F1 2018 season preview: Why it's about Hamilton, Vettel and the ghost of Fangio

Changing times: Fangio, Hamilton, Vettel … at the end of 2018, it’s likely two of the three will be five-times champions

Predictions make fools of us all. It’s why we all have opinions about how the 2018 F1 season is going to play out, but none of us is betting the mortgage on Max or the savings on Seb.

If you are planning to put the house on Hamilton, it’s a big risk for a modest reward – he starts the season as 4-6 favourite, so you won’t even double your money (Seb is 7-2 but, really, betting the house on Ferrari?).

As the teams gather in Melbourne for this weekend’s opening race, what can we expect 2018’s Formula 1’s talking points to be?

READ MORE: Pre-season report – Williams

READ MORE: Pre-season report – Renault

READ MORE: Pre-Season Report – Red Bull

READ MORE: Pre-Season Report – Force India

No.1? F1 2018 is all about No.5

Who’ll be No.1 for a fifth time? It may be Vettel, it may be Hamilton. Or does F1 have a new champion up its sleeve for 2018?

For the first time ever, the F1 grid will feature two four-times winners. Should Hamilton or Vettel take the 2018 crown, they will join a very special all-time top three – tying with Juan Manuel Fangio as five-times champions, though still behind Michael Schumacher’s seven titles.

If truth be told, this speaks volumes about one of the greatest challenges F1 faces as a spectator sport – the same old faces slogging it out for ultimate glory week in, week out, year in, year out.

Since 2008, only surprise showings by Jenson Button (2009) and Nico Rosberg (2016) have temporarily derailed the Hamilton-Vettel express.

Hamilton winning his fifth title would make the headlines, of course; victory for Ferrari and Vettel would be a bigger story, especially as Mercedes looked brutally efficient in pre-season testing.

But the biggest story would be one of the young guns coming through to take a surprise championship, perhaps one of the Red Bull chargers.

Still, I’d settle for a titanic duel between Mercedes and Ferrari, the sort of battle we were teased with at times last season, before we all started to believe the ‘mid-table tussle’ was what everyone was really tuning in for. Sure, Bournemouth-Watford every weekend would get you upgrading your Sky subscription in a jiffy, wouldn’t it.

Remember, the prize, ultimately, is equalling Fangio… we deserve a proper fight.

Changing the formula, bit by bit

Ferrari’s secret weapon: A Maranello exec is trained how to throw the same toy repeatedly out of a pram (apologies … of course, the boomerang’s a weapon but we’re trying to make a point here)

Liberty Media are no longer F1’s ‘new owners’ – their knees are properly under the desk and they’ve got their work cut out to bring in new audiences.

They’re working hard to make the sport as TV-friendly as possible, notwithstanding the fact that we’ve been in the age of YouTube for a few years now.

That’s why race times are changing – in case you forgot, races now start at ten-past the hour. Broadcasters will find it easier to fit live F1 shows into their schedules and, as a bonus, European TV viewers will get an extra ten minutes in bed this weekend before the early start in Melbourne.

Don’t forget that the European races will move back an additional hour as well, as will the Brazilian GP – giving Brazil an extra 60 minutes to agonise over why there are now no Brazilian drivers in F1 for the first time since 1969.

By now, you’re well aware that grid girls have been ditched, and grid kids are the new thing. For those watching in Britain, the grid Brundle has not been dropped and will remain one of F1’s most stoic links with the past.

Expect more concerts and suchlike on race weekends, don’t be surprised if some new on-screen toys appear (remember the digitally-created shadow of a huge eagle that flew over the Austin circuit during last year’s coverage..?) and keep an eye out for what Liberty do with onboard cameras and interactive technology.

In Britain, we won’t get access to F1’s new OTT streaming service – an app with 24 livestreams – because Sky has the digital broadcast rights here. I suspect there will be more than a little anger about this, especially as free-to-air F1 is in its last UK season and Sky already has F1 locked down here for the foreseeable future.

With a bit of luck, the politics of F1 will give us plenty to talk about as well, as Liberty try to re-write the rules – engine rules, budget rules, rules over who has the biggest say in F1 – to improve the show.

Ferrari have thrown so many toys out of their pram over proposed rule changes that it’s now assumed their only remaining toy is a boomerang.

Mercedes have grumbled in their Teutonic way as well, and don’t forget that Red Bull also spent part of last season threatening to take their business elsewhere, anywhere with thumping music and caffeine-induced palpitations.

Boys and girls come out to play. Mostly boys

Alfa female: Tatiana Calderón is the new test driver at Alfa Romeo Sauber

The average age of F1 drivers keeps dropping – this season, nine pilots will be aged 25 or younger.

Unbelievably, Lewis Hamilton will be the third-oldest driver out there, meaning he’s practically an F1 fossil as he goes for his fifth championship title.

While Mercedes and Ferrari have stuck with their (relatively) elderly line-ups, there is bumfluff everywhere else on the grid, including 20-year-old F1 veteran Max Verstappen at Red Bull, 20-year-old F2 champion Charles Leclerc at Sauber and 19-year-old Jekyll-and-Hyde racer Lance Stroll at Williams.

Stroll’s team-mate at Williams, Sergey Sirotkin, is 22. Which means the Williams drivers have a combined age equal to Fangio when he won the first of his five titles… the first, remember.

F1’s hunt for talent is voracious, and drivers showing promise in lower formulae are gold-dust. Especially if, like Williams’ youthful pairing, they come with hefty sponsorship deals to keep the team in credit.

For sponsors, the dream driver is young, fast and female – but, for now, it’s still only the boys who are coming out to play in F1. However, Sauber – with their new backing from Alfa Romeo – will have GP3 racer Tatiana Calderón as their test driver.

A story that could develop as the year progresses concerns Williams’ test driver, the highly-rated (and 33-year-old…) Robert Kubica, who famously returned to racing after wrecking his right arm in a rally accident.

Kubica is still a rapid driver and, if need be, could slot back in as a first-team driver for Williams. But he’s also being linked with endurance racing – we could see both him and Fernando Alonso taking part in closed-cockpit action this year and, hopefully, encouraging those who follow only F1 to give some other motorsports a go.

Is this still under guarantee?

Orange appeal: Stoffel Vandoorne in McLaren’s striking 2018 offering, the MCL33. But will it last the distance?

Pre-season testing suggests that the F1 teams have been paying particularly close attention to reliability this year – even McLaren broke down only five times, though there were some pretty spectacular fails in that list, including wheels detaching and cars going on fire.

Mercedes were able to complete the equivalent of three-quarters of a race season in the test sessions.

More will be asked from the core car parts this season – each car has only three engines to get it through all 21 races. Other key components such as turbos are also limited to three units for the season.

Expect grid penalties a-go-go as the season progresses. Sigh.

There are new rules further limiting how much oil can be burned by the engines, there are rules over the minimum temperature of the air going into the engine, and there’s a ban on ‘trick’ suspension that can adjust ride height in corners.

A particularly welcome aero rule change means the hideous ‘shark’s fin and T-wing’ combo that blighted last season’s cars is no more. Yes, there’s the halo to complain about instead but I’m already utterly bored by the halo debate.

F1 fans got used to wings, side-mounted radiators – heck, the engines used to be at the front and we don’t moan about that.

Let’s see if the halo is still a ‘thing’ by the time F1 hits Silverstone again. I’ve no doubt the halo will be refined as time passes and I’ve also got no doubt that head protection is here to stay, so I’ll live with it.

Who’ll shine?

Claws out: Daniel Ricciardo, aka the Honey Badger, faces perhaps the most important months of his career as his Red Bull contract ends this year

‘Who knows?’ is the honest answer. Mercedes are, of course, hot favourites but maintaining motivation is a genuine challenge when you’ve been at the top for so long, and the small errors that creep in as a result can have big repercussions.

Their car was demanding of tyres last season, and the rule changes around suspension and oil burning may have hurt them more than most.

Ferrari had a monumentally scrappy season last year, and never achieved their true potential.

They looked pretty good in testing – but there was a suspicion that they were burning more fuel than they’d really like to.

They need to hit the ground running, before Red Bull get up to speed, and they need to bring their A-game to each and every race.

Red Bull, yet again, look to be losing out in the power stakes, but they’ll keep Ferrari honest as the season settles down and they get to grips with their 2018 machinery – and we know how podium-hungry their driver pairing is.

On that topic, Daniel Ricciardo is out of contract at the end of 2018 and, if he doesn’t have a peach of a season, you’d fancy him to have a shot at Valtteri Bottas’ Mercedes seat.

Of course, if he doesn’t have a peach of a season, Mercedes may not want him… the Honey Badger has it all to play for this year.

In the midfield, like last year, it looks fascinating. Renault looked solid in testing and a lot is expected of them this year.

Haas were surprisingly fast and they’re nobody’s fools when it comes to operating a race team. Expect them to fly the US flag regularly in the midfield battle.

Force India have a lot of distractions to deal with behind the scenes but they also have exceptionally hungry drivers. The word is they have a big aero upgrade for the opening race and, to be honest, they need it.


In contrast, Williams appear relatively settled behind the scenes but the questions over their young driver pairing remain.

Deputy team principal Claire Williams has already started defending the pair, urging fans not to read too much into pre-season test times, after reserve driver Kubica looked – to some eyes – to have the measure of the first-choice drivers.

I do hope that hasn’t set the pattern for the rest of Williams’ season.

McLaren are an unknown force – in testing, they were struggling with breakdowns and a lack of pace until the final day, when Alonso put in a suspiciously scorching lap that left him tantalisingly close to the top of the testing tables.

They showed all the signs of a team that hasn’t had quite enough time to get that new Renault engine married to the rest of the car – I suspect they’ll be happy to get the Australian Grand Prix out of the way.

Toro Rosso, now running an engine from the much-maligned Honda stable, looked more than competent during testing, if not top-ten material. But that Honda engine looks like it just might be their best friend this season.

Sauber – that’s Alfa Romeo Sauber to you – have been written off by many but they have the most to gain in 2018.

Last season, they were stuck with year-old engines; this season, they have new Ferrari units, and a much closer partnership with Ferrari.

On the driver front, Marcus Ericsson is joined by Charles Leclerc, who was dominant in F2 and comes with the backing of … Ferrari. That’s a lot of Ferrari input helping Alfa Romeo Sauber get its act together as the season progresses.

Predictions?

Grumpy Cat got your tongue, Kimi? One of these characters is hot favourite to smile after an F1 race this year. And it’s not the geezer with the trophy

Predictions, as I said, make fools of us all. So here we go.

Hamilton to do just enough to keep Vettel at bay, Lewis suffering a few of his ‘off days’ and Vettel/Ferrari stumbling through a few of theirs. Tyres to get more than their fair share of the blame.

Verstappen to edge third from Bottas, pushing Ricciardo into sixth (and out of Red Bull at season’s end). Raikkonen to finish his F1 career in a barnstorming fifth, paying the price for having to support Vettel at every twist and turn of the season. Bwah.

Mercedes to triumph for the fifth year in a row, something only Ferrari have previously managed. Then Ferrari, Red Bull, Renault and a surprise showing by McLaren, who will ensure their cars blow up in alternate races to maximise points and minimise engine penalties. Possibly.

Force India to find some new financial distractions, Williams to have an existential crisis. Alfa Romeo Sauber to capture all our hearts with their never-say-die attitude, cool livery and Ferrari crutches.

Ferrari to rage about rule changes but stay in F1 because they always do – and because so many teams now rely on them, it might be, ahem, difficult to steamroller the Italian family anyway.

Fans to complain about halo, about drivers abusing track limits, about some overtaking manoeuvre by Verstappen, about Vettel having a hissy fit, about Hamilton having a hissy fit, about this being the last season of free-to-air F1 on British telly.

Kimi to be replaced by Grumpy Cat for all press conferences and the Baku Grand Prix. Alonso to announce a move into Scalextric as he desperately tries to get just one more trophy. Two weeks later, Scalextric to go broke.

Bring it on.