Kimi Raikkonen

10 fearless predictions for the F1 season

What our crystal ball is telling us about what will happen on four wheels in 2018, with one big asterisk …


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 “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 …


What do we know about the 2018 F1 season?

Testing is over and Australia is just a week away – here’s five pointers the pre-season has suggested as we count down to lights out in Melbourne.


The phoney war is over – that phoney war being Formula One pre-season testing, where fresh liveries and new faces in new places occupy our attention initially, after which point F1 fans and insiders scratch their heads trying to work out who is fast, who isn’t, and why.

So what did eight days of running at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya really tell us about the 21-race season that’s to follow? We’ll get back to those eight days later on, but with the season-opening Australian Grand Prix a little over a week away, we can paint something of a picture before the lights go out for 2018.

Here’s some of what we can deduce from testing – and a few pointers of what to look out for when the new season is officially ‘go’ in Melbourne on March 25.

Silver still holds sway

Don’t make any rash predictions on the season ahead based on testing, common convention suggests. You never know what fuel loads teams are running, tyre choice can make a fast car look slow, teams with plenty of spare space for sponsor stickers can be tempted to chase a headline time to squeeze some extra cash out of a potential backer, and so on. Don’t do it …

So we will. Mercedes has dominated F1 since the advent of the V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014, and testing presented few signs that anything will change any time soon. How can we tell? Something Mercedes didn’t do, and one thing they did.

Looking purely at the overall lap times, seeing Lewis Hamilton in eighth and teammate Valtteri Bottas 10th is quite a shock, until you consider how the Silver Arrows approached Barcelona. Consider, for sake of comparison, McLaren, who came into 2018 testing off a horror season last year and finished the test with the third-fastest time overall with Fernando Alonso. The devil in the detail? McLaren did 99 laps at the final test on the hypersoft tyre, Pirelli’s quickest rubber for 2018, while Hamilton and Bottas didn’t complete a single lap on the pink-walled tyre, and did more than half of their laps across the two tests on the medium tyre, suggesting there’s pace to burn when they fit the right rubber for qualifying in Melbourne. Pirelli’s estimate of the time gain when switching from mediums to hypersoft? North of two seconds a lap …

Another indication of Mercedes’ confidence came in comments from technical director James Allison, who, while explaining the differences between last year’s car and this one, suggested the 2017 Merc would be “blown away” and “utterly hopeless” compared to its successor. Let’s not forget that the W08, last year’s car, won 12 of the 20 races, took pole position 15 times, finished on the podium 26 times of a maximum 40 and won the constructors’ championship – for the fourth year in a row – by a massive 146 points. Allison’s comments could have barely been scarier if they were accompanied by the theme music from ‘Jaws’ …

The rest of the pack will move forwards – progress in F1 is a constant – but to expect anyone else other than Mercedes to start the year as favourites is foolish.

Asterisks are still alive

Ah, the old game of posting a fast lap time and then adding an asterisk to it as soon as you get out of the car. Sebastian Vettel posted the fastest time of testing (1min 17.182secs, breaking the circuit record), while Ferrari teammate Kimi Raikkonen was just 0.039secs slower on the final day, the Prancing Horse pair six-tenths of a second faster than the next-best runner (Alonso’s McLaren). So, Seb, you’d be pretty pumped up about that, then? Er, no. “I think it’s the wrong conclusion to look at the timesheet, there’s more to it than a good lap,” he said with a convincingly furrowed brow in Barcelona. “We still need to work on the performance and the feeling. I think today the track was quite fast, we ran a little bit different program to others. There are some things we still need to get on top of.”

The reality is that Ferrari aren’t Mercedes-level fast – nobody is – but are part of the top three along with Red Bull as they were last year. How good could they be? It’s hard to know, and neither driver is telling …

For feedback purposes, we preferred Max Verstappen’s take as testing came to a close, the Red Bull racer reasonably untroubled by finishing 20th of the 22 drivers who turned a lap in the pre-season. How does the RB14 feel compared to its predecessor, in which he took two wins late in the 2017 season?

“I know it feels faster,” he grinned, clearly playing along.

“The car feels good. Everyone of course wants to know where we think we are in relation to our opposition, but honestly it’s impossible to tell until we get to Australia, as you don’t know what everyone else is doing.

“It’s still all to be discovered.”

Renault to the four

No, that’s not a typo; we mentioned earlier that this year’s quickest trio of teams appears to be the same as last year’s, but the picture of who will be crowned king of F1’s unofficial second division appears to have a yellow hue, with Renault looking to have made giant strides over the off-season to challenge Force India’s recent hold over fourth place in the constructors’ race.

Carlos Sainz (fifth-fastest overall) and Nico Hulkenberg (11th) were relatively happy with Renault’s pace in Barcelona, and while the team suffered with gearbox gremlins on the final day of running to leave some question-marks hanging ahead of Australia, the tighter aerodynamic packaging of the RS18 was notable compared to its predecessor, the team’s chief technical officer Bob Bell admitting that Renault had “pushed like hell” with the new chassis in an attempt to take the next step.

Recent history suggests engine reliability is always a question with Renault, but with arguably the strongest driver line-up of the midfield teams and a renewed focus in year three of its return to F1 as a full factory team, the French outfit could be flying early in the season.

McLaren are out of excuses

You’d have been forgiven for having flashbacks to 2017 (and, to be fair, the two years before that) in Barcelona when testing was regularly stopped for stricken McLarens being brought back to the pits on the back of a flatbed truck, but this year, there’s no Honda for the team to point the finger at, the British squad aligning itself with Renault power for 2018.

A car that has, in the words of team racing director Eric Boullier, an “ambitious design” was plagued by myriad problems across the eight days in Spain, and the team managed just 599 laps in all between Alonso and teammate Stoffel Vandoorne, nearly 100 fewer than the next-worst team, Haas, and 441 less than Mercedes at the top of the tree (remember what we said about that ‘Jaws’ music?)

The MCL33 – when it works – is quick enough, but would you be comfortable predicting both orange cars will last long enough to see the chequered flag in Melbourne, a bumpy, technical street circuit that will undoubtedly be harder on machinery than a resurfaced Barcelona, which resembled a billiard table for pre-season testing? With Honda getting off to a strong start in its new partnership with Toro Rosso (only Mercedes and Ferrari’s drivers managed more laps than STR duo Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley), McLaren only have themselves to blame if things go south this time.

Testing in Europe is useless

Remember the eight days of testing we mentioned earlier? It seems ludicrous that a sport as sophisticated as F1 allows for eight days of what is, effectively, pre-season training (your local park football team probably does more than that), and as preparations for a 21-race season go, eight days seems woefully inadequate. Throw in the weather to hit Barcelona in the first week (track temperatures didn’t hit double-figures on the second day, and the third day was a complete write-off after snow), and you wonder why F1 keeps persisting with scheduling testing solely in countries where weather can scupper the best-laid plans of a billion-dollar business.

Taking a leaf from MotoGP – which ran its pre-season tests in Malaysia, Thailand and Qatar this year – would be a sensible decision. Barcelona doesn’t need to be abandoned, but what about adding, say, Bahrain to the mix? No snow there …

Six great unknowns about the 2018 F1 season

What are the big questions that need answers as the clock ticks towards Melbourne in March?


It’s merely 10 weeks until the 2018 Formula One season roars into life in Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix, but there’s plenty we already know about the 21-race calendar for this year.

A starting point? Mercedes will, by virtue of their recent dominance and a relatively stable set of rules between seasons after last year’s dramatic visual overhaul, will start firm favourites again. What else should stay the same? Kimi Raikkonen’s retention by Ferrari should almost guarantee the Prancing Horse’s constructors’ championship drought stretches to a decade by season’s end, while Williams, by virtue of running second-year teenager Lance Stroll with (likely) Russian rookie Sergey Sirotkin this season, should ensure what has now become a midfield team has the biggest repair bill on the 2018 grid …

To get all Donald Rumsfeld for a second, they’re all known knowns, but what don’t we know about the season ahead? Gloriously, for those who love the theatre and drama of sport, plenty – so here’s a holiday season six-pack to digest.

1. Can Hamilton keep the hunger?

Lewis Hamilton has always gone to great lengths to have a life outside of F1 (even if we won’t know about it anymore after the recent purging of his social media accounts). Committed to his craft as he is, you always suspect F1 isn’t his sole focus like, say, Michael Schumacher before him, and Sebastian Vettel beside him. Which begs the question: how much winning will Hamilton want to do before he’s had enough?

Leaving McLaren to join Mercedes looked, at the time, to be a mistake for the now 33-year-old given the relative performances of the two teams, but after a so-so 2013 campaign, Hamilton has been mostly masterful since. In the 79 races since F1 changed gears to the V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014, Hamilton has won 40 of them – more than half – and double the number of victories recorded by the next-most successful driver of those four years, the now-retired Nico Rosberg.

Winning may not define Hamilton, but does it drive him? After losing out to Rosberg in 2016 amid a poisonous atmosphere at Mercedes, you sense the Briton relished the chance to take on Vettel in a true head-to-head contest last year and emerge triumphant. After trailing the Ferrari driver for the first half of the year in the standings, Hamilton rattled off five wins in six races after the mid-year break to stitch up his fourth world title with two Grands Prix remaining, showing the extra gear he has that few in history can match.

Hamilton is out of contract at the end of 2018, but expect him to go nowhere while the current set of regulations stay relatively stable for another three seasons, and while Mercedes should be at or near the top for the foreseeable future. He’s averaged 10 wins a year for four years – and Schumacher’s all-time win total of 91 is 29 away from Hamilton’s 62. Might the chance of being known as the best of all-time extend his F1 tenure before life takes a turn? It’s a very big carrot.

2. Has Ferrari learned its lesson?

Based on its re-signing of the 38-year-old Raikkonen for yet another season, five years and counting after he last won a Grand Prix, it appears not. But Vettel showed enough last year to suggest this one will be a closer fight with Mercedes for the whole season provided he can iron out the occasionally calamitous emotional spikes that can tarnish his otherwise superb driving (think Mexico 2016, Azerbaijan 2017, Singapore last year), and if Ferrari can improve its reliability after the Asian swing of races last year saw its title hopes turn to dust. Both big ifs, we know, but if the past four years of Mercedes dominance have taught us anything, it’s that the Silver Arrows won’t beat themselves – you’ll have to dethrone them.

Vettel’s first half of 2017, Azerbaijan road rage incident aside, was exemplary – and getting 2018 off to a similar start by winning in Australia and putting Mercedes under pressure is a must. Going on with it in the second half of the year when the races come thick and fast in a 21-race campaign that’s equal to the longest in the sport’s history simply has to happen if Ferrari is to snap a drivers’ championship drought that goes back to Raikkonen’s title in 2007, when Hamilton was a rookie at McLaren.

3. Are Renault up to it?

Red Bull Racing finished 2017 in no-man’s land, very rarely a chance to beat Mercedes and Ferrari in a straight fight on pace, and very rarely under pressure from Force India and the rest in the rear-view mirror. While Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo won three races between them, Red Bull finished 154 points behind Ferrari (and a massive 300 behind Mercedes) in third in the constructors’ championship, and nearly 200 points clear of Force India in fourth. ‘Best of the rest’ was a common refrain.

What could change their predicament in 2018? What would add plenty of spice to the championship as a whole would be a Renault power unit that could allow Red Bull, not to mention new client McLaren and even the Renault works team, to take the fight to the top two squads more regularly. Renault’s reliability woes last year were masked somewhat by Honda’s almost comical number of grid penalties for new engine components that left McLaren’s drivers starting at the very back more often than not, and with the number of engines per driver for the season being reduced (from four to three) with one more race than last year’s 20 Grands Prix, it doesn’t bode well.

But what if Renault could find some extra horsepower while improving reliability? You’d have Verstappen and Ricciardo up the front more often, and the tantalising prospect of an inspired Fernando Alonso hauling a strong McLaren chassis into places McLaren used to be in its good old days. Not to mention the likes of Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz, Renault’s excellent 2018 combination, scrapping for occasional podiums and giving the top three teams a hard time. Renault rising to the challenge could make the 2018 season an absolute cracker.

4. Is Verstappen ready to win a title?

He’s 20 years old, has already won three races, and is tethered to Red Bull for at least the next three seasons. By almost any measure, Verstappen is the most exciting driver to come into F1 since Hamilton first wowed the sport’s fans from the first corner of his first race in Australia 11 years ago, but does the Dutchman really have what it takes to launch a world title tilt if his machinery is up to the task?

There’s almost no doubt that he does, the one small red flag being his judgement in wheel-to-wheel combat, as his teammate discovered to his fury last year in Budapest. But Verstappen has time on his side, experience to draw upon, a laser-like focus when the visor snaps shut and a lightness out of the car that suggests he’ll handle the ups and downs of an F1 title fight better than most, should he be in position for one.

After last year’s Mexican Grand Prix, where Hamilton secured the 2017 title, the Mercedes driver was already looking ahead to his defence, and who might stand in his way. “Max is an exceptional driver,” Hamilton offered. “I hope (Red Bull) have a better engine next year and they are more in the fight, I think it would be great for the sport. You have a potential world champion in Max, and he is only going to get stronger with age because he has a lot of raw talent.”

5. What will Dan do?

Number five on our list, but perhaps number one in terms of the impact a Ricciardo move could make on the driver market. The Australian, beaten handily by Verstappen in qualifying last year while winning one race (Azerbaijan) to Verstappen’s two (Malaysia and Mexico), is out of contract at the end of the season, a year where two tantalising seats (Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes and Raikkonen at Ferrari) could become available for the following season.

The ever-smiling ‘Honey Badger’ turns 29 in July, and, as he wrote after the 2017 season, there’s a “lot at stake” in his next career move. Leaving the only F1 family he knows, the team he’s won five Grands Prix with and the outfit he’s become an F1 star with would be risky, but we said the same thing about Hamilton and McLaren in 2012, and look how that has ended up?

Ricciardo has repeatedly said performance is more important than his pay packet, and Red Bull’s pre-season testing pace – a real weakness in recent years – will play a big part in determining what impact the team makes on the early races, where his future will surely be a hot topic. Watch this space.

 6. How much will we be talking about the halo?

Oh, boy. We’ve all known the most dramatic aesthetic change to F1 machinery in, well, ever has been coming for some time now, but expect a social media tsunami when the new-for-2018 cars break cover for pre-season testing in Barcelona on February 26.

It’s an inelegant solution to a serious problem, that of cockpit protection for the drivers, and you’ll be hard-pressed to find too many fans in Melbourne, when the halo-hatted cars will race for the first time, that believe the new look is an upgrade on its predecessor. Engineers will hate it – the halo and all of its various brackets and mounting points add 15 kilograms or thereabouts to the chassis, compromising weight on other areas of the car and the amount of ballast than can be used to aid performance – and the fans will find it harder to spot their favourite driver by their signature helmet design.

How will the halo affect the racing? How will the fans react? Will the heavier drivers be unfairly penalised by the extra weight? All unknows we’ll be seeing answers to very, very soon.

The F1 mid-term report

Who has starred, who has slumped and who needs to step up at the halfway stage of the F1 season?


The verdict on Formula One so far in 2017? Pretty positive. There’s genuine competition between teams for race wins and the drivers’ championship, which there hasn’t been in some time, and the new-for-2017 regulations have delivered monstrously fast and mean-looking cars that look spectacular on track (but struggle to overtake one another, as the Hungarian GP made very evident). Add to that the craziest race in recent times in Azerbaijan when Daniel Ricciardo saluted, and there’s a lot to like.

What’s more, the look and feel of an F1 weekend in the post-Ecclestone era has been a breath of fresh air. Ladies and gentlemen, social media! Actual vision from inside a drivers’ briefing! Something extra for the fans at a race weekend! It’s been quite the eye-opener.

Before we launch into our mid-season report, and before you ask, we haven’t failed maths – yes, Hungary was race 11 of the 20-race F1 season, but coming as it did before the one-month hiatus and the next race in Belgium at the end of August, it was worth waiting until school was out properly until making some mid-year grades. On that very subject …

Dux of the class

We’ve been waiting a long time for a proper championship battle between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton – since 2007 in fact, when both made their Formula One debuts in the same season (Vettel became a full-timer on the grid a year later). And at the halfway stage of the season, it’s Vettel who has shone brightest. But only just.

Both drivers have four wins, but the German has led the title chase since taking the opening round in Australia, and has been his consistent self since – 11 races, 11 finishes, eight podiums, and a worst finish of seventh at the British Grand Prix, when he suffered a puncture in sight of the flag. It’s hard to see how he could have done much more.

The intrigue in this battle is how both protagonists go about achieving the same goal in different ways – Vettel’s metronomic approach contrasts sharply with Hamilton’s peaks and troughs. When the Mercedes W08 isn’t in the set-up sweet spot, Hamilton has been outshone by new teammate Valtteri Bottas, who seems better equipped to cope with a car that’s not quite there. But when the Mercedes is dialled in, Hamilton has been brilliant in qualifying (he has six poles in 11 races), and occasionally utterly dominant in races – his Silverstone weekend was as emphatic as it gets.

Both drivers have their emotional frailties – again, which manifest themselves in different ways – which makes the second half of the season and their likely first head-to-head battle for the title so mouth-watering in prospect. You can’t help but wonder if the three points Hamilton relinquished in Hungary after pulling over to let Bottas finish third to honour an in-race agreement will come back to bite him later in the season, though. The in-house tension at the Silver Arrows since the apolitical Bottas replaced the cunning Nico Rosberg has dissipated almost completely, but what if that new-found harmony comes at the cost of a title?

Encouragement award

We’re not going with the ‘every child wins a prize’ philosophy here, but this one could be split four ways.

Bottas, firstly: after coming across to Mercedes in the wake of Rosberg’s shock decision to walk after winning the 2016 crown, the Finn has made every post a winner in what is essentially a make-good contract; nail 2017, and his future should be rosy. He’s won twice (Russia and Austria), matched Vettel for the most podiums in 11 races (eight) and proven to be the consummate team player. Mercedes would be mad not to keep him in 2018 – he’s clearly fast enough and apolitical enough.

Ricciardo deserves a mention here too. Whenever an opportunity presents itself, he’s always there, pressing on relentlessly like a honey badger attacking a hive of bees. His Azerbaijan win – when all looked lost early in the race when an unscheduled pit stop had him at the back of the field – was almost unsurprising in that he made the best of what was on offer on a crazy day, and that ‘best’ was good enough for a fifth career win. Is there a driver better or cleaner in wheel-to-wheel combat?

As a team, Force India deserve a pat on the back here. Fourth in last year’s constructors’ championship, the Indian-owned British-run team has consolidated that in 2017, with Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon both finishing in the points nine times in 11 races. The pink-liveried team has clearly established itself as the best squad outside F1’s ‘big three’; now, all it needs is for its drivers to stop tripping over one another in races …

Finally, a nod to Nico Hulkenberg, who is now an uncomfortable two races away from equalling compatriot Adrian Sutil’s unwanted record of most F1 starts without a top-three finish (128). You can’t do much more in a Renault than Hulkenberg has this year, the German scoring points in five races and qualifying in the top 10 six times.

Could do better

Reasons Ferrari shouldn’t retain Kimi Raikkonen next year: in 70 races since he re-joined Ferrari for the 2014 season, he’s been beaten by teammates Fernando Alonso (2014) and Vettel (since) 49-21 in qualifying, 7-0 in race wins (he hasn’t won a race since Australia 2013 for Lotus, 86 Grands Prix ago), 30-11 in podium finishes, and has scored 37 per cent of his team’s points in that time, explaining why the team with this year’s drivers’ championship leader trails Mercedes by 39 points in the constructors’ race.

Reason Ferrari will keep Kimi Raikkonen next year. Hungary.

You can understand Ferrari’s logic here; while Raikkonen is a long, long way from his 2007 world championship-winning heyday, he doesn’t play politics, has a wealth of experience, gets on with Vettel and doesn’t rock the boat. When Ferrari orchestrated races in Monaco (unofficially) and Hungary (officially) to ensure the Finn stayed behind a race-leading Vettel, he expressed his disappointment, sighed and moved on. It would have been so easy for Raikkonen to push an ailing Vettel hard in Hungary to stand on the top step of the podium for the first time in an age, but, out of contract and with (arguably) no other team likely to offer him one, that wouldn’t have been the brightest idea.

Expect Raikkonen to be renewed at or before the Italian Grand Prix next month – and expect plenty of F1 fans to wonder just what another driver could do in a car that Vettel has proven is a genuine race-winner. Raikkonen is clearly worthy of being in F1 for his name and pedigree alone, but with a top team?

Needs a strong second semester

Both Toro Rosso drivers could use a good end to 2017, but for entirely different reasons.

Carlos Sainz must wonder what he needs to do to get a break; the Spaniard has scored 35 of his team’s 39 points this year alongside Daniil Kvyat, and amassed 77 points to the Russian’s eight since the pair became teammates at last year’s Spanish Grand Prix, when Max Verstappen took Kvyat’s place in Red Bull’s ‘A’ team. Sainz is good enough to drive further up the grid, but won’t be going anywhere as Red Bull’s insurance policy in case Verstappen or Ricciardo bolt one day.

As for Kvyat? Considering he has more penalty points on his FIA super licence (10) than he’s scored points (eight) in the past 28 races, the end for the driver derisively referred to as ‘the torpedo’ must surely be nigh, with 2016 GP2 champion Pierre Gasly waiting impatiently in the (Red) Bull pen.

Extra detention

One driver and one team get the unwanted nomination here. Jolyon Palmer hasn’t made much of a case to be retained by Renault, being out-scored 26-0 and out-qualified in all 11 races by Hulkenberg this season. He couldn’t have come much closer to a top-10 finish – Palmer was 11th in Monaco, Canada and Austria – but with Renault in a tight fight for places 5-8 in the constructors’ championship, it needs more than one car to make a contribution.

As for McLaren – or more pertinently, McLaren-Honda – the less said the better. Sixth for Alonso and 10th for Stoffel Vandoorne in Hungary gave the team that has won 182 Grands Prix and 12 drivers’ championships nine points in one race – compared to the combined two points from the opening 10 races this year …

Can the team extract itself from the Honda engine deal to go elsewhere (Mercedes?) while covering the financial shortfall an early divorce with the Japanese manufacturer would create? That’s uncertain, but what we do know if that while Vandoorne has time and talent on his side, it’s a crying shame to see a 36-year-old Alonso struggling like this. F1 is undoubtedly in a better place when the Spaniard is mixing it up the front of the field.

6 things we know about F1 2017

Three races into a new era of F1, can we paint a picture of the season to come? Yes, and no.


Formula One comes ‘home’ to Europe this weekend, with the Russian Grand Prix bringing the sport back closer to its heartland after the opening trio of races in far-flung Australia, China and Bahrain to kick off the 2017 campaign.

Next month’s Spanish Grand Prix usually ramps up the development race behind the scenes, as teams bring major upgrades to their cars that have largely competed in pre-season spec during the logistical challenge of lugging parts and personnel around the world for the first three races. Some teams will make big gains (and some would want to, we’ll get to them), but we have a fairly clear picture of the shape of the season to come already. And it’s a picture that, for neutral fans, looks pretty. A genuine fight up front, a mixed-up midfield and the fastest cars we’ve ever seen means there’s much to look forward to.

What do we know, what have we learned, and what will happen from here?

Merc must make a call

One of the by-products of winning 51 out of 59 races since the advent of the V6 turbo hybrid era since 2014 as Mercedes did heading into this season was that the opposition were little more than an afterthought. The so-called ‘rules of engagement’ between Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg were an internal policy of how the drivers would race one another en route to another inevitable Silver Arrows win; one of those rules would have been “don’t hit one another on track”, which they managed for the most part if we discount Belgium 2014 and Spain last year …

Ferrari’s resurgence this season means Merc has a red-coloured riddle to solve, and with Sebastian Vettel mounting a solo challenge to Mercedes’ dominance, perhaps the time has come for the champion team of the last three years to prioritise one driver over another. Twice in the most recent race in Bahrain, Valtteri Bottas was asked/told/coerced into moving over for the faster Hamilton; by the end of the race, Vettel was grinning after his second win of 2017, and opened up a seven-point lead in the title chase.

Bottas is already 30 points – more than one race win – behind Vettel after three Grands Prix, which means Mercedes can’t have him taking points off Hamilton in the fight with Vettel that will surely rage until the finale in Abu Dhabi. Expect much hand-wringing on the Mercedes pit wall as it has to deal with a problem that has been a non-factor for three years.

Vettel is like a dog with a bone

This year’s version of Vettel reminds us of the 2010-13 iteration at Red Bull where he was massively motivated to capitalise on a great car, and not the 2014 model who appeared to check out mentally to some degree as Ferrari loomed large in his future. In a car that’s clearly a massive step forwards from its predecessor, if Vettel gets the slightest sliver of daylight to slip into, he’s taking it. When he gets to the front, his pace is metronomic and mistakes are rarer than rare. Provided Ferrari can stay as sharp on the strategy front as they have in the first three races, Vettel might be the championship favourite.

It’s a big two, not a big three

Pre-season predictions had Mercedes and Ferrari up front with Red Bull lurking closely behind, but that’s not what has happened. Just one podium – from Max Verstappen in China – from the nine available so far isn’t much to write home about, and both Mercedes and Ferrari have doubled Red Bull’s constructors’ championship tally of 47 points in just three races. In Australia, the fastest Red Bull in qualifying (Verstappen) was 1.2secs off pole, and the lead Red Bull in the race (again Verstappen) finished more than 28 seconds behind race-winner Vettel. In China, the margins were 1.3 seconds off pole in qualifying (Daniel Ricciardo) and 45 seconds in the race (Verstappen in third), while in Bahrain, Ricciardo’s sensational qualifying lap was still nearly eight-tenths of a second slower than Bottas’ pole, and he finished fifth and 39 seconds from the win after Verstappen retired with brake failure. The team plans to introduce a significant chassis upgrade for the Spanish Grand Prix next month, but for now, Red Bull remains in an anonymous class of one, well behind the top two teams, but streets ahead of the rest.

It’s time for Raikkonen to go

The one driver we haven’t yet mentioned from the top two teams? That’d be Kimi Raikkonen, who is yet to outqualify Vettel in the sister Ferrari (the average deficit is four-tenths of a second) and has been beaten by the German by an average of 29 seconds in three races. The Finn turns 38 in October, and while age isn’t necessarily a deterrent to success in the premier class of a global motorsport championship (look at the MotoGP championship leader, 38-year-old Valentino Rossi), it’s surely time to bring in someone younger, hungrier and capable of mixing it at the front when Raikkonen’s contract runs out at the end of the season. The 2007 world champion remains one of the most popular drivers amongst fans for his approach to anything that doesn’t involve driving, but the stats don’t lie; he’s not won a race in four years, had a pole position since the French Grand Prix of 2008, and scored less than 60 per cent of the points managed by teammates Fernando Alonso and Vettel since returning to Ferrari in 2014. Can the Prancing Horse really fight Mercedes when one of its drivers can’t get out of a trot?

Hands up who wants fourth?

Behind Tier A (Mercedes and Ferrari) and Tier A-minus (Red Bull) lies a fascinating midfield fight, if the first three races are any indication. Williams has Felipe Massa ploughing a lone furrow, as teenage teammate Lance Stroll is yet to finish a race and has completed just 52 of the combined 170 laps. Force India, with Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon, have scored points with both drivers in all three races; only Mercedes and Ferrari have done likewise. Toro Rosso has pace with Carlos Sainz and Daniil Kvyat, and a team boss in Franz Tost who expects “that we will make it to Q3 with both cars (in Russia) and that we will score points with both cars … and that this will be the standard for all the races to come.” And while Haas has just eight points in three races, Romain Grosjean has two top-10 qualifying results, and the team has use of the potent 2017 Ferrari engine. This will be a fun fight to watch.

Alonso is still a megastar

He’s yet to score a point, finish a race, and lead anything other than the unofficial scorecard for radio rants this season, with Raikkonen’s moaning a close second. But proof that McLaren-Honda’s woes haven’t dimmed the star of Alonso was plainly obvious when he made the shock announcement before Bahrain that he’d be skipping the Monaco Grand Prix next month for a McLaren-endorsed tilt at the Indianapolis 500. Yes, Nico Hulkenberg’s Le Mans win two years ago garnered plenty of positive press, but nothing like this. McLaren’s decision to allow its star driver to play for a weekend in IndyCar and miss a Monaco layout that won’t show up its woeful lack of engine performance is surely just one way to keep a star employee happy while distracting attention away from just how dire its F1 season has been. Whatever the motivation, you can bet the Indy 500 will be watched more closely than ever by plenty of F1 people next month.

Five reasons we’ll be watching the Chinese Grand Prix

Are Red Bull back in the game, will Mercedes muscle in, or can Ferrari spring another Shanghai surprise?


The new-for-2017 Formula One opened in Australia last month to mixed reviews – for all of the positive press about wider cars that look and are faster, the lack of overtaking at Albert Park caused some consternation as to what sort of a season the quickest cars in F1 history can produce over 20 races.

Racing in Melbourne has always come with an asterisk, as the high-speed street circuit has never been one where passing is easy, and rarely produced a race that has stolen the headlines save for a massive first-lap pile-up or a local hero making good. China, and the Shanghai International Circuit, should give us more of an insight into the true picture painted by the new cars – and it remains to be seen if that picture will have a red hue once more after Sebastian Vettel opened the season with a win for Ferrari at Albert Park.

There’s a million reasons to keep a close eye on the action from Shanghai this weekend – not least because it’s one of the rare overseas races for Australian fans that doesn’t end in the wee hours of the following day – but we’ll restrict ourselves to these five.

Are we really about to get a Vettel v Hamilton title fight?
The second and fourth-most successful drivers in F1 history have spent a decade sharing the world’s racetracks, but have never really featured in the same title fight. With 53 wins, Lewis Hamilton has found the majority of his success in the past three years as Mercedes dominated the era immediately following the Vettel/Red Bull march for four straight titles from 2010-13, where the German took 34 of his 43 career victories to date.

Most forget the duo made their debuts within six races of one another in 2007 (Hamilton for McLaren at the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, Vettel as an injury replacement for Robert Kubica at BMW at that year’s US Grand Prix at Indianapolis), and while they finished just 16 points apart in the epic 2010 title chase, Vettel had Fernando Alonso and teammate Mark Webber in closer proximity at the end of that season.

The German’s win over Hamilton at Albert Park raised hopes that this might be the year they both have the machinery at their disposal to have a proper head-to-head title fight; having more than one team racing for the drivers’ and constructors’ crowns after the past three years of Mercedes domination can only be good for F1 diehards and casual fans alike.

Is the Prancing Horse a one-trick pony?
Valtteri Bottas’ first weekend for Mercedes in Melbourne went largely under the radar, but the unassuming Finn couldn’t have a done a lot more in his first GP as Hamilton’s teammate. Bottas was third on the Australian grid, two-tenths of a second slower than Hamilton, and finished 1.2 seconds behind him in the race, showing that Mercedes will be able to launch a two-car assault on this year’s titles. Meanwhile, that red speck you saw in the background was Kimi Raikkonen; Bottas’ compatriot was more than half a second behind Ferrari teammate Vettel in qualifying and 22 seconds adrift of him after 57 laps in the race despite the pair starting line astern.

The Finnish veteran showed well against Vettel in qualifying last year, but was that down to his speed or Vettel slightly lifting off the throttle mentally when he didn’t have a race-winning car at his disposal, which seemed the case in 2014 at Red Bull when he was trounced by Daniel Ricciardo despite being the reigning four-time world champion?

When he returned to Ferrari in 2014, Raikkonen was out-scored over the season by then teammate Alonso (by 106 points), and then in 2015 by a motivated Vettel (by 128 points). If the 2017 Ferrari is genuinely a race-winning car, as Vettel suggested it was in Australia, then it’d be nice to have a driver capable of winning races driving it. Put it this way: would you put your money on Raikkonen beating Vettel or Hamilton in a straight fight?

Can Red Bull bounce back?
Red Bull’s Australian Grand Prix was underwhelming in the extreme, with neither Ricciardo nor Max Verstappen able to challenge the Ferrari-Mercedes duopoly at the front, and Ricciardo’s home race snowballing out of control after a qualifying shunt on Saturday preceded a race of technical disasters on Sunday. The team seemed to lurch from one set-up solution to another but never found the RB13’s sweet spot in Melbourne, and with no significant engine upgrade likely until round seven in Canada, the opening trio of flyaway races could prove to be some hard sledding for a team expected to make the most of the relaxed aerodynamic regulations in 2017.

China has been a happy hunting ground for the team in the past; in addition to Vettel’s 2009 win, Ricciardo was second on the grid last year, and Daniil Kvyat was third in the race. While the SIC is a more ‘normal’ circuit than the atypical Albert Park, it remains to be seen if the Bulls can charge into the fight with the top two.

Fernando’s future
Webber and Alonso are good mates, so when the retired Red Bull racer said the Spaniard might not see out the 2017 season at McLaren as its alliance with Honda remains stuck in neutral, the F1 world raised an eyebrow. Webber is as savvy a media performer as exists, and it’s unlikely he’s making a public statement to that effect unless he senses or knows something is up.

F1 is so much better with Alonso in the mix for something meaningful, but the most recent of his two world championships in 2006 must seem like an eternity ago. At the end of 2014, when Alonso left Ferrari to return to McLaren and hopefully reprise his glory days of yore, Vettel had 39 career wins and Hamilton 33 to Alonso’s 32. Since? Hamilton has 20 wins, 35 total podiums and two world championships, Vettel has won four races and taken 21 total podiums, and Alonso hasn’t finished better than fifth in a race. Exasperation doesn’t even begin to describe it.

The Spaniard’s driving at Albert Park was sadly compelling as he muscled and willed a dog-slow car to the back-end of the points through sheer force of will until it broke, leaving him to describe his race as “probably one of the best I’ve had”. What might China reveal about his plans to carry on with the team when he comes out of contract at the end of 2017?

What bonkers Chinese GP experience will we get in 2017?
There’ll be something, because there always is in China. In 2005, Juan Pablo Montoya’s McLaren had to retire after it ran clean into a manhole cover that had come loose. In 2011, Jenson Button pulled up in Red Bull’s pit box to take service and new tyres – the only problem being that the Brit was driving for McLaren. Hamilton won the 2014 race that ended prematurely after the chequered flag was erroneously waved a lap too early, while a year later, a spectator ran across the track in the middle of free practice, jumping the pit wall because he wanted to have a go of F1 machinery himself. Last year was relatively incident-free for China, which can only mean we’re due …

What F1 testing told us about 2017

The new season could be a race in three, the midfield battle will be ferocious, and it might pay to be the tortoise rather than the hare in Australia.


For a sport that criss-crosses the globe for 20 high-profile races over eight months, Formula One’s pre-season – all of eight days of on-track running at the same venue in a two-week window – seems remarkably inadequate.

But that’s how the giants of the world’s most visible motorsport category prepare for the season that’s ahead of them, and after two four-day tests at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, we have a reasonable indication of who’s hot and who isn’t, and who can make the long flight to Australia for the opening race of the season with confidence, and who knows that time is running out to get their 2017 championship campaigns on the right track.

With a little under two weeks to take-off – well, until the lights go out at Albert Park at 4pm on Sunday March 26 to commence the campaign – here’s what testing in Spain has told us to expect for the season to come.

Nobody wants to be the favourite …
This is a Formula One staple. Some teams show pace, then immediately hose down expectations. Some hold something back, and then get nominated by another team (usually the one at the top of the timesheets) as the favourite anyway. Others hint at big developments in the pipeline between the final test and the first race in Australia, intentionally placing a giant asterisk on their pre-season form. And so it goes, year after year.

Were Ferrari, who topped the testing timesheets with Kimi Raikkonen on the final day (with a lap of 1min 18.634secs, 3.366secs faster than Lewis Hamilton’s pole time for Mercedes at last year’s Spanish GP, incidentally), holding something back until the eighth and final day of testing?

Hamilton felt Ferrari were “bluffing” early in the final week in Spain, and Raikkonen himself said he could have gone faster on the final day “if we wanted”. As much as that may be game-playing by the Finn, keep in mind his best lap came on Pirelli’s supersoft compound tyres, not the theoretically faster but less durable ultrasoft most other drivers set their fastest time with.

How much does Mercedes still have in reserve, given the dominance the Silver Arrows has enjoyed over the rest for the past three years? And will Red Bull turn up in Melbourne with an aerodynamic upgrade that could vault it ahead of both of its rivals? Truth is, nobody really knows; all we do know is that teams will do and say anything at this time of year to avoid coming to Australia with a giant target on their backs.

But there’s an early-season pecking order
What order the afore-mentioned teams end up in after Australia – and beyond, which is one question that could have more than one answer – remains to be seen. What we can say with some surety is that it’s these three teams at the front of the field, and then daylight to the rest. Haas team principal Gunther Steiner told reporters in Spain that he felt Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull were 1.5 seconds per lap clear of the chasing pack, a gap he feels “will not get smaller” as the season develops.

Based on that, are we in for a two-tier F1 this season, where, barring incident or accident, it’ll be nigh-on impossible for the rest to break into the top six placings? Initially, it could seem that way. Some variety at the very front – remember, Mercedes has won 51 of the 59 races since F1 ditched normally-aspirated V8 engines for their 1.6-litre V6 turbo cousins three years ago – would be nice, but what might be nicer is a no-holds-barred fight in the midfield between Williams, Steiner’s Haas outfit, Force India and Toro Rosso, with Renault likely just behind that quartet. The battle for the back-end of the points promises to be entertainingly manic, and will surely ebb and flow between the various circuits.

Oranges and lemons
Notice the two teams we didn’t mention above? One is Sauber, which seems likely to trail the field for the time being, its closest rival from last year (Manor) lost to the sport altogether. Which leaves McLaren, and the less said about its testing disaster the better. The Honda-powered team managed just 425 laps across the eight days – bear in mind Mercedes did 1096 between Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas – and when the McLaren managed to stay on track long enough between breakdowns, Stoffel Vandoorne (17th overall) and Fernando Alonso (18th) were nowhere on the timesheets, the car over 25km/h slower than Bottas’ Mercedes benchmark down the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya’s main straight.

“No reliability and no power” was Alonso’s damning summation of Honda’s powerplant, while his inflammatory comment to Spanish media – “the team are all ready to win except Honda” – will only add to the tension as the team heads Down Under. When you consider that neither McLaren driver managed to run more than 11 consecutive laps in testing, the chances of either orange-liveried car circulating past the halfway stage of the Australian GP look to be remote.

Everyone gets along – for now
Ah, the pre-season, where teammates pose for jokey photo shoots, everyone has kind words to say about their rivals … other than Alonso/McLaren (for obvious reasons), there was a lot of love in the air in Spain last week. After three years of tension within Mercedes as Hamilton and Nico Rosberg continued their two-man fight for the world title without having to factor in the rest of the field, Rosberg’s replacement, Bottas, has already made his mark on the three-time world champion.

“I feel we already have a better working relationship than I ever had with any teammate I had before,” Hamilton told, adding “what I so far like about working with Valtteri is that it is all to do with the track, what we do on the circuit, and not outside – there are no games, there is complete transparency.” Bottas is certainly less likely to wind Hamilton up as much as the razor-sharp Rosberg did, but the cynic in us suggests that won’t last too long, particularly if Bottas gets the upper hand early on. It’s a working relationship that will be watched with interest

Australia will be a car-breaker
Want to finish with some early-season points? Make sure you finish in Australia. The first race of the year soon weeds out the teams who have sacrificed reliability for speed, and when you factor in that the Albert Park circuit is atypically fast for a street track and has concrete walls at every turn – and that the lap will be faster than ever thanks to the new-for-2017 machinery – and simply lasting all 58 laps in Melbourne could help a lower-order team snatch a hatful of points.

Remember what Sauber did in Australia two years ago, starting the 2015 season with 14 points between Felipe Nasr (fifth) and Marcus Ericsson (eighth) after not scoring a single point the year before? Just 11 cars finished that day, and there’s every chance that could be repeated in a fortnight’s time.

The likes of Sauber, Renault and perhaps Williams rookie Lance Stroll could be well advised to concentrate on keeping the car on the black stuff and reaping the rewards. Simply finishing could be enough to score.