What our crystal ball is telling us about what will happen on four wheels in 2018, with one big asterisk …
THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM
Eight days of testing are in the rear-view mirror as the Formula One teams and personnel arrive in Melbourne for Sunday’s season-opening Australian Grand Prix, with something of a pecking order emerging after a pre-season held in rain, shine and snow (yes, really) at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya earlier this month.
Which means it’s time to take a brave pill and peer into the crystal ball to see what will happen in 2018. Who shines? Who stumbles? Where will the biggest driver rivalry be? Which grandee team will fall from grace? And is there anyone who can elbow their way into the equation to stop Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes winning both world championships again?
Here’s 10 cast-iron guarantees (well, nine at least) for Albert Park this Sunday and the 20 races to follow in F1’s 69th season.
1. Halo won’t be a talking point for long
No, really. Hear us out. Most drivers won’t say much publicly against the cockpit protection device that makes its race debut in Melbourne (Haas’ Kevin Magnussen aside, who raged against it in testing), and yes, it’s an inelegant solution to a problem that clearly needs addressing. Yes, there are serious visibility concerns for spectators to ascertain which of a team’s two drivers is in a car as it flashes past (expect the sport’s organisers to address that pronto with an edict that car numbers must be bigger to counter the lack of helmet recognition caused by the halo). But like anything new in F1, it’ll be abnormal until it isn’t, and before too long we’ll be talking about Mercedes vs Ferrari, which Red Bull driver rules the roost, how many laps McLaren has managed before breaking down and so on – regular F1 topics.
Is it ugly? Absolutely. Will drivers be harder to identify in Melbourne? Most certainly. Will we stop grouching about it? Daniel Ricciardo has some thoughts. “I think people are going to get used to the halo pretty quickly and we won’t talk about it for too long,” he wrote in his column for redbull.com. “Remember back in 2009, the year that Brawn won the championship, and the cars that year looked so different with the small rear wings, almost like F3 cars? People threw their hands up and talked about it a lot at the start, but then we all got used to it and just moved on.” We reckon he’s right. Even if we don’t like it.
2. Ferrari can’t win the constructors’ title
It’s been 10 years since the Prancing Horse won a teams’ title, and it won’t win this year’s one, either. The reason? You need two drivers capable of scoring big points to unseat Mercedes, and while Red Bull has them in Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, Ferrari simply doesn’t in Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen. Raikkonen’s past four years at Ferrari have seen him finish 106 points behind teammate Fernando Alonso in 2014, 128 points adrift of Vettel (2015), 26 points behind Vettel (2016) and 112 points in arrears of the German last year. And, in case you’d forgotten (and you’d be forgiven), it’s five years since he last won a race (Australia 2013 for Lotus). The Finn is wildly popular with the fans, has world champion (2007) pedigree, offers invaluable technical feedback, and doesn’t rock the boat internally at Ferrari. All employable attributes. And none of which mean the Scuderia will be sailing to a constructors’ title this year, no matter how good the SF71H is.
3. Which ‘V’ will have more victories?
Will Vettel at Ferrari, or Verstappen at Red Bull win more races in 2018? Last year was 5-2 in the German’s favour, with Verstappen’s victories in Malaysia and Mexico coming in the latter half of the year when he finally had some luck with reliability. The Dutchman looks set to go up another level this year, and Vettel’s old team may be poised to present him with a two-pronged headache with Verstappen and Ricciardo likely to out-perform Raikkonen. Ferrari will likely be more reliable, but in a head-to-head fight, we’re predicting Verstappen, by a hair.
4. Renault will make podiums, plural
The French team hasn’t sniffed the top three since it returned to the sport as a fully-fledged constructor three years ago, but this has to be the year. A chassis that’s striking for its aerodynamic progress, momentum from late last year and two strong drivers in Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz makes us confident that there’ll be a podium photo or two with a yellow hue this year. For Hulkenberg, who holds the dubious record of most starts without a single top-three finish (135), it’ll be long, long overdue.
5. Force India will fall
The British-run Indian-owned team has been hugely impressive in the past two seasons, finishing fourth and as the unofficial ‘best of the rest’ behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull. Pound for pound, Force India does the most with the least on the F1 grid, aided by a heady dose of Mercedes engine power. But this year shapes as the one where the team could slide, with Renault surging, McLaren given new life by jettisoning its troublesome Honda engines, and the likes of Toro Rosso and Haas making strides. The latter two teams look to be a step or two away from fourth, but we could see a world where Force India drops behind the bigger and wealthier Renault and McLaren outfits – which would likely mean the Sergio Perez/Esteban Ocon driver ‘partnership’ that produced several flashpoints last year could get really tense …
6. Standing starts after red flags will be dumped
This new rule probably won’t last long. In the event of a red flag stopping a race, the drivers will be led back onto the circuit behind the safety car, at which point they will line up on the grid in the order they were in when the red flag was thrown for a standing re-start. Exciting for TV and spectators trackside, sure, but Romain Grosjean was adamant that safety needs to be considered after the new system was trialled in testing in Barcelona, particularly if drivers are forced to stay on the same worn tyres they were on when the race was stopped. “In my experience I feel like it’s dangerous,” the Haas driver said, adding “it could be carnage” if the rule stayed as is. “Maybe the others don’t feel the same, but I don’t feel confident going with cold tyres,” he said. Expect the drivers to raise this issue well ahead of time this season, and a compromise to be reached.
7. McLaren will get it right, eventually
Yes, we saw the pre-season testing mileage stats that had McLaren last on the ‘laps completed’ board by some distance after problems that ranged from oil and hydraulic leaks, turbo failures and the engine cover being smouldered by the car’s exhaust. Yes, we know that McLaren’s horrendous pre-seasons of the past three years were a sign of what was to follow as a once-great team managed to only beat Sauber in the constructors’ championship last year. But the MCL33 isn’t slow, and when (note use of ‘when’) it runs properly, it can be a serious contender for fourth place in the teams’ title. Renault’s engine, by degrees, will surely be more reliable than the Honda that preceded it, and in Alonso, the team knows it has a driver who, when motivated, will haul a car into places it arguably shouldn’t be in. We’re backing them in to be a strong points finisher by the second half of the season, and Alonso snaffling a podium or two wouldn’t be a shock.
8. Williams’ decline will continue
Renault will rise, Toro Rosso are bullish, McLaren can hardly get worse and Force India will be a consistent presence in the midfield. Not everyone can improve, which leads us to Williams. Only Toro Rosso (with Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley) have less experience than Williams pair Lance Stroll (one season) and Sergey Sirotkin (rookie), and while the Russian is better than your average pay driver, you have to question the motivation behind his employment when data suggests he’s slower than the man he replaced, the retiring Felipe Massa (and that’s the 2017 Massa, not the near world champion Massa of a decade previously). The team has Mercedes power again, which is a plus, but after a conservative approach to pre-season testing that came after a fifth-place finish last year with 55 fewer points than the year before, is a slip to the bad old days (ninth in the constructors’ championship in 2013) on the cards?
9. Hamilton will win his fifth title
We’ll give you a minute to come up with an alternative world champion for this season. (Pause) No, we can’t think of one either. Mercedes’ pre-season confidence, Hamilton’s blazing form when it really mattered last year and a teammate in Bottas that doesn’t present the same challenges Nico Rosberg once did all adds up to five for us.
10. Where will Ricciardo be driving in 2019?
Speaking of Bottas, he might have as much to do with point 10 as point nine. Or maybe he won’t. Regardless, that giant asterisk we mentioned earlier? We’re using it here …