The latest cars produced by F1’s teams for the 2018 season have already completed their first grand prix, and bar the rather unsightly ‘halo’ device to protect drivers’ heads, the aesthetics of Formula 1 look very pleasing.
This new season sees the continuation of old rivalries. Winter testing and the first race in Melbourne has given us a lot of data about the rest of the season, and especially on inter-team battles.
2018 will thus see another fairly easy year inside Mercedes for Lewis Hamilton. While his teammate Valtteri Bottas will undoubtedly come close in some races, the facts are that Bottas is a safe and consistent number two driver. He delivers points and rarely crashes (qualifying in Australia was a rare exception), but rarely challenges the dominance of his teammate.
Mercedes will thus have an easy year without internal friction: none of the Hamilton-versus-Alonso tension, or Hamilton-versus-Rosberg fireworks. Good for Mercedes, but not good for the sport. Let’s hope Ricciardo is selected to partner Hamilton in 2019, when Hamilton will probably be a 5-time world champion.
Ferrari are very close behind Mercedes. While Sebastian Vettel is the clear number one over Kimi Raikkonen, the Finnish driver could be much closer this year if the car suits his style, and Australia suggests it does.
With his deadpan monosyllabic comatose answers to questions, Kimi has become something of a legend, but the glory days of ‘the ice man’ seemed to be long behind him. Yet if the start of the season is anything to go by, then Kimi seems to like the cars, meaning Ferrari look good to win the Constructor’s World Championship with two drivers regularly bringing home points.
The real battle is at Red Bull, fielding the most exciting driver combination in F1. Daniel Ricciardo is fighting tooth and nail to stay at the pace of Max Verstappen, and this year will see these two push each other even further. It’s a critical year for Ricciardo: if he can at least match Verstappen, he’ll confirm himself as a champion in waiting. And the first race of the year has boosted him: while slightly slower than Verstappen in qualifying, it was Max who spun in the race, and Daniel who brought home the most points. The psychological battle at Red Bull is going to be fascinating as the year progresses.
Further down the grid, the battle is on! Both Renault and McLaren are using the same engines as Red Bull, meaning, all things being equal, the drivers will make the difference. In Australia, Fernando Alonso at times challenged the Red Bull cars. Alonso will continue to dominate his teammate Stoffel Vandoorne, while Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg is likely to have the edge over Carlos Sainz.
The shock in Australia was the performance of Haas. The American team is using many Ferrari-developed components, and some say it is effectively a Ferrari in different colours. What is clear is that the car is fast, and – if it were in better hands than Grosjean and Magnussen – could be challenging the top six drivers.
The Force India team, the surprise of 2017 (winning 4th place in the championship), keep their fiery partnership of Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez. If the team can manage the drivers, and get updates to their car, they could be a force later in the season. Perez looks like he might be slightly faster, or at least more consistent, than Ocon.
It’s a sad state of affairs when we reach this far into an article before we mention Williams. But the reality is that, with the distinctly average Lance Stroll in his second year, and the new Russian driver of Sergei Sirotkin, Williams are probably not going to be challenging the front. Sirotkin needs to quickly establish supremacy over Stroll, but also focus on gaining experience and grabbing points when he can, not pushing too hard and making mistakes. Clearly, Williams made a big mistake in not choosing Robert Kubica as one of their race drivers.
Then we have Toro Rosso and Sauber. Both teams are effectively development projects for their sponsoring big brothers, Red Bull and Ferrari respectively. The Toro Rosso has the Honda engine, and, while much improved, it is clear McLaren did the right thing in divorcing Honda and choosing Renault for this season. At Sauber, Marcus Ericsson has been retained, despite being the only driver to do a full season last year and not score a point, while alongside him we find new-boy Charles Leclerc. Like Sirotkin, Leclerc needs to dominate Ericsson and spend 2018 learning.
Thus 2018 is promising a close fight between the top three teams at the front, and then a real battle for 4th place. The favourites for ‘best of the rest’ have to be Renault and Alonso’s McLaren, but the potential within Haas will be fascinating to watch.