It’s that time of year again; excitement is building within as we draw closer to seeing 20 of the best drivers on the planet take up arms and do their talking on the tarmac. Formula One is upon us once.
The F1 fanbase will be hankering over a possible three-way battle for top honours, with Red Bull and Ferrari poised to finally knock Mercedes off the perch which they’ve occupied happily since 2014. Sebastian Vettel gave it his all in 2017 to break the Silver Arrows stranglehold up front, only for a terrible run of luck after the summer to derail his challenge. Lewis Hamilton was therefore gifted an easy run to his fourth championship, but the results table doesn’t tell the full story.
The main source of controversy over the winter months was the FIA’s newly mandated “halo” cockpit protection. Arguments raged online and in print over the merits of the design, one that continues to rumble on. Other stories which dominated the off-season included McLaren’s switch to Renault power, with Toro Rosso taking up the challenge of developing Honda’s troublesome power unit. Having delayed the inevitable for a season, Felipe Massa has called time on his career. He’ll be joined on the sidelines by Pascal Wehrlein, with two years of superlative performances in sub-par machinery apparently not being enough to keep the talented German on the grid. The F1 circus has also said goodbye to the Malaysian GP, ending a 19 year run at a circuit which was fast becoming a modern classic.
The French Grand Prix returns to the calendar after a ten-year absence, with the Circuit Paul Ricard playing host. An even longer sabbatical of 33 years has been ended by the return of the legendary Alfa Romeo name, as a partner to the Sauber team. With new names and old favourites galore, it’s time we took a look at those who’ll be competing in 2018.
Mercedes AMG Petronas
Mercedes are the preeminent team in this hybrid-powered era of Formula One for a very good reason: they have won four out of four Drivers Championships, and four out of four Constructors Championships. However, that doesn’t mean they cannot learn from their opposition: last year, following the shock of Nico Rosberg’s retirement from the sport, they chose to adopt the Ferrari model of hiring a Finnish number two driver. Although strict team orders are rare at Mercedes (at least publicly), the fact that only one of their two drivers is among the fastest of all time does mean that a natural hierarchy is inevitable.
So can they make it five of each Championship out of five? Winter testing (and rarely can testing have been more wintery) suggested that Mercedes’ advantage over the rest of the field remains undiminished. Even the one possible spanner in the works – the reduction to only three power units for Mercedes’ use across the entire season – seems unlikely to bother them any more than anyone else on the grid: the very reason that Mercedes’ reliability problems have been so memorable is because they have been so rare.
In reality though, this is a bigger year for Valtteri Bottas than it is for Lewis Hamilton: Bottas is on his second one-year contract, and will be vehemently hoping that either he has a stellar season or Esteban Ocon morphs into Johnny Dumfries.
If they were a curry: Biryani: Rarely do you come across a particularly memorable biryani, but if you go to a new curry house and want something you can be sure of, then this is the most consistently tasty dish on the menu.
This year will be Ferrari’s year, if you believe Ferrari. But last year’s was going to be as well, not to mention the three that preceded it. In reality though, Ferrari has not won a Drivers or Constructors Championship since 2008. This decade-long title drought is the longest since before Michael Schumacher transformed the team from tempestuous Italian also-rans into a well-oiled German winning machine.
Despite the presence of a new German multiple-World Champion at the helm, they have yet to return to winning ways. For every grazie ragazzi across the team radio, there’s a tantrum, or a complaint, or a headline about the working relationship (or lack of) between Maurizio Arrivabene and Sergio Marchionne.
Winter testing has not exactly done much to dispel that myth; though nothing went glaringly wrong in their first week at Barcelona, nothing went glaringly right either. It seems far more likely that they will be battling Red Bull for second than Mercedes for first. As comfortable as Sebastian Vettel may find it working with Kimi Raikkonen, it is beginning to seem that the lack of a challenge from his teammate has rather inured Vettel from reasonable criticism; if he finishes 40 seconds up the road from Kimi he can’t have done too badly.
If they were a curry: Jalfrezi: At its very best, it is a curry most people will love, but there is no real consensus on what that best is. Depending where you get it, your jalfrezi could be hot like a vindaloo, or mild like a balti.
Aston Martin Red Bull Racing
By the end of last season, the Red Bull-Renault Tag Heuer was good enough to win races on merit, despite an engine that was still estimated to be a good 100 hp down on the Mercedes. As encouraging as this is, the fact that it took them half a season to get there – along with being the anti-Mercedes in terms of reliability – will continue to be a concern at a Red Bull team that has grown entirely used to winning.
Of course, they remain the most recent non-Mercedes champions, and are in many people’s eyes the most likely team to take on the challenge of toppling them this season. They certainly have the drivers to do it; although Prost-Senna comparisons are hugely premature, the Red Bull pair are the closest to that legendary pairing that the grid has yet seen. There’s the established driver, able to eke out every last bit of performance from a car that’s far from the best on the grid to take unlikely wins, and to still be on the podium when he can’t. There’s also the younger man, perceived as more talented, purveyor of daring overtakes and supreme wet-weather drives. The main difference is that they seem to be the best of friends, though how long that would last if they were given the grid’s best car to play with is something the paddock and public alike are itching to find out.
If they were a curry: Madras: A perfectly good curry in its own right, and when it’s hot it’s very hot indeed. But you can’t shake the feeling that someone ordered it because they couldn’t quite stomach a vindaloo.
Sahara Force India F1 Team
Force India are every fan’s second team: able to mix it with better-funded opposition with efficient chassis design, careful management of their drivers and access to the best engines available, they are Formula 1’s bright-pink equivalent of the Oakland Athletics. Unfortunately for Force India, Moneyball isn’t enough in F1: ultimately (unless it is wasted – looking at you Toyota) cash is king, and Force India don’t have enough to compete with top works teams.
Instead, they’re the best of the rest, and seem to be relishing that tag in every way: their chassis is the most balanced on the grid – never the best at any given circuit, but always well-balanced and good enough to get by; their drivers are a senior figure who didn’t quite cut it at the front of the grid and gets the best out of bad cars, and a junior driver who definitely will find a space at a top team, but isn’t quite there yet. They are an entirely sensible team, but they’re nobody’s dark horse for anything.
Especially not after winter testing, where analysts have tended to estimate their package to be about the seventh-best on the grid, behind Renault, McLaren and Williams. Even if that turns out to be true, Force India have been there before and have a knack for turning around a bad start, just as they did last year.
If they were a curry: Chat: A very good and tasty dish, but at the end of the day it’s a starter. They’re a stop-gap until the main event comes along, and even though they’re very good at it they will never be an entire meal on their own.
Williams Martini Racing
Williams has never been a team overly concerned about who drives its cars, as is reflected by the fact that nobody has ever won more than one World Championship for Sir Frank’s eponymous outfit, despite over two decades of providing some of Formula One’s very best cars.
But look how the mighty have fallen over the last two decades: that lack of care and attention for their drivers has led to a line-up that consists of Lawrence Stroll’s money (which came with Lance Stroll) and SMP Racing’s money (which came with Sergey Sirotkin). Although by the time they finally got round to actually naming a replacement, they weren’t exactly spoilt for choice. They weren’t willing to take a risk on an injured but potentially still brilliant Robert Kubica, nor were they prepared to gamble on an underfunded but demonstrably excellent Felix Rosenqvist. Nor would they offer a seat to a highly promising junior driver – either a Antonio Giovinazzi or a Pascal Wehrlein, or even a Lando Norris. Instead they followed the money.
It is telling perhaps that we’ve got so far without discussing their car: it appears to be quite troublesome. Unless either Stroll or Sirotkin is a far better driver than popular opinion seems to think, it’s going to be a torrid year for Williams.
If they were a curry: Chip shop curry sauce: You definitely remember it being the best thing ever when you were a kid, and when you’re drunk, you will proclaim loudly to your mates about how great it has always been and will be again at the end of the night. But as a sober adult you have to face facts: it doesn’t count as proper curry anymore.
Renault Sport F1 Team
It was always going to be a long-term project when Renault reclaimed the shell of their former team that had been ailing under the Lotus name. They’ve definitely been making progress as well: from a bright-yellow backmarker, to a yellow-and-black lower-midfield team, to what they hope this year will be a black-and-yellow upper-midfield team.
They have certainly put in the investment, and have chosen drivers who they believe to be good enough to challenge for titles, but unlucky enough to have been denied the opportunity. Certainly, if the Renault package is as good as analysts have suggested after the first winter test (adjusted laptimes placed it as the fourth-best car present in Barcelona) then there is a fair chance that one of Nico Hulkenberg or Carlos Sainz could finally steal the podium that has eluded them for a combined 197 Grands Prix so far. But more realistically, each driver will finish the season with a brace of fourth places, for the fourth-best team out there.
However, should this trajectory continue, they might be able to field a jet-black Championship contender in 2019.
If they were a curry: Rogan josh: Like, it’s quite good. But if you ask someone to describe it, they’ll probably go “It’s a bit like…” Ask them why they chose it and it’s probably that they fancied something different. Nor is it especially reliable.
Red Bull Toro Rosso Honda
The slightly renamed Red Bull Toro Rosso team: so good they named it twice. Though judging by the last time something in Formula One was named twice – the irrepressible Esteban Gutierrez Gutierrez – this does not necessarily bode well for the team that many of us still lovingly wish was Minardi.
Over the course of the off-season, they had become a meme before a wheel had been turned. Not that that is a huge surprise: powered by an engine that had previously powered McLaren to… well, had only sometimes powered McLaren, and piloted by a pair of drivers only ever seen circulating at the very back of the field amongst Saubers in a car that had worked perfectly well for Carlos Sainz, it was an easy target. Especially when parent company Red Bull decided that Toro Rosso was not obvious enough from a marketing perspective and added their name to the front of a team already named after them.
But after winter testing, there may still be hope. No team completed more laps than Toro Rosso, and they did so without issues or fuss. And their driver pairing consists of a GP2-champion and Super Formula moral victor, alongside two-time World Endurance Champion Brendon Hartley. Put all those bits into a James Key-designed chassis (which usually looks like the previous year’s Mercedes) and you might have a team that scores itself a reasonable number of points.
If they were a curry: Tadka dahl: A good, reliable curry, but not one that’s going to set the world alight. But that’s okay, because it’s a side dish not a main course.
Haas F1 Team
The team that definitely isn’t Dallara-Ferrari will be going into 2018 hoping for a strong start to the season. Obviously, every squad wants a strong start to the season more than a weak one, but for Haas it’s even more vital because their two seasons so far have shown that the only in-season development that seems to occur is in the livery department, not anything that brings gains on the timing screen.
Not to lay all the blame for that at the door of Haas; Formula One’s financial model meant that their operating budget was a fraction of that of any other team on the grid, but now that they have twice consecutively been classified in the top ten of the Constructors Championship they will be entitled to some more spending money. Now that they’ve survived the hardest phase for any Formula One team, they will be looking to climb into the midfield.
Our main gripe with Haas however, is that they aren’t more unashamedly American. In place of either Kevin Magnussen (the only non-Sauber driver to go the whole of 2017 without appearing in Q3) or Romain Grosjean (who has still not worked out to drive more slowly in the rain more than eight years after his debut), Alexander Rossi would doubtless do well enough. In place of the black in their livery, perhaps some blue to go with the red and white may make them more appealing to American sponsors.
If they were a curry: Chicken tikka masala: The Indian dish that isn’t from India; it’s the curry that most people actually order, despite it not being anyone’s favourite curry. The easiest option, but not necessarily the best.
McLaren F1 Team
Another team that can lay claim to one of the strongest driver pairings on the grid, McLaren must be yearning to have a season that lives up to their proud history for the first time since 2012.
The divorce from Honda was acrimonious, but also inevitable as McLaren haemorrhaged sponsors like… well, like a backmarker team. With Renault engines strapped into the back of what they have been claiming for some time is the best chassis on the grid, piloted by the man they have been claiming is the best driver on the grid, they have led us to believe that they should be fighting with Red Bull and the ever-improving works Renault outfit. Testing times tell a slightly different story, with analysts expecting them to be the third-fastest Renault-powered team but the fifth-fastest overall. A return to fifth place in the Constructors Championship, which felt so disappointing in 2004, 2013 and 2014, would now be hailed as a new beginning in Brackley.
Honestly, we want McLaren’s prospects to be as bright as their new papaya livery, but we would also find humour in Honda making rapid gains with Toro Rosso, should that indeed be the case.
If they were a curry: King Prawn Balti: You’ve tried all the more exciting sauces, but in the end, you’ve gone for a safer option. But instead of being boring, you’ve pushed the boat out, splashed the cash, in the hope of being the most exciting boring curry.
Alfa Romeo Sauber
Last year, Sauber spent most of their time far enough off the pace that the only real airtime they got either involved being lapped, or being discovered in a wall somewhere far away from the racing line.
A series of off-season developments have offered hope of a more promising 2018; a closer partnership with Ferrari will see them plastered in Alfa Romeo logos and powered by current-year engines. It also sees hugely exciting Ferrari junior Charles Leclerc take the second seat alongside
Mercedes junior Pascal Wehrlein fellow Ferrari junior Antonio Giovinazzi the increasingly experienced Marcus Ericsson. In fairness to Ericsson, although he is not an exciting or especially respected choice, he should provide a reasonable barometer: more than one highly-rated driver has been partnered alongside him, and not flattened him enough to satisfy either the F1 press or the F1 subreddit.
Despite their shiny new car and their shiny new driver, considered by most the heir apparent to the seat that Kimi Raikkonen is keeping warm, testing times do suggest that Sauber will remain backmarkers. But not backmarkers by as far as last year, so we should see them actually battle other cars. Probably Toro Rosso, maybe Haas.
If they were a curry: Chicken Korma: It’s not particularly spicy or exciting, but a korma does its job just well enough for people to still order them. Although chicken is perhaps not the best meat to put in one, it’s the choice that’s made time and again.