It’s been a long couple of months since the conclusion of the 2017 Formula 1 season, which saw Lewis Hamilton claim his fourth Drivers’ championship and Mercedes take their fourth consecutive Constructors’ title. This weekend, the F1 circus heads to Melbourne, a race which will usher in a new era for the sport.
One of the most fundamental and divisive changes to Formula 1 in the sports’ extensive history, the Halo head protection device, will make its official race debut at the 2018 Australian Grand Prix.
Hoping to improve the safety of drivers in a number of single-seater categories, the FIA last year made its implementation mandatory for the 2018 season. Whether fans can make peace with the Halo after seeing it in action will be interesting.
Further changes this season include every race beginning at ten minutes past the hour, and each of the European and Brazilian races will start an hour later to help reach a wider audience, all to assist TV broadcasters.
In the weeks leading up to the Australian race we’ve had two weeks of testing in Barcelona, giving us some idea of how the teams have gone over the winter period. Perhaps predictably, the top end of the field had a strong showing. Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull all managed to drum up over 2000 laps combined, with seemingly no major reliability issues to speak of and each looking good going into the 2018 season.
Former front-runner McLaren, having abandoned their relationship with Honda after a remarkably unsuccessful partnership, were once again plagued by technical issues during testing, despite their switch to Renault engines. Even with McLaren’s assurances their car has no major fundamental issues, expectations for the season should be tempered, at least for now.
Meanwhile, it looks like Toro Rosso’s gamble to take Honda engines has paid off. All indications from testing are that the Japanese engine manufacturer has made major steps forward during the break, completing a total of 822 laps. Though reliability seems to have improved, their pace relative to the other manufacturers is still unclear.
French manufacturer Renault, going into their third full season since returning to Formula 1 as a works outfit, had a good run in testing with 815 laps completed. The team appear to have solid potential for high points finishes this season, though improvements in pace and reliability will be needed after a tumultuous 2017 for the manufacturer.
Williams, having had a consistent but somewhat unimpressive test in Barcelona, have signed young Russian Sergey Sirotkin to partner Lance Stroll, making for the most inexperienced pairing on the grid. Can they improve Williams’ standings after gradually falling down the order since 2014?
A second consecutive fourth place finish in the constructors’ standings last year for Force India was certainly beneficial for the team, but it did not make their testing any less underwhelming. Their lack of pace was certainly noted by Sergio Perez, but upgrades scheduled for Australia should help the team.
Haas, now beginning their third season in Formula 1, will naturally be looking to improve. Despite being relatively successful over the past two years, some improvement needs to be reflected in their results this season. Magnussen and Grosjean could both find some pace in themselves also, particularly if they wish to stay beyond their current contracts.
Finally, Sauber, having also recruited a rookie in Charles Leclerc and signed a new sponsorship deal with Alfa Romeo, will be looking to revitalise themselves after a dour few seasons. Despite a few trips off the circuit in testing, the team have a chance at some good results this season with the current-spec Ferrari engine.
As for Melbourne itself, the city will this weekend play host to the 22nd running of the Australian Grand Prix at the Albert Park circuit, and it’s sure to be a revealing race. Testing, as always, is not necessarily representative so to see just how the teams stack up on race pace will be intriguing.
With 21 races to come this season, can we expect another dose of Mercedes dominance? Or will we finally have a multi-team title challenge for the first time since 2012? All will be revealed this Sunday as Formula 1 revs up for another trip around the world.