JA on F1 Season Preview 2018: Formula 1's turning point year?
Shortly we leave for Melbourne.
Shortly we leave for Melbourne. Some are there already, especially the drivers who need at least a week to acclimatise to the time zone which is 10 hours ahead of Europe.
This season has a turning point feel about it for a number of reasons.
For a start it's the first time in F1 history that the field has featured two four time world champions; Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel are both vying for the honour to join Juan Manuel Fangio in the pantheon of five time champions.
Many of the factors making it a turning point are behind the scenes, like the negotiations about what the F1 rules will be past 2021 and how much the teams will all get paid.
Others are less subtle - we will never again see F1 cars without some form of driver head protection device, but the introductory model for 2018 lacks refinement.
And Liberty Media is now fully at the controls of the promotional side of the sport and F1 is presenting a fresh face to the world, using some new tools to do so. This is long overdue, but Liberty have to get it right this season and show their strategy leads to growth; especially against the backdrop of grumbling from the teams.
It's the first F1 season to start without a full-time Brazilian driver on the grid since Emerson Fittipaldi made his debut in 1970.
And on track the hope is that this will be the season where it all comes together and the three main teams compete on relatively level terms for the world championship.
Ferrari build on 2017 form with a platform of stability and strong technical leadership, while Red Bull have a wonderful looking car and Renault close the performance gap after seasons of underperforming.
That's the plan at any rate.
In practice it will only take Lewis Hamilton to grab pole position by 3/10ths of a second and win the race by 20 seconds for everyone to despair about another season of Mercedes domination.
But I'm not so sure it will be like that. He may win by that margin in Melbourne, but it's a long season and Mercedes are now down to fine details in looking for their new points of motivation. They have won so much and controlled so many races that they need a fresh challenge.
Last season it was a common goal for all team members to be the first team to successfully defend the world championship across a major chassis regulation change. This year there is no unifying purpose, just lots of individual goals gathered collectively under the banner of "the best or nothing" which is their motto.
Ferrari and Red Bull are very highly motivated to beat them and having been on the receiving end of some pastings the last few seasons, the approach is there with both teams to mount that challenge.
Ferrari had a great car last year but let themselves down on execution; the drivers made mistakes, the strategist made mistakes, the engine builders in the second half of the season, the team collectively didn't execute perfectly often enough. They will have worked on that and I expect to see a far more disciplined and efficient Ferrari team this season.
Red Bull have done all those things very well for many years. They have an excellent and very aggressive strategist, their team execution is very high standard and the drivers take their chances. Both are very highly motivated this season to beat each other and for their own personal reasons.
They just need to qualify on the front row more often and get control of races, as they did in Vettel's time there.
The signs are that they will be down on engine power to start with and that will cost them points, but I've no doubt that they will be competing for wins for most of this long season.
Amazingly Red Bull have not led a single lap in Melbourne in the turbo hybrid era; showing that they (and their engine partner) have tended to start the season far from ready for battle.
Midfield -it's all about the drivers
If you could take the front three teams away and F1 could be the race that happens behind then it would be what Liberty and many fans would like it to be - close, unpredicable, competitive and it would be all about the drivers.
When it's as tight as it is in performance terms between midfield cars, then it's down to the drivers to execute perfectly - especially in qualifying - to set the platform for the points scores. And it's all about differences between team mates.
Renault has two strong qualifiers, the Haas drivers can be very fast but also varied, Magnussen finished behind Grosjean in the 2017 championship, but outscored him 8-4 in the final eight races. However his qualifying was uneven.
Force India's drivers tend to be consistently fast and there is still plenty of niggle. If Ocon is going to become a top F1 driver, then he needs to come out on top of Perez this year.
Williams are the big question mark. Stroll had some good races, but in general struggled with qualifying last season, although he showed some signs of quality in Monza and Baku especially. Sirotkin is a good driver, but the final tenth in F1 is very hard to find, especially for rookies under pressure.
No-one is quite sure where McLaren are; they had many problems in testing with packaging the Renault engine, which tends to need more cooling than other motors, but there were some signs of speed. Alonso is always reliable and competitive and Vandoorne improved a lot as last year went on, so they will be looking to pick off the weaker drivers in the other midfield teams who have a faster car.
What to expect in Melbourne
Mercedes will be out to avenge the loss to Ferrari last year. Hamilton was forced to pit earlier than as ideal due to the tyres overheating because of sliding too much. He didn't have enough of a gap but stopped anyway and came out behind Raikkonen and Verstappen. This presented Ferrari and Vettel with a gift that they gladly took.
It was an early sign that the 2017 Mercedes was a bit of a 'diva' on the tyres, especially on warm days, and that is where Mercedes has focussed its efforts for this season.
Interestingly, Hamilton has only converted two of his previous six Melbourne poles into wins.
Last year's Australian Grand Prix was low on overtakes - just two on-track passes in the race after the opening lap. The tyres were quite conservative last season, most races were one stop affairs and the narrow strategic options that allowed for meant that we had few differences between the tyre age and compound on track to create an offset, which is needed for opportunities for passing.
Pirelli has worked hard to address that with softer compounds, albeit with the same construction. The tyre pressures are still very high, which doesn't help matters, but we should at least see two stop races in most venues.
Melbourne tends to be be a high attrition race, last year only 13 cars saw the chequered flag, so there is a real benefit to being reliable and staying out of the walls.
There are some split strategies whereby you put one car on the faster starting tyre and the other on the option and then use one car to hold the field as rivals pit earlier than them. That's the kind of strategy that can work at Monaco and we saw it in Melbourne last year with Sauber. It didn't yield points because most of the front runners finished and hoovered up the main points.
But there are usually accidents and safety cars so the lower grid teams can score points, as we have seen many times in the past.
As for the win; Hamilton might well take the pole, but the polesitter has only won two of the last eight Australian Grands Prix, while the second placed driver on the grid has won the last two years in Melbourne.
JA on F1 Predictions; Winner in 2018 Team Mate match ups
Mercedes - Hamilton
Red Bull - Verstappen
Ferrari - Vettel
Renault - Sainz
Haas - Magnussen
McLaren - Alonso
Williams - Stroll
Force India - Ocon
Toro Rosso - Gasly
Sauber - Leclerc
What do you think for the season? Who do you predict will be champion? And who will come out on top in the team mate match ups? Leave your comments in the section below
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