Formula 1 in 2018: Reasons to be cheerful…
There is an attendant fatalism in being an F1 follower. Particularly on the eve of a new season, when we can’t help but muse over all the things that will be wrong about the campaign ahead.
This year it seems more acute even than usual. Liberty Media is changing a lot, and not necessarily to everyone’s taste. And of course there is the halo.
While not dismissing such concerns it is easy to lose sight that there are also good things about F1, and things to look forward to in 2018. So as testing gets underway in the spirit of Ian Dury I list out some reasons to be cheerful (one, two, three…)
The fight at the front
Think back to the opening turns of Mexico’s race last year. We had Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes, Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari and Max Verstappen’s Red Bull three abreast. Three different chassis; three different engines; three superb drivers.
As it was it fizzled out almost immediately as Lewis and Seb got together, but it was a tantalising glimpse of the three-way fight at the sharp end that has seemed possible in recent years but never has quite arrived to stay.
It might arrive properly in 2018. All three teams won races late last year and with no fundamental rule changes between seasons the feed-in to this campaign should be direct. And it’s an F1 truism that over periods of rule stability cars tend to move closer on pace, as they learn from each other what makes the quick cars quick.
Yes we’ve had false dawns for this three-pronged fight before. Yes Ferrari can always go either way, plus you have to go back a decade for its last example of two strong seasons in a row. Yes Red Bull since 2014 hasn’t been starting subsequent seasons anything like as strongly as it ended the previous. Yes Mercedes likely has conspicuous low hanging fruit gains to make to its ‘diva’ machine of last year.
But still there seem stronger prospects than ever of F1’s very own Mexican standoff becoming a frequent feature.
The tail rises
Think back to the opening turns of Mexico’s race last year. We had Lewis Hamilton’s Mercedes, Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari and Max Verstappen’s Red Bull three abreast. It might arrive properly in 2018
At the front, as we’ve got used to, it’s likely only to be about the ‘big three’ – financial disparity is not to be denied. Yet even so the field more generally should close up, and for more specific reasons than rule stability – there are teams that simply are bound to improve. Not least McLaren, now shorn of its dread Honda power unit, and with it the inimitable Fernando Alonso will be closer to having a car that does justice to his talent.
Renault too is on the rise, in its third year of being a proper works team again and rearming itself after what it has described as almost a decade of underinvestment. Sauber now is more financially secure and has clearer Ferrari backing. Even Williams, much maligned for its driver line-up, has its first Paddy Lowe-led car and could well surprise us.
Critical team-mate battles
Every team-mate battle in 2018, Ferrari likely aside, comes with dollops of intrigue. And for some drivers the match-up will be vital to their careers.
Valtteri Bottas will have to string together his 2017 highs much more consistently if he is to be retained at Mercedes beyond this season. Daniel Ricciardo’s previously gleaming reputation will likely be stained permanently if he doesn’t get on terms with Red Bull stable mate Max Verstappen. Many will condemn Stoffel Vandoorne as a busted flush if he doesn’t get closer to Alonso this campaign at McLaren (and that Lando Norris is waiting in the wings only adds to the pressure). And as if to prove that time waits for no man in F1 reputations even next big thing Charles Leclerc at Sauber will have plenty conclude he’s not all that after all if he doesn’t get on top of Marcus Ericsson.
Even the less critical face-offs are worthy of our attention. Nico Hulkneberg vs Carlos Sainz at Renault is tantalising. Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon was close and combustible in 2017 and likely will stay that way in 2018 – a Perez ‘win’ will rescue his reputation; an Ocon win will cement his. Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen at Haas both have their advocates (and critics) and that face-off could go either way, as could the youth vs. experience line up of Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly at Toro Rosso.
Every team mate battle in 2018, Ferrari likely aside, comes with dollops of intrigue. And for some drivers the match-up will be vital to their careers
hich leaves the battle of the bucks, Lance Stroll against Sergey Sirotkin, at Williams. For all that the pair has been sniped at both have shown some potential in the junior categories and if one gets well ahead of the other they may convince a few that they are more than a pay driver.
Call me crazy, but…
I’ve long held out the possibility that at some point everything with the Honda will click and it’ll blitz the field, or at least produce a unit at a Merc/Ferrari level. If nothing else this would be entirely in keeping with Alonso’s outrageous fortune.
But there are more specific reasons to think it might just come to pass. That Honda is still around post McLaren shows its determination to get F1 right. That Toro Rosso has picked it up shows that Red Bull thinks Honda getting it right is at least a possibility.
And Mark Hughes had this to say recently: “I know that the Toro Rosso engineers are very excited by the Honda and what its architecture allows them to do. One of them described it as a ‘higher tech’ engine than the Renault...”
Toro Rosso itself insists the first steps of the new partnership have been positive.
It’s tempting to think modern F1 mostly gets it wrong on its calendar choices. This year though a major wrong has been righted – the French Grand Prix returns after a decade’s absence. And it will be at a prestige track at Paul Ricard, which hosted the French Grand Prix 14 times between 1970 and 1990. The track layout is largely unchanged from that in 1970 too, albeit with a detour on the Mistral straight, which likely will neuter the famous Signes turn. Such things are inevitable it seems. Still it will be a welcome high speed addition, and one on the doorstep of F1’s core audience.
Of course plenty of next big things arriving in F1 proved to be nothing of the sort. If you’re to be really cruel F2/GP2 graduates are particularly numerous among the disappointments (e.g. Jolyon Palmer, Felipe Nasr, Pastor Maldonado, Esteban Gutierrez; on the evidence of last year you might add Vandoorne too).
Call me crazy, but… I’ve long held out the possibility that at some point everything with the Honda will click and it’ll blitz the field
But those who have observed Leclerc at close quarters insist this Ferrari protégé is different. Intelligent, adaptable and above all very quick. He last year became the first rookie to take a F2/GP2 title since Hulkenberg in 2009, and in a formula thought much more challenging than then in tyre management. This year’s Sauber should allow him within striking distance of the midfield fight; we know in any case from the likes of Alonso in a Minardi that it is always possible to distinguish yourself in tail end machinery. And if it all goes well this year the word is that Ferrari will have a race seat for him in 2019.
Yes, I know, I know. It’s an unsightly and unsatisfactory halfway house solution brought in only as the FIA set an arbitrary deadline for some form of cockpit protection to be brought in, and this was the only one ready.
But it being a halfway house means we can be content that it’s temporary; the probability is that F1 will go eventually for a much more subtle and elegant screen/canopy like the one IndyCar tested recently.
Plus we’ve been here before. I thought it was the end of days when the Ann Summers noses came in for 2014; similar with the platypus noses of 2012. I recall even being distraught in 1998 when the pinched in cars with grooved tyres were introduced. In every case we stopped noticing them within a few laps of pre-season testing. The probability is that the same will happen with the halo.
This time of the year
And whatever else happens there is always something about this time of year in F1. Everyone is equal (in theory); optimism is all around.
We have the shadow boxing of pre-season testing, where we’ll be reminded roughly every 37 seconds not to read into headline times. That all whether they suspect they are doing well or badly will seek to conceal that they feel that way. That all will listen for the mood music. Trackside observers will look and listen for which cars are working well and not so well.
Then we’ll have the sudden point at which scales fall away from eyes – the opening qualifying session at Melbourne. After testing’s bluster the stopwatch becomes impossible to deny. That is until someone points out that the Albert Park track is atypical and we should all wait for Bahrain…