At first glance, and with the very notable exception of the new Halo device, not much appears to have changed in Formula 1 this season. The chassis and engine rules are the same, and the top teams are back with unchanged driver line-ups – including reigning champion Lewis Hamilton bidding for a fourth crown in five seasons with Mercedes to take his overall F1 world title tally to five.
But as ever with F1, it’s all about the details. And there are plenty of small changes that will have an impact this year, both on and off the track. Ahead of the upcoming Australian Grand Prix, our sister publication Autocar UK asked ex-Renault F1 racer Jolyon Palmer about some of the key storylines of the season ahead.
Can anyone stop Mercedes?
Mercedes has dominated since the V6 turbo engines were introduced in 2014, claiming a double titleagain last year despite a challenge from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.
Pre-season testing suggests Mercedes is again the team to beat, although Palmer reckons that Red Bull could be its closest challenger. “Red Bull ended last year strongly with a couple of wins and can build on that,” says Palmer. “They started last year on the back foot in testing and developed well and they’re in much better shape this year.”
McLaren and Honda move on:
After three increasingly turbulent seasons, McLaren and Honda staged a very public divorce at the end of last year. British team McLaren landed a supply of customer Renault engines and Honda salvaged its spot on the grid by agreeing to supply Toro Rosso, Red Bull’s ‘B team’.
So far, Honda looks like it’s faring the better: Toro Rosso set the most laps of any team in testing, while McLaren suffered reliability woes.
“Toro Rosso was the surprise of the pre-season,” says Palmer. “It’s been incredibly reliable so far.” That said, he warns against writing off McLaren: “They had a lot of reliability problems in testing, but Fernando Alonso did set some good times. They should develop a lot as well. When you change to another engine supplier, it’s like starting a new relationship.”
The liberty effect:
This will be Liberty Media’s second full season in charge of F1 and the first in which it can really make its impact felt. That has meant a lot of fiddling round the edges: grid girls are gone (sparking a big public debate); grid kids are in; start times have moved; social media and online streaming are being developed; and F1 is even getting its own global theme tune.
“Generally, I like what Liberty are doing,” says Palmer. “I raced for a year under Bernie [Ecclestone] and a year under Liberty, and they’re going in the right way with good intentions. They’re modernising F1 a bit, taking on the views of drivers and other stakeholders.”
The biggest switch that might affect fans is the change in start times: races will start at 10 minutes past the hour, with European races shuffled back a full hour to try to boost ratings.
Although the Malaysian Grand Prix has been axed, the return of the German and French GPs – the latter, being held at Paul Ricard, back for the first time since 2007 – means the calendar spans 21 races. That ties with the all-time high, set in 2016.
“Doing 21 races in 2016 was tough. By the end of the season, you’re pretty much shattered,” says Palmer. “But it was manageable. Liberty are pushing to have more races, maybe up to 25. It’s a fine line to diluting it too much.”
The 21 races are also crammed into this year’s calendar: the French, Austrian and British GPs will take place on three consecutive weekends in June and July. Although Palmer says that run will be eased by the close distances between the events, he admits it will be tough for drivers. “The challenge will just be keeping your concentration up for three weeks,” he says.
Who’s driving where in 2018:
Mercedes-AMG - 44 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) and 77 Valtteri Bottas (FIN)
Ferrari - 5 Sebastian Vettel (GER) and 7 Kimi Räikkönen (FIN)
Red Bull-Tag Heuer [Renault] - 3 Daniel Ricciardo (AUS) and 33 Max Verstappen (NED)
Sahara Force India-Mercedes - 11 Sergio Pérez (MEX) and 31 Esteban Ocon (FRA)
Williams-Mercedes - 18 Lance Stroll (CAN) and 35 Sergey Sirotkin (RUS)
McLaren-Renault - 2 Stoffel Vandoorne (BEL) and 14 Fernando Alonso (ESP)
Renault - 27 Nico Hülkenberg (GER) and 55 Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP)
Haas-Ferrari - 8 Romain Grosjean (FRA) and 20 Kevin Magnussen (DEN)
Toro Rosso-Honda - 10 Pierre Gasly (FRA) and 28 Brendon Hartley (NZL)
Sauber-Ferrari - 9 Marcus Ericsson (SWE) and 16 Charles Leclerc (MON)