Can Teams Find 0.5 Seconds of Speed by Malaysian Grand Prix?

Fraser MasefieldContributor IMarch 26, 2014

Rosberg quickly built a healthy lead in Australia
Rosberg quickly built a healthy lead in AustraliaRobert Cianflone/Getty Images

Whilst the radical new engine regulations imposed for the 2014 season promised closer racing than ever before, one team has already forged ahead in its understanding of the new rules.

Such was the dominance of Mercedes in Australia that Nico Rosberg stormed to a dominant victory over Kevin Magnussen by a massive 26.777 seconds.

It served as an ominous warning to other teams that the Silver Arrows could be in for a season of dominance to rival that of Brawn GP in the early half of 2009 and Red Bull in the second half of 2013.

McLaren Group CEO Ron Dennis believes Mercedes already has an advantage of up to 1.5 seconds, but he is confident his team can find an extra 0.5 seconds of pace in Malaysia.

"We are confident that we will be half a second quicker at the next grand prix, for a variety of reasons, Dennis is quoted on Autosport."That will not be enough to achieve our goal but it will keep the pressure on those teams that are chasing us."

So do we have an inkling into what these "variety of reasons" are that Dennis could be hinting at and can McLaren, and other teams, really make up 0.5 seconds by Malaysia?

Firstly, Dennis believes that much of Mercedes’ 1.5-second advantage is manifested in qualifying pace and on this basis, the gains he hopes to make will come during the race proper.

Their pace is only apparent in qualifying. It is clear that they have a good 1.5 seconds on anyone else. That is challenging to close, but not impossible. The result is not so bad, but there is more behind the result: the discipline in the team, pitstops that were well performed, calling it right with Jenson; basically the weekend as a whole worked very, very well.

McLaren takes pride in its slick pit work
McLaren takes pride in its slick pit workDavid Gray/Associated Press/Associated Press

McLaren prides itself on efficient race strategy and efficiency in their pit stops. Looking at the official FIA data from the Australian Grand Prix, Jenson Button’s second pit stop was almost two seconds quicker than Rosberg’s with Magnussen’s also over a second quicker.

Whilst it’s possible to make up time during a pit stop, it’s much more difficult to make a gain of 0.5 seconds on the circuit itself in terms of raw pace. Dennis himself admitted that it’s logistically difficult to develop the car further during the intercontinental races.

But according to McLaren’s Malaysian Grand Prix preview, team boss Eric Boullier says that the upgrades the team is bringing to Sepang and their aggressive development programme will help close the gap further.

The aim for Malaysia will be to consolidate the position we currently have: we need to close the gap to the front, and we’ll be pushing aggressively on the development front to ensure that the upgrades we bring to this race do just that. But speed counts for nothing without reliability, and our focus will be to ensure we stay on top of things to ensure we operate both cars across the weekend without any problems.

Equally, back at MTC, we’re pushing hard to ensure that the supply chain from factory to track is further refined: ours is a battle of constant development; and while we’ve seen one team emerge at the front, it’ll be the constant, iterative developments that will upset the order.

Teams will use Friday’s free-practice session to test new parts and experiment with setup, but there is a limit as to how much can be done during that time.

Then there’s the factor of reliability. Whilst there’s little doubt that the pace of the cars will improve in the races to come, there is still an inherent fear factor of teams pushing too hard early in the season when making it to the finish line is the primary objective.

In the grand scheme of things, half a second seems a miniscule amount of time. Such a gap between sprinters competing in the 100-metre dash would be considered large. In F1, it’s a vast chasm.

Whether teams can make up such a gap in Malaysia seems a huge ask but such is the pace of development in the fast-moving world of F1, you can’t rule it out.