The 2017 Formula One season saw the gap between ‘the big three’ close, with Vettel and Ferrari giving Hamilton and Mercedes a few scares in the race for the drivers’ championship.
We expected Ferrari to come back fighting, but the rate at which they have seemingly closed the difference staggered many, so much so there is now talk of a three-way dog fight for this seasons title.
But a disrupted pre-season testing left us none the wiser, and with the season only a few days away, what can we expect from the 2018 F1 circus?
It seems fitting to begin with the most radical change for this season, with only three engines allowed per car for the season, instead of four. This on the face of it seems minor, however, because there will be a staggering 21 races on the calendar this year, one less engine affects the strategy of all teams.
Having the fourth engine allowed teams to swap their systems every fifth race, (last season only had 20 races) now though it will be stretched to seven, meaning teams need to be savvier with engine modes. Go too hard, run the risk of failures and collecting penalties down the line, go too conservative, risk being completely off the pace and nowhere.
This also brings other issues for teams, especially the developers. One fewer engine means less opportunity for power-unit upgrades throughout the season, meaning those with better management of their development programmes will benefit the most, from last season’s viewing this could favour Ferrari.
Another addition that will quicken the pace and the drama is the introduction of two “new” compounds. A pink-walled hypersoft tyre will be introduced into the Pirelli range along with a superhard compound that will be orange, meaning the hard compound is now an icy-blue colour, providing potentially faster lap times, as softer compounds tend to run quicker.
The pitfall though for teams, is there will be more pit stops during a race, as soft compounds degrade quicker. This is an attempt F1 say to “reduce the number of one stops races”, putting strategy once again at the forefront of teams thinking such as; when to stop, which tyres will be better for the start and the end of a race, and of course an added opportunity to utilise the undercut, something Red Bull could be looking at to bridge the gap.
Technical additions and restrictions will see the cars look slightly different for the 2018 season, with halos being the most noticeable attachment. The polycarbonate pillar, semi-circular in shape, will protect drivers from being hit by debris and lose wheels.
After the incidences involving Jules Bianchi at Suzuka in 2014 and Felipe Massa in 2009, it was inevitable that safety had to be updated. The halo, F1 representatives believe, will prevent such incidents happening again with it being able to take twice the cars weight in a crash, as well as deflecting loose debris.
Drivers though see this as an unnecessary change, affecting visibility, as a pillar comes right down the centre of their view, and spoiling the aesthetics of the car. Haas driver, Kevin Magnussen, said last year, “”F1 cars aren’t meant to be ugly. That is the reason that a Ferrari is more exciting than a Mazda”, the same tone was taking by five-time world champion Lewis Hamilton, who when testing it, said it affected cornering speeds, due to the extra eight kilo-grams of weight.
T-wings and shark fins, however, have been outlawed by the FIA. Teams found a loophole in the regulations last year, exploiting the fact changes could be made round the engine covers and central wing, improving aerodynamics and air flow around the rear wing.
New regulations have meant teams have had to adapt their engine covers with only a small fin allowed instead of the big mounts of carbon seen on the 2017 models. Teams such as Williams, fell into the trap of designing their 2018 model as if it was going to be allowed, where Sauber, as seen in Austin last year, had planned ahead without the wing.
Another tweak in the regulation is trick suspensions. Last year Red Bull and Ferrari played around with their suspensions adding small links that altered the pushrod’s, allowing for the cars ride height to be adjusted when steered. Now the FIA stipulate that the height cannot vary by more than 5mm from lock to lock, this change benefits Mercedes with their car being slower through the corners than both Red Bull and Ferrari.
Other exciting prospects this season include the reintroduction of the French Grand Prix. After a ten-year absence, the Circuit Paul Richard in Le Castellet, which has had a 28-year layoff, will kick start a first for F1.
A summer extravaganza is set to whet the appetites of many a fan, with a triple header of races running from June 24th to July 8th with the French, Austrian and the eagerly anticipated British Grand Prix, testing even the fittest of racers stamina and metal.
This is where new faces, such as Frenchmen Charles Leclerc could struggle to keep up with the demands of F1. Ok, Leclerc stormed the Formula Two campaign last year, but if Sauber, now powered by Alfa Romeo, wants to climb the constructor’s championship, he must perform in all three for them to have a chance.
Although, when it comes to new young drivers all the attention turns to a 21-year-old Russian. Sergey Sirotkin, “the kid who prevented Robert Kubica’s return”, has taking the vacant Williams seat left by the retired Massa, despite having a mixed record in the lower embers of the sport.
A topsy-turvy development, has seen Sirotkin not winning a single championship in his career to date, after his karting days. However, some may call this misfortune with the likes of Magnussen, Gasly, and Vandoorne all being that one-step further in their developments, and when the door seemed wide open in GP2 in 2016, it was quickly shut by new team Prema, dominating the season.
There still remains questions around the young Russian, and also in terms of championship race. The new regulations are set to close the gap, make race-day more strategic whilst in the process making F1 that little bit more competitive.