After four months off, Formula 1 returns this weekend. The teams and their drivers will convene in Melbourne for the first Grand Prix of the 2018 F1 World Championship.
So, what can we expect when the lights go out on Sunday? Let’s take a quick look at the prospects for each of the ten teams…
Hamilton vs Vettel for title number five
After three seasons of Mercedes dominance, Ferrari gave them a much tougher fight in 2017. Sadly, retirements in Singapore and Japan meant that Sebastian Vettel could not take his championship battle with Lewis Hamilton all the way to the final round – but he will be determined to have another go in 2018.
Both Vettel and Hamilton will be aiming to win a fifth World Championship – something previously achieved by only two drivers: Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher. Hamilton, who has won 40 out of 79 races over the past four years, once again starts the season as the bookies' favourite. However, Vettel is undoubtedly well-prepared: he completed more miles than anyone else in pre-season testing and recorded the fastest lap along the way.
If Hamilton and Vettel are closely matched on points by season’s end, the Constructors’ Championship will be decided by their teammates. In that battle between two Finnish drivers, Mercedes should have the advantage. Valtteri Bottas finished 100 points ahead of Ferrari’s Kimi Räikkönen in 2017. Bottas scored three wins and ten other podium finishes, while Räikkönen could only manage two second-place finishes and five thirds.
So much depends on Renault
If any other teams are going to take the fight to Mercedes and Ferrari, Renault will need to deliver a better power unit than they did in 2017. Not only were the French manufacturer's engines down on power last year, but they also proved unreliable. This year, three strong teams will be hoping that Renault has got on top of those problems: Red Bull, McLaren and the Renault works team.
Hampered by Renault's unreliability, Red Bull completed the fewest racing laps of any team over the course of 2017. Nevertheless, by the end of the season, they were right with Mercedes and Ferrari in terms of pace, as demonstrated by Max Verstappen's victories in Malaysia and Mexico. Red Bull looked very quick in pre-season testing and has possibly the strongest driver line-up on the grid in Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo.
McLaren, meanwhile, has switched to Renault engines after a disastrous three-year partnership with Honda. That new relationship did not get off to a great start in pre-season testing, however. Some gremlins meant that Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne completed fewer laps than any other pairing, and their pace was not as impressive as we might have hoped. Still, Alonso described himself as ‘extremely happy’ with how things are going at McLaren, saying, ‘I think everything is quite optimistic.’
Renault's works team has a smaller budget than either of its customer teams, and it probably won't be able to match Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull this year. However, it now has two strong drivers in Nico Hülkenberg and Carlos Sainz Jr and should be able to fight with McLaren at the top of the second tier – provided it does not suffer too many issues with reliability.
Expect a very close midfield battle
It is hard to predict how the remaining five teams will fare relative to one another.
Force India has been ‘best of the rest' behind Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull over the last two years, and has the best driver line-up of the five smaller teams in Sergio Pérez and Esteban Ocon easily. However, it did not look all that competitive in pre-season testing, with Pérez saying, ‘certainly I do not think we are leading the mid-pack at the moment'.
Williams was fifth last year, but it now has two inexperienced drivers in 19-year-old Lance Stroll and rookie Sergey Sirotkin, and neither was particularly impressive in testing.
Toro Rosso is fielding an even more inexperienced driver line-up (Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley have just nine Grand Prix starts between them), but its new relationship with Honda seems to have begun relatively well. The team managed 822 laps in testing – more than any other team except Mercedes and Ferrari, and far more than McLaren managed ahead of any of its three seasons with Honda.
American team Haas has not been very competitive in its first two seasons, but it did turn a few heads in testing this year – including that of Lewis Hamilton, who named them as his pick for surprise of the season.
And finally, there's Sauber, which has been right at the back recently, with just three points finishes over the last two years. However, it does have reasons to be more optimistic this year, thanks to a new, closer relationship with Ferrari. That involves extra cash for the team, Alfa Romeo branding, up-to-date Ferrari engines (after using year-old ones in 2017), and an exciting young driver in the form of Ferrari protégé Charles Leclerc.
The upshot is that we are expecting many close, exciting battles throughout 2018. Hamilton vs Vettel for a fifth title, perhaps with Verstappen, Ricciardo and Bottas getting in on the fight as well. Mercedes vs Ferrari vs Red Bull for the Constructors' Championship, and McLaren vs Renault for best of the rest behind them. And then (most likely) a five-way scrap between the other teams. We cannot wait to see how it all plays out!
Image: Artes Max