All eyes will be on Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton and Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel as they look to chase their fifth championship in the 2018 F1 season
For the first time in Formula One (F1) racing, two four-time champions will be on the grid together, and will be vying for their fifth crown this season, which begins with the Australian Grand Prix this weekend.
Only two drivers—Michael Schumacher (seven titles) and Juan Manuel Fangio (five)—have crossed this milestone of five championships since 1950. Between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel this season, who will be the third?
The duo’s rivalry went on the boil at the 2017 Azerbaijan GP, when they collided on track. Some sharp words were exchanged and it had all the makings of an escalated conflict.
Yet there is a certain maturity—mutual respect, if you will—between them, unlike, say, between Hamilton and Nico Rosberg, or Vettel and Fernando Alonso.
This flashpoint in Baku only steeled Hamilton’s resolve to collect his fourth title last year in a Mercedes, even as Vettel’s—and Ferrari’s—form nosedived due to unreliable engines.
It isn’t to say that the duo won’t clash again on track this season, for stranger things have happened in F1. “You have to expect it could be worse. (But) I don’t play mind games. I just drive faster," Hamilton said at the launch of the 2018 Mercedes at Silverstone in February.
Mercedes versus Ferrari… or Red Bull?
Here are the simple facts that emerged from seven days of testing in February in Barcelona (Day 3 was lost to snow and rain). Mercedes finished top of the charts with 1,040 laps, 113 ahead of second-placed Ferrari and only 56 short of their 2017 testing mileage.
Vettel clocked the quickest testing time of 1:17.182 using the quickest tyres, Pirelli’s new hypersoft compound. Mercedes didn’t use that tyre compound at all during testing, and were content with running harder compounds in race simulation.
Mercedes are favourites to win their fifth consecutive Constructors’ championship in a bid to outdo Red Bull Racing’s four successive wins (2010-13), whilst also sneaking up on Ferrari’s record of six successive title wins (1999-2004). It will be easier said than done though.
Ferrari haven’t won a title since 2008. As seen in the first half of 2017, they certainly had the pace to challenge Mercedes, but engine issues in the latter half let them down. All-round improvement can certainly be expected.
Moreover, some believe that Red Bull is closer to Mercedes than Ferrari. While Vettel wouldn’t want this assumption to become reality, it means broader smiles for Red Bull’s drivers Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, both pining for their maiden F1 titles.
Red Bull have been aggressive in winter testing this season. Unlike the last few years, technical chief Adrian Newey made sure the final spec car was ready for Day 1 of testing. Since then, they have gone on to rack up 783 laps in testing, with Ricciardo finishing 0.4 seconds quicker than Hamilton (again, on hypersofts).
There is interest in what McLaren can achieve with new-engine partners Renault. Their car repeatedly broke down during testing, largely owing to oil leaks, which reports suggest were down to a tightly packed chassis not allowing the engine enough ventilation. They managed only 599 laps over seven days of testing.
In contrast, Honda—whom McLaren dumped after the 2017 season—clocked 812 laps with their new team Toro Rosso, underlining their newfound reliability if not all-out pace. After three years of loitering at the back of the grid, McLaren’s Alonso will be hopeful ahead of the first race in Melbourne.
Changes in 2018
The major change for 2018 is an increase in Pirelli’s tyre range, up from seven different compounds to nine. Hypersoft (the quickest compound) and Superhard (the hardest compound) are the two new offerings, operating at the extreme ends of their tyre range. While teams can still pick three different compounds for any race weekend, Pirelli will now be able to offer greater variation at any one circuit.
As for technical regulation changes, the ugly shark fins and T-wings have been banned, thus allowing for a sleeker chassis design. The number of engines each driver can use through the 21-race season is down to three from four in 2017, so there is greater focus on reliability.
Even so, 2018 will be remembered as the year of another step in driver safety: the introduction of the Halo, a protective wishbone-shaped device that envelops the driver’s cockpit.
Since the demise of Jules Bianchi (who died after being struck on the head in a collision with a track-side crane during the 2014 Japanese GP), the FIA (Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile) had pushed for protection to drivers’ heads during collisions, or even deflect debris.
Not everyone is a fan of the Halo though. Renault’s driver Nico Hulkenberg has said the device would make the motorsport “sterile", while Mercedes’ team principal Toto Wolff went one step further to say that he wanted to “saw off the Halo because it looked so ugly".
Make no mistake, though: Thanks to the Halo, the definitive image of an F1 car in our collective psyche has changed forever.
Chetan Narula is the author of Skipper—A Definitive Account Of India’s Greatest Captains.