Formula One 2018 Season Preview: Nowhere to Hide

5 red lights 2018-setr.png

It’s finally arrived!

The first day where times and results begin to matter. Qualifying for the first race on the Formula One calendar.

 

2018 brings a lot of changes for F1. Out with the old logo, in with new graphics; out with grid girls, in with Halos.

So far, we’ve had the pre-season testing. With it we’ve seen what to expect, visually, from F1 this year; from liveries to Halos, from helmets to the lack of view of helmets.

No big moves were seen in the driver line-ups in the preparations for 2018.

The big notable changes coming in the form of McLaren’s split from Honda (and move to customer status with Renault), Toro Rosso take up Honda’s power units, Williams bringing in a new rookie (to the anger of some fans), and Sauber strengthen their ties with Ferrari (bringing Alfa Romeo branding and Ferrari’s current power units).

 

 

But where do teams and drivers stand going into the first “real” session of 2018?

Here’s a quick rundown, in order of 2017 results:

 

Mercedes

Objective: Defend Titles

Main Target: Red Bull, Ferrari

Drivers: Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas

Despite Ferrari chomping at Mercedes’ heels during the course of 2017, Mercedes kept their composure to claim both titles. Mercedes biggest hurdle appeared to be their own car, notably described as a “diva”; with difficulties finding comfortable set-ups despite still having front-running pace. This is a matter of concern for rival teams. If Mercedes were able to claim the championships with a car that was a struggle, at times, to work with; imagine what more potential there is to be extracted from the car once it is improved and able to get better responses out of it.

Bottas is starting his second year in the team. And the pressure will be on him to show he’s got the capability to keep his seat for seasons ahead. But with a top running team-mate, and a host of drivers wanting a chance in a Merc, Bottas will have nowhere to hide and has to perform. Meanwhile Hamilton remains the “yard stick” for both his teammate and the rest of the field. The champ to take down.

 

Ferrari

Objective: Win Titles

Main Target: Mercedes, Red Bull

Drivers: Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen

After coming close to taking the championship from Mercedes, Ferrari will be wanting to keep the pressure up on the leaders. But how much time do they have? Red Bull, despite their problems, were chomping at the heels at times, and Ferrari could find they have a bigger fight from those behind than in front. The more they spend looking in their mirrors the less focus they’ll have of Mercedes. And with more teams wanting to reclaim their spots competing at the top, Ferrari will be wanting to take their chance before it gets crowded.

Vettel and Kimi retain their seats. Eager to get that potential push to bring Ferrari back to the top.

 

Red Bull

Objective: Win Titles

Main Target: Mercedes, Ferrari

Drivers: Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen

After a poor start to 2017’s season (blamed on difficulties with wind tunnel calibrations when transitioning to 2017 specifications), Red Bull made good development progress during the course of the season and were a threat towards the end. Red Bull will be wanting to continue that momentum into 2018.

But looming over the team heading into 2018 is the possibility of losing their link to Renault, as their contract for power units expires at the end of this season. So, they’ll be paying close attention to Honda’s relationship with sister-team Toro Rosso.

In the cars are two ravenous drivers. Both wanting Red Bull to produce a car to give them a chance at wins and championships. Max has his future contract sorted and looks to be set in Red Bull’s future. However, Ricciardo’s contract is near expiration; and both parties will need to prove they can fit in each other’s future (with Ricciardo’s performances, and Red Bull’s development plans, regarding engine suppliers and team personnel).

 

Force India

Objective: Podium Results

Main Target: Stay Ahead of Williams

Drivers: Sergio Perez, Esteban Ocon

Force India are in a precarious position after last season. Fourth is arguably the best result they can feasibly muster. But how long can it stay that way before teams behind gather their strength, and overcome Force India, with better resources? Renault are a works team aiming to build their way to the top; and McLaren want to see themselves competing at the top. And next we have Williams, who seriously want to show progress into being a capable big player. Unless something substantial happens to Force India, it’s starting to look like the only way is down, and through no real fault of their own.

Hoping to stave off the competition, Force India have kept their strong driver line up from last year. Perez and Ocon have had their tussles during 2017, and maybe that hunger will help Force India continue to achieve strong results against the rest of the pack. But if Force India have indeed peaked; will their drivers be wanting to stay, or look to better pastures with greater potentials?

 

Williams

Objective: Podium Results

Main Target: Force India

Drivers: Lance Stroll, Sergey Sirotkin

Williams start 2018 in the bad books within the eyes of enthusiasts, by not taking on fan-favourite Kubica to replace the out-going Massa. But it could be argued that taking on a new rookie, in the form of Sergey Sirotkin, is the far more interesting option. Especially when lined up with Stroll, who will have no excuses when being compared to his new rookie teammate.

Had the team gone with Kubica, it would have been win/win for Stroll. Whether he would have beaten him or not, Kubica would have been seen as the veteran returning after all these years, and be perceived as having lost “it”, or still has “it”. It’s a distraction, for everyone, away from Stroll. However, a less experienced teammate means Stroll has to outperform him. He has nowhere to hide.

As for Sirotkin, this is his chance for a big break. Overlooked by Renault for a race seat, despite working as their test driver, Sergey went to Williams with a point to prove and has managed to take the available seat, after impressing in testing.

Williams will want to have their sights on beating sister-(Mercedes-customer)-team Force India. But with the known strong pairing of Perez-Ocon, it may come down to technical development. However, in 2017, Williams were (statistically) the team with the smallest gains (in lap times) produced from the new regulations. Even Sauber had made more progress, despite using older engines. This could be seen to be from losing Bottas in turn for a rookie; or Williams buying their time and keeping resources for Paddy Lowe (who had moved in from Mercedes) in the hopes he can help make bigger gains in the design for 2018. Whatever the case, Williams need to show some signs of progress, or risk standing still for longer and being passed by a hungry mid-field. Williams, as a whole, have nowhere to hide.

 

Renault

Objective: Build up to the level of sister teams.

Main Target: Red Bull, McLaren

Drivers: Nico Hulkenburg, Carlos Sainz Jnr

Renault still planning on the long game; building on their resources, and in turn, their performance. For 2018 they have secured perhaps the strongest driver line-up out of the mid-field teams. And indeed 2018 is the start of the make-or-break. The team have to start showing continuous strong results. They are a works team after all, and those resources have to show their worth against the mid-field privateers. And with McLaren now part of the Renault power unit family (along with Red Bull), the factory team will be drawing plenty of comparisons. As a result, Renault will have to start aiming high.

As mentioned, Hulkenburg and Sainz make a strong pairing; both are hungry, well capable of achieving strong results and producing strong drives. Two well rounded drivers. Given how Renault are still seen as a dark-horse, the drivers might enjoy the aspect of being in a team that is as hungry as they are, with all willing to push to achieve better results.

 

Toro Rosso

Objective: Work with Honda, Succeed where McLaren did not

Main Target: Regular Point Hauls

Drivers: Pierre Gasly, Brendon Hartley

Toro Rosso find themselves as a works team, with their new partnership with Honda. And will be hoping McLaren’s impatience will be Toro Rosso’s gain. Toro Rosso may be a good fit for Honda. Now with a team that is less reliant on wins, Honda will be able to follow their own philosophy of learning their way through problems/issues, rather than simply copying solutions from other manufactures. Which is a noble goal, but one that infuriated McLaren who felt progress would have been much quicker if Honda learnt from others instead. However, Honda will be under the keen eye of Red Bull; who will be watching progress closely to see if a switch for themselves is worthwhile. But given how Red Bull have been vocal towards Renault over the years, will Honda want to go back to such a relationship.

Keeping to their rookie line-up, both Gasly and Hartley will be competing in their first full seasons in F1. The Red Bull rising talent and the endurance star, respectively, have everything to prove in F1; but with no real yard stick, with both the car and drivers, it is very hard to give solid expectations.

 

Haas

Objective: Build On Competitiveness, Climb The Mid-Field

Main Target: Regular Points Hauls

Drivers: Romain Grosjean, Kevin Magnussen

Haas will be wanting to improve on the scattering of points it received over the 2017 season, and a new package will likely help in attempts push up the order. Also helping to push up the order is the unchanged driver line-up. Grosjean was hampered by brake issues and suffered a lack in confidence in that area. The team will need to put those issues behind them, to give the drivers better confidence to push the cars. As for Magnussen; his aggression behind the wheel garnered attention among drivers and fans. Its clear he’s not afraid of a fight, and that might be exactly what Haas needs.

Another thing to look up for Hass is the increase in prize money for this year (barring any changes to distribution), as this will be the team’s third year in F1, and as an effect be granted bonus pay based on the team’s classification in the two previous seasons. That bonus alone is worth around $36million (compared to the $19million he team received in total in 2017) So that will be something big for Haas to look forward to.

 

McLaren

Objective: Podium Results

Main Target: Red Bull

Drivers: Stoffel Vandoorne, Fernando Alonso

After their partnership break-up with Honda, McLaren find themselves back as a customer team, this time with Renault supplying power units. McLaren will be hoping this will bring stability; at least to parts of the car they don’t have influence over. However, the pressure continues to rise in the team. It’s now approaching 20 years since McLaren’s last constructor’s title win (1998), and there doesn’t seem to be an end in sight to the drought.

Vandoorne will be in his second full season in F1. And with only three points finishes in 2017, will be wanting the chance prove why McLaren held him with high regard prior to his arrival in F1. Meanwhile, after his attempt in the Indy500 last year; Alonso has set his sights on the 24hr Le Mans (and/or possibly the championship) for the 2018/19 World Endurance season. If he was to win at Le Mans, it would make him the third Le Mans winner on the F1 grid (with the likes of Hulkenburg and Hartley). But how much patience does Alonso have left for McLaren. He’s already proving that he’s more than happy to spend time elsewhere. And after admitting that he almost decided to leave after last year; how much time does Alonso have left in F1?

McLaren at a number of occasions, during the 2017 season, touted their chassis as the best on the grid but was let down by Honda. Now that they’re running the same power units as rivals Red Bull and Renault, McLaren will have nowhere to hide if they fail to back up their words.

 

Sauber

Objective: Show they can be competitive with new engines.

Main target: Haas, Toro Rosso

Drivers: Marcus Ericsson, Charles Leclerc

Sauber have been, seemingly, out of the loop. With the likes of Hispania, Caterham, and Manor gone; Sauber have looked to be running at their own pace. To the point take running old engines made no real difference to results. But with a partnership with Ferrari, Sauber have secured the use of current engines, and now have to back that up with chassis development. But now there’s nowhere to hide. We will all get to see just how far Sauber has fallen during their lost time at the back, when compared to the rest of the grid, now that engines are no longer an excuse.

Part of the Ferrari partnership sees promising development driver, and F2 champion, Charles Leclerc take a seat. Who’ll be wanting to continue his development, show his potential in F1, and prove his contention for a future Ferrari seat. His first marker: teammate Marcus Ericsson.

 

 

And that’s the round-up of the teams, its now time to find out who really has made strides during the off-season, what’s the state of the pecking order, and who’s in striking distance of a championship campaign for 2018.