2018 F1 Season Preview: The Cars and Drivers

After a long winter the new Formula 1 season is nearly upon us, and with testing complete the excitement is building in the lead up to the first race in Melbourne. In this post I’ll be focusing on the 10 teams and 20 drivers that will start the 2018 season, and over the course of the year I’ll review the races and dig deeper into the big talking points within the sport.

Hamilton vs Vettel: will we have a new 5 times world champion?

Mercedes totally dominated the first three years of the V6 turbo hybrid era, so many were hoping that an overhaul of aerodynamic regulations ahead of the 2017 season might mix up the pecking order. In the end the rule changes didn’t catapult anyone up the order, but they did lead to the first title battle between drivers from different teams since 2012.

In the first eleven races up to the summer break, Ferrari and Mercedes were very evenly matched in terms of race pace. While Hamilton took six pole positions to Vettel’s two, on Sundays the gap between them was much smaller. Hamilton and Vettel each won four races, with Bottas outperforming expectations to win in Russia and Austria, while Ricciardo took victory in a crazy race at Baku. After a Ferrari 1-2 in Hungary, Vettel led Hamilton by 14 points, with Bottas a further 19 points back.

The Brit won the first two races after the break in Belgium and Italy, sneaking ahead in the championship by just three points heading to Singapore – and it was at this point that the title battle swung decisively in favour of Hamilton and Mercedes. Vettel took a dominant pole and looked certain to retake the championship lead, but he collided with his team-mate on the run down to turn 1, wiping out Verstappen in the process and leaving Hamilton free to take a comfortable victory. Ferrari’s chance was gone and Hamilton went on to take his fourth title with two races to spare.

With stable regulations for the 2018 season, there’s a strong possibility that we’ll see the two four-time world champions leading the way once more. As ever it’s hard to read too much into testing, but the indications were that Mercedes and Ferrari have the strongest cars, with the German manufacturer slightly ahead at this stage. Another season of Mercedes domination would be bad news for the sport, so fingers crossed for a genuine fight between at least two teams for race victories and the championships.

Mercedes often described last season’s car as a “diva” with performance fluctuating wildly, not just from race to race but from session to session, and in the early part of 2017 it was Valtteri Bottas who appeared to be coping better. His more illustrious team-mate put him some below-par performances, most notably in Russia and Monaco, but thankfully for him Nico Rosberg’s replacement had enough speed to cover, taking crucial points off Vettel by winning two of the first nine races. As the season wore on, Mercedes and in particular Hamilton were able to extract more consistent performances from the car and the Brit took his driving to a new level, often out-qualifying Bottas by several tenths and finishing well clear in a number of races. Merc’s focus over the winter will have been on ironing out these inconsistencies in their performance.

Ferrari showed in 2017 that, not only were they able to build a car that could compete with Mercedes at the start of the season, they could also develop the car over the course of the year. The development race may well prove to be crucial again, especially if the two are evenly matched in the first few races. Ferrari’s strength was on the slower tracks – they comfortably had the best car in Monaco, Hungary and Singapore – but were behind by a fair margin at some of the high-speed circuits, in particular Silverstone and Monza. They’ll need to improve this aspect of their car to make another title challenge this year.

Should we expect a title challenge from either of the two Finns, Bottas and Raikkonen? Last year’s championship standings would suggest this is unlikely, although Bottas outperformed the expectations of many by taking three wins and finishing only 12 points behind Vettel. The former Williams driver was expected to trail Hamilton by some distance, and although he put in some disappointing displays in the second half of the season he can be pleased with his first year at the world champions and thoroughly deserved his contract extension. Raikkonen, on the other hand, endured another underwhelming campaign and only snuck ahead of Ricciardo in the standings at the final race. In his defence, Ferrari clearly treated him as the number two driver, which potentially denied him victories in Monaco and Hungary. The team see him as a safe pair of hands but the gap between himself and Vettel will make it much harder to win the constructors’ championship, and may also damage Vettel’s title chances if he can’t take points off the Mercs. Without a marked improvement in performance, 2018 could be his last season in F1.

Can Red Bull make a title challenge?

Red Bull took three victories in 2018, ultimately making it another disappointing season for the team that dominated the sport between 2010 and 2013. Their car looked under-developed at the start of 2017 and their worst fears were confirmed when Verstappen qualified over a second off pole position in Melbourne. The team developed their car well over the course of the season but were often let down by poor reliability – Verstappen retired seven times and Ricciardo six times. For comparison, the two Mercs and two Ferraris combined suffered five retirements (and one DNS) between them over the entire season.

On a positive note, Ricciardo had a run of five consecutive podiums between Spain and Austria, including his win in a bizarre race in Baku. His Dutch team-mate endured a frustrating first two-thirds of the season, with only one podium and seven retirements in his first 14 races. However, his form was superb in the final six Grands Prix, scoring the equal-highest number of points and taking dominant victories in Malaysia and Mexico. If the Milton Keynes-based outfit can produce a car capable of fighting at the front from the start of the season, it will be fascinating to see which of their two drivers comes out on top. Both are capable of winning a world championship – would the team be prepared to back one of them over the other if they are in a title fight? The dynamic between Ricciardo and Verstappen could be one of the most fascinating themes of the 2018 season.

Red Bull have been in the habit of playing catch-up ever since the start of the hybrid era, and the results of testing suggest it could be the same again this year. Team principal Christian Horner had been playing down his team’s chances all winter, and even if the chassis is up to the job they may be held back by their Renault engine. The gap to the Ferrari and Mercedes engines has slowly closed over the last few years but reliability is still an issue, and with only three engines allowed for the season there is already talk of taking tactical penalties. All Renault-powered teams have been running on reduced power during testing, which leaves an element of uncertainty heading into the first race. With speculation surrounding the engine and the future of their two drivers, both of whom are seen as potential championship contenders, Red Bull desperately need to be in the title conversation this season.

Will McLaren’s switch to Renault pay off?

One of the big unknowns heading into the new season is the Renault-powered McLaren. After three miserable years with Honda, the Woking-based squad took the decision to cut their losses – blowing a significant hole in their budget in the process – and partner up with Renault for 2018. The team have repeatedly insisted their chassis is good enough to at least challenge for podiums, so this year there will be no excuse if they remain marooned in the midfield battle.

Some might reasonably question whether a switch to Renault power units is actually a worthwhile switch, given the struggles of the Renault manufacturer in recent years and the loss of budget from ending the Honda deal. And the early indications from testing aren’t overly positive – the car has proven to be unreliable and when it has been running, it hasn’t been spectacularly fast. It certainly doesn’t look capable of podium finishes at this stage, which would leave serious question marks over the future of star driver Fernando Alonso. The two-times world champion will not put up with scrapping in the lower end of the points for much longer and is keen to go for motorsport’s Triple Crown – he is combining his F1 commitments with a few races with the Toyota team in the World Endurance Championship.

His team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne initially struggled to adapt in his debut season, but as the season wore on the gap between himself and Alonso closed, with a high point of consecutive 7th place finishes in Singapore and Malaysia. While he won’t be expected to beat Alonso over the course of the season, the Belgian will hope to further close the gap and on occasion beat his more illustrious team-mate. The team was on an upward trajectory over the course of 2017, scoring points in the final three races, but they’ll need to have made a far greater leap over the winter to satisfy their fans, and more importantly their drivers. Fourth in the constructors’ standings will be their minimum aim, but the winter has suggested that could be beyond them, which would leave serious question marks over the team after their public falling out with Honda.

Will Force India be the best of the rest again?

Vijay Mallya’s team have undoubtedly outperformed in the last couple of years, finishing comfortably in fourth in the constructors’ championship on both occasions. In 2017 they finished on 187 points, more than double the tally of fifth-placed Williams. They have managed to combine a solid car and strong driver line-up with (mostly) excellent race strategy and management – the team achieved 16 double-points finishes in 2017 – to finish as the ‘best of the rest’. The driver line-up of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon is one of the most exciting and evenly balanced combinations on the grid, though the relationship came close to breaking down last season.

The pair made contact in more than one occasion, most notably at Baku and Spa, after which the team announced they would not allow them to race for the rest of the season. Once things settled down they relaxed their stance, but if the pair are evenly matched this year the tension may boil over once more. Ocon is seen as one of the most exciting prospects in F1, but if he wants to be considered for a top seat he needs to prove he can get the better of Perez over the course of the season.

The team will have their work cut out keeping hold of fourth place this season, in the main because of the Renault works team and the Renault-powered McLaren. Both outfits have significantly greater resources than Force India and would expect to not just develop a stronger initial package, but be able to out-develop their rivals over the course of the season. Their main advantage over these two teams is the Mercedes power unit, which has consistently been the best on the grid since 2014.

Can the Renault works team continue their progress?

The French manufacturer struggled for points and reliability at the start of 2017, but gradually improved as the year wore on and were on a similar level to Force India by the final race at Abu Dhabi, nicking sixth place in the championship from the grasp of Toro Rosso. The team is on an upward trajectory and is expected to have a say in the battle for ‘best of the rest’, behind the big three of Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull.

They certainly have the right driver line-up to propel them up the grid. Nico Hulkenberg was joined by the highly-rated Carlos Sainz for the final few races of 2017, and this internal battle should be one of the most keenly contested of the year. Sainz, in particular, is highly rated in the paddock but if he wants a top seat he will need to prove he can get the better of a seasoned campaigner like Hulkenberg over the course of a season. He is effectively on loan at Renault from Red Bull, and would be the favourite to take a seat should Ricciardo or Verstappen leave at the end of 2018.

Meanwhile, this could be Hulkenberg’s best chance to finally end his podium drought. No driver has ever taken part in more races before scoring their first podium – Melbourne will be race number 136 – but this is only the German’s second season driving for a factory team. Hopefully the car will at least be capable of competing for a top three finish at some races, though concerns remain over the power unit, which remains both less reliable and less powerful than its rivals.

Will Honda finally get it right?

With McLaren ditching Honda to partner up with Renault, the Japanese manufacturer has joined forces with the junior Red Bull team in the hope that they can finally fix the problems with their V6 hybrid and secure their future in F1. Honda’s reputation has taken a battering over the past few years, with McLaren publicly criticising their engine on countless occasions and suggesting that they would be challenging for wins with an adequate power unit. Toro Rosso have made a brave call to partner with Honda for the coming season, but if they finally get it right it could give the main Red Bull team a way out of their uncomfortable relationship with Renault.

Last season was ultimately a disappointing one for Red Bull’s junior team. Carlos Sainz was a regular points scorer in the early part of the season but his team-mate Daniil Kvyat struggled and was eventually dropped in favour of Pierre Gasly, while WEC champion Brendon Hartley took Sainz’s seat once he had departed for Renault. One points finish in the final eight races saw them slip behind Renault and into seventh in the championship, the fourth consecutive year they’ve finished in that position. Their car was one of the best-looking on the grid last year, but unfortunately did not have the performance to match. The inexperienced pairing of Gasly and Hartley has been retained for the coming season, with few other options coming through the Red Bull programme. The early signs in testing were promising, with the car showing reasonable pace and excellent reliability.

What can we expect from Williams, Haas and Sauber?

Williams finished a distant fifth in last season’s championship and sadly look likely to slip back further in 2018. Their car was not far off Force India in the early stages of last season but they were unable to convert that performance into points, and as the season wore on they lost out in the development race. Since the start of the hybrid era, their design philosophy has focused more on top-end speed than aerodynamic efficiency, which has returned diminishing results over the last four years. The team has therefore decided to go in a different direction with this year’s car, but the results of testing weren’t overly positive and it could be a difficult season for the Grove-based outfit.

There has also been a change in the driver line-up, with Felipe Massa retiring (for good this time) to be replaced by the Russian Sergey Sirotkin. It appeared for a while that Robert Kubica might make a stunning return to the sport, but after analysing the results of the post-season Abu Dhabi test the team opted for the rookie instead. This was a disappointment for many fans, but insiders have suggested that Sirotkin was genuinely quicker than Kubica in that crucial test.

Sirotkin joins the Canadian Lance Stroll, who struggled in the early part of last season but gradually started to impress, most notably with his podium in Baku and fourth place in qualifying at a soaking wet Monza. He also outscored Massa after the summer break last season, an ideal response to those who claimed he was only in F1 due to his billionaire father’s backing. As the most experienced driver in the team (in terms of F1 starts), he will need to expected to lead the team in 2018.

Haas have shown that it is possible to enter the sport and be competitive immediately, though last season’s eighth place in the championship suggests there is still room for improvement. They have a stable driver pairing for the new season, with Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen remaining at the team, and will look to feed off Ferrari’s expertise to at least give themselves a strong base to build on. Their performances in their first two years have been inconsistent and it has appeared at times that they don’t fully understand why this is the case. If they can get their heads around the car’s performance then they stand a good chance of moving up the standings.

Over the past few seasons, Sauber have sadly become the modern Minardi but there are signs of a revival this year. The Swiss-based team have finally secured the outside investment to start pushing the team forward, and a partnership with Alfa Romeo should give them further financial security. Frederic Vasseur was brought in as managing director and immediately cancelled the agreement with Honda in favour of a new deal with Ferrari, this time for a fully up to date engine, instead of the year-old power units they were running in 2017.

F2 winner Charles Leclerc has replaced Pascal Wehrlein, who can consider himself unlucky to be out of F1 given his two points finishes last season, while team-mate Marcus Ericsson never managed better than 11th. Leclerc is one of the most highly-rated rookies in years, having totally dominated the F2 championship last season, and Ferrari will be monitoring his performance closely. Ericsson brings a reasonable level of sponsorship and is seen as a safe pair of hands for the second seat. Sauber may not be able to haul themselves off the bottom of the standings, but they’ll certainly help for more regular points finishes than recent seasons.

Will we get an exciting season?

This is the million-dollar question, and even after the first race in Australia we not be any clearer on what course the season might take. The unusual nature of the Melbourne track is not always a great indicator for the season as a whole, however the winner of the first race has often gone on to win the championship, and with limited testing and development opportunities through the season everyone will be looking to start the year on the front foot. Certainly another year of Mercedes domination will damage the sport, particularly at a time when Liberty Media are investing time and money into raising the profile of their investment.

The new aero rules and harder tyre compounds saw a reduction in overtaking last year, and while there were some exciting races there were also a number of occasions where overtaking was virtually impossible. Pirelli have introduced an additional two dry compounds this year, which will hopefully lead to more strategic variation than we saw in 2017, but beyond that there’s little reason to expect anything drastically different from last year. Most fans will be keeping their fingers crossed for a year-long scrap at the front – if Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull are evenly matched, we could be in for a classic season.

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