Formula One: 5 things to watch at the weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix

Shoppers walk under replicas of Formula One cars hung on display at a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur on Sept 27, 2016.
Shoppers walk under replicas of Formula One cars hung on display at a shopping mall in Kuala Lumpur on Sept 27, 2016.PHOTO: AFP

KUALA LUMPUR (AFP) - Five talking points ahead of this weekend's Malaysian Grand Prix taking place at Sepang on Sunday (Oct 2).

1. 8-POINT GAP; 6 RACES LEFT

With just six races left in the season, Lewis Hamilton needs luck to swing to his side of the Mercedes garage to stop Nico Rosberg opening up a sizeable world championship lead.

The German is eight points clear after a hat-trick of wins which saw Hamilton have to fight from the back of the grid to third in Spa, suffer an awful start from pole at Monza and be dogged by mechanical issues in Singapore.

Hamilton will be comforted by the fact that Rosberg won the first four races of the season to open up a 43-point lead, only for the Englishman to claw it back.

"We have a good car. We've got to have a good weekend," said Hamilton after Singapore. "We've come from 43 points down so theoretically eight points isn't anywhere near as steep as that."

But he acknowledged that Rosberg was flying at the moment.

"Nico's been performing fantastically well. I expect him to continue like that so I've got make sure that I do the same."

2. RED BULL WANTS RAIN

Red Bull's Daniel Ricciardo could be forgiven for performing a little rain dance in the Sepang paddock this weekend after pushing Rosberg all the way in Singapore.

Ricciardo admitted that Singapore's twisty, 23-turn street circuit had represented his best chance of a first victory of the season, at least under cloudless skies.

"I think in dry circumstances this was our best shot," he said, after finishing half-a-second behind the championship leader in Singapore. "We'll get a downpour somewhere and that'll hopefully throw a few curveballs and we can get the victory we're after."

Rain suits Red Bull's high downforce set-up, tempers Mercedes' power advantage and can bring that "curveball" in the shape of a safety car intervention.

Ricciardo will also be encouraged by the current weather forecast, which gives an 80 per cent chance of rain on Sunday.

3. TYRE STRATEGY IS KEY

Searing temperatures and the unknown quantity of a newly resurfaced "green" track makes tyre-wear key to this race.

Mercedes suffered last year, having to make an extra stop compared to the Ferrari of Sebastian Vettel, who then cruised to victory when Hamilton was unable to close the gap on the slower, hard tyre.

This year the cars have the option of a third compound to choose from, "soft", as well as "hard" and "medium".

All the teams have opted for more sets of the quickest "soft" tyre. But they are also required to use the slowest "hard" tyre for a stint at some point during the race, which could make for some interesting strategies.

Throw in "full wets" and "intermediates", should the 56-lap race be affected by Malaysia's tropical storms, and all could be won or lost in the pit lane.

4. FERRARI FADING?

Vettel's victory at Sepang last year was his first for Ferrari and ended a 35-race drought for the Italian team.

Further progress seemed assured as they try to close the gap on Mercedes. But the team have gone backwards this year, with no victories thus far and a suspension failure in Singapore relegating Vettel to the back of the grid.

The team took advantage of the Singapore qualifying woes by burning some grid penalties to equip Vettel with a new power unit, and he drove superbly to finish fifth.

There are further upgrades to come, giving Vettel renewed hope of ending the season on a high.

"I think going forward we have confidence, there are some bits coming still," said the German. "We're here to fight and that's what we're going to do."

5. THE TWIN BULLS

It was in Malaysia in 2015 that a 17-year-old Max Verstappen came of age by qualifying his Toro Rosso in an impressive sixth position on the grid in the wet, and then overtaking the Red Bull of Ricciardo on his way to seventh place and a new record as Formula One's youngest ever points-scorer.

Now installed as Ricciardo's team-mate since the Spanish Grand Prix, which the teenager won, do not bet against him going even better this year, especially if the heavens open once again.