By Kieran Rudrum (@kieran_rudrum) and Jake Dewbery
For the second year in a row, we are doing a season preview to the Formula One season. This is the year where Liberty Media will either call Ferraris bluff regarding prize money, price caps and future regulations; helping to change the sport for the better, or cave in and keep the sport spiralling into an uncompetitive coma. This is also the year where a two-team championship fight could become three, and where the future of the sport for the foreseeable future will be formed. However, the only thing we really care about is how close it will be on track, and pre-season has given very mixed messages about how things will pan out. We will now try and estimate where the teams and drivers will be this season, and hope that we will have at least three drivers competing in this season’s championship. We shall start once again with the reigning champions.
Can Anybody Beat Mercedes?
The reigning world champions look to be the class of the field yet again this season. Although there were no eye-catching lap times, Mercedes were absolutely bulletproof in pre-season, with no reliability issues and a race stint around 4 seconds faster than race pace in last year’s Spanish Grand Prix (In the 1M19s at the end of the stint compared to last year’s fastest lap of 1M23.5). According to Karun Chandhok, the car also looks very stable and well planted in medium speed corners as well. This race pace has been rumoured by some to equate to over a second faster per lap than anything else; although I don’t believe it will be that much. The Mercedes engine remains the class of the field, and they still have Lewis Hamilton as the best driver of the season as well. Bottas, although not a world beater, is fighting for next year’s drive and will once again be a good backup for Hamilton. Although I do believe they will have some competition, especially round the twistier circuits, and that the car may have its ‘diva like; qualities, I believe the Mercedes – Hamilton partnership, combined with having for my money the most talented designer in the grid in James Allison, will be a bit too strong one again.
Verdict (KR, JD respectively):
Mercedes: 1st, 1st
Hamilton: 1st, 1st
Bottas: 4th, 5th
Can Ferrari Challenge Again?
KR: Although they produced the eye catching fastest lap time of testing – 6 tenths of a second faster than anything else, there seems to be a large cause for concern at Ferrari that they have gone backwards compared to the rest of the field. There are firstly concerns with reliability again, something which went a long way to derailing Vettel’s championship challenge last season. Then there is the concern of the cars actual pace. Yes they put in the fast laps in the last few days of testing, but according to Mercedes data they expect Ferrari to not have just fallen back over winter but have fallen behind Red Bull as well. Vettel has been vividly unhappy in pre-season testing and Ferrari will need to hope that doesn’t continue into the season, as an unhappy Vettel usually leads to erratic driving.
For Raikkoneon this season should be his swansong year, he is loved by fans but as this site has mentioned numerous times Kimi is way past his prime, and will likely let Ferrari down again if there’s any sniff of a constructers fight.
JD: Kimi has struggled in recent seasons due to the car being tailored for Seb’s driving style over his own, and this commitment to one driver could hurt the team if Seb loses his cool and the results dry up. Despite this, I think Ferrari will remain close, if slightly behind Mercedes, but the fight could be for second in the drivers’ standings this season, not first.
Ferrari: 3rd, 3rd
Vettel: 5th, 3rd
Raikkoneon: 6th, 6th
Will Renault Power Hold Red Bull Back?
KR: Red Bull ooze a quiet confidence not seen in recent seasons, which must ring alarm bells for Mercedes and Ferrari. Not only do they possess the strongest driver line up on the grid, but also from the looks of it the strongest chassis, showing that this season Red Bull will be able to hit the ground running. All evidence suggests that they will be Mercedes closest challenges, with their race pace on average a few tenths per lap up on Ferrari. However, Renaults decision to focus on reliability rather than power, although limiting the chronic reliability that plagued them last season, will leave them with a quarter – half a second behind Mercedes depending on the circuit. If Red Bull are close enough to Mercedes to challenge, the strength of Verstappen and Ricciardo may become Red Bulls weakness in a Drivers Championship fight, as they would take points off each other allowing Hamilton as the dominant Mercedes driver a clear route to the title. If Max Verstappen does beat Ricciardo comfortably this season however, I believe two things will happen, 1. Max will likely be a champion and 2. Ricciardo would be packing his bags to Renault, Mercedes, Ferrari or McLaren, although I think it will be very tight between both of them again this season.
JD: Red Bull seem to be on the right track, and whilst I don’t think they’ll start the season as race winners I have no doubt they’ll be the closest challenges to Mercedes come the end of the year. I fear Renault reliability may compromise their championship challenges though, and should an ever-maturing Max maintain his abysmal misfortune he could again be beaten over the season by Riccardo. Even if this does happen I believe he will show enough raw pace for Riccardo to jump ship at the end of the season, likely allowing us to see Sainz promoted to lead Red Bull team.
Red Bull: 2nd, 2nd
Ricciardo: 3rd, 2nd
Verstappen: 2nd, 4th
Can Force India Recover from an Expected Slow Start?
KR: The pound for pound best team in Formula One looks like it has made a dog of a car this season, with both drivers complaining about the car all through testing. I would probably say at the minute they have dropped from 4th to 8th in the pecking order. Force India need to hope that the major upgrades they are bringing to Australia make a worthwhile difference, if not they are in for a long season. More importantly, a poor season could leave their drivers, Perez and Ocon, possibly the most talented midfield pairing in modern Formula One since the Mansell and De Angelis in the early 1980s, looking for new drives next season, with rumours already linking Ocon with Mercedes, and one suspecting either Ferrari or Renault possibly coming in for Perez. Even if they do recover, I feel a couple of other teams have made so much progress that Force India will struggle to hold on to their best of the rest slot.
JD: Whilst Force India have been brilliant in recent seasons the return of the sleeping giants (Renault and McLaren) will likely force the team to reconsider their ambitions. I expect a tight fight between themselves and Haas, with the superior driver line-up giving them a slight edge, although an early commitment to the 2019 design could see this go the other way.
Force India: 7th, 6th
Perez: 11th, 13th
Ocon: 12th, 11th
Tough Season Ahead for Williams?
KR: After flirting with giving Kubica a sensational return to the sport, Williams decided to give the Pole a Reserve role. In truth, with the headlines and sensation it would have given the team, you can only imagine that Kubica’s injuries meant that he simply wasn’t quick enough, however looking at pre-season pace Kubica may be glad he isn’t making his full return for Williams. In the 2nd week, Williams were at the bottom of the timesheets on every day and there is a feeling of negativity around the team, not what the first proper car of the Paddy Lowe era that the ex-champions had in mind. To make matters worse, his podium in Baku aside, Lance Stroll was for most of the season completely out of his depth, and with him the more experienced of the driver lineup, you have to be concerned where Williams are going to get their points from. I would have thought that Williams would have got an experienced team leader in, such as Grosjean, where instead they have gone for the sponsor backed Sirotkin, who is a complete wildcard this season and has a junior record to suggest that he is nothing special. Having said that, drivers like Kobayashi and Buemi for example have come in with an unspectacular junior career to shine in a midfield car, and for their sake they need Sirotkin to be of a similar ilk.
JD: A very inexperienced and poor driver line-up combined with a newly headed design philosophy will likely see this as nothing more than a transitional year for Williams. The team can no longer rely on the superior Mercedes powerplant and their in-season development of recent seasons has to be questioned. Hopefully this car will provide a solid base for a more optimistic season in 2019, however this eventuality will rely on obtaining valuable sponsorship deals.
Williams: 9th, 8th
Sirotkin: 17th, 16th
Stroll: 19th, 17th
How Much Progress Have Renault Made?
Renault are going into 2018 in a very positive frame of mind. They believe they have the best car outside the “big 3” and do not have the doubt of having a driver who isn’t good enough for F1 like they did last year with Joylon Palmer. Obtaining Sainz off Red Bull is an absolute coup, and Renaults main aim driver wise for next season must be to persuade him to sign for Renault permanently for 2019/20. He will push Hulkenburg hard, who will be desperate to gain his first podium. There are some doubts if Hulkenburg is good enough for a top line drive after he was beaten by Perez fairly convincingly in 2015/16, and he must beat Sainz this season to wipe these doubts. For Renault, their aim must to beat McLaren, Force India and the rest of the midfield.
Whilst I believe Hulkenburg will get this first podium this year I do think he will struggle against Sainz who must perform to secure a permanent Renault or Red Bull seat for next season. Whilst McLaren look to have the 2nd fastest Renault engined car this season, their quest for performance has hampered reliability again, consequently this promises to be an intriguing championship battle for 4th which could go either way. Whilst Renault will likely score points more frequently, a few good results for McLaren could edge it.
Renault: 5th, 5th
Hulkenburg: 9th, 10th
Sainz: 8th, 8th
Will Toro Rosso Fade or Evolve Under Honda Power?
KR: Toro Rosso must have been relieved after testing to find that Honda, who 12 months ago had an absolutely torrid time with McLaren, ran this year like clockwork. In truth by the end of last season reliability was less of an issue for Honda – they only had 1 failure in the last 8 races – and that their big issue was still performance. This is what will be expected to be Toro Rosso’s Achilles heel. As tradition James Key has done a good job with his resources to create a good balance and chassis and that will put them in good stead for the early races. The drivers know that this season they have to impress. Gasly and Hartley both came in midseason last year and got a bit of a free pass in terms of performance and were in truth very poor in the last few races last season. The jury is still out on whether either are good enough in F1 and some talented drivers (Buemi, Vergne and Kvyatt) have all too easily fallen by the wayside previously in the Red Bull programme.
JD: Even if reliability isn’t an issue, engine performance limitations will likely ensure that point scoring results are few and far between. Despite this, continued Honda progression could spark a mild resurgence in the latter stages of the season, possibly helping them to overcome Williams to 8th in the constructers.
Toro Rosso: 8th, 9th
Gasly: 15th, 15th
Hartley: 18th, 18th
Are Haas This Year’s Surprised Package?
After establishing themselves in the lower midfield in 2016 and maintaining its position in 2017, Haas have come into 2018 in a buoyant mood. In the 2nd to last day of testing they were 2nd fastest with Magnuessen setting a 1M18.3 on the supersofts, very impressive on that tyre. Haas’s long runs in pre-season also produce data that suggests the car is a major step forward for the team. In their 2018 design, Haas practically made its base the 2017 Ferrari within 2018 regulations, a very solid start base to go on. Haas design did not push the boundaries like McLaren or Williams did for example, and instead have built a solid all rounder which may be right up there with Renault and McLaren at the start of the season. If Haas has also fixed its reoccurring brake issues as well, Grosjean can really lead the team forward, as his driving style, which relies on good braking performance from the car, would stop being handicapped in the way it has the last two seasons. Last season Magnussen made no friends, but fought his way to some very hard earned points for Haas and the team will hope he can do the same this season. Although we suspect Haas could fade in the 2nd half of the season, they may start the season as the big surprise in terms of pace and a thorn in Force India’s side. If their performance is strong, expect competitor complaints about the Ferrari relationship which could limit future season performance.
Haas: 6th, 7th
Grosjean: 10th, 14th
Magnussen: 14th, 12th
Can McLaren Rise From Its Honda Ashes?
After ending their dismal relationship with Honda, McLaren would hope its relationship with Renault would start smoothly in pre-season. However, this is McLaren, and them without a pre-season reliability crisis just would feel wrong. It appears a lot of these problems have been caused by McLaren’s compact design, mainly the bodywork causing the Renault engine to overheat, a flaw which is likely to cause a couple of failures in the opening races and hurt the teams start to the season.
Despite this continuing sense of a never ending nightmare, there are reasons to be cheerful for McLaren. First, the Renault engine should almost certainly give better performance than the Honda engine, meaning McLaren won’t be expecting to be passed every time a car gets anywhere near it on a straight. Second, testing showed that in the tight third sector, McLaren were consistently very strong, meaning the car has very good mechanical grip and should be competing for podiums and wins in tracks like Monaco, Singapore and Hungary. Finally, the pace on the final day of testing shows that McLaren should be at least challenging Renault as best of the rest regularly or beat them. With a major upgrade supposedly ready in time for Melbourne too, McLaren could be conceivably close to Ferrari if the update creates a major step forward. In Alonso, McLaren still have a superstar, while Vandoorne has a big season ahead to prove himself as a future champion.
McLaren: 4th, 4th
Alonso: 7th, 7th
Vandoorne: 13th, 9th
A Familiar Feeling for Sauber?
Once stalwarts of the upper midfield, and for a couple of seasons championship contenders, Sauber are now going into its 5th season of effectively being a backmarker side. The future may look brighter however, with a technical partnership with Ferrari signed and big Alfa Romeo sponsorship dealer in toe. Sauber also have a real potential star this season too in Charles Leclerc. Leclerc won his debut Formula 2 season more dominantly than either of us can remember any driver wining the 2nd tier and the 20 year old will surely be a world champion in the future if he keeps progressing at the current rate. Leclerc knows that, like Wehrlein had to last season, he must dominate Ericcson this season in order to springboard himself into a seat in Ferrari for 2019. Ericcson meanwhile, will be happy to still be in Formula One and one would hope this pay drivers time is almost up.
Saubers car itself looks a handful, with both drivers spinning off numerous times in pre-season, and it looks like the car will be towards the back again, even with an up-to-date Ferrari engine. Hopefully Sauber can correct their gremlins and at least begin to challenge Williams and Toro Rosso at the lower midfield.
Verdict: 10th, 10th
Leclerc: 16th, 19th
Ericcson: 20th, 20th
Apart from overestimating Renault and McLaren last season, and underestimating Esteban Ocon, our prediction last year was fairly accurate. Hopefully this year will throw up more surprises, and some more shock results. We will find out over the weekend to see if Hamilton and Mercedes are indeed in the ascendancy or if other teams were hiding their true potential.