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The F1 2018 Preview Part One: The Drive For Five

Regular contributor Nigel Chiu looks at the fight for the championship, with F1 kicking off at Melbourne this weekend.

Credit: Wolfgang Wilhelm / Mercedes Benz

It’s nearly time for the start of a new Formula 1 season. All of the talk, all of the anticipation, all of the predictions and all of the questions can be put to one side as the cars will hit the track and we get our first real taste of how the season will play out. 20 drivers and 10 teams will battle it out over 21 Grand Prix and around 6,400KM of racing.

There will be highs and there will be lows, but the one thing that we can guarantee as that there will be drama. We will also see two 4-time world champions go for a 5th world title. Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel will look to make even more history and prove that they’re up there with the likes of Senna, Schumacher, Prost, Fangio, Clark and the other legends of the sport. Don’t forget the other drivers though, especially a young Dutchman who may start a new rivalry on his journey to greatness.

Mercedes will head to Melbourne as favourites, with Lewis Hamilton odds on to win the championship. Whilst their short run pace wasn’t shown to its full potential in winter testing, their long run pace was very scary, especially the speed of Valtteri Bottas in the second week of testing. If Bottas could do the times that he did in that car, then Hamilton would only go faster. It’s not the only reason why Mercedes are favourites.

Großer Preis von Abu Dhabi 2017, Sonntag – Wolfgang Wilhelm
Hamilton will look to take a fifth world title. (Credit: Wolfgang Wilhelm / Mercedes-Benz)

This season will see a restrictions on the number of engines from 4 last year to 3 for 2018. Not only is this a headache on the reliability side but also the development because you will only have 2 chances to develop your engine without taking penalties so you must get it right. Renault are already planning to use 4 engines and just take the hit with the penalties so that they can get that extra development gain. It will definitely be intriguing to see what each of the engine manufacturers do but one thing for sure is that you cannot blow up one of your engines in the first few races or else you’re going to have a horrible season  I fear that this restriction on engines may play too big a part in the championship; I hope not because we want to see the championship won on the track, not down to grid penalties. Mercedes have been incredibly reliable and this move will only help them as they only used one engine throughout testing. When they make upgrades to the engines, they always seem to make it work as well.

The big unanswered question is whether Mercedes will struggle with blistering and high degradation. The compounds are softer and there’s an engine pumping 1000BHP so the rear tyres may get hurt significantly. In 2013, Mercedes had a very quick car but they chewed their tyres very hard and struggled in the race. Is this why they used the medium and soft tyres so much in testing? Are they trying to hide any potential problems by staying away from the softer tyres? All speculation but all entirely possible. If Mercedes have one weakness, then it has to be the tyres. I talked about the tyre window in a recent article and this was part of the reason for the “diva” last year; the diva could be back and a lot of people will be hoping that Mercedes do have a weakness just for the sake of good competition.

Meanwhile, Ferrari may not be able to go all the way to Abu Dhabi on 3 engines so I reiterate that this rule might well play a big part in how the championship plays out if we see a similar fight to last season. Why will it play such a big part? Well, for example, lets just say Daniel Ricciardo is leading a race but breaks down thanks to an engine issue. He will not only lose 25 points in that race but he will still get a penalty for the next race which will compromise that race as well. He would lose up to 50 points thanks to one problem and having just 3 engines might just cause this scenario to occur. You can’t afford to lose that amount of points; just look at Vettel last year when it all went wrong for him in Singapore, Malaysia and Japan and when we were robbed of a spectacular final few races. But, rules are rules and the teams will just have to get on with it.

Ferrari topped testing, but may struggle come Melbourne. (Credit: Ferrari S.p.A)

Other major changes for 2018 include, no more shark fins, engine maps must be the same for your customer teams, oil burning is restricted even more and something called the “halo” has been added to the cars. From a safety perspective, it’s there and the drivers are protected a little bit more. If it would have saved the lives of people in motorsport before, then it’s probably worth putting on the car. You can’t argue against the safety but most people are still against it. If someone is saved this year thanks to the halo, then expect all of the questions to be answered. But, we haven’t seen the halo when it’s been needed in a real life situation, for example when a car is upside down or if a driver needs to get out of a car really quickly. Will it cause one more problem than it will solve? We’ll see but talk will decrease as the season goes on.

Going back to the teams, Ferrari might be worried about not challenging the mighty Mercs. Apparently, they’re having to save a lot more fuel than other teams which will obviously hurt them in race trim. Reliability has been good but there long run pace was slower than not just Mercedes, but Red Bull as well. A championship hasn’t been won by the Italian manufacturer for 10 years and the pressure is mounting. They were also slower than their rivals in every single corner around the Barcelona circuit. I believe that they won’t be as good as last season and if they’re not on the pace in Melbourne, then they won’t be on the pace at all. Sebastien Vettel will be going for 5 championships and if Ferrari do provide a championship winning car, the German will have learnt from his costly mistakes last year and should be a better driver in every aspect. He desperately needs a decent car though.

Red Bull are much closer than they have ever been, in the hybrid era, to the front at this point in the year. Their car has looked excellent in testing through the corners but it’s just the lack of power from the engine which is letting them down. I think that they have the best driver line-up and bring the best out of each over because they both want to win so much. There are encouraging signs and both drivers are optimistic; the team want to be within 0.5 of Mercedes at Melbourne and I hope that this is the case. If they can develop their car as well as they did last year, then I expect that one of them will challenge Hamilton and Mercedes. Max Verstappen vs. Lewis Hamilton is a battle that everyone would love to see. We haven’t seen a full on, intense, raging battle between the two of them yet and this season will surely bring us this prospect. Formula 1 needs a rivalry like this; the fans deserve an exciting fight between 2 of the best drivers to ever sit in an F1 car.

Daniel Ricciardo will be under pressure to perform, not only at his home race, but all season against a highly anticipated Max Verstappen. (Credit: Getty Images / Red Bull Media House)

Red Bull won’t have the best car in qualifying and will probably only get two or three pole positions this year. But, their race car could be superb and if Mercedes have tyre issues then they will be the team to pounce and really put them under severe pressure. Red Bull have worked a lot around the bargeboard area and seem to run more and more rake as each season passes. They seem to make this work really well and it’s just one of the ways how they produce so much downforce.

Daniel Ricciardo will, at the very least, want to be on the podium at his home race in Australia. He’s always so happy and optimistic and he deserves to have a shot at becoming world champion. His racecraft is just as good as Verstappen’s and his pace can match his young teammate as well. He says that “this is the best position that he’s ever been in” when talking about championship prospects to the media. It will be the biggest year of his career so far. A championship challenge is possible but a move away from Red Bull to another team is even more likely.

Renault will be best of the rest in 2018; if you look at their testing performance. That’s just a guess to be honest. Heading the midfield will be a primary target for them but it will be very tough. We say that the midfield is always extremely competitive every year but this year is something else. Nobody knows who is where and trying to predict the midfield order will be like trying to fit a shoe that’s a few sizes too small on one of your feet. It’s virtually impossible. The order we see in Melbourne will be very different come Britain and Germany and then different again come Abu Dhabi. All of the midfield teams have strengths and weakness and it will be all about maximising your points when you get a chance. The development race will be crucial and this is where McLaren and Renault are likely to move away from all of the other customer teams. Renault now have an excellent line-up. Carlos Sainz is a great young driver and Nico Hulkenberg has always been a solid driver, especially when it comes to qualifying. Will Hulkenberg finally get his maiden podium? I have a feeling that he will still be found waiting agonisingly but I hope I’m wrong. Sainz will do a good job, I have no doubts about it. More duels between him and Fernando Alonso will be fun to watch.

McLaren were the only team to do any meaningful wet testing at Barcelona. (Credit: LAT Images / McLaren)

I mention Alonso battling with Renault because I just don’t think McLaren can make it a 4-way-fight this year. Despite a change to Renault engines, reliability issues marred the MCL33. They say that they have fixed their problems and they do have good speed. Nothing special has been seen yet but don’t expect to see them straight back to the front. There are high hopes and I do see the odd podium here and there for McLaren. I just think that people have overestimated how well McLaren will do even in the hands of Fernando Alonso. I know that McLaren have said that Alonso doing the WEC (World Endurance Championship) won’t affect his F1 priorities but I feel that the Spaniard wouldn’t have been allowed to compete in the series if McLaren were confident that they could win the championship. The move tells me that McLaren aren’t quite ready for race wins yet.

Looks like we’re in that situation again! Gonna need a part 2…

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OMG! 4th in BSB test

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