2018: The key questions

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How will the season play out? Here we tackle the big points of contention that will provide the answer

Ferrari 2018 F1 testing

Will we ever get used to the halo? Philosophically, the halo is a big thing. It’s more than just the latest feature of a safety improvement programme that has been ongoing since the ’70s. Unlike crash-worthy carbon fibre monocoques, self-sealing fuel connections, better crash helmets, deformable structures and HANS devices, the halo is a visual intrusion into the fan’s romantic notion of what the essence of motor racing is. It is an ugly, jarring reminder that cannot even try to hide its imposition upon those values. There is probably only one way it might quickly be forgotten: through a fantastically competitive season. So…

Is another Mercedes walkover inevitable? Hell, no. And those aren’t merely the words of an optimist. Consider: last year Mercedes became the last not to follow the high-rake aero concept that Red Bull introduced years ago. It did so because it believed it had a technology – a heave spring with asymmetric valving – that would allow it to get much of the advantage of high rake but without having to start afresh with a completely new aero philosophy. That technology was banned on the eve of last season, contributing to the ‘diva’ temperament of the W08. If the Mercedes aero department has accepted as inevitable that it must now pursue the high-rake route, it is starting at base camp with how all the various surfaces interact with each other. Whereas Ferrari has been on this path for a full season already. Mercedes’s aero department is arguably the best in the business so it’s not a done deal they won’t claw all that back – and maybe it has figured out yet another way of staying with low rake. But with the wider floors it seems inevitable that high rake is the way to go.

Furthermore, the 2017 Ferrari wasn’t merely a competitive car. It was the most ingenious and bold design on the grid, with more innovations, more nudging against the limits of the regulations, than any other car. That was the first time this could be said of a Ferrari in more than a decade. It bore all the hallmarks of a re-engaged Rory Byrne. What more has he up his sleeve?

It’s believed the 2018 Ferrari will be slightly longer, the Mercedes a little shorter, so converging towards each other in the second year of these regulations. Which implies that Ferrari feels it can afford to gain more downforce (from a bigger underfloor) and reduce drag with a slightly longer wheelbase, but still retain enough ballast to enjoy full flexibility on the weight distribution range – a key part of its wide operating band last season.

Part of the weight calculation will include the halo and its associated structural mounting. Although the minimum weight limit has been increased by 6kg, the total weight is more like 14-15kg, making it yet-tougher to get down to the limit. This will define how far Ferrari has been able to go with lengthening its car – and will have pushed Mercedes further in the direction of shortening theirs.

Can Renault give Red Bull enough? There is talk from both the Mercedes and Ferrari camps that 1000bhp has been breached by their 2018-spec power units on the dynos. Renault Sport last year struggled to keep up and will need to find not only the deficit from then but also the gains made by those two rivals. How feasible is that? Renault’s performance in the hybrid formula it craved has been extremely disappointing, but Christian Horner frequently states that if Renault can just get to within a couple of tenths of the Merc engine – rather than between 0.5-0.8sec as it was last year – then Red Bull is in the game.

There is realistic hope, actually. The engine will be a continuation of the all-new concept of 2017, but hopefully without the limitation of an inadequate MGU-H. The theory is that the potential of last year’s new concept engine was thwarted because the MGU-H could not reliably run at the shaft speeds required to maximise the new turbo and the
combustion chamber that had been optimised around a much faster-running turbo. The complex turbo-compound loop of these engines means that even a slight problem within that loop compounds to severely limit the power. Despite a smaller turbo than either the Mercedes or Ferrari, limited by that MGU-H, it was said last year to be running only at 100,000rpm, about 20,000rpm down and therefore less efficient. In other words, the 2017 engine was essentially running detuned and there could be plenty of low-hanging performance fruit for Renault if it has sorted the MGU-H problem. Let’s see.

If Renault can provide something close, things could get very tasty up front. In Max Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton seems to recognise the new pretender and is under no illusions about just how formidable he could be. “He’s [already] doing wonderful things and he’s just going to grow so much. It won’t be a problem. It’ll just be freakin’ tough. What a contest that could be! Even I would pay to see that!”

Red Bull vs McLaren, identical engines. How does that pan out? Regardless of how good the Renault power unit is, we still get to see a straight match-up between Red Bull and the newly Renault-powered McLaren. That in itself is utterly fascinating, especially given the respective driver line-ups.

Throughout their three-year Honda misery McLaren and Fernando Alonso were adamant they had one of the best chassis out there. Well, there can be no tougher yardstick than an identically-powered Red Bull. If the MCL33 measures up to the RB14, just think what a prospect we have: Alonso vs Verstappen vs Ricciardo – and with Vandoorne getting in on it too. The prospect of 21 races of that is pretty mouth-watering in itself.

Honda: this time, surely? Has McLaren given up on Honda at just the wrong time? Having gone through the start-up agonies of the programme, has it baled out just as the rewards are about to come? If so, Toro Rosso – and ultimately probably Red Bull – gets to benefit.

The Mercedes-like architecture of the Honda engine as introduced last year remains, giving potential aero gains over the Renault layout. Power was limited last year by a vibration problem that imposed an artificial limit on the turbo’s speed, this further impacting upon the harvesting efficiency. As with Renault, if the basic root of the problem has been cured during the off-season, the gains in power could be dramatic.

A Toro Rosso flying by Alonso’s McLaren on the straight? That would surely generate some interesting radio messages…

Should Honda struggle for a fourth consecutive season it leaves the senior Red Bull team with potentially a very sticky problem in that 2018 is potentially the last year in which Renault Sport will supply them.

Renault: a giant awakening or just treading water? The works Renault team’s progress last year was quite visible and it ended the season usually best of the rest after the big three. But to keep that rate of progress going is difficult with what team boss Cyril Abiteboul admits is about 85 per cent of the resource of Mercedes. Furthermore, it was easily able to outscore McLaren last year thanks to an engine advantage which – by courtesy of supplying McLaren – is no longer there. Last year’s car was around 1sec per lap slower than the identically-engined Red Bull. How much of that deficit can be clawed back with the RS18, the first Renault to be overseen by new aero chief Pierre Macin, ex-Red Bull? And where does that put it relative to McLaren?

Other than that, the chief interest here will be how the very intriguing Hülkenberg/Sainz driver line-up will compare over a season.

How will the greater tyre range affect the racing? The idea of Pirelli offering a range of seven compounds, rather than five, is to discourage uniform one-stop strategies. It’s a band-aid to the overtaking problem, which is being researched ahead of the post-2020 aero regulations. Do more pit stops enhance the racing? Or just make it more confusing? Anyway, expect more two-stop races.

Is the three-engine rule going to hurt? Ever since this formula was announced to take effect from 2014, it was always the plan to progressively reduce the number of power units per car per season until it was down to three. But there were moves afoot last year, initiated by Red Bull, to leave it at four. Furthermore, the engine manufacturers confirmed that the cost of the dyno hours in making the engines reliable at the required mileages more than outweighed the saving of one extra engine per car. A motion to keep it at four was proposed – but blocked by Ferrari. As the motion required unanimity, the requirement remains at three. Which begs the question: does Ferrari feel it has something up its sleeve that will give it a high-mileage advantage?

Whatever, the possibility of an engine grid penalty deciding the championship – which hasn’t really happened so far – surely becomes greater. Related to that, the grid penalty procedure has been simplified. Multiple theoretical drops (like Alonso’s 65 places at one race!) no longer count. Anything more than 15 puts you at the back – the order then decided by when the power unit changes were made.

Will Hamilton or Vettel join the greats if they win a fifth title? Statistically this would put whichever of them achieved the feat in rarefied territory occupied only by Juan Manuel Fangio and Michael Schumacher. Three men in 68 years. It is of course a subjective view and highly dependent upon the value placed upon statistics rather than more circumstantial judgements. Allowing the stats to be the ultimate arbiter disqualifies such as Jim Clark or Ayrton Senna from this discussion.

What of the two critical career seasons – Ricciardo and Bottas? It’s probably unfair to lump Ricciardo in with Bottas, in that he’s well established as a proven ace. But Daniel has a formidable challenge in halting team-mate Verstappen’s momentum if he’s to a) remain a hot candidate for Mercedes or Ferrari or b) not fall into a number two role at Red Bull.

Bottas averaged much further off Hamilton than did Ricciardo off Verstappen last year. He’s on a one-year contract, Ricciardo has one year remaining on his – the challenge to Bottas’s Mercedes drive could hardly be more explicit.

Will oil burn still be a thing? Yes, but less so. Oil burning is a way of getting around the fuel-flow limit, giving the engine calories to burn in addition to those provided by the fuel. The regulations have been tightened for ’18 – active control valves in the crankcase that could be closed to increase pressure and force oil into the combustion chambers (thereby giving a Q3 or overtaking boost) have been banned. Furthermore, the oil usage limit has been reduced from 0.9 litres/100km to 0.6 litres/100km. Oil could still find its way into the combustion chambers through the crankcase pressure created off-throttle, but it will be less effective – and there will be less of it to burn. Mercedes and Ferrari were much further advanced with this technology in previous seasons than Renault or Honda. Some of that difference should therefore have been eradicated.

Is this the crucial career-defining season for Vandoorne and Ocon? They each came into F1 with red-hot reputations as the potential new ‘special ones’. Mercedes-backed Ocon partly justified that with his sometimes-controversial contests against Force India team-mate Sergio Pérez. Vandoorne struggled at McLaren with lack of mileage, shortage of equal parts and the colossus that is Fernando Alonso. To retain their career momentum, they need to show more convincingly against their team-mates this year.

Sauber

Are Leclerc and Norris the new special ones? F1 is such an unforgiving environment. Already Ocon and Vandoorne are fighting perception’s tide as the sport looks to the horizon for the next superstar – and standing where they were a year ago are Charles Leclerc and Lando Norris, the junior drivers of Ferrari and McLaren respectively. Both look outstanding and have the mark of ‘special’. F2 champ Leclerc races the Alfa-badged Sauber this year while F3 champion Norris will race in F2 in between duties for McLaren.

Can Kubica keep the miracle going? Once it was Kubica who was ‘the special one’. But he is special, regardless of his current status. Just to have got himself back in consideration for an F1 race seat after the horrific injuries and seven-year absence is quite remarkable. He didn’t quite nail his Williams tests and so is the third driver, with up to eight Friday outings. If he can show in those sessions that he is anything like the pre-accident driver, the fairy tale might yet happen. There is a legion of fans behind him in this quest.

Will deletion of shark fins and upper T wings make any difference? Nothing detectable. Between 0.1-0.15sec of lap time – and possibly a less snappy response on the limit as the fin’s wake no longer crosses an aerodynamically awkward transition. The change is just for aesthetics. Watch out for less visible lower body T-wings, like Williams ran a couple of times last year.

How ‘Alfa’ will Sauber be? It will be very interesting to see if the Ferrari influence here increases beyond just lending the team its junior driver. It could be a great way for Ferrari to bring on new engineers as well as drivers and from Sauber’s viewpoint it could be a great foundation to long term security. On the other hand, it may all just be about the political power of two brands rather than one as Sergio Marchionne negotiates the terms for Ferrari’s commitment to the post-2020 F1. In which case, does it presage the 2019 Maserati-Haas team?