F1 Season Preview: 5 things to watch

With the start of the F1 season nearly upon us, here are 5 things to watch out for in 2018.

McLaren-Renault

Glenn Dunbar/McLaren

After a dismal three-year marriage, McLaren-Honda finally divorced at the end of 2017 with McLaren going to Renault and Honda going to Toro Rosso.

Throughout the troubled times, McLaren claimed, time and time again, that they have one of the best chassis on the grid. So, with the Renault engine of the rise, McLaren’s word will be put to the test—can they challenge for podiums, wins or even the championship or will Alonso be left disappointed once more?

Alfa Romeo Sauber

Alfa Romeo Sauber F1 Team

Following the fallout over the short-lived Sauber-Honda deal, the Swiss team strengthened their partnership with Ferrari by becoming their effective ‘B-team’.

This means that, along with up-to-date engines, Sauber will be responsible for looking after some of Ferrari’s junior drivers. For 2018, they’ll have reigning F2 champion Charles Leclerc as a full-time driver and 2016 GP2-runner up Antonio Giovinazzi as their third driver. Mercedes have already said that the alliance could be “dangerous for them” with the Germans hinting that they may follow suit in the coming years.

The ‘Halo’

Steve Etherington/Mercedes AMG F1

Controversial as it is, we will see the halo raced for the first time in 2018. The FIA had to do something for this season as they had said a ‘frontal head protection device’ would be in place by 2018.

Some would say that it’s been rushed through the development process. Nevertheless, the FIA have allowed the teams some leeway with winglets and such like on the halo and the structure of it will be blended into the colour scheme of the car, so that it doesn’t stand out quite as much.

Softer tyres

Zak Mauger/LAT Images/Pirelli Media

Pirelli have admitted that they were too cautious with their tyre compounds in 2017, leading to widespread one-stop races and minimal degradation.

While they’re not going back to the days of super high-degradation tyres, the 2018 tyres will be softer. Along with the introduction of the Hyper-Soft, each compound will be a step softer; the Super-Soft will be like the old Ultra-Soft, the Soft will be like the old Super-Soft and so on. This should increase the variation in strategies, hopefully leading to more exciting and unpredictable racing.

The midfield

Getty Images/Red Bull Content Pool

2017 involved an intense mid-field fight between Renault, Toro Rosso and Haas with the teams finishing within 10 points of each other.

A shake up is on the cards for 2018, however. The newly-powered McLaren and the works Renault team are both expected to rise above the rest of the midfield for fourth and fifth places in the championship which will make the midfield battle for sixth down to tenth. Force India should be as strong as ever and could give McLaren and Renault a run for their money while less is expected of Williams, given the standard of their drivers. The new Toro Rosso-Honda partnership has the potential to be very good, as does Alfa-Romeo Sauber, while Haas remains to be an unknown.

Steiner: Haas hopeful for “new opportunity” at high-speed Spa

Haas team principal Guenther Steiner has said his American team is looking forward to this weekend’s power-dependant Belgian Grand Prix, having struggled in the low-speed races prior to the summer break.

Andy Hone/LAT Images/Haas F1 Media

Haas began July with its best result of the season so far, when Romain Grosjean finished sixth in Austria. But since then the team’s form has hit a considerable slump: at Silverstone, Grosjean dropped back from a top ten start to squabble with Saubers and McLarens outside the points, whilst in Hungary Kevin Magnussen was the sole Haas finisher in thirteenth, only three places higher than his disappointing qualifying position.

But Steiner believes that the engine-favouring characteristics of the upcoming races at Spa and Monza ought to bring about a return to form for the American team.

“We struggled a little bit in Hungary with it being a low-speed track,” Steiner said. “We are bringing some items for low downforce or low drag for Spa and Monza, and we are as confident as we can be that it works.

“If you’re good in Spa, you normally should be good in Monza too…so, let’s hope we are good in Spa.”

Andy Hone/LAT Images/Haas F1 Media

Steiner added that Haas has “tried to hit the reset button” in its preparation for the second half of the season:

“Hungary certainly tested the team, but it showed how hard we work to overcome adversity while remaining positive. Belgium is a new race and a new opportunity. Everything is possible here. We will try hard and we will come back again.”

However, the Austrian did also confirm that Haas will revert back to using Brembo brakes this weekend, despite successful running of Carbon Industrie alternatives in Britain and Hungary, as they continue hunting for a solution to their recurrent braking issues: “At Spa we will be running Brembos to start off with and then we will see, but at the moment the plan is to run Brembos.”

Andy Hone/LAT Images/Haas F1 Media

In addition to that, Steiner said that there will be no major performances updates fitted to the VF-17 this weekend (besides the usual adaptations for Spa’s low-downforce demands), though the team is “working through the data we gained from our last wind tunnel test” ahead of a possible upgrade package for Japan or the United States.

Whether or not Haas opts to bring a last raft of updates in October will likely depend on the progress of its 2018 car development, which Steiner says has been complicated by the late mandating of the Halo system:

“We’ll [have to] work on how we get the weight down on other parts of the car because we are at the minimum weight, otherwise our car just gets too heavy [with the Halo]. We also need to find the best solution aerodynamically to integrate the Halo into the overall body.

“It’s head scratching. For sure, there is work to be done.”

Will Haas’ power play force Ferrari’s hand?

With Formula 1’s annual silly season looming just on the horizon, Gene Haas of the eponymous team has fired the first shot, announcing that his team will be retaining their current line-up of Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen for the 2018 season. While this in itself is not shocking or game changing news, the implications of it could force some teams into making some tough decisions, and in particular, Ferrari.

Credit: Zak Mauger/LAT Images

As engine supplier to the American team, Ferrari has some bargaining power when it comes to pushing drivers linked to them into the seats at Haas. Most notably this was in the case of Esteban Gutiérrez, the former Ferrari test and reserve driver, who drove for Haas in 2016. There has even been some suggestion that the Italian team want to use Haas as a kind of ‘junior team’, where they can place young drivers to help develop them, similar to the relationship between Red Bull and Toro Rosso. But Haas’ announcement, a move nothing short of power play, has proved Ferrari don’t have as much sway as they would like.

Previously, the rumour mill was working over time with all the speculations that Ferrari junior driver, and current Formula 2 championship leader, Charles Leclerc would take one of the seats at Haas for 2018. But such speculation has been firmly put to bed. Leaving Ferrari with a dilemma on their hands.

Charles Leclerc’s performance thus far in Formula 2 has been nothing short of dominant, claiming five victories, every pole position, and building himself a healthy sixty-seven-point lead after just six rounds. Many are calling for him to graduate to Formula 1 as soon as next year, and Haas seemed like a good fit. A midfield team where he could develop before a space opens up for him at Ferrari, which is his ultimate destination, as per the goals of the Ferrari Driver Academy. But that door has been locked tight, and for a young driver linked to the Italian team, there are few options elsewhere in Formula 1.

Credit: Zak Mauger/FIA Formula 2

There is still the question of whether Ferrari will retain Kimi Raikkonen for 2018. Questions have lingered over the Finn’s place at the team for some time, especially considering his underperforming compared to his teammate. At thirty-seven years old, some are suggesting that it is past time for him to call it quits. Of course, an empty Ferrari seat would trigger a whole host of driver vying for the coveted seat. But if it was the only free seat on the Formula 1 grid in 2018, would it be time for Ferrari to break tradition and place a rookie there?

An incredibly talented and quick driver, invested in by Ferrari, young enough to allow Sebastian Vettel to retain number one driver status, besides the factor of experience, it seems hard to argue that Leclerc doesn’t deserve a seat at Ferrari. However, it would be a distinctly un-Ferrari move to take a chance on a rookie, even one from their own junior programme. But Haas’ announcement have limited Ferrari’s options, and they risk leaving Leclerc with nowhere to go for 2018.

Few would disagree that Charles Leclerc is a talent Ferrari cannot afford to let go. Have Haas pushed them towards abandoning their tradition of only hiring known quantities? Haas’ announcement could be the trigger that sets of a chain reaction of other teams scrambling to secure their 2018 driver pairings. Meaning Ferrari will probably have to make a decision about what they choose to do with Leclerc, and quickly.

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