It’s finally here The first race week of the Halo era has begun. The teams are in Australia, unpacking the carbon fibre, electronics, wheels, wings and power units that will tell us, over the next seven days, who did the best research and development during the off-season.
Who will win?
Last year, Sebastian Vettel showed the impossible was possible around the Albert Park circuit – the first driver to beat the Mercedes team in a straight fight on track since the dawn of the hybrid era in 2014. It was inspiring and ushered in the most exciting season in years, with true title contenders from multiple teams.
This season brings expectations of a similar- if not closer – fight, with three teams ready to pounce. And many F1 fans are dying for that parity. With testing revealing little, and rumours around the paddock each suggesting a different team has a title chance, it remains to be seen who will triumph.
In reality, you would expect Mercedes to maintain an advantage over the rest of the field. And with three wins in the last four seasons, there is little to suggest they are on the back foot. Make no mistake, the title is theirs to lose. But it is reasonable to expect one or both of Ferrari and Red Bull to be gnashing at the heels of the W09. Albert Park is where the conjecture will end.
McLaren & Renault exposed
It’s time for both McLaren and, to a lesser extent, Renault to put up some big results. Nobody is expecting them to storm the gates and win in Australia, but they will be expected to be the best of the rest. Anything less, particularly for McLaren, who heaped blame on former partner Honda, should be considered a failure. And with arguably the best driver on the grid under contract this is a true make-or-break year for the Woking team. Placing behind the top three teams is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, but if McLaren are to prove they still are still a marquee team in F1, they need to produce a big point’s haul. The ingredients are there. It’s time to prove they can mix them properly.
A similar situation exists for Renault. Their title wins are still relatively fresh in the memory and their stated aim after returning to the grid as a works team in 2016 was to reattain those heights. A sixth-place finish in 2017 was a solid result and gives them something legitimate to build on. With improved driver talent since Carlos Sainz replaced Jolyon Palmer, better results are expected – even if the team hasn’t delivered a big step forward in development.
Like Max Verstappen, Carlos Sainz has great ability and a deep desire to have that recognised. With an improved car at his disposal, this is his year to prove it. His teammate, Nico Hulkenberg, also has something to prove. His quiet excellence since his early career fireworks have left him with the longest streak of starts without a podium in F1 history. Having a better stablemate to take the heat off will allow him to focus on himself and finally reach the level he has long been tipped to achieve.
Where are Force India? well, the storm which always seemed on the horizon last year finally enveloped them and relegated them to being just another team? Until proven otherwise, I would have to say yes. They brought nothing to pre-season testing and have put all their developmental eggs in an Albert Park update. Let’s be clear, considering the tightly locked midfield, Force India had better hit a towering home run in Melbourne if they want to finish fourth in the Constructors Championship for a third consecutive season. The driver talent exists to deliver results and they have previously done an excellent job at squeezing the most from their limited budget. And while wins are unlikely, it is important not to take backward steps. My fear is that they have and I expect them to be fighting for minimal points in Australia.
Will McLaren become podium contenders again?
McLaren’s start to 2018 was inauspicious, as they suffered a déjà vu in the form of a lack of track time during the pre-season, due to reliability issues.
Though despite the brouhaha caused by their low mileage during testing, the now Renault powered McLaren outfit are confident that those problems won’t plague them during the season – starting with Melbourne.
When the MCL33 did manage to yield some running on-track, there were some desirable lap-times produced which gives hope that on their day; McLaren could possibly snag that elusive podium of which they’ve missed since 2014.
More encouraging would be, if McLaren were able to develop enough to by the end of the year, be on pace with Red Bull for example – now that they both share the same power-unit.
The 2018 season begins
Story lines will unfold, questions will be answered and others will be raised as the first race of the 2018 season gets underway. And if recent history is any indicator, Mercedes will emerge victorious to stamp their mark on the early season. However, F1 fans will hope that familiar headline will be written on the back of a more competitive slugfest this term.