After the drama of 2017, what could happen now the field is bunching up?
Last year was a proper thriller, with Hamilton and Vettel’s long-running battle for the title. Race after race the two traded wins, until Vettel’s bid for his fifth drivers’ title spectacularly fell apart, starting with that big first-corner accident at the Singapore Grand Prix. Engine problems in Malaysia and Japan soon finished off his hopes, and both Lewis and Mercedes claimed their fourth titles.
Defending champion Lewis Hamilton will not be slowing down. He thrives off close competition, and last season it really showed. He is utterly comfortable at the Brackley-based team, and he is driving better than ever before, having won 9 races last year. He is surely the favourite to win in 2018. Valtteri Bottas came under fire last year for underperforming, criticism which really was unfair. He is a reliable, smooth and quick driver – wins in Russia, Austria and a dominant victory in Abu Dhabi cannot be argued with, especially as it was obvious Hamilton received special treatment as first driver, whatever principal Toto Wolff says. Okay, so a spin behind the safety car in China was embarrassing, but what did Ferrari’s second driver, Räikkönen, win? Nothing.
A team that last won the Constructors’ championship back in 2008 and failed to win a single race in 2016, Ferrari has finally transformed into a real competitor with last year’s big regulation changes. Maranello will doubtless be kicking themselves for their lack of reliability last season – they ought to have won the trophy. But have no doubt – they will be well and truly in the hunt for 2018. After all, their car was definitely the better all-round machine last year, with the Mercedes car only really pulling away on the high-speed circuits. Räikkönen’s performance has seemed a little shaky in recent years, as if he lacks motivation, but he has spent 15 years in the sport and he is still capable of turning out dazzling performances like those of the last decade. The 38-year-old is not done just yet. However, the main focus is on 4-time champion Sebastian Vettel; for a successful title bid, all he needs to do is keep his cool, and not have any more of last year’s red mist moments, such as when he deliberately drove into Hamilton at Azerbaijan…
With Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, Red Bull are widely regarded as having the best overall driver line-up. Although neither are champions, they are young, hungry and aggressive, with Ricciardo being particularly brave on the brakes. His ability to out-brake others helped him to his sole victory of 2017 at Azerbaijan. Verstappen, meanwhile, adopts a ruthless style of seizing every opportunity to overtake, and sometimes misjudging it. The 20-year-old is truly gifted, having won his first Grand Prix at just 18 in 2016, and he continued to shine the following year, with dominant wins in Malaysia and Mexico. With aerodynamics super-genius Adrian Newey designing most of the car, it seems the only thing holding this team back will be their customer Renault engines – having fallen out very publicly with them last year over their alarmingly frequent failures, they’re reluctant even to brand the engine as a Renault. Will they get their act together? Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul has already voiced concerns over meeting the 3-engine limit for this season, so we can only assume they haven’t.
After three miserable years with the dismal Honda engine, which broke down more often than it actually worked, McLaren have finally taken the plunge and ended their broken marriage with the Japanese firm. This year they will be using Renault customer engines for the first time ever, so hopefully they will be able to recover from the huge reputational damage caused by Honda. Still, this is a team that, although once dominant, hasn’t won the Constructors’ since 1998. Basically, there has never been a more critical time for them to perform. And perform they should – last year’s chassis was impressive and director Zak Brown believes that race wins are on the cards for 2018. Bold claims indeed for a team that hasn’t won a race since 2012, but they have Fernando Alonso. That man’s racing ability is astonishing. Look out for him this year, scything through the pack like a man possessed, because he can drive like others simply cannot. Perhaps this is because he virtually lives in racing cars – this year he will be simultaneously competing in every single round of both the Formula 1 World Championship and the World Endurance Championship. That’s 29 race weekends – will it tire him out? He is 37 this year. McLaren seem happy enough though.
Hamilton called it “the ugliest thing I’ve ever seen” on a race car, and the new safety device has definitely proved controversial. Designed to deflect large debris heading for the driver’s helmet, the halo can withstand a whole F1 wheel assembly fired at it at 150mph. But it has raised concerns about the whole ethos of F1; historically an open-cockpit race series, does the halo infringe on that? More to the point, it is very unsightly, and will it slow down cockpit escape times? Will drivers even be able to see the start lights?
Answers coming on March 25th.