There is an air of anticipation in Melbourne this time of the year, as shiny new cars line up on the grid at Albert Park to kickstart the Formula One season.
And it is no different in 2018, despite this season being an evolutionary step up from the last year. F1 is set to take a step in the unknown this Sunday with the introduction of the Halo safety device, new regulations that stipulate only three power units (and components) for each driver through 21 races and Pirelli’s introduction of two new compounds — the hypersoft and ultrahard.
As always, though, the crux of the matter is who is quickest on any given race day and, subsequently, cumulative through the season. Mercedes is the favourite and is gunning for a fifth consecutive Constructors’ title. Ferrari is the usual contender, hoping to win its first championship since 2008.
Yes, it has been a decade since the Scuderia tasted victorious champagne. Will Sebastian Vettel deliver on what he has promised since joining from Red Bull Racing in 2015? He came close last year, finishing second to Lewis Hamilton by 46 points (less than two race wins), on account of poor reliability from Ferrari in the second half of the season. An improvement is the least to be expected, seeing as the duo will be clashing again this year.
Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton (left) and Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel
Their rivalry has taken a sudden upturn, however. For the first time in F1 history, there are two four-time champions on the same grid and are vying for their fifth title. Michael Schumacher (seven Drivers’ titles) and Juan Manuel Fangio (five titles) are the only two in an elite club, and bookmakers will place good odds on either Hamilton or Vettel joining them.
Of course, much of this is educated guesswork, since Mercedes and Ferrari comfortably topped the timesheets in winter testing. The former were ever reliable, and notched up 1040 laps between Hamilton and teammate Valtteri Bottas. The latter completed 927 laps between Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen, with the German clocking the quickest winter-testing time (1:17.182) on the last day of testing in Barcelona.
Raikkonen later claimed Ferrari could have gone quicker. Mercedes kept quiet, knowing that Vettel had used hypersoft tyres for this record lap. Neither Hamilton nor Bottas used that compound at all in two tests, thus underlining the defending champions’ resolve in achieving reliability in simulated race conditions. At this juncture, a third angle presents itself in this championship battle — could Red Bull make a resurgence and challenge Mercedes, rather than Ferrari?
The Milton Keynes-based team has been itching to return to top of the championship table, and it could be witnessed in the different manner they have approached the 2018 pre-season. In the last two seasons, Red Bull have brought b-spec cars to the first test and looked to develop their challengers through the summer. This year, chief technical designer Adrian Newey made sure that the RB14 was ready a week before winter testing began.
“We’re certainly more ready than we were last year and probably every year before that since I’ve been with the team,” said Daniel Ricciardo, after Red Bull ran 783 laps in testing, and finished 0.4 seconds off Mercedes’ pace. Their renewed vigour has been so impressive, that there is a belief in some learned quarters that Ferrari are actually third in the pecking order going into the season-opening Australian GP on March 25.
Both Ricciardo and his 20-year-old teammate Max Verstappen are desperate for their maiden F1 titles. For the former, this is his last season with Red Bull before contract negotiations begin afresh. There are rumours that he is eyeing up a seat at either Ferrari or Mercedes as well, depending on how 2018 pans out. If he does jump ship, he will need the “champion” tag to go toe-to-toe with either Vettel or Hamilton in those teams.
Staying put is also an option, but perhaps not if Verstappen beats him to the title and emerges as the prime force at Red Bull. It is a matter of when, and not if, for the Dutch driver has shown immense skill and craft since making his F1 bow in 2014. He is a definitive “champion in waiting” and the future star for this sport, whose formative years happen to have coincided with the best Hamilton and Vettel have to offer.
On Thursday, just under four days before the lights go out in Melbourne, both Hamilton and Vettel were asked in the FIA press conference if the 2018 champion could be someone else. “Hopefully, he will be the one sitting here,” replied Vettel, while his rival smiled. Ricciardo, sitting next to the duo, flashed his trademark toothy grin. Only time will tell.