GadgetSyrup Pit Pass: F1 2018 Season Outlook
As I expand the focus of the site, I will be sharing posts that focus on the tech involved in making F1 cars go. The first in that series of "Pit Pass" posts focused on DRS, soon I will be focusing in on the power units in each car. In this post, however, I wanted to share my thoughts and perspective on each team now that we have seen them on the track.
The F1 circus has come and gone from Melbourne, Australia and is en route to Sakhir, Bahrain, and I felt it was a good time to take a look at what's to come for each team over the course of the 2018 season.
Why preview the season after it has already begun? Well, I feel that only after the cars have been on track in a real race can you really get a feel for where they sit. Testing in Barcelona tells you a lot, but you can't get the full picture. Take Toro Rosso for example, they showed what appeared to be incredible reliability, but it turned out that they used a total of 3 Honda power unit over the 8 (well 7) days off testing.
With that said, let's dive into each team!
The last 4 years have been completely dominated by Mercedes. Last season, there was hope of a proper challenge from Ferrari, but thanks to poor decisions on track and reliability issues, the Italian team dropped out of the race about 2/3 of the way through the 2017 season. This pretty much handed Mercedes their 4th consecutive drivers and constructors titles.
Will Mercedes continue this dominance in 2018? It is hard to bet against them, given the last 4 years, but all runs like this eventually have to come to an end once regulations stabilize and innovation plateaus, or at least you would think so.
If Free Practice sessions and Qualification in Melbourne for the Australian Grand Prix were any indication, Mercedes looks primed for another year on top.
But they didn't win at Albert Park you say? That's right, despite dominating the weekend Mercedes failed to win the race. A supposed bug in timing calculations when the virtual safety car (VSC) was deployed allowed for Sebastian Vettel to sneak out of the pits a few hundred meters ahead of Lewis Hamilton, and on a track like Albert Park, overtaking is not an easy feat.
I expect that Mercedes will again be the team to beat, given how they have dominated the field for so long now. Lewis looks to be just as motivated as ever and Bottas is a solid number 2, with his qualifying shunt in Melbourne likely being a blip.
It had been a long time since Ferrari had mounted a proper title fight, and last season appeared to be the Italian Stallion's return to the party, but numerous on-track errors and odd reliability problems from Singapore on, Ferrari more or less handed Mercedes both titles.
During testing, Vettel had the fastest lap time and Kimi wasn't far off. The car certainly looks better than last year thanks to a slightly longer wheel-base, but they were looking like they would be finishing second and third with a sizable gap to Lewis and his Mercedes in Melbourne. However, as we all saw, the Haas-debacle that lead to the virtual safety car pretty much gifted Vettel top spot on the podium.
I think this will be another year of Ferrar being right on Mercedes heels, and as long as Seb can keep his cool and Kimi can show that he still has the hunger for winning, the team could be right in it for the constructor's title. Ultimately, I think Lewis will win out on the driver's side because Mercedes is simply more powerful on most tracks. Bottas, if he steps back at all from last year will open the door for Kimi, and therefore, open the fight for the constructor's title.
This may be Red Bull's most important year in F1. Max Verstappen has committed to the team until the end of 2020, which shows who Red Bull is positioning as their number 1 driver. Daniel Ricciardo however, is yet to resign and his deal is up at the end of this season. Daniel will be as motivated as ever to beat his teammate because his F1 career is on the line. He could re-sign with Red Bull and be relegated to number 2 and fight for 4th or 5th in the driver's championship or sign on as a number 2 with Mercedes (unless Ocon replaces Bottas) or with Ferrari (unless LeClerc replaces Kimi). This will be very interesting as it plays out.
As for the car, the RB14, it looks like it may be the best overall chassis on the grid, which means it should be able to compete, week in and week out. The problem will be the Renault power that propels the RB14. By the end of last season, the French engine maker had sorted out reliability issues, but only by turning the power way down. The only way this team will contend for any sort of title will be if Renault can hit on both reliability and enough power to allow Max and Daniel to keep up with the big two. As long as those two are within striking distance, they can and will attempt a pass, even if it looks like there isn't an opportunity to pass. There were cases last year (Ricciardo at Monza, Verstappen in Japan) where these two drivers showed that they can and will pass anyone at any time.
If Ferrari or Mercedes slip up at all I think Reb Bull, now with Adrian Newey back full time, will be right there to capitalize on those mistakes. Max doesn't know how to drive at less than 11 and Daniel is the best overtaker on the grid.
Like I said, this could be the most important year for Red Bull in F1, so they will be pushing at every race.
Heading into the 2018 season I had Force India pegged as my "B" team. They achieved so much last season despite their drivers, Estaban Ocon and Sergio Perez trying crashing into each other at every race (Baku and Spa are the most obvious).
A team that operates on a shoe-string budget being able to finish fourth, considerably further ahead than fifth place Williams, was an amazing display of getting the biggest bang for their buck.
The 2018 season, I fear, will be a very different result when compared to 2017. Not only have lower-seeded teams, such as the Renault works team, Haas, and a resurgent McLaren, taken leaps forward, the introduction of the Halo device required the team to develop an entirely new chassis, a year earlier than expected. For the big three teams, this is no big deal but for a team that runs as lean as Force India, this may lead to a very significant step backward. Looking at their result in Australia, an 11th Iand 12th finish, It looks like they may well behind on the development path for this season.
I grew up a Williams fan. As a kid, I got into F1 right at the end of the Damon Hill era, and the start of the Jacques Villeneuve era. Being Canadian, it was easy to cheer for JV as a new fan of the sport. Nowadays I may not be so keen to say JV is what got me into F1, given how vocal he has been, with so many negative and nonsensical takes. But it is what it is. It was either cheer for Williams and Villeneuve or like most new fans of that time, cheer for Ferrari and Schumacher. I chose the patriotic route.
Fast forward to the current era and Williams is not what it once was. The driver lineup for 2018 is, well, not very good.
Newcomer Sirotkin and second-year Stroll are possibly the weakest pair on the grid. I know Stroll is Canadian, so I should be rooting for him, but aside from his lucking into a podium in Baku and front row start thanks to the rain in Monza, Stroll has a long way to go before he is anywhere near being a favourite.
Sirotkin, I am going to put a wait and see on him, but I think as the season progresses, he will be battling with Sauber's Marcus Ericsson for most DNFs.
One with think that a team with the Williams pedigree, ran by Sir Frank Williams, daughter Clare Williams and someone as seasoned and accomplished as Paddy Lowe this team would be primed for a 4th place finish in the standings, especially since the Mercedes power unit that is onboard, the same power unit used by Mercedes and Force India. However, looking at the result in Australia, the once great Williams team will struggle to keep pace with Haas, Sauber, and any of the Renault powered teams.
Lack of experience aside, the team needs to find a way to improve their qualifying form. Lance Stroll struggled incredibly last season to get out of Q1, Monza aside, and if he repeats his qualification performances from a year ago, Williams will be in a lot of trouble!
Having only been back in the sport, as a constructor, for a few years now the French Renault team is really rounding into form. Their livery for the RS18 is also brilliant this year. Possibly one of the best looking this season.
Looking at the results of testing and from Australia, Renault looks to be taking a big step forward as long as they can keep up in the development race this year. Their driver lineup is solid with Hulkenberg, who is hoping, with a bit of luck and elbows-out driving, to land that coveted first ever podium. Driver 2, or 1-B depending on how you look at things, is Carlos Sainz. Sainz is on loan from Red Bull Racing for an undetermined period of time as part of the wild switch of Honda power from McLaren to Toro Rosso, which could be to lay the groundwork for the Red Bull big-boy team to take on Honda power in 2019 or 2020. Sainz will help the team compete with the mid-pack for the 4th place spot in the standings.
Provided Renault can put together a reliable and consistently powerful package most weekends, their driver lineup should help to put them over the top this year and to continue their plan of being ready to compete for titles by their 4th year back in the sport, which is the 2019 season.
The 2017 Ferrari is looking really good with Haas paint job! As long as they have cured the warts the car had in last season, we could be nipping at a 4th or 5th place finish this year.
Kidding! I am not in the camp that Hass accidentally-on-purpose was given the blueprints to the 2017 Ferrari. Are there similarities? Yes, but there are also similarities between the 2018 Haas and 2018 Williams, which, as I said above, is not in a position to compete this season.
Last season the Haas team suffered mostly from consistency issues from Kevin Magnussen and suspect brake issues that lead to Romain Grosjean being perceived as a cry-baby on track.
This season though, the team has made an incredible leap forward and were among the front-runners in testing. Their performance at Albert Park showed that testing may not have been a fluke and was headed to a probable 4th and 5th finish for the drivers. Now, as we know, two complete disaster pitstops ended the Haas party less than 20 laps into the race.
Heading to Bahrain I hope to see Haas overcoming these breakdowns, becasue the car looks like it could be giving Red Bull a run for its money.
Oh, McLaren. One of the most storied teams in F1 history. Drivers like Senna, Prost, Alonso, Hakkinen, Hamilton, and Button have graced the seats of McLaren cars. Their success had been unparalleled for many years. Even in the years that they didn't win, they were right there until the end.
Those years are long gone, however, and after 3 years with Honda power, the team is great only by name, and not by performance. Despite having Alonso back behind the wheel the team was lucky to finish the race each weekend, let alone land championship points.
2018 though, is a new year with a new engine supplier. But with testing being the same unmitigated disaster as years past, regardless of what Alonso said each day and their double points finish at Melbourne, with Alonso finishing 5th was inherited thanks to the double DNF from Haas, this team does not look like they are ready to compete for podiums this year.
However, if there is one driver on the grid that can get more out of a car than any other driver, McLaren has it in Fernando Alonso. What seems to be a daily occurrence, Alonso creates headlines by saying that the team can compete with the big three of Mercedes, Ferrari, and Red Bull. I admire his optimism, and I do believe he feels that McLaren can compete, but in reality, I think it will be at least one more year of struggle for the team from Woking.
Red Bull-Toro Rosso Honda Formula 1 Team
What a name for the Red Bull B-team! Which is actually Red Bull Red Bull Honda Formula 1 Team when you translate Toro Rosso to English.
The switch that sent Sainz to Renault and Renault power to McLaren brought Honda power to Toro Rosso. I mentioned this earlier, but I think, and others do as well, that this is the prelude to a Honda-powered Red Bull team in a year or two, so developing the engine with the B team makes sense.
In testing Toro Rosso, being piloted by sort of newcomers Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly, looked to be proving everyone, especially Fernando Alonso, wrong by putting in tons of laps with what appeared to be little to no issues. We did learn post-testing that the team used 3 engines during the 7 days of testing, but regardless of that they had relatively great pace and may be able to maintain a solid mid-pack position.
Their result in Australia, however, was one to be forgotten. Gasly only completed a handful of laps before becoming the races second DNF, due to an engine failure and Hartley, after being forced to pit on the second lap due to a tire issue, finished last among classified finishers.
Things can only get better to be honest for the team though, as the relationship between Toro Rosso and Honda appears to off to a really positive start when compared to the McLaren-Honda years, so I expect that the team will be able to beat the likes of Alfa Romeo and Williams most weeks.
Alfa Romeo Sauber
Last season was truly a season to forget as a Sauber fan. Scoring only 5 points, all by the driver they chose to drop in favour of keeping Marcus Ericsson, the only place to go was up.
In 2018 the team will now be using current generation Ferrari power units, as opposed to the 2016 lump they were running last season, so a jump in performance should be expected. The team also gave its second seat the Charles LeClerc, a Ferrari young driver who has dominated every single seater series he has competed in.
However, despite the Alfa partnership, new engines and an arguably better driver lineup for 2018, testing didn't show that Sauber had mid-pack pace. When the team arrived in Australia, their result was not much better, thanks to Marcus Ericsson working as hard as he could to DNF yet again it was up to LeClerc to show his potential. By the end of the race, he had bested Lance Stroll and Brendon Hartley, which is no big feat but a good enough result. We found out after the race that he had no fuel consumption data, which meant that he did not know if he was able to push the car any harder, he had to run lean, just to ensure a race finish.
I think this season will be a season of many ups and many downs for the team that has not had any notable success since the Kubica years. I would be inclined to think the plan as of today is for LeClerc to jump to Ferrari next season if he has positive results and perhaps a few points finishes unless Kimi shows he is still able to compete for the podium each week, which could delay the move for another year.