and didn’t get across the start line in time. Rosberg inadvertently helped his team mate towards pole position, afterwards he was under the mistaken impression he hadn’t been involved.

So as in Australia Hamilton will head the field on the grid with his team mate in his wheeltracks and a Red Bull separating the pair – Vettel this time instead of Daniel Ricciardo.

But does the world champion have a realistic chance of taking the fight to two cars which had up to a second per lap in hand at the first race?

The weather

While the local weather system has certain strongly defined characteristics – such as the regular afternoon storms – it is also volatile. Today’s heavy showers developed very quickly and instead of a brief downpour they lingered over the circuit, periodically topping up the track with more rain.

The threat of rain remains for tomorrow’s race and for most of Mercedes’ rivals it represents their best chance to get on terms with the W05s. The silver cars remained a full second faster than anything else on track in the dry final practice session – in the rain the other cars might at least have a sporting chance.

While Red Bull are patently at a disadvantage to Mercedes when it comes to top speed (see below) the RB10 wants for little in terms of downforce – as you’d expect. That’s the strongest card Vettel and Ricciardo have to play at the moment.

Red Bull’s lack of straight line speed is partly why they’re challenging the sport’s governing body over the fuel flow rate rules. If they have a repeat of the problem Ricciardo had in Australia Christian Horner is prepared to defy the stewards again – which could lead to another post-race disqualification.

The start

Start, Sepang, 2013Vettel is not too disappointed in taking second on the grid as he believes it could put him on the more advantageous side of the grid. The racing line crosses the grid hatchings at Sepang and the pole sitter starts on the right, while the line cuts across to the left-hand side of the track for turn one.

Pole position was on the left-hand side of the grid until 2011, when it was switched to the right. The pole sitter hasn’t been beaten to turn one since then, but in 2011 and 2012 he was given a hard time by the driver who started second.

In 2011 pole sitter Vettel blocked Hamilton’s attempt to get down the inside, leaving him vulnerable to the Renault of Nick Heidfeld. Hamilton may want to extract some revenge for that as the roles are reversed for tomorrow’s start.

The looping first turn and tight second corner can be the scene of first-lap destruction. Last year Alonso sowed the seeds of an early retirement from the race by nudging Vettel’s car with his front wing.

Strategy

Felipe Massa, Williams, Sepang International Circuit, 2014Assuming the race stays dry the high temperatures are likely to push drivers towards a three-stop strategy. The medium tyres are significantly faster than the hards, but they were degrading quickly during the searing heat of Friday afternoon practice.

The possibility of rain during the race will also act as an incentive for drivers to start on the medium tyres (everyone has free choice of tyres again due to the wet qualifying session) and continue using them for the first stints. Taking on the hard tyres early is a risk because is rain arrives and everyone has to use wet weather tyres, the obligation to use both types of slick is removed and any time spent on the slower hard tyre will have been wasted.

In terms of fuel consumption the race should not be as demanding as Melbourne. Of course in the event of a Safety Car period drivers will consume less fuel, and to a lesser extent that is also true of driving in wet conditions.

One scenario which is likely to play out as long as one team has a significant performance advantage over its rivals is how they handle team orders between their drivers – particularly when the need to conserve fuel and tyre life is pressing. It’s something Mercedes had to deal with last year, and they are most likely to be the ones who need to confront it again.

Despite the shake-up of the new rules and the vagaries of the weather, circumstances have conspired to give us a similar situation on the grid to what we saw two weeks ago: A Mercedes-Red Bull contest at the front, with Ferrari not far behind and Williams needing to make up ground after a poor qualifying session.

Whether tomorrow’s race is wet or dry could make the difference between another Mercedes rout and a much closer contest.

Qualifying times in full

Driver Car Q1 Q2 (vs Q1) Q3 (vs Q2)
1 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes 1’57.202 1’59.041 (+1.839) 1’59.431 (+0.390)
2 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull 1’57.654 1’59.399 (+1.745) 1’59.486 (+0.087)
3 Nico Rosberg Mercedes 1’57.183 1’59.445 (+2.262) 2’00.050 (+0.605)
4 Fernando Alonso Ferrari 1’58.889 2’01.356 (+2.467) 2’00.175 (-1.181)
5 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull 1’58.913 2’00.147 (+1.234) 2’00.541 (+0.394)
6 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari 1’59.257 2’01.532 (+2.275) 2’01.218 (-0.314)
7 Nico Hulkenberg Force India 1’58.883 2’00.839 (+1.956) 2’01.712 (+0.873)
8 Kevin Magnussen McLaren 2’00.358 2’02.094 (+1.736) 2’02.213 (+0.119)
9 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso 2’01.689 2’02.096 (+0.407) 2’03.078 (+0.982)
10 Jenson Button McLaren 2’00.889 2’01.810 (+0.921) 2’04.053 (+2.243)
11 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso 2’01.175 2’02.351 (+1.176)
12 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber 2’01.134 2’02.369 (+1.235)
13 Felipe Massa Williams 2’00.047 2’02.460 (+2.413)
14 Sergio Perez Force India 2’00.076 2’02.511 (+2.435)
15 Valtteri Bottas Williams 1’59.709 2’02.756 (+3.047)
16 Romain Grosjean Lotus 2’00.202 2’02.885 (+2.683)
17 Pastor Maldonado Lotus 2’02.074
18 Adrian Sutil Sauber 2’02.131
19 Jules Bianchi Marussia 2’02.702
20 Kamui Kobayashi Caterham 2’03.595
21 Max Chilton Marussia 2’04.388
22 Marcus Ericsson Caterham 2’04.407

Sector times

Driver Sector 1 Sector 2 Sector 3
Lewis Hamilton 28.609 (2) 41.280 (1) 46.939 (1)
Sebastian Vettel 29.073 (8) 41.552 (3) 47.029 (2)
Nico Rosberg 28.537 (1) 41.483 (2) 47.076 (3)
Fernando Alonso 28.982 (5) 42.297 (6) 47.524 (5)
Daniel Ricciardo 29.076 (9) 41.890 (4) 47.750 (8)
Kimi Raikkonen 29.045 (7) 42.257 (5) 47.577 (6)
Nico Hulkenberg 28.808 (4) 42.389 (7) 47.412 (4)
Kevin Magnussen 29.003 (6) 42.909 (11) 48.122 (13)
Jean-Eric Vergne 29.216 (13) 43.073 (12) 48.631 (17)
Jenson Button 29.188 (12) 43.347 (17) 47.960 (11)
Daniil Kvyat 29.293 (14) 43.120 (13) 48.204 (15)
Esteban Gutierrez 29.506 (17) 43.141 (14) 48.178 (14)
Felipe Massa 29.124 (10) 42.774 (10) 47.947 (10)
Sergio Perez 29.158 (11) 43.287 (16) 47.586 (7)
Valtteri Bottas 28.763 (3) 42.510 (8) 47.848 (9)
Romain Grosjean 29.391 (16) 42.572 (9) 47.966 (12)
Pastor Maldonado 29.656 (18) 43.351 (18) 48.756 (18)
Adrian Sutil 30.015 (20) 43.213 (15) 48.404 (16)
Jules Bianchi 29.348 (15) 43.610 (19) 49.611 (22)
Kamui Kobayashi 29.838 (19) 44.474 (21) 49.239 (19)
Max Chilton 30.141 (21) 44.465 (20) 49.506 (20)
Marcus Ericsson 30.326 (22) 44.484 (22) 49.580 (21)

Speed trap

Pos Driver Car Engine Speed (kph/mph) Gap
1 Felipe Massa Williams Mercedes 305.0 (189.5)
2 Valtteri Bottas Williams Mercedes 304.3 (189.1) -0.7
3 Sergio Perez Force India Mercedes 303.4 (188.5) -1.6
4 Nico Hulkenberg Force India Mercedes 303.0 (188.3) -2.0
5 Nico Rosberg Mercedes Mercedes 301.9 (187.6) -3.1
6 Kevin Magnussen McLaren Mercedes 301.2 (187.2) -3.8
7 Jenson Button McLaren Mercedes 300.7 (186.8) -4.3
8 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes Mercedes 299.5 (186.1) -5.5
9 Daniil Kvyat Toro Rosso Renault 299.5 (186.1) -5.5
10 Kamui Kobayashi Caterham Renault 298.0 (185.2) -7.0
11 Fernando Alonso Ferrari Ferrari 297.2 (184.7) -7.8
12 Jean-Eric Vergne Toro Rosso Renault 297.0 (184.5) -8.0
13 Pastor Maldonado Lotus Renault 296.6 (184.3) -8.4
14 Kimi Raikkonen Ferrari Ferrari 295.9 (183.9) -9.1
15 Romain Grosjean Lotus Renault 295.1 (183.4) -9.9
16 Max Chilton Marussia Ferrari 293.7 (182.5) -11.3
17 Marcus Ericsson Caterham Renault 293.3 (182.2) -11.7
18 Esteban Gutierrez Sauber Ferrari 292.8 (181.9) -12.2
19 Jules Bianchi Marussia Ferrari 292.0 (181.4) -13.0
20 Adrian Sutil Sauber Ferrari 291.5 (181.1) -13.5
21 Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull Renault 289.7 (180.0) -15.3
22 Sebastian Vettel Red Bull Renault 288.5 (179.3) -16.5

Over to you

Will Hamilton make up for his Australian Grand Prix disappointment in Malaysia? Which of Mercedes’ rivals has the best chance to beat them?

Share your views on the Malaysian Grand Prix in the comments.

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Images © Red Bull/Getty, Pirelli/LAT, Williams/LAT