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As F1 enters it's second season under the new regulations and leadership, there can really only be one goal: improvement. Now, don't get me wrong, 2017 was a nice introduction to a new era. It's just that, well, for the changes to really justify themselves, everything should be just that tiny bit better in 2018. Cars were fast in 2017 now they should be even quicker (which they are). Things, got a whole lot more interactive and social media savy in 2017, now it should get even better in that department, etc.
However, the most important improvement is of course going to need to come on track and in standings. Simply put, 2017 offered us quite a few teases of some potentially epic narratives that perhaps didn't quite materialize. So, before it's "GO, GO, GO," in Melbourne, let's explore what should we expect from the class of 2018 through 6 key questions.
1. Will we finally get a proper (title)threesome?
While we've been teased with it ever since 2016, the net result has always been been the same with Mercedes winning both titles. Yet, there have been enough instances, where their hegemony has been seriously put under threat by Red Bull and Ferrari. So—as has become the tradition—it's once again time to ask a simple question: Will there be a proper three-way title fight this year? Or, in other words, can Red Bull and Ferrari bring the fight to Mercedes?
Well, let's get the obvious out of the way first. Mercedes is not going to be making it easy. W09 (EQ Power+ if you want to go by her full name) looks tight in every way and while it didn't top the testing times, there is this ominous air of confidence beaming from the Mercedes garage. It seems that what they have in W09 is essentially the fastest car of 2017 minus it's weaknesses (like the narrow "diva-like" set up window or struggles on tight and twisty street circuits). So, as there really doesn't seem to be a chink in that silver armor at the moment, can Ferrari and/or Red Bull create one?
Starting with the last year's runner-ups Ferrari, the positives are that SF71H looks like a beautiful next step from the 2017 challenger, with the most notable change being the longer wheelbase in order to take the fight to Mercedes on fast and flowing circuits like Silverstone. Plus, they topped the time sheets in testing (all the while insisting that there's a lot more to come from the package). So, it's looking good for the sports most successful team's hopes for ending their decade long title drought. Well almost, as there has also been this vibe around the paddock that that maybe the red cars should be more worried about Red Bull usurping them.
Speaking of the Austrian squad, their success or failure this year is essentially going to be defined by two key questions. Will the Renault engine finally prove to be worthy of the Newey chassis and will they be able to hit the ground running (and not have another slow start to the season)? Well, on the one hand, the stability in engine regulations should have enabled Renault to take another step forward. Also, based on Ricciardo's comments, the team has not entered a new season as well prepared as they are now ever since 2014. It's just that, well, their form has been so unpredictable during the turbo era.
All in all, the main take-away here is simple. Mercedes are the favourites but for the more optimistic fans, there are enough reasons to believe that the three way title fight can materialize, thus leading us to the inevitable follow-up question.
2. Will we see a six driver title showdown?
Now, provided the top three are going to be evenly matched, this could mean that the drivers title will be decided between no less than six drivers. Well, in case all of them are up for it. So are they?
First of, there is no doubt in Vettel and Hamilton. Here we have two four time world champs at the very zenith of their careers and everything seems to be in place for a continuation of their epic scrap. Hamilton, of course, can take confidence in being a reigning world champion and the fact that he is surrounded with a team that doesn't seem to exhibit any weaknesses. For Vettel, it's fair to assume that his struggles in 2016 and mistakes in 2017 have only made him more determined to put it all together and finally realize his boyhood dream of emulating Schumacher.
Moving on the Red Bull boys, one has got to assume that both Riccardo and Veratappen will be in the title fight. Indeed, with former being the sport's most exciting and opportunistic driver and the latter the most highly regarded young talent, they certainly form an explosive line-up. Only thing, if it gets too explosive (which it just might after two years of relative harmony), it could prove to be the team's biggest stumbling block, as that intra battle could tear them apart.
That, of course leaves us with the our two resident Finns. For Bottas, while everyone expected him to struggle against Hamitlon in the first half of 2017, it ended up going the other way around. He actually established himself as an outside title challenger by the halfway point of the season only to be completely blown away by Hamilton in the second half. So, let's see whether Valtteri will prove to be another Nico (a driver good enough to capitalise on Hamilton's small weaknesses) or another Heiki (a talented driver, whose career was essentially destroyed by sharing a team with Hamilton).
Finally, perhaps the most difficult one to assess here is Raikkonen. Simply put, the guy's form from 2015 onwards has been one major case of contradictions. On the one hand, there have been many genuine hints of brilliance reminding us that he remains one of sport's most naturally gifted drivers. However, he is also one of the most specific drivers, when it comes to finding the right setup. And, well, there have simply been way too many occasions, where he has failed to do so, thus leading to some sub-bar performances.
Therefore, if the Iceman is to have any realistic chance of chipping in the title fight (which the man himself insists is the purpose), it's crucial for him to not let Vettel run away in points right at the start of the year and then go on from there. In fact, if he was to find find that extra bit of consistency in form and avoid his usual Q3 muck-ups, F1 oldest statesman could still be a genuine contender more than a decade after his first title.
3. Will one of F1's sleeping giants wake up?
Mclaren-Renault and simply Renault. To understand why following these two teams in their quest to find that race winning form is exciting, one just needs to remember a simple notion: it's bound to happen at some point. Only question is how close will they get to it in 2018?
Starting with Mclaren, it's probably more fitting to rephrase the question above into, will Fernando be happy in 2018? Well, while he'll only be truly happy when he gets a chance to chase that elusive third title, this is obviously a bit too much to expect from Mclaren this year. However, what is completely reasonable to ask, is for the team to produce such a form that would enable them to go into 2019 with eyes firmly set at the front of the field.
And what would such a form be? Well, a few podiums and best of the rest status by the end of the season should do. Of course, it's fair to assume that there are going to be some initial teething problems with the new engine. Still, the always hard to read testing did produce quite a few hints that Mclaren could indeed come good in 2018 and prove that it really was Honda's fault (something they have continuously been insisting during the last few years).
Oh, almost forgot, while there wasn't much reason to talk abut him during 2017, Vandoorne did manage to produce some strong drivers in the latter part of the season, thus indicating that he is unlikely to be a complete walkover for Alonso this year.
Moving on to Renault, the key element here is of course their incredibly slow but also impressively steady progress, ever since rejoining the sport in 2016. You really get a sense that they're willing to bind their time and build up a title challenge the proper way. And, well, so far this has been the case.
However, as it's already year number 3 of this ambitious project, it should be the time when we start seeing some proper hints of that title challenge materializing. Also, in what could be one of the most fascinating rivalries of 2018, Sainz and Hulkenberg most certainly have the talent to pull the team forward.
4. What about F1's resident "gigant killers"?
Force India and Williams are perhaps the best representations of one of the cornerstones of F1: this idea of a small but plucky underdog taking the fight to gigantic factory teams through cunning and innovation. Unfortunately, due to the huge budget gap and technical regulations that really don't leave much room for innovations, this narrative is becoming more and more rare in nowadays Formula 1. So, can one of these two defy the odds and make life difficult for the top three?
Well, judging by testing, definitely no, as both were awfully anonymous during the entire two weeks at Barcelona. In fact, when it comes to last year's best of the rest Force India, it seems that the new car has some rather unexpected performance issues and it's not looking good for them at the moment. However underestimate this clever little team at your own peril, as they have displayed a wonderful ability to develop the car during the season and really get the maximum out of it.
It's certainly something their drivers—and last year's most exciting rivalry—Ocon and Perez will be hoping for, as both are desperate to build a case for themselves as potential candidates for a top drive (especially Perez, who must feel that it's his last chance to put himself in that position).
As for Williams, they also had a quiet winter and don't look all that impressive at the moment. However, they have taken some risks in car design, thus suggesting that they have regained at least some of that spark that once made them so effective giant slayers. It's crucial on the driver front as well, since Sirotkin and Stroll really need to deliver something special to shake of the their pay driver tags. Especially when considering that they have this promising young test driver named Kubica breathing down their necks (and seats).
So, while them challenging top three teams seems to be an utopia, there is at least hope of getting a proper scarp for the best of the rest between these two, Mclaren and Renault. Well, hopefully not only between them, thus leading us to the follow-up question.
5. Who are the potential dark horses of 2018?
Now, assessing Toro Rosso's and Haas' performance is perhaps the most tricky but simultaneously most fascinating aspect of this season. Thing is, there seems to be as much unclarity over their ability as there is a genuine sense of potential.
Starting with Toro Rosso, it of course comes down to the Honda factor. Has the Japanese manufacturer finally made a crucial breakthrough on the engine and Toro Rosso has literally struck gold? Well, perhaps that would be too much to expect but the sheer reliability and functionality of this new partnership during testing should give some bolder gamblers enough courage to put their money on a big surprise coming from this team-up somewhere along the way in 2018.
Haas, on the other hand, is already entering their third year into the sport and, well, it's arguably their most crucial one. Simply put, 2016 was a case of getting through their baptism of fire. They managed that. 2017 was about building on it and finding some stability. They did that as well (although usually on lower grid positions). 2018, however, must be a year where they will give us some proper signs of their ambition to really make it in this hugely complex sport. And, well, there are whispers (even from Hamilton) that they might have just managed to pull something quite amazing out of the hat.
6. So, where does it all leave Sauber?
Now, judging by their slump of the recent years, the Swiss squad will have a long road ahead of them and the Alfa Romeo partnership is most likely not going to hit the ground running. Nevertheless, it does have huge potential, thus giving us hope that 2018 will have no such thing as genuine backmarker.
To Sum Up
New logo? Check. A new theme song? Check. Now, let's just get the racing underway. Bring on 2018 and a happy F1 season to all the fellow fans!