Formula 1 season preview 2018, Part 2: Mercedes eye Championship double; battle for fourth spot set to heat up

In part 2 of our ‘what would make a team’s season successful?’ series, we talk about the top five finishers from last year; with utmost certainty that the order will not continue for this year.

Williams

Since their multiple championship successes in the 1990s, Williams have usually peaked for 2-3 years in a 10-year period before settling for meagre results... only to prepare for another spike. The team’s last such spike was in 2014 and 2015 (when they finished third in the Constructors’ Championship) which means that their period of meagre results may continue for the near term. For 2019, they have a really young driver line-up and the team has spent most of their time convincing everyone that the Stroll-Sirotkin pairing is extremely talented too. But that’s what you get when you leave an uber-talented and now Formula 1-ready Robert Kubica as your reserve.

In pre-season testing, the Williams FW41 looked lazy and didn’t light up the time sheets like some of its predecessors could — a shocking fact for a car that’s actually a Paddy Lowe design. However, this could be an indication that while Williams have the heritage and infrastructure as any of the ‘Big 3’ teams, they lack the big budget. Apart from on-track performances, Williams will have the additional headache of finding a replacement for the outgoing Martini, their title sponsor who will quit at the end of 2018.

Mercedes Lewis Hamilton at a Formula One test session. Reuters

Mercedes Lewis Hamilton at a Formula One test session. Reuters

Targets for 2018:

1. Finishing fifth in 2016 & 2017 was no mean feat, they were ahead of Renault & McLaren; repeating this feat would be meaner in 2018.

2. Lance Stroll holds the distinction of being the only non-Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull Racing driver to have scored a podium in 2017 (Baku). A repeat of such performances (shock, or not) would be a boost in every manner possible.

3. Take a bold decision to drop either of their race drivers and put Robert Kubica in the car if there’s belief that he can deliver results. Force India’s ‘talent first’ approach is a good learning for the mid-field teams.

4. Martini’s replacement; Williams need the money to remain relevant and competitive, but recent history has shown that title sponsors are tough to sell in Formula 1 these days. It could be Williams vs. McLaren in the title sponsorship chase!

Force India

The team’s veteran driver Sergio Perez acknowledged in an interview with Firstpost a few weeks ago that the 2018 Formula 1 Season would be Force India’s toughest season till date. The expected resurgences of Renault and McLaren, followed by a surprise jump in competitiveness by Haas, could see Force India end up fighting for positions fifth and lower. It could only get more competitive should the unknown Toro Rosso-Honda package deliver too.

Basically, Force India will be involved in a tough mid-field battle with the winners claiming fourth place and the losers needing to settle for a position that could be as low as eighth, or lower!

The team’s owners’ issues haven’t troubled the operations yet and fans would be hoping that this continues in 2018 and well beyond. Although this hasn’t stopped rumours about possible buyouts every now and then. In pre-season testing, Force India didn’t impress as much as their mid-field rivals, but that could also down to the development philosophy of the team — start with a solid basic package and upgrade it through the season.

The team’s driver pairing became infamous in 2017 for their on-field battles that cost the team valuable points and carbon fibre, but not the fourth place in the Constructors’ Championship. The consistency of the Perez-Ocon pairing will definitely be one of the team’s biggest trump cards this season. Surprisingly not, the team declared that the difference between their pace and Red Bull Racing’s (who finished third in 2017) was calculated to a lack of £15 million in their budget! In fact, Mallya had referred to his team as ‘best bang for buck’ World Champions on Firstpost.

Targets for 2018:

1. Best of the rest, no less! If Force India manage it for a third season in a row they will further strengthen their position in the sport.

2. Last year was podium-less; a podium or three would be welcome. On the power side, they have the championship winning Mercedes engines.

3. Succession plan? Perez will sign off 2018 as Force India’s most experienced driver; will he deflect to another team? Maybe Renault, if a Ferrari call doesn’t come his way. As for Esteban Ocon, will Mercedes hire his services — ahead of time — leaving Force India with two new drivers for 2019?

4. Jehan Daruvala — the budding Indian Formula 1 driver and Force India’s junior, is knocking on the doors of the sport and the team. A junior driver test for him in 2018 at the very least?

Red Bull Racing

It was only in 2013 when Red Bull Racing dominated their rivals to win both the championships, but five years is a long gap in Formula 1 and the team from Milton Keynes are getting impatient to get back to their dominant ways. In the hybrid-turbo era, it has been mostly evident that the Renault power unit has been Red Bull Racing’s Achilles’ heels and the team has left little opportunity to proclaim this publicly.

The proof lies in the fact that while being Renault’s customer team, Red Bull Racing have finished ahead of them in the Constructors’ Championship. For 2018, Renault’s ‘reliability first, power later’ approach could catch out Red Bull Racing when it comes to qualifying. However, their long runs in pre-season testing indicated that they have the pace to match Mercedes on the Sunday at least.

Unlike the previous seasons, Red Bull Racing’s main aim (and Verstappen’s request!) was to start the season on a strong note and pre-season testing has indicated that they look to deliver on this goal for 2018. Fans have long prayed for a season-long battle between Red Bull Racing, Ferrari and Mercedes, it seems that 2018 may well be the answer to their prayers. The Ricciardo-Verstappen pairing is the best and most competitive one among the ‘Big 3’ teams and a season-long rivalry between the two will be headline worthy.

Targets for 2018:

1. If the Constructors’ Championship seems out of reach, regular race wins will be Red Bull Racing’s target. After only three wins in 2017, how many more can they add to their kitty for 2018? Since the start of the hybrid turbo era in 2014, Red Bull Racing have beaten Ferrari two out of four times. Which way will it go this season?

2. Verstappen’s target is clear; be three-tenths off the Mercedes cars in qualifying and rely on their long-run pace to challenge them in the race. If they are able to deliver on this target, the prospects of a regular Red Bull Racing vs Mercedes battle will only be higher.

3. Verstappen’s arrival had suddenly seen Daniel Ricciardo being slotted into the unspoken No 2 driver of the team. Will the Aussie extend his services with Red Bull Racing for the next few years, or will he defect to Mercedes and partner Lewis Hamilton? We expect the Ricciardo-Red Bull-Mercedes triangle to make headlines in 2018.

4. Could Honda be Red Bull Racing’s future? After testing drivers at Toro Rosso before promoting them to the parent team, this time, it is the Honda engines being tested — for current and future capabilities. For Red Bull Racing, Honda and Formula 1’s sake, let’s hope this union happens as early as 2018.

Ferrari

If five years seems too long in the case of Red Bull Racing, Ferrari’s last Constructors’ Championship was way back in 2008. However, in the last decade, it was in only 2017 when they came closest to winning a championship (the Drivers’) only to see it fade away thanks to driver errors and mechanical unreliability.

But it is the Drivers’ Championship that interests Ferrari the most! In 2018, Ferrari’s biggest flattery is in the fact that a lot of their car design from last season has been copied by rivals; this is while Ferrari would have expected that they have stepped up their performance. However, despite the comparisons between Sebastian Vettel and Michael Schumacher and the nostalgia it evokes everytime the combination of the German-Italian national anthems play on the podium, this Ferrari seems far from the robust and reliable team of the 2000s, especially when you see it in comparison to Mercedes and Red Bull Racing.

While quadruple champion Sebastian Vettel is arguably one of the best drivers of the modern era, Ferrari would have worked hard and would be hoping that his less angry side turns up for all the 21 races in 2018. While Vettel decimated the unofficial track record of the Circuit de Catalunya in pre-season testing (using the hypersofts), there are unanswered questions on Ferrari’s comparative long-run pace to their championship rivals with rumours suggesting that ‘fuel saving’ caused Ferrari much headache in the pre-season. However, if there is one team that has the resources, talent and budget to make in-season fixes, it is Ferrari.

Target for 2018:

1. The 2018 Drivers’ Championship; the Scuderia and Ferrari’s management may no longer be happy with the fact that Ferrari were involved in a season-long fight. Sergio Marchionne’s impatience was evident in 2017 and victory is all he seeks, at all costs.

2. While we would love to see Kimi Raikkonen race in Formula 1 and with Ferrari for as long as he wants, there is a good possibility that Ferrari will replace him for 2019. But who Ferrari will choose could depend on Vettel’s performance in 2018. If he delivers the Drivers’ Championship, Ferrari could hire a Sergio Perez or Nico Hulkenberg to support his title bid for 2019. If not, there’s a good chance Ferrari could hire Daniel Ricciardo with the hope that he could lead them to a title sooner than Vettel.

Mercedes

The question ‘how soon can Mercedes be beaten by its rival?’ could be answered in 2018, or if not, we may have to wait till 2021. The same could have been said for 2017, but despite its most fiercely fought championship campaign in this era, Mercedes crushed their rivals and wrapped up both the titles earlier than everyone's (including theirs) expectations.

Mercedes’ ‘diva’ made headlines in 2017, especially on circuits it failed to set the pace (how ironic), but this very diva would have helped Mercedes iron out the deficiencies in their 2018 challenger. If pre-season testing is a good metric to follow and predict from, it would be tough to bet against Mercedes for regular wins and the World Champions. While this may sound boring to a lot of us already, we wouldn’t mind a Mercedes win so long as it has been challenged all along the way by its rivals.

Lewis Hamilton, also a quadruple World Champion, would be aiming to go one up on Vettel by claiming his fifth Drivers’ Championship — a feat previously matched only by Michael Schumacher and Juan Manuel Fangio. In Hamilton’s case, critics have long been waiting for his off-track antics to impact his on-track performances, but it seems that this may never happen. His rockstar image and attitude is definitely adding the coolness quotient to Formula 1 and Mercedes. As for Valtteri Bottas, filling Nico Rosberg’s shoes to take the challenge to Hamilton was a tough ask in 2017. However, in 2018, he will have to show more competitiveness in comparison to Hamilton because even if Mercedes clinch the Constructors’ Championship in 2018, there’s little guarantee that he will receive an extension for 2019.

Targets for 2018:

1. The championship double! The team’s management have been making all the positive noises about the W09 and pre-season testing has sent all the correct signals to their rivals. As fans, we can only hope that they are sufficiently challenged all season long.

2. After a mediocre (in the Mercedes sense) campaign in 2017, Mercedes will be watching Bottas’ progression with much detail. Will they hire Daniel Ricciardo as his replacement for 2019, or will they be able to show Red Bull Racing style guts to promote Esteban Ocon (their junior driver) out-of-turn to Hamilton’s partner?

3. Hamilton has long stated that he is eyeing Schumacher’s 91 wins and seven titles to match and even beat. If Mercedes and Hamilton remain dominant for the next few seasons, they should be able to get there with support from the annual calendar, which is only getting longer. However, will Hamilton’s motivation remain intact with repeated successes? If Hamilton does a Rosberg and announces shock retirement, Mercedes will not have a top driver leading their team. The team will surely be thinking of their succession plan.

All-in-all, there’s a lot to play out for in 2018, do remember to catch all the news, views and analysis on Firstpost and the Firstpost Pole Position live video series on Facebook all season long.


Updated Date: Mar 21, 2018 17:43 PM

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