The eve of a brand-new Formula 1 season is one of the year’s most exciting times. The anticipation of discovering which teams have done the best job at scaling the pecking order over the winter, and conversely, which teams have the most work to do?
Predicting the final constructors’ championship results pre-Melbourne is never more than the art of guesswork but in the name of fun, I’ve had a go anyway.
Here is my predicted pecking order for F1’s 2018 season;
Testing timesheets are misleading – Mercedes neglected to run the softer compounds and as a result, did not post the headline times. However, long-run pace was excellent and suspicions are that Mercedes has an advantage of 0.4 seconds per lap over its closest rivals. If true, the team is likely to be en route to a record-equalling fifth consecutive championship double. Denying Lewis Hamilton a fifth drivers’ title will be an enormously difficult task and given the apparent strength of the W09, this challenge may fall to Valtteri Bottas in an intra-team rivalry similar to the Hamilton/Rosberg era. The Finn will surely add to his three career victories this season, but he may well be destined to finish second behind Hamilton.
2) Red Bull
Red Bull’s biggest mistake in 2017 was its failure to deliver a car capable of competing with Mercedes and Ferrari at the start of the year. Evidence suggests that this flaw has been addressed and both Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen seem confident heading to Melbourne. Red Bull has the advantage of experience with the high-rake aerodynamic concept – an avenue of development which Ferrari is only now finding its feet with – which will give Red Bull the upper hand.
Verstappen and Ricciardo could both be considered outside bets for the championship this season, but are likely to fall short of the Mercedes juggernaut. Verstappen is my tip for third place, with three or more race victories while Ricciardo could suffer the distraction of long-winded contract negotiations.
The closest challengers to Mercedes last season and a team robbed of a true title tilt by reliability gremlins, Ferrari carries plenty of expectation into the new season. Headline times during testing allowed the team the small honour of being winter world champions. However, fuel and tyre corrected, Vettel and Raikkonen’s pace was far from spectacular. The team has work to do in perfecting long-run performance too. Vettel’s talent and determination will propel the team forward and I’d be very surprised to see him beaten by both Red Bull’s in the championship. Although, with Raikkonen’s unconvincing form considered, Ferrari could well be rooted into third in the constructors’.
McLaren endured a rocky pre-season but despite completing just over half the mileage of Mercedes, the Woking team is in for a much improved 2018. Early issues will cause headaches as the tight timescale for integrating the new Renault power unit was always going to be a huge challenge, but as was the case last season, McLaren has built a good chassis. Fernando Alonso’s 1m17.784s time on the final day of testing proved that there is the raw pace required to win the best-of-the-rest accolade behind the leading three teams. Alonso will finish a clear seventh in the championship. Vandoorne will be close but will struggle to beat an Alonso buoyed by having his most competitive car since 2014 at his disposal. On a crazy day, the Spaniard could well make the podium for the first time since China ‘14.
With one of the grid’s strongest driver pairings, if Renault struggles in 2018 it will not be a result of a lack of talent behind the wheel. The French marque enters year three of its five-year plan to return to F1’s top spot and this season is critical. Testing suggested that reliability issues have been tamed, (even if it does mean running the power unit conservatively). A heavily redesigned front wing and clever blown rear-wing concept are winter headlines that highlight Renault’s ambition and progress. Expect both Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz Jr to finish the year within the top 10 in the drivers’ standings and regularly compete against the McLaren duo.
Expect Haas to finish as best-of-the-rest in Melbourne. The team was the star performer in testing, with the new car resembling last year’s Ferrari in many key areas such as the front wing, bargeboard and sidepod design. The package has raw pace and as the team enters its third season in F1, the rookie errors will have been eradicated.
Running what looks like a tidy 2017 package in a field of 2018 cars will mean that development over the course of the season is key and this could be where Haas slips behind. McLaren and Renault are likely to demote the American squad early in the European season, but I still expect Haas to close out sixth place in the constructors’. Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen will be one of the most fascinating team-mate battles to watch over the course of the year as both will respond well to a predictable car.
7) Force India
It is very difficult to gauge how competitive Force India will be this season and this prediction of a seventh-place finish in the constructors’ standings could prove to be as accurate as my guess at last week’s lottery numbers by November. Sergio Perez has stated that the team needs a “good step” in performance in order to start 2018 the way in which it finished ‘17, but Esteban Ocon has seemed far more positive in his assessment of the car, so I doubt that I am the only one unsure of the team’s standing.
A huge step in performance will be made in Melbourne as the true VJM11 is revealed but given the seemingly strained financial situation Force India faces, I’m not sure that it will be enough of a step. Perez and Ocon do, however, have the skill to flatter a difficult car and that could provide Force India with a lifeline in the battle for best-of-the-rest.
8) Toro Rosso
Honda has made progress at the perfect time if you’re Toro Rosso. The team has adopted the Honda power unit this season and naysayers deemed that the switch in supply would resign Toro Rosso to last place in the pecking order. However, this assessment failed to factor in the notable improvements made by Honda during the winter both in terms of reliability and performance. Toro Rosso covered the third highest mileage of the teams and while it required three power unit’s to achieve the impressive lap totals, (with all other teams using one or two units), the lap count has served to raise expectations.
Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley are somewhat unknown quantities following their cameo appearances last season and it remains to be seen if they can consistently score points. Eighth place in the constructors’ championship could be on the cards.
I worry about Williams’ driver line-up and I am sure that I am not alone in that concern. Lance Stroll’s rookie season featured flashes of brilliance but these need to transform into consistent brilliance now that the 19-year-old finds himself as the most experienced driver in the line-up. Sergey Sirotkin is a better talent than social media would lead you to believe but is still a rookie in a team without a clear leader. Development driver Robert Kubica has the experience but can only do so much while standing at the back of the garage in his jeans on race day.
The team needed a smooth pre-season but difficulties in firing up the softer compounds left them head-scratching up until the final few hours. Williams won’t be detached from the midfield but consistent points might be a challenge.
Team principal Frederic Vasseur has already laid out the team’s expectations and suggested that returning to the midfield battle will take “more than one or two years.” Sauber has entered 2018 with an exciting new partner in Alfa Romeo and a radically new aerodynamic concept, but several trips to the gravel across the course of testing for Marcus Ericsson and Charles Leclerc would suggest that the car is a handful. Leclerc could find himself bagging his first F1 points on a bizarre afternoon, but the popular F2 champion is otherwise in for a season of anonymity. Sauber will likely be detached at the rear of the field.