Valtteri Bottas

Why Spain is the start of F1’s ‘second season’

Formula One hits Europe for the first time this year in Barcelona – here’s five things to watch for as the season resets after the flyaways.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

It’s the great guessing game of any Formula One off-season; the never-ending quest to work out which team is fastest and why before the cars hit the track for pre-season testing and, you know, actually demonstrate that for themselves. And then do some more guessing as to who is holding something back after testing for the season-opener in Australia

Another F1 truism? We spend the opening quartet of flyaways from Albert Park debating the pecking order of teams one through 10 on the grid with one qualifier: wait until they return to Europe for the Spanish Grand Prix. Spain, as the first GP much closer to home for the teams after the races in far-flung Melbourne, Sakhir, Shanghai and Baku, marks the start of F1’s unofficial ‘second season’, where teams bring significant aerodynamic and performance updates that have been finessed in factories while the machinery itself stays largely in launch spec, chasing victories far away from base.

What do we know about the season so far? The big three of last year – Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull – are still the top triumvirate in F1, but the true order of that trio remains to be seen. Mercedes has dominated since the advent of the V6 turbo hybrid era in 2014, and a familiar pattern looked set to emerge when Lewis Hamilton demolished the opposition in Australian Grand Prix qualifying in March. But since, Ferrari (Sebastian Vettel) has taken three straight poles, Red Bull (Daniel Ricciardo) has won a race in China, and it was Hamilton who belatedly took Mercedes’ first win of 2018 in fortunate fashion in Azerbaijan last time out, his teammate Valtteri Bottas retiring late with a puncture after the Finn looked set to win a race Vettel had in his keeping until a late race safety car for … well, you know what.

The Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya, site of round five of the season this weekend, is one that every driver and team knows like the back of their hands as F1’s pre-season testing track of choice, and it’s one that provides every type of corner (even if we miss the fearsome big-balls right-handers that used to be the final sequence of the lap). Meaning there’s few unknowns about the venue; but what of the cars?

What might a technical shake-up do to that enormously-analysed pecking order we talked about earlier? Will we see technical directors entering the paddock with last-minute go-fast bits in their hand luggage ahead of qualifying on Saturday? (Answer: yes). And what trends might be revealed in Barcelona that set the scene for the races to follow?

Here’s five things to keep an eye on for this weekend.

1. Look for Silver to shine
Azerbaijan has been a tricky track for Mercedes in recent years despite it winning seemingly everywhere else, the propensity of its cars to overheat its rear tyres in the stop-start early part of the lap diluting its overall performance advantage over the rest. Catalunya, therefore, comes at the perfect time for a team that hasn’t yet hit its usual heights this season, Hamilton admitting after Baku that “Ferrari still hold the upper hand”, particularly in qualifying.

Since F1 made its big power-plant shift in 2014, there’s only one time Mercedes hasn’t won in Spain, and that came after Hamilton and Nico Rosberg committed the cardinal sin of crashing into one another (yes, other teams do it too) on the first lap for Max Verstappen to sweep through to win on his Red Bull debut in 2016.

Mercedes spent much of the pre-season running at the same circuit sandbagging so as to not show its superiority over its rivals, and while the team trails Ferrari (by four points) in the constructors’ championship, you’d be shocked if that didn’t change come Sunday night. Should Ferrari be able to hang with Mercedes in Spain, we might just have a title fight that’ll rumble on for the remainder of the year.

2. Running of the Bulls in Spain?
Ricciardo won in China, sure, but Barcelona shapes as Red Bull’s best chance for a strong result in a relatively normal race, not the safety car-generated tyre gamble that was Shanghai last month. Yes, the RB14 might labour down the lengthy front straight, but the sweeping curves that feature across much of the rest of the lap should see Ricciardo and Verstappen in their element, especially in the super-long Turn 3 and the quick right flick of Turn 9 onto the back straight. Passing is notoriously difficult at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya and tyre debris off-line tends to shrink the racing line, but the Bulls should be quick enough in clean air to do some damage at a circuit that shapes as one of their most suitable for the season.

3. Making sense of the midfield
The top three teams are clearly the same as last year, but what have the first four races told us about the order of who follows them? Barcelona, as a track everyone is very familiar with, should help in sorting out the midfield minefield, with the identity of who is the next-best team seemingly switching by the race.

McLaren (fourth in the constructors’ championship with 36 points) lead the chase for now, but that’s largely on the back of Fernando Alonso being one of just three drivers in the field to score points at every race (Hamilton and Vettel, first and second in the championship, are the others).

The Spaniard always lifts to another level at home, but can he keep his 2018 form up against the likes of Renault (fifth, 35 points, and who have had both drivers in Q3 in all four races) and Force India (sixth, 16 points, and who had Sergio Perez on the podium in Baku)?

The other team to keep an eye on is Haas (eighth, 12 points), who could have had more points than that from either Romain Grosjean or Kevin Magnussen in Australia alone had both their pit stops not gone awry. Two points finishes from a possible eight (and Grosjean being just one of two drivers yet to score at all, along with Sergey Sirotkin of Williams) isn’t an accurate reflection of the American team’s pace, and Spain could be the start of them finishing where their speed suggests they should.

4. When is 1 worth more than 66?
When it comes to qualifying in Spain, that’s when. Sunday’s race is 66 laps long, but history suggests whoever has ‘1’ next to their name after qualifying 24 hours earlier is in the box seat to take the victory. More races are won from pole in Spain than anywhere (even Monaco), and with the current generation of fast-cornering cars, turbulent air and tyre marbles can turn the Spanish GP into a largely processional affair, one where the field can be strung out quickly. Last year’s one-on-one Battle of Barcelona between Hamilton and Vettel was both highly unusual and completely exhausting for its sheer intensity, but few remember that third-placed Ricciardo was the only other driver on the lead lap by the end, and he was a whopping 75 seconds adrift. We’ll know more about the true pace of all the cars after Sunday, but it’s hard to imagine Spain will serve up a race as compelling chaotic as Baku was, or build to a thrilling finale like Shanghai did.

5. The animals line up in pairs
With Catalunya being a track that rewards car pace more than allows individual drivers to shine, the grid can take on a ‘Noah’s Ark’ feel, the teams often lining up side-by-side based on the optimum performance of their machinery. Which means teammates can often set up next to one another for the long (740 metre) run the right-handed first corner, after which a switchback into Turn 2 always catches a few drivers out. If you’re a team principal, you could be forgiven for watching the first 30 seconds with your hands over your eyes …

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Hamilton’s good timing stuns pit lane

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

Right through Formula One’s eight days of winter testing in Spain earlier this month, Mercedes was conspicuous in its absence from the sharp end of the timesheets, world champion Lewis Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas rarely showing the speed most of their rivals figured they had in reserve.

In qualifying for the Australian Grand Prix at Albert Park on Saturday afternoon, Hamilton let the cat out of the bag – and it was 81 seconds that sent shudders the length of the pit lane as the Briton took his fifth pole in Melbourne in succession, and a record seventh in Australia, surpassing the tally of his childhood idol, Ayrton Senna.

Hamilton’s pole position lap of 1min 21.124secs was staggering 1.064 seconds than his circuit-record lap set at the same stage of last year’s Australian Grand Prix, and more worryingly for his rivals, six-tenths of a second faster than second-placed Kimi Raikkonen, the Finnish veteran surprisingly emerging as the fastest Ferrari qualifier, teammate Sebastian Vettel in third.

Australia’s Daniel Ricciardo, consigned to a three-place grid penalty from wherever he qualified after a red flag infringement in Friday practice, will start Sunday’s 58-lap race from eighth place, the 28-year-old continuing a subdued season-opening weekend at home as he finished 0.273secs slower than Red Bull Racing teammate, Max Verstappen.

Persistent rain on Saturday looked to be the one potential spanner in Hamilton’s quest for the Australian pole record, but as the skies cleared enough for qualifying to be held on a dry track, the Briton took provisional pole on his first flying lap of the final 10 minutes of qualifying despite making mistakes at three of the final four corners.

On his second lap as the chequered flag flew, Hamilton unleashed the full power of the W09 that had been kept under wraps, lopping six-tenths of a second off his best time by the halfway point and improving by eight-tenths of a second overall to leave the field in his wake.

“I’m always striving for perfection, and that’s as close as I can get,” a beaming Hamilton said.

“You would think that with the results that we’ve had over the years that this would be the norm, but it was just as intense, my heart is racing.”

While there were smiles on one side of the Mercedes garage, Bottas’ mechanics faced a long night ahead after the Finn crashed heavily at the second corner on his first lap of the top-10 shootout, backing his car into the fence on the inside of the circuit and damaging the chassis so heavily that a five-place penalty for a gearbox change – at the very least – will take him out of contention for Sunday’s race win. The Finn, retained at Mercedes on a one-year deal after an inconsistent 2017, couldn’t have had a worst start to a crucial season in a year where several top-line drivers, Ricciardo included, come off contract at its conclusion.

While Red Bull were no match for Mercedes and Ferrari over one lap in qualifying, the team showed its strategic hand by indicating it will start Sunday’s race on the more durable supersoft Pirelli tyres, which Ricciardo and Verstappen used in the second phase of qualifying. While Hamilton and the Ferrari duo will start on ultrasoft tyres and likely be quicker at the start of the race, the Red Bull pair will elect to run the faster, less durable rubber for the closing stages, banking on taking track position early when their rivals pit and being on the faster rubber at the end on a circuit where passing opportunities against a car on similar tyres are few and far between.

Ricciardo was enraged when his penalty, which came after he was found to be driving too quickly in Friday practice when a timing cable had come loose on the start-finish straight, was handed out, and the normally affable Australian hadn’t cooled down when he arrived at the circuit on Saturday ahead of qualifying.

“I think it’s shithouse, I’m pissed to say the least,” he fumed, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner later commenting that he’d never seen the Australian so angry in his four years with the team.

“Yesterday’s news has been pretty bitter for me. I made a mistake, no doubt about it, but is that mistake worth a grid penalty in a practice session when no car is on track, no-one’s upside down? It was a cable on the track. I didn’t pass the incident … common sense should have prevailed.”

Ricciardo has struggled to match Verstappen’s pace in the sister Red Bull all weekend, and while he should be able to dispatch the likes of Haas pair Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean, who were elevated on the grid because of his penalty, with ease, his chances of a maiden podium at his home race appear slim unless Red Bull’s tyre gamble pays big dividends.

Ricciardo hit with grid penalty

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED IN THE AGE NEWSPAPER

Daniel Ricciardo’s hopes of a breakthrough first podium finish at his home Formula One race nosedived late last night, with the Red Bull driver handed a three-place grid penalty for Sunday’s race after a driving infringement in the second practice session at Albert Park.

The Australian was penalised for driving too quickly after the session had been red-flagged for a timing cable that had come loose on the start-finish straight. The red flag came as Ricciardo was completing his qualifying simulation run, his lap halted after two of the three sectors of the Albert Park circuit.

At best, Ricciardo will start Sunday’s race from fourth on the grid, should he take a second career pole in 130 starts in Friday’s qualifying.

Before the penalty it had been a quiet start to the Australian Grand Prix for Ricciardo, who was in sixth place in opening practice before spending a significant amount of time in the garage in the second session as the team changed his car’s suspension. The five-time grand prix winner finished in seventh place.

The Australian’s true pace remains a mystery after he wasn’t able to complete a low-fuel qualifying simulation run Friday afternoon, getting halfway through his best lap of the session when it was red-flagged because of the loose timing cable.

With rain forecast for Saturday’s qualifying, Ricciardo, speaking before being penalised, spied an opportunity to leap up the order.

‘‘We always enjoy some wet weather. I think it just evens everything out,’’ he said.

‘‘Today in the dry we didn’t look too bad, but the wet will give us potentially more of a chance. The last wet qualifying here was 2014 [when he qualified second]. That wasn’t too bad, so we’ll try to do that again.’’

Formula One world champions Mercedes chose to use pre-season testing in Spain this month to build bullet-proof reliability into their new W09 chassis, eschewing the temptation of chasing headline-grabbing times and leaving open the question of whether Formula One’s fastest were faster.

Was that question answered Friday at Albert Park? Yes, and no. Yes, reigning world champion Lewis Hamilton picked up where he left off last year by topping both practice sessions, but the chasing pack, led by Ricciardo’s Red Bull teammate Max Verstappen, was much closer than anticipated.

Hamilton’s fastest time, a lap of one minute 23.931 seconds set midway through the 90-minute second session, was 0.127 seconds quicker than Verstappen, with Hamilton’s Mercedes teammate Valtteri Bottas next, a further tenth of a second adrift.

Ferrari teammates Kimi Raikkonen and four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel rounded out the top five, the German a deflating half a second slower than Hamilton as the Scuderia’s championship charge started with a splutter.

While Mercedes’ Bottas had several off-track excursions on an occasionally ragged day for the Finnish driver, teammate Hamilton seemed to have plenty in reserve, storming through the final sector on his fastest lap to cement top spot.

The 33-year-old Briton, who will Saturday be chasing his fifth consecutive pole position in Melbourne, went faster than his best time of last year’s first practice session with half an hour remaining Friday afternoon, mildly annoyed that he’d had ‘‘a lot of traffic on that lap’’.

While Mercedes had gone under the radar on the pre-season timesheets, it was a throwaway line by the team’s technical director James Allison after the conclusion of testing that was ominous, Allison suggesting last year’s Mercedes would be ‘‘utterly hopeless’’ compared with the W09.

Bearing in mind that last year’s car, used by Hamilton to win his fourth world title, won 60 per cent of the races and took 75 per cent of pole positions while winning the constructors’ championship in a landslide, it was a bold statement, but one Mercedes looks capable of backing up.

Mercedes looked mighty through Albert Park’s one fearsome corner combination of note, the Turn 11-12 chicane.

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 …

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 …

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.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

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?

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

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 5 best F1 drivers of 2017

Who overdelivered, who made the most of their chances and who underperformed in Formula One this season? It’s time to name names.

THIS STORY ORIGINALLY APPEARED ON REDBULL.COM

If you think Formula One looked a bit similar in 2017 to the three seasons that preceded it, you’d be right. A fourth championship on the bounce for Mercedes and a third in four years for Lewis Hamilton meant that the Silver Arrows took the gold medal once again; for those counting at home, that’s 63 wins in 79 races for Mercedes since F1 went V6 turbo hybrid in 2014 …

So, is picking the best five F1 drivers of the year as simple as putting the two Mercedes pilots in first and second and everyone else slotting into place? In short, no. Some drivers out-performed the equipment at their disposal, others made giant strides in midfield teams, others did wonders in cars down the back, and one continues to be employed by a front-running team despite doing very little of note for four straight years …

We’re as confused as most about the latter, but we’re adamant about this: our top five list. We’ve scanned up and down the field, looked at their stats, their impact and the gravity of their achievements to come up with our best of the best. Let’s count them down.

5. Valtteri Bottas

The stats

Points/championship position: 305, third

Wins: 3 (Russia, Austria, Abu Dhabi)

Podiums: 13

Poles: 4

Fastest laps: 2

Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Bottas 7, Lewis Hamilton 13

Head-to-head vs teammate in races: Bottas 8, Hamilton 12

Points compared to teammate: Bottas 305, Hamilton 363

The summary
If we were hitting the pause button on the 2017 season at the mid-year break after Hungary, Bottas would be closer to the top of this list, just as he was in Hamilton’s wheeltracks as the Mercedes pair tried to chase down Vettel at the top of the standings. But as Hamilton raised his game after the summer shutdown, Bottas wilted, the Finn beaten six times in a row in races and seven times in succession in qualifying as the eventual champion found a new gear. Losing out to Hamilton is no disgrace, but it was the size of the margin to his stablemate that was most concerning. Bottas never beat Hamilton again until the title was decided, and even then, his meek defence off the start into Turn 1 from pole in Brazil saw Vettel take a win that should have been his, and didn’t quieten the noise that Bottas can be found wanting in wheel-to-wheel battles. A win in Abu Dhabi was a strong way to round out the season, but he arguably should have beaten Vettel to the runner-up spot in the championship given the machinery at each driver’s disposal. Mercedes is undoubtedly a more harmonious team than it was in the Hamilton/Nico Rosberg era, but is Bottas capable of winning the title if Hamilton doesn’t, like Rosberg did? The jury is still out.

The quote
“There has been no point in this season that I have been in a massive panic about it, because this season started pretty well. We have got some good results together and at no point during this year have I got any signs from the team that they were looking somewhere else.” – Bottas on re-signing with Mercedes for 2018 in Singapore

4. Daniel Ricciardo

The stats

Points/championship position: 200, 5th

Wins: 1 (Azerbaijan)

Podiums: 9

Poles: 0

Fastest laps: 1

Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Ricciardo 7, Max Verstappen 13

Head-to-head vs teammate in races: Ricciardo 9, Verstappen 11

Points compared to teammate: Ricciardo 200, Verstappen 168

The summary
Assessing Ricciardo’s 2017 campaign, both in relation to teammate Verstappen and in isolation, is a tricky exercise given the RB13’s propensity to break down – 13 retirements between its two drivers shows that maybe superstitions should be heeded when naming your car for a new season … Both Red Bull drivers saw the chequered flag in just seven of 20 races (Verstappen leading Ricciardo 5-2), and not one of the Australian’s six retirements were of his own doing – he had five mechanical failures, and was taken out by a clumsy (and later repentant) Verstappen on lap one in Hungary. Three non-finishes in the final four races and a qualifying deficit to his teammate saw Ricciardo’s season end with a whimper, but the high points were steep – five podiums in a row from Spain to Austria contained his brilliantly opportunistic win in Baku, a day when being flawless was as important as being merely fast. Ricciardo enhanced his reputation as being the most decisive overtaker in F1 throughout 2017, but it’s the years to come – especially given his teammate has been re-signed until the end of the 2020 season – that will be of most interest moving forward for a driver who becomes a free agent at the end of next season.

The quote
“It was a pretty grisly way to end the season, and when it finishes like that with no decent results from the last few, there’s a tendency to think it was average. But I went back through all the races in my head … and it was pretty good in parts, really strong at some stages.” – Ricciardo, writing for redbull.com

3. Max Verstappen

The stats

Points/championship position: 168, sixth

Wins: 2 (Malaysia, Mexico)

Podiums: 4

Poles: 0

Fastest laps: 1

Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Verstappen 13, Ricciardo 7

Head-to-head vs teammate in races: Verstappen 11, Ricciardo 9

Points compared to teammate: Verstappen 168, Ricciardo 200

The summary
For all of the talk about Verstappen’s lack of luck and reliability this season – which was legitimate – it’s worth pointing out that the Dutchman had just one more non-finish than Ricciardo, and ended up 32 points behind his Red Bull teammate despite handily out-qualifying him over the course of the year. So how is he ahead of the ‘Honey Badger’ on this list? Momentum counts for plenty, and wins in Malaysia and Mexico (the latter as emphatic as it gets) in the final six races said much for Verstappen’s speed when his car actually held together. He was an innocent victim in first-lap crashes in Spain, Austria and Singapore, the middle of those the most depressing when he ground to a halt in a broken car just in front of a grandstand full of orange-clad fans who’d made the journey to watch him tame the Red Bull Ring. His Saturday speed – particularly when compared to a noted qualifying specialist in Ricciardo – was immense, and while he’s still prone to being impetuous in the heat of battle, the 20-year-old is still young enough to learn and good enough to improve. Verstappen has championship contender written all over him – it’s just a matter of how soon, and how he copes when the stakes are raised and wins are expected rather than being a nice novelty. Beating Ricciardo for the first time in the championship is a bare minimum for 2018.

The quote
“It’s been a positive end to the year. We will keep working hard to improve as we have done over the latter stages of this season – with some improvement from the engine side we should at least be close to the top guys next year.” – Verstappen after Abu Dhabi

2. Sebastian Vettel

The stats

Points/championship position: 317, second

Wins: 5 (Australia, Bahrain, Monaco, Hungary, Brazil)

Podiums: 13

Poles: 4

Fastest laps: 5

Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Vettel 15, Kimi Raikkonen 5

Head-to-head vs teammate in races: Vettel 15, Raikkonen 3 (neither Ferrari finished in Singapore, and Raikkonen didn’t start in Malaysia)

Points compared to teammate: Vettel 317, Raikkonen 205

The summary
Was 2017 a championship lost by Ferrari after Vettel had them in a position to win it? Not once did it seem like the SF70H was a match for the pace and potential Mercedes appeared to have over the Scuderia, but Vettel won the opening race in Melbourne and stayed atop the title tree until just after the mid-year break. Then things unravelled quickly: Hamilton thrashed the red team at its home ground, Monza, and then came a disastrous Asian swing where Vettel was the architect of his own demise off the start in Singapore before car failures in qualifying (Malaysia) and the race (Japan) saw him consigned to being a mathematical contender rather than a legitimate one. Hamilton ended it all in Mexico, and Ferrari’s wait for a championship since Kimi Raikkonen took its last in 2007 reached a decade. It’s hard to know Ferrari’s true pace when the occasionally interested Raikkonen finishes more than 100 points behind his teammate in an identical car, but, Singapore aside, Vettel didn’t do a lot wrong, besides his moment of madness when he sideswiped Hamilton under safety car conditions in Baku. Can the Prancing Horse resist the bloodletting that typically takes place whenever it has been deemed to fail to allow Vettel to reload and go again over the winter break? For the sake of the championship fight and some variety at the top, we’re hoping so.

The quote
“Next year will be a different story, as we all start again, but right now, in these moments, you need to give credit to the best man, and that is him this year. Overall, he was the better man and did the better job, simple as that.” – Vettel on Hamilton after Mexico

1. Lewis Hamilton

The stats

Points/championship position: 363, first

Wins: 9 (China, Spain, Canada, Great Britain, Belgium, Italy, Singapore, Japan, USA)

Podiums: 13

Poles: 11

Fastest laps: 7

Head-to-head vs teammate in qualifying: Hamilton 13, Bottas 7

Head-to-head vs teammate in races: Hamilton 12, Bottas 8

Points compared to teammate: Hamilton 363, Bottas 305

The summary
Can one race make a season? Singapore was where the title fight swung dramatically in Hamilton’s favour when, after thrashing Ferrari at Monza the race prior, the Briton was presented with an open goal when Vettel, Raikkonen and Verstappen were all out within seconds of the start at Marina Bay. On Mercedes’ weakest circuit of the year, Hamilton banked 25 precious points to extend his series lead, and from there, it was a matter of when, not if, he’d join Vettel and Alain Prost as a four-time world champion. Hamilton’s second half of the 2017 season was devastating, and five wins and a second place in the first six races after the mid-year break show why he has to be considered one of the all-time greats. Sure, he had a car advantage, but the relentless speed he showed in a race he didn’t win – when he finished fourth from a pit lane start in Brazil and finished less than three seconds behind pole-sitting teammate Bottas – was a reminder why Hamilton is approaching rarefied air. With 40 wins in the past four seasons – more than half of the races held since 2014 – the 32-year-old now has 62 career wins, and Michael Schumacher’s record of 91 victories, once thought to be untouchable, isn’t out of the question. It’ll all depend on Hamilton’s hunger and motivation – and if Mercedes keep producing cars capable of winning championships, its star driver will surely stick around for a good while yet.

The quote
“I want to be better next year. The challenge is going to be even bigger from Ferrari and Red Bull next year. Formula One doesn’t sleep, it doesn’t stand still. There is always someone there waiting to take my position.” – Hamilton after winning the championship in Mexico