F1 2018: A toss-up between Silver Arrows and Prancing Horse

Can Ferrari topple Mercedes as it nearly did last year? This is the first and foremost question, as the new Formula One season starts in Melbourne on March 25.

Set for an encore: Lewis Hamilton was faultless and brilliant, as he went on to claim his fourth World Championship crown in 2017. His team, Mercedes, and fans expect a repeat performance from Hamilton in the new season.   -  Getty Images

The Formula 1 world may seem to have gone into hibernation over the winter, but that doesn’t mean that everyone is on a holiday. In the F1 team factories across Europe, this is arguably the busiest time. The designers and engineers have been working hard at getting their next season’s challengers ready for crash tests, car launches and pre-season testing. It’s a very stressful time for the teams, as they are all chasing parts and designs from different departments and suppliers to try and meet the deadlines.

Over 13000 new parts are designed for a new car every year, which is why engineers and designers are able to go from the F1 world into the racing world and have an easier life because the pressure to deliver in terms of time-lines and tolerances is so high.

Stage set for a keen tussle

Gunning for his fifth title: Should Ferrari hand Sebastian Vettel a car that can deliver on a bigger range of circuits, the German can take the fight to the Mercedes camp.   -  Getty Images

  There are several big questions ahead of the new season that starts in Melbourne on March 25. The first and foremost is: can Ferrari topple Mercedes as it nearly did last year? The last time Ferrari produced two back-to-back title contenders was probably in 2007-2008, which was a very different time at Maranello. So it’ll be interesting to see what it comes up with this year. I’ve repeatedly said that I thought 2017 was Lewis Hamilton’s best season. Apart from a couple of sub-par weekends in Sochi and Monaco, and that qualifying error in Brazil, he was faultless and utterly brilliant, especially in qualifying. But, ultimately, I do believe that Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari lost the title as much as Hamilton and Mercedes won it. If you just add up the points lost from Seb’s moment of road rage in Baku, his overly defensive move at the start in Singapore and the reliability issues in Malaysia and Japan, that would have been enough to give him the title.

READ: The best Opta facts ahead of the new season

Ferrari needs to have a car that can deliver it performance on a bigger range of circuits. It’s clear that the car was very competitive on slower tracks that demanded dirty downforce in 2017, but it also was perhaps more draggy than the Mercedes.

The 2017 Mercedes proved to be a tricky car to set up, which aided Ferrari’s championship challenge, but the Brackley-based squad will be in better shape this year. For the red cars to fight for the title, they need to be able to unlock more speed in qualifying on a wider range of tracks to help them get track position and then sort out the reliability issues that hurt in the second half of last year.

Can Red Bull join the big fight?

Hoping for a ‘Bull run’: Red Bull Racing showed that it could be competitive only in the second half of the 2017 season. With a more reliable Renault power unit, Max Verstappen (left) and Daniel Ricciardo should put up a stiff fight against Mercedes and Ferrari this year.   -  Getty Images

 

The next big question is whether Red Bull can join the fight. Towards the end of 2017, Red Bull Racing made it a three-way fight at the front. Max Verstappen took two wins on merit and the team left us with a feeling of ‘what might have been’. The first half of its season was compromised by an aerodynamic correlation issue, which meant that it really took until the summer break for the team to hit its stride and unlock the potential of the RB13. Those issues seemed to have been caused by the change in regulations, with the bigger tyres and cars giving some false information in the wind tunnel, but Red Bull should be over that now.

F1 2018: Everything you need to know

Personally, I don’t doubt that the Milton Keynes side of the team can hit the ground running in 2018. It still has the combined brain power of brilliant people like Adrian Newey, Rob Marshall and Paul Monaghan. Operationally, it does a very good job at the track and is never afraid to make bold strategic calls that are outside the box, which often works out well for the team as a collective, even if it’s sometimes detrimental to one of the drivers on the day. The most important thing for the team is that Renault is able to deliver a powerplant that’s a bit of a step forward in terms of performance but crucially also a huge leap forward in terms of reliability.

There were too many weekends where Daniel Ricciardo and Verstappen were in contention for a good haul of points or a podium and the car broke down on them. When you combine that with the reliability woes that the works Renault squad and Toro Rosso had, it really showed that the engine people at Viry-Chatillon needed to sort it out. The power in the races wasn’t too bad, but to challenge for the title, Renault needs to unlock some more power in qualifying to allow Ricciardo and Verstappen to get track position and control the race from the front. If they can do that and sort out the reliability, then I’m confident the Milton Keynes-based squad will be up there.

Alonso praying for power

Eyeing the front row: The two-time World champion, Fernando Alonso, has been waiting for his third title for quite some time now. With McLaren running on a Renault powerplant this season, will 2017 be the Spaniard’s year?   -  Getty Images

 

More than anyone else on this planet, Fernando Alonso will be praying that the switch to Renault power will coincide with a resurgence from the Viry-Chatillon powerplant and propel him to the front. Mind you, knowing his luck, Honda will probably produce a beast that pushes Toro Rosso forward! For the past three seasons, McLaren has been able to point a lot of fingers at its Japanese partner and play the blame game for the lack of performance. Yes, the Honda was the weakest engine out there, but in 2018, there will be nowhere to hide as McLaren will have two very good references in Red Bull and the works Renault team to draw comparisons with. Never shy to ramp up the pressure, Alonso is acutely aware of this and he’s already driven the point home to everyone at Woking.

One of the biggest talking points going into this season has been the introduction of the halo as a head protection device for the drivers. People keep saying that we’ll get used to how it looks, but the halo is a bigger aesthetic change than any other rule change in recent times.

The halo looks like an afterthought. We’ve got these multi-million pound hand-crafted, pieces of art and then this framework that looks like it’s been made in someone’s garage and stuck on the top, and I’m really not convinced that we’ll ever get used to it. I hope I’m wrong!

F1 pre-season report: Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, McLaren, Renault, Force India, Williams, Toro Rosso, Haas, Sauber

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