2018 Formula 1 Season Preview

What will the 2018 Formula 1 season hold for us? More of the same? Mercedes and Hamilton at the front, Ferrari looking threatening but never really getting close enough to open their DRS to challenge for the championship, and Sauber struggling at the rear? Phil Woods writes a Season Preview for the Paddock magazine. 

With regulations staying pretty much the same, you’d have thought things wouldn’t change that much, but that’s where I think you’d be wrong. Mercedes will of course be the team to beat, but Ferrari and Red Bull are going to be chomping at the bit to challenge hard. Ferrari will be angry with their second half of 2017 fall from grace, Red Bull will be carrying momentum from a great end to the season, throw in an improving Renault works team and McLaren ready to rise up the grid who’ll want to measure themselves against both Red Bull and Renault. Then there are the sleeping giants, Williams, armed with Mercedes power and Paddy Lowe, looking to impress. Force India (or whatever their new name will be) will be hoping to encroach on the podium every now and again. Sauber, now with the historical Alfa Romeo name behind it and an up-to-date Ferrari power unit, won’t want to be at the back this time. Haas, now in their third season, will expect their racing pedigree to start to come to the fore in 2018. Toro Rosso, in partnership with Honda, will want to show McLaren that they should have stuck with the Japanese engine suppliers. 2018 is actually set up to be a great season, very competitive, and perhaps a little unpredictable.

A long season for the teams, and one in which you can expect a lot of grid penalties, yes, you heard me right, those dreaded 500 place grid penalties for new engines, why a lot? Well, the ruling powers have increased the number of races by one and decreased the allowed engines by one to just three. The other obvious change is the halo device, a head protection “thing” which whilst important, makes the cars look visibly ugly. You’ll notice that T-Wings have gone, they are the extra little mini wing above the shark fin, which has also gone this season. Finally, the FIA have banned “trick suspension”, something teams experimented with last season – it was said to have altered the ride height during a lap, giving an aero advantage to those using it.

So what about each team? How well have they done in development? Any new, big ideas? How has testing gone? What are their chances of success this season? We take a look at each Formula 1 outfit individually.



A rich vein of form

We start our preview with the “quadruple double” world champions. For the second season in a row, British legend Lewis Hamilton lines up alongside a Finnish racer Valtteri Bottas. Lewis has won three of the last four championships. Can he continue his mean streak of form and become a fifth-time champ? Or does Lewis face even closer competition this time round? Will Valtteri defy the odds to beat Lewis, as Nico Rosberg did in 2016? Will the Mercedes be as dominant this time around as it has been since the turbo engine era began? So many questions being asked in the Formula 1 world, we will try to answer them as best we can as we look at Mercedes in a bit more detail.

The 2017 W08 was described by Lewis Hamilton and Toto Wolff as a “Diva”. At first glance, the W09 looks like it’ll live up to all the expectations and hype, a car that has shown great reliability and long-run pace during testing. As for its qualifying pace, well we don’t actually know, they didn’t use the new hypersoft tyres in Barcelona for testing, not chasing the vanity lap like their rivals. Rumours around the paddock put the Mercedes at around a second ahead of their rivals. This, if true, would be a giant leap by a team already in a rich vein of form and would make them seemingly untouchable again. Last year, Ferrari started the season closer than in the previous couple of years but tailed off in the second half of 2017 due to a bit of unreliability and at times stupidity – remember Vettel deciding it was a good idea to take the law into his own hands to play bumper cars with Hamilton? Red Bull started to perform at the back end of 2017 when both of the championship titles had already been secured. The gap to Mercedes during last season was closer than it had ever been since the new regulations, so during the winter we’ve been hearing of how 2018 was going to be a three horse race with the prancing variety having their best chance of beating Mercedes.


This, if true, would be a giant leap by a team already in a rich vein of form and would make them seemingly untouchable again.

Mercedes is a by-word for reliability, and during testing things have been no different with the Brackley team putting in more laps than anyone with 1,040 in total, over 100 more than their closest rivals, put into perspective, that’s nearly two race distances at some circuits.

So they didn’t set the world alight with headline lap times, but they spent most of the final two days on medium tyres and doing long runs. Their lap times were consistent throughout and that bodes well for the races. Mercedes have always had an extra gear for qualifying (just to clarify, not a literal extra gear). They turned things up a notch and I suspect that’s what they’ll be able to do again. We’ve seen evidence of a good race set up. Red Bull and Ferrari might be a bit closer this season, but I confidently predict another world championship for the Mercedes team.



So very close

Ferrari set the fastest time in testing which, you would have thought, would give them great confidence going to Australia, however there is a but… Ferrari were hoping to get in the 1:16s but instead Vettel managed a 1:17.182. It was close but Ferrari admit the car needs to find a bit more speed. And we need a bit more context.

Ferrari won the season opener in 2017, can they repeat that and get a jump start on their rivals? One mystery during testing was the amount of smoke coming from the Ferrari engine, what was all that about? Apparently the Ferrari engine burns more oil than any other engine, so with the regulations changing to allow only 1.8 litres of oil during a race, could this be an issue late in the races for Ferrari, Haas and Sauber? Probably not, as Ferrari don’t seem that concerned.

With the way it all went down in Barcelona, snow, rain and other events shortening testing, have Ferrari really got the fastest car having put a fastest lap in on hypersoft tyres? When you analyse the data from all the teams, Ferrari may well have actually gone backwards this year. If this is the case, then Red Bull may be the team to watch.

This year the team stays the same with Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen still in the driver seats, however, if the car doesn’t compete I think Vettel will be on his way out for 2019. Vettel wants to win races and the championship, he’s not been getting the right car. It’s fair to say that they were close for a while last season but they fell away in spectacular fashion.

I have a feeling they will be in a close battle with the Red Bulls.

Can Ferrari challenge Mercedes this year? The short answer is that they’ll be close, I’m not convinced they are quite yet there, but with development during the season being a key factor in winning the Formula 1 championship, they have the team and ability to make a fight of it.

They’ve just controversially signed Laurent Mekies, currently working in the FIA safety team, this is a move that will anger other teams. Why? Well, he has had access to every car on the grid, his knowledge will be invaluable to Ferrari in the development race. He’ll continue working for the FIA until June, then he’ll cease all Formula 1 activity until September, when he starts his Ferrari tenure. This is just in time for the back end of the season, the business end as some people call it.

Vettel has made an interesting observation, whilst we have all been looking at Mercedes race pace, Vettel pointed out that they did all that on just the medium compound tyre: “In a race, you have to use more than one tyre, so how can we measure Mercedes true pace on one tyre?” I guess he’s thinking that his rivals might struggle on other tyres.

In my opinion, Ferrari will finish the season in 3rd place this year. I have a feeling they will be in a close battle with the Red Bulls.


Red Bull:

Back to 2013?

The four-time champions are still trying to get back in the mix at the very front, unfortunately they have fallen short since the change in engine regulations. They’ve had numerous public spats with their engine suppliers Renault, following engine failures, unhappiness with the top speed and more. This is their final year with Renault, can they get back to the form they had half a decade ago?

For me, the problem at Red Bull over the past few seasons is that they haven’t been ready to go at the beginning of each season; they’ve had to rely on the development race in order to challenge at the very front. They’ve been obviously the 3rd best team from the word in each of the last several seasons.

There is no doubt that Red Bull have a team full of aerodynamic geniuses, Adrian Newey at the forefront. This is a man who I would say “half retired” a couple of years ago, but he is still an integral part of the Red Bull family. Every car that comes from that man is special, and this year is no different. You can see that Red Bull have the march on most teams when it comes to aero design.

In testing, they put in some impressive times: they put in the 3rd fastest time on the hypersoft tyres, they also looked impressive on their race distances. They had a brilliant winter compared to the last few. Can they battle Mercedes? The key difference for this year is that they are ready to go from Melbourne, starting from a good footing means they have a chance to build up from today and not half way through the season. Playing catch up is never an easy way to win.

I am going to stick my neck out here and say that he will finish 2nd to Lewis Hamilton in the drivers’ championship.

It will be interesting to see if they can perform better in qualifying, all too often last season we heard teams making the excuse that Mercedes had something extra in qualifying – let’s see if Red Bull and Renault have done something to counter that. Predictions have been made really difficult with Mercedes not running the hypersoft tyres, therefore we have no idea whether they’ve got that qualifying mode once again.

I believe Red Bull will win several races this year, they have one of the best young drivers on the grid in Max Verstappen, someone who will one day be a world champion. The question is will it be this season? Probably not, but I am going to stick my neck out here and say that he will finish 2nd to Lewis Hamilton in the drivers’ championship, and depending on how they start the season he could well find himself at the top for a period of time. Daniel Ricciardo is also a great driver, and he will contribute with plenty of podiums in 2018.

Red Bull are back, and if some experts believe they will finish 2nd in the constructors championship, giving Mercedes a run for their money, can they actually win it? There is an outside chance and if I was a betting man, I would have a punt.


Force India:

Beating the clock

About to change their name, Force India have been the best of the rest in recent years, unfortunately this year could be very different.

Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon have reported the car being “heavy”. They struggled to put together any decent times in Barcelona, never finishing higher than 8th in any session. They are at least two seconds behind the leading teams and that’s got to be a worry for the team.

They have finished a magnificent 4th place over the last three years, a great achievement by a team who struggled near the rear of the grid for a while. They’ve had their successes, being on the podium several times in recent seasons, but in 2018 I find it unlikely to happen. They’ve got McLaren and Renault who are likely to be in front of them, so I feel there’s going to be a battle with Haas and Williams for that sweet 6th spot.

This is a great small team who have done really well over the last three years, and hopefully they’ll resolve their issues and be in contention for some good old points.

Sergio Perez came out with a harsh statement after driving the VJM12, he said, “I hope we don’t have this car in Melbourne”. A strong statement by the Mexican, I am sure that the team are working hard to rectify that so they can be competitive. A driver like Perez deserves to be in the mix, he’s exciting and talented. He has the ability to drag himself through the field and finish regularly in the points. One advantage they have is that they are using the Mercedes engine, so with a bit of tinkering on the car, they could certainly challenge for that 4th spot.

Still, they need to work hard in the simulator and figure out what’s wrong in time or they could be propping up the grid.

On a positive note, they have two very talented drivers, who on their day can beat anyone – they showed that in 2017 with some stunning drives, a 5th and 7th in Mexico was impressive, a 6th and 8th in the USA, a 6th and 7th in Japan, the list goes on. This is a great small team who have done really well over the last three years, and hopefully they’ll resolve their issues and be in contention for some good old points.

Can they turn this around quickly enough? Will they be challenging for 4th place and try to get on the podium? I don’t think they will, definitely not in the beginning of the season. They will most likely struggle a lot, but they could close in for the second half. I just think that’ll Force India will be too late to catch the teams in 4th and 5th positions. I’m going for 7th this season.



Betting on history

Williams are like the West Bromwich Albion of Formula 1: they can have a great season, then the next they are battling in the midfield. They seem to have taken some big step backs over the past couple of years, especially when you think about them going for podiums and at one point looking like real challengers for wins. Last season was indifferent, nothing majorly impressive and nothing tragically wrong. Williams don’t belong in the midfield, they belong right at the front. Of course, me saying they belong there doesn’t mean they deserve to be there, you only deserve to be at the front if you have the best car and drivers. So let’s see what’s the deal with Williams in this department.

This season Williams have Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin racing for them. All the focus over the winter was on Williams as they were choosing their drivers; Robert Kubica was back testing for the team and he was doing really well, however they decided to choose Sergey Sirotkin instead, the Russian driver having a rookie season with Williams. I must admit I was a little disappointed that Robert Kubica wasn’t given the job, no offence to Sergey at all. I though he did everything he needed to do, but for their own reasons they chose another driver and good luck to him.

They finished an impressive 819 laps during testing, so they know about reliability being good, they just need to improve the car itself. This is the first car fully worked on by Paddy Lowe, therefore I expect a big improvement throughout the season. So whilst at the moment they look like they will be around 8th in the championship, I truly believe that during the season Paddy Lowe will help them rise up the grid. It’s important for a team like Williams to be near the front. Their history is littered with trophies and success.

I though he did everything he needed to do, but for their own reasons they chose another driver and good luck to him.

What is really worrying is that a Williams finished bottom of the time sheets on each of the last four days of testing. Williams in recent times endures a few bad seasons near the back of the grid. They will be hoping that history doesn’t repeat itself and the white car doesn’t behave like their old blue one did. This test has been very disappointing for Williams, a vast improvement is needed and fast.

On a final note, I think they made a mistake by not employing Robert Kubica as a main driver, having him as reserve is all well and good, but Robert proved in testing that he is still a world-class driver. Unless Williams improve, I predict an 8th place finish for them.



Looking for that thing

Renault, the third works team on the grid, have the advantage of integrating their engine into the design of the car, so logically you would think they should be ahead of the Red Bulls, however they aren’t. It has seemed that they are still getting their act together after the takeover of Lotus and reverting back to their original name.

Carlos Sainz Jr and Nico Hulkenberg will be driving the Renault cars this year. It has been one of the most reliable cars on the grid during testing. They had one issue with the gearbox on the last day of testing, so it’s a great baseline to start from. On that final day, we got a glimpse of the power in that car as Carlos Sainz seized the opportunity to run an end-of-session fast lap, putting him in 5th position.

Renault seem to be in good shape for the new season. During the test, they trialled many new aerodynamic parts. But are Renault any closer to where they were a few seasons ago, when they won the championship with Fernando Alonso? In truth, they are probably about the same distance away as last season. This is not to say they haven’t improved, they clearly have, but they won’t have enough to trouble the likes of Mercedes and Red Bull. They could get a podium or two, and it would be nice to finally see Nico Hulkenberg spraying champagne up there.

Remember the two pronged nose on the Lotus? That sort of thing shows how far Renault are willing to go to find the winning formula.

The biggest issue for Renault is the fact that they’ve given their engine to McLaren, and if the expected resurgence of McLaren happens, that puts another team in the way for Renault to beat. They believe that they’ve eaten into the gap to the front runners a bit, in fact Carlos Sainz said they think they’re catching the front teams “little by little”.

How are Renault likely to do this season? They have a reliable car, that’s for sure, and they have some interesting aero concepts on it also. They could get in the mix and join the party occasionally, but I am expecting to see them around the 9th to 12th position come race day. They will have to try and target McLaren if they can and if they really want that 4th place. I am going to predict that they will have a battle with Force India (or whatever they decide to call themselves) for 5th place. During this season, they need to find the golden answer as to how they will catch the front-runners in 2019.

There is no doubt they have the ambition to be world champions again, and I have every belief that the Enstone team can do it. They are brave and one day they’ll find that thing that’ll make them climb back to the top. Remember the two pronged nose on the Lotus? That sort of thing shows how far Renault are willing to go to find the winning formula.


Toro Rosso:                                                                                                                                                                                

A season-long test?

Red Bull’s junior team have moved engine suppliers for this season to Honda, in a deal that many think was connected to McLaren moving over to Renault. This was a way to keep Honda in Formula 1. Toro Rosso have never been a front-running team, and when it was announced that they were moving to the Japanese suppliers, most people in Formula 1 expected the worst. The last few years have been disastrous for McLaren, engine reliability has been poor and so has the speed, so what happened when Toro Rosso appeared at Barcelona for testing? Did they break down all the time? Did they struggle to get any laps done? Is it looking like they’re going to have a terrible season?

The simple answer to all that is NO: the Honda engine for 2018 was incredibly reliable, Toro Rosso completed 822 laps, they had one glitch over the whole test. The only confusing thing is that they ran three engines during testing and that is the maximum for the whole season. I have to ask the question why that happened, but both Honda and Toro Rosso say there was nothing wrong with the engines. The final week they ran the same engine for the whole four days.

Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley will drive for Toro Rosso this season. Pierre will surely be looking forward to the return of Formula 1 to his home country France this season. I will go out on a limb here and suggest that this team could develop during the season and get themselves in the points and perhaps have a few good races where they trouble some of the teams at the front of the midfield.

If the Honda engine proves to have really improved that much since last season, Toro Rosso will be the beneficiaries of McLarens woes over the last three years.

If the Honda engine proves to have really improved that much since last season, Toro Rosso will be the beneficiaries of McLarens woes over the last three years.

I don’t really believe that Honda will have made any giant steps in performance, however it seems that they have got a handle on reliability. This is the first step to success, so congratulations to Honda if they’ve managed to achieve that. As for speed, I’m thinking Toro Rosso are looking at 8th or 9th in the championship, but a good run with the Honda engine being reliable could single the start of a beautiful relationship. There are rumours in the paddock that this is a test for Red Bull, as next season they need to find a new engine supplier. Could the Toro Rosso/Honda partnership be a season-long testing mission for the Red Bull team?

So if I have to pick a position for Toro Rosso, I’m going to say 9th. The reason is I am not convinced just yet that Honda have the speed to challenge higher. Time will tell though!



The unpredictable horse

What a great winter I has been for the American team! They’ve probably made the biggest gains alongside McLaren. Writing this review, I was dreading getting to Haas because I don’t have a clue where to place them in my championship predictions. In fairness, they could really be up there battling it out with McLaren and Renault, equally they could be rubbing shoulders with Force India.

Haas didn’t bring any hypersoft tyres to the test, instead they relied on ultra and super soft tyres for their most impressive laps. The only other team to do that were Mercedes. The race pace of Haas was impressive. They have two drivers who are very good, Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean; both these racers would fit right in at one of the top teams. We all know that Grosjean can be a little over-competitive when overtaking, and I am trying to find the kindest words for his style of driving here.

Haas has a lot of experience in motor racing, a huge pedigree in NASCAR, they want to push Formula 1 in the United States and they’re doing a great job so far. They are the first new team to actually be competitive. You only have to look back a few years to how Virgin Racing, Caterham and HRT performed, they never grew as quickly as Haas, and that needs to be applauded.

They’re looking really promising and I have a feeling they will be battening for that 5th place in the standings that I’ve already given to Renault. This means I will be wrong somewhere along the line.

The only question mark over the team is whether or not they had impressive times just because they got the tyres working around the Circuit de Catalunya. If this is the case, then it makes Haas even harder to read. On the other hand, if they got the tyres to work well in Barcelona, perhaps they’ll be able to do that at other tracks.

So what are my expectations for Haas F1 Team this season? Like I said, I don’t know, they are a hard, very hard team to read. They’re looking really promising and I have a feeling they will be battening for that 5th place in the standings that I’ve already given to Renault. This means I will be wrong somewhere along the line. Last season, in Melbourne they got 6th on the grid, if they repeat that then I’ll be moving my predictions down one and putting Haas in 5th. But for now, I think I will have to put them in 6th, winning a battle with Force India. If there are breakdowns or crashes in front of them, they could pinch a podium or two. They are poised to have a good season and this looks like impressive progress from the American team.



Win together, lose together

A team with a huge history have recently fallen into the abyss of Formula 1. Who would have predicted, when Lewis Hamilton crossed the line in Brazil to dramatically take the title only a few years ago, that McLaren would be at the back of the grid, struggling to even finish races?

Their decision to return to Honda power was driven by past success and promises of an engine that would potentially match or beat the Mercedes, this never happened and they’ve had nothing but trouble. Last season was beyond a joke as far as McLaren are concerned – they had so many failures and were close to losing their star driver Fernando Alonso.

Turn the clock forward a few months and all seems to have changed, a second fastest time in testing, a 1:17.784 by Fernando Alonso, only beaten by Vettel in a Ferrari. Granted, the lap was on hypersoft tyres but so was everyone else’s who put in fast laps. Their new partnership with Renault has seen its fair share of problems though, five breakdowns in testing, however that is what testing is for, getting rid of the bugs. McLaren tell us that these issues were just minor ones.

Fernando Alonso stayed, and he probably stayed because he saw the potential of this car.

The car is stunning, in its new livery of Papaya Orange, harking back to the successful past of McLaren. Now anyone who knows anything about the technical side of Formula 1 will know that last year’s McLaren was aerodynamically good, it was in many peoples view the best car on the grid, it was just let down by the engine. This year it looks to have improved further, the back end is very tightly packed, and if you watched the testing sessions, you’d have noticed a lot of cooling going on in the garage at the back end.

McLaren were at the bottom of the mileage charts with just 619 laps, but that is mainly down to small issues.

So Fernando Alonso stayed, and he probably stayed because he saw the potential of this car. But, can McLaren win this year? Will we see Alonso and Vandoorne on the podium? In all honesty, it would be a huge jump if they managed that, however they are targeting Red Bull and that’s ambitious. That sort of ambition will drag them into contention. We all know what Alonso can do, he’s shown his brilliance in the last few seasons merely by dragging McLaren into the points.

In 2018, McLaren would like to be the “best of the rest”, and I’m going to predict that they actually will be. I believe that we will finally see podiums from McLaren, however there is a but… I think they may have some teething problems in the first few races, but once they are ironed out we will see a performance more like the McLaren of old. To finish, they do have the most stunning looking car on the grid. So for this Season Preview, I am going for a 4th place finish for McLaren and a bright future ahead.



The only way is up!

Sauber spent most of last season at the back of the field; they weren’t always at the back of the grid after qualifying due to the amount of silly penalties given to other teams, but during the race they ended up going backwards. They’ve struggled for a few years now and really need to do something to move up the grid. They do have a new team chief: Frederic Vasseur has begun his first season with the team, he has ambitions to catch up with the pack. He claimed that they have taken some design risks over the winter, this may be the reason we saw the Sauber spin out a few times.

They didn’t finish at the bottom of the time sheets, as we have already said, that wooden spoon was given to Williams. However, there was a tyre difference between Williams and Sauber: if you correct the times when considering the tyres, you will find that Sauber are around seven tenths off the pace at the rear. This is a serious amount of time and it will be a struggle to make that up during the season. I feel that the Sauber/Alfa Romeo mix is a long-term project that will come to fruition over the coming years. The deal with Alfa Romeo results in many people, including myself, loving the look of the car. It’s also nice to have Alfa Romeo back in Formula 1.

Marcus Ericsson and Charles Leclerc will be racing for Sauber this year, but can they trouble the big boys? The simple answer is a resounding NO. Can they get into the points? Possibly, but it will take a tremendous drive and a bit of luck to do that. They could well have a mini battle at the back with Toro Rosso and perhaps occasionally Williams, but being seven tenths of a second behind is a big gap.

The deal with Alfa Romeo results in many people, including myself, loving the look of the car. It’s also nice to have Alfa Romeo back in Formula 1.

Sauber have the benefit from an up-to-date Ferrari engine this season, that in itself is going to help them progress compared to last year. For those who don’t know, last season they were using a Ferrari engine from the year before; that of course put them at a disadvantage.

I’m afraid to say to Sauber fans that this season will be a long and difficult one, but I do expect improvements throughout the season and maybe they will start to attack the midfield by the end of 2018. I predict a last place finish in the championship this season, but the future could well be rosy.

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