Questions for the 2014 Malaysia GP
Will Red Bull follow the FIA's fuel sensors at Sepang? Can Raikkonen bounce back? And will the new generation continue to shine?
By Sky Sports Online. Last Updated: 28/03/14 4:11am
What should we expect from Red Bull in Malaysia?
Twelve months after leaving Malaysia under the brewing storm that was 'Multi-21', Red Bull return to Sepang under another cloud thanks to Daniel Ricciardo's disqualification from the season-opening Australian GP. Their subsequent decision to appeal the stewards' ruling for allegedly infringing fuel flow regulations means that, with the case not being heard by the International Court of Appeal for another three weeks, the World Champions could conceivably be at the centre of similar arguments with the FIA both in Malaysia and next week in Bahrain.
Given they were wholly unhappy with what they described as the governing body's "immature" fuel sensor technology in Melbourne, instead choosing to trust their own readings regarding the 100kg/h fuel-flow limit during the race, there's plenty of uncertainty at the moment as to whether Red Bull will again disregard the FIA's in-race advice should they again be certain they are running at a performance disadvantage. Christian Horner's remarks to Sky Sports News this week - "hopefully we will have a sensor that works and works in line with the fuel rail and there isn't this discrepancy" - frankly gave little away.
So until we hear that the World Champions once more trust the FIA's sensors, the spectre of more post-race disqualifications for the RB10 - or any other team that finds fault with the readings - undoubtedly exist. Certainly on the evidence of Melbourne any more exclusions would likely again affect the top-end of the race order as, putting the fuel-flow meter issues on Ricciardo's car and any performance gain to one side for the moment, the Australian's drive to second in Melbourne showed that the RB10 is not as fundamentally flawed as some had thought it might be - even if the team admit they still trail Mercedes by quite a distance. Aerodynamically, it may even be the best car on the grid - in tricky conditions in Q3 Ricciardo qualified on the frontrow using intermediate tyres when everyone else needed the full wets, suggesting the car is producing significant levels of downforce. And remember rain is always a risk at the Sepang International Circuit.
Through the high-speed sweeps of turns three, five, six, 12 and 13, that downforce could stand Red Bull in good stead and with three victories in the last four visits to Malaysia, it is certainly a venue that Sebastian Vettel, so badly hobbled by engine trouble in Melbourne, likes. If they continue to make progress with their Renault powerunit issues, we could see a Red Bull driver on the podium once again this weekend. The big question at the moment though is whether such a result would stand just a few hours later...
@SkyGalloway & @WilliamEslerF1
Can Williams lead the Mercedes chase?
Melbourne might have confirmed a few pointers about the shape of the season to come and suggested others. Still swirling in the competitive morass that is now starting to solidify, however, remains one tantalising prospect that circumstances in Albert Park failed to adequately resolve: just how good are Williams?
The answer to that question remains hanging, although one or two clues were offered. Alas for poor Felipe Massa, they didn't come from him - not in the race at least. In the wrong place at the wrong time when the brake-by-wire system on Kamui Kobayashi's Caterham presumably snapped clean in two, the Brazilian was a spectator for most of the Australian GP and would therefore have taken heart from Valtteri Bottas's performance...well, most of it.
As well as demonstrating once again that, in the most rarefied of sporting environments, even the smallest errors tend to have consequences, the Finn's wall-scraping moment also forced him to carve his way back through the field. It was entertaining stuff but the feeling was that a podium finish might otherwise have been on the cards - not forgetting either Bottas's gearbox penalty, the unjustness of which had put him in such a racy mood in the first place.
So the promise Williams showed pre-season remains largely unfulfilled. Speaking afterwards, both drivers hinted at a slight lack of downforce on the FW36 which might hinder their qualifying prospects. And yet, as Bottas amply demonstrated, the car clearly has race pace. Granted, it might not match that of Mercedes but Massa - with eyes coveting McLaren's two-three in Melbourne - sees no reason why Williams cannot lead the chase.
Will Kimi Raikkonen find a breakthrough?
Round one to Fernando Alonso then in the team-mate duel of 2014. While Melbourne undoubtedly has to be viewed as one isolated race weekend at this nascent stage of the season, by beating new team-mate Kimi Raikkonen in every single session at the season-opener - and by a massive 22-second margin in the race - Alonso reinforced pre-season perceptions that he is going to be a formidable man to topple as Ferrari's de-facto team leader.
So what went wrong for Kimi at Albert Park and what chance of the Finn closing that gap to his fellow World Champion at Sepang? Raikkonen has yet to feel comfortable with the set-up of the new F14 T since testing, and although quotes attributed to him post-Melbourne suggested it was the car's brake-by-wire system that was causing him problem, Kimi has since explained that it is the front-end of his car where the issues lie.
Ferrari's general need to improve their competitiveness is once more paramount but Stefano Domenicali has made clear the team are simultaneously focused on improving Raikkonen's fortunes, and has expressed hope the situation will be better for the Finn already in Malaysia. On a circuit he gained his first ever win at 11 years ago to ignite his first ever title challenge, Raikkonen's 'arrival' into the 2014 season this weekend would be particularly well timed.
Is Hamilton still the favourite?
Despite failing to pick up a point in Melbourne, Lewis Hamilton remains the bookmakers' favourite for the Drivers' Championship, with Sky Bet actually shortening his price from 9/4 to 2/1. Regardless of Hamilton's reliability setback, Nico Rosberg's dominant display in the season opener only strengthened the general perception that Mercedes are the strongest team.
And it was on that basis that Hamilton's odds were trimmed slightly. However, his team-mate made a huge statement in opening up a 25-point lead and Rosberg is now 5/2 second favourite for a first title. That pushes Sebastian Vettel out to third favourite, although his odds remain the same at 7/2, while Fernando Alonso has drifted out to 8/1.
Meanwhile, regardless of the irregularities, Daniel Ricciardo's drive on his Red Bull debut was enough for his odds to be cut from 25/1 to 16/1, but the team are still outsiders in Malaysia at 9/1 to be on pole and 8/1 to win the race. Mercedes are 1/4 to front the grid and 4/11 to produce the winner, with Hamilton 13/8 to be the beneficiary.
An impressive start for the young guns, but can they keep it up?
"You can't win anything with kids," someone once said. Neither Kevin Magnussen nor Daniil Kvyat won the Australian GP, but while to have predicted as much beforehand indicates a mind wandering into the realms of unrealistic expectation just a little too often for its own good, it's certainly the case that both debutants put in performances which made a mockery of the notion that the new rules might somehow befuddle their young brains.
If anything, their displays were reminiscent of those occasions - golf, skiing, roller-blading, you name it - where youthful synapses and muscle memory conspire to give an advantage. While hapless old Kimi Raikkonen fiddled with his steering wheel buttons during qualifying, got distracted and ended up in the wall, Magnussen and Kvyat were well on their way to claiming top-ten grid slots. Of course, that's an over-simplification - the Russian clobbered the wall himself in Q3 while Magnussen's race start made his McLaren appear crab-like momentarily - but with everyone getting to grips with radically different cars, it seems the exuberance of youth is not quite the handicap it might otherwise be.
Yet neither do they appear wet behind the ears. Magnussen might look like butter wouldn't melt but just moments after his wayward start, the 21-year-old Dane exuded a veteran's poise as he hung Nico Hulkenberg out to dry exiting Turn Three. A little further back in the pack, meanwhile, Kvyat (who had outqualified three World Champions) was to be found keeping one of them, Raikkonen, honest before going on to become the youngest ever driver to score points on his debut. Both admitted to nerves beforehand but their races belied as much; perhaps there's no time for such thoughts with all those extras now keeping drivers occupied.
It's a little unfair to pass judgement on F1's other rookie, Marcus Ericsson, just yet, although at least he managed to complete more of the Melbourne race than Caterham team-mate Kamui Kobayashi. For now, then, we'll salute the debuts made by Magnussen and Kvyat whilst pondering whether or not they can keep up the good work. Embarking upon a Lewis Hamilton-in-2007-style podium run might be a tall order for the former, but the hunch is that they can.