With only a few days left to the start of the 2018 Formula 1 season, it is time to get to business. The off-season has been about politics, the future of the sport, the business and other factors that are interesting, but none that can replace the sheer joy of going racing!
In the week leading up to the season's opening round in Melbourne, let's look at a team-by-team preview and also try to answer the key question " what would make a successful season? We will go bottom-up from last year's Constructors' Championship table.
It was back in 2008 when Robert Kubica scored Sauber's (then BMW Sauber) last Formula 1 victory. In fact, the team's last podium-scoring season was way back in 2012 (courtesy Sergio Perez and Kamui Kobayashi) and despite their history, legacy and connections (with Ferrari), Sauber's recent stories have mostly been about their financial struggles, almost-closures and survival. In mid-2016, Longbow Finance bought the team, changed the top management and pumped in more money - a key to succeed in Formula 1 business. Also after last season, Sauber further strengthened their relationship with Ferrari by forging a new relationship with Alfa Romeo.
The new partnership would lead to extra sponsorship money for the team and access to Ferrari's latest-spec engine for the upcoming season. However, on the basis of pre-season testing form, it doesn't seem likely that Sauber will fight at the sharper end of the mid-field and might just end up being the slowest team on the grid this season.
Targets for 2018:
1. To not finish last! Realistically, Sauber should end up fighting for positions eighth and below
2. Evaluate Charles Leclerc; this would potentially be Ferrari's target for Sauber!
3. Further stabilise the team with the hope to resurrect form in 2019, and perhaps also replace Marcus Ericsson. Or will Ferrari pull their weight and put Antonio Giovinazzi in the car mid-season?
MacLaren's Fernando Alonso takes part in the tests for the new Formula 1 Grand Prix season at the Circuit de Catalunya. AFP
From switching to their historic papaya-orange livery, to introducing a new hashtag (#BeBrave), Mclaren are trying every bit to evoke nostalgia and passion (externally and internally too?) for the 2018 Formula 1 season. Some called their divorce with Honda (after three years of disastrous results) smart, others thought they were foolish to switch to Renault after enduring Honda's non-performance for this long.
The only way to settle this debate would be to see how the Mclaren-Renault package performs in 2018. Going only by pre-season testing form (and niggles in Mclaren's case), the former world champion team have a long way to go before they become a force to contend with this season. In fact, it would be a surprise if they comfortably fight for fourth place. If only switching power unit suppliers could make Mclaren's recent struggles disappear miraculously!
Irrespective of whatever car the team will end up producing and developing all through the season, and we can trust Fernando Alonso to score points that the team otherwise wouldn't be able to grab. Even now, the trump card of the Mclaren-Renault package is Alonso. But will Alonso's exhaustive racing programme in 2018 make him a bit jaded as the season progresses? Also, here's hoping that the team isn't rusty in their pit-stops once the season starts.
Targets for 2018:
1. The 'Battle of the Renaults' will make for an interesting storyline all through the season. Mclaren needs to fight with Red Bull Racing and Renault every Grand Prix weekend. Red Bull Racing might be out of reach in the first few races of the season, but in Mclaren's in-season development programme we trust!
2. Zak Brown's arrival is slowly and steadily showing on the car. Will Mclaren's performances help Brown attract a title sponsor to the team?
3. Although unlikely, if Alonso decides to depart from Mclaren (purely down to performance reasons), the team lacks the car and resources to attract a top driver. Is Nando next in line after Fernando?
4. A return to the podium, even if it isn't the top step.
Haas F1 Team
This season will be Haas' third season in Formula 1; the team would be hoping that they would have long shed their newcomer status and be acknowledged as a serious contender for the mid-field. Their technical partnership with Ferrari has often turned heads and may possibly do so even more in 2018 " this is an outsourcing model that's delivering good results still.
The pre-season testing data indicates that Haas might be the surprise of the season and may well be able to challenge for fourth place " a spot that Force India has claimed with much right in the past couple of seasons. After losing out in the three-way battle for sixth place in 2017, being able to fight closer to the top will certainly aid Haas' ambitions in Formula 1. However, we do expect Haas' progress to re-open the debate (and a rather hot one!) about the validity of their technical partnership with Ferrari and the extent to which can they purchase technology.
The team's newcomer status could be one of the reasons why the Romain Grosjean-Kevin Magnussen line-up was the best it could attract. While not the most consistent, the two have managed to surprise the team, fans and maybe even themselves by springing good results on and off. If the VF-18 actually turns out to be a good car, here's hoping that Grosjean-Magnussen are able to extract maximum performance and points.
Targets for 2018:
1. Be half-a-second of Ferrari's pace, in Gene Haas' (team owner) own words.
2. First podium and consistent double-point finishes.
The Mclaren-Honda-Renault saga ended with Toro Rosso being forced to accept Honda engines for 2018 even though the team may not publicly admit it. While everyone could foresee only struggles for Toro Rosso (courtesy Honda's unreliable power units), the partnership did surprise in the pre-season tests. Honda, while still being the slowest power unit on the grid, could manage to run reliably " a key improvement from last season.
In fact, it was reported that in the second pre-season test, only one Honda power unit was used over four days. While Toro Rosso-Honda may end up finishing races, one wonders if they will have the pace that they could show last year with Renault power. But then again, Toro Rosso's key reason to exist is to feed Red Bull Racing with drivers and for 2019, it could extend to Honda's power units too.
Brendon Hartley is an established name outside the Formula 1 circus. In fact, he is the reigning World Endurance Champion and it seems a bit strange that he gave up on a successful sports car career to drive for a Red Bull Racing B-team in Formula 1. Pierre Gasly, a former GP2 champion, will be hoping to prove a point to his Red Bull Racing bosses in his first full Formula 1 season. However, with Carlos Sainz Jr waiting in the wings for a Red Bull seat in case Daniel Ricciardo departs, one wonders what the future of Hartley-Gasly would be in the Red Bull Racing camp.
Targets from 2018:
1. Despite strong running in testing, maintaining seventh place from 2017 will be a tough challenge for Toro Rosso.
2. If Honda manage to develop and deliver on par to Renault (they sooner or later will), could a surprise podium be in the offing?
3. A thorough understanding of Honda's current and future capabilities on the power unit front will be crucial for their parent team " Red Bull Racing!
Despite finishing only sixth in 2017, Renault did seem to have the fourth fastest car towards the end of last year. With increased investments and hiring key (and controversial) talent, Renault will be hoping to make the jump to a clear #4position in the Constructors' Championship as they use 2018 to build on a title-hunting year in 2019. In fact, could they challenge the might of Red Bull Racing (their customer team) as the season progresses and aim for third place. To do so, major gains would be expected from the chassis.
The French team's resurrection seems to be going faster than planned and their driver line-up in Nico Hulkenberg-Carlos Sainz Jr seems like the strongest non-race winning pairing on the grid. In fact, the Hulkenberg versus Sainz story will be an interesting one to follow and if we have a 'Battle of the Renaults' actually building up, we may end up with six really talented drivers battling for podium finishes. A Max Verstappen versus Hulkenberg, anyone?
Apart from the works team, Renault have the responsibility to develop power units for their iconic and former world champion customer teams " Mclaren and Red Bull Racing.
However, in the pre-season, Renault's proposed power utilisation plans met with much disappointment from Red Bull Racing. The team hinted that they may be better off taking a penalty for a fourth power unit and running on full steam for all the 21 races rather than sticking to the prescribed three engines and running below optimum. Also, it is believed that it was Renault's handling of Toro Rosso in 2017 that prompted the FIA to look into customer power unit parity. Will Renault resort to power unit politics to gain an advantage (unfair or not!) against their customers?
Targets for 2018:
1. Best of the rest and consistent podiums.
2. Match Ferrari and Mercedes at 85 percent of their size and investments. Renault have publicly announced their own targets.
3. To find an heir to Sainz Jr in case he switches to Red Bull Racing to fill-in for Daniel Ricciardo if he leaves.
With the bottom five teams sorted, look forward to our follow-up post that will focus on the bigwigs and two Mercedes' customers (Force India and Williams) who will have to fight harder than ever before to finish in the top five in 2018.