x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 17 January 2018

Malaysian GP to provide vital clues to F1 season

To use Kers or not, durability of Pirelli tyres and the likes of McLaren, Ferrari and Mercedes looking to boost car performance — many such questions will be up in the air.

KUALA LUMPUR // This weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix promises to answer many of the questions raised by the Formula One season opener in Australia.

Chief among those questions is whether the clear superiority of Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel in qualifying will be a pattern for the early part of the season.

Vettel dominated qualifying in Australia, and though his race pace was not quite as superior, it did not need to be as he maintained a comfortable buffer throughout to claim victory.

Red Bull may use the Kers power boost system in Malaysia — something the team did without in Australia — which may further improve its speed, providing it can be successfully integrated into the chassis.

The team decided Kers would weigh the car down too much in Australia, but with the Sepang circuit featuring two very long straights, it would be more useful at this weekend's grand prix, even if it compromised cornering speeds.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner said the team would test Kers in Friday practice and only then make a call on whether to use it in qualifying.

Another major question to be answered this weekend will be how long the Pirelli tires last in hot temperatures.

Australia had unseasonably cool weather, so the predicted rapid degradation of the tires did not occur. Indeed Sauber's Sergio Perez managed to complete the entire race with one pit stop, while the leading cars had two or three tire changes.

"We said all along that we would be seeing two to three pit stops in Australia, but in Malaysia, that figure is likely to increase to three to four," Pirelli motorsports boss Paul Hembery said.

Red Bull's main rivals, McLaren and Ferrari, did not appear to have any edge in terms of tire management in Melbourne, so that poses another question: Will their aerodynamic upgrades for this weekend's race be enough to close the gap to the defending champion?

McLaren's managing director Jonathan Neale described Lewis Hamilton's second-place finish in Australia as a "confidence boost" after the team's troubled offseason, but acknowledges there is still some way to go to match the Red Bulls.

"There is still a reasonable amount of work to do," Neale said on a teleconference. "There are some areas of the car that we are satisfied with, but clearly at this stage it is all about how we exploit the tires and we get the downforce on the car."

Ferrari was concentrating on improving its qualifying performance, reckoning that if it could get ahead of the blue cars on the grid, it would be able to translate that into race success.

"After the opening round in Australia, we have spent a lot of time analyzing all the data acquired in Melbourne and one clear fact is that our race pace there was definitely better than the one we had in qualifying," said Ferrari technical director Nick Fry.

"A major part of the analysis has focussed on looking at our one-lap performance, when compared to long run performance in the race."

Fry said Ferrari had added "three or four test items" that will be used in Friday's practice sessions, with more upgrades to come in Shanghai, which will come only a week after the Malaysian Grand Prix.

Another question the Australia race posed was of the performance of Mercedes.

The German team was predicted to be a big improver this season after a mediocre 2010, but left Melbourne without a single point.

Both its drivers were forced out of the race as a result of accidents in which they were the innocent party, but Michael Schumacher's failure to make it into the final session of qualifying, and Nico Rosberg's less-than-stunning race suggested that improvement had not been made.

"There is absolutely no doubt we wanted to do better than in the opening race, which was a disappointment for all of us," said Schumacher.

"We clearly see that as a challenge and it is much too early to write us off. Everybody in the team remains positive and is in a fighting mood."