The start of a new Formula 1 season brings with it unanswered questions and narratives that will define the racing on-track and the politics off of it. 2018 is no different, and as F1 enters into the sophomore year under the guidance of Liberty Media, Craig Norman cherry picks the main storylines that could define the year ahead.
Is the Halo just a one season wonder?
The implementation of a new head safety device was always going to be met with derision and disdain from fans and experts alike, mainly due to the limited running both the Halo and the Aeroscreen were given before any decision was made, but also because of the lack of aesthetic design both options gave.
But as a responsible governing body, the FIA had to commit to a measure of reducing the possibility of head-related injuries in the sport, so the Halo is here whether we like it or not.
While questions have been asked over issues with visibility, driver evacuation and even reported race suit damage form Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly, the Halo is a clunky and ugly first response to the raised awareness in safety. This is Formula 1, the pinnacle of engineering and design, so could a team come up with an elegant replacement before the season ends?
Can Ferrari prevent an implosion?
Last season’s title fight between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton had all the ingredients needed to make it a classic, minus the final race showdown that lives long in the history books. It could have, and maybe even should have, happened if it wasn’t for the Scuderia’s almost innate ability to snatch defeat from the jaws of victory.
A disastrous month of September derailed Vettel’s and Ferrari’s championship challenges thanks to the now infamous intra-team collision in Singapore and reliability woes throughout the Asian leg of the calendar. Lewis Hamilton swept to the title by Mexico, while the Italian marque was left empty-handed, red-faced and scratching their heads.
Moving the spotlight away from the team, their star driver also needs to iron out his weaknesses, most notably his almost toddler-like temper tantrums. Vettel’s Azerbaijan outburst was almost comical in its execution and then media-spun into a rivalry that was venomous when it wasn’t. Can this be eradicated when a title fight reaches the sharp end come November?
Ferrari faces an enormous challenge in 2018, and it’s more an internal one than anything Mercedes will throw their way.
What will Danny Ric do?
A lot of driver contracts end this year, among them some of the biggest names in the sport. Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and Kimi Raikkonen all face negotiations, with the Brit most likely to re-sign with Mercedes by the summer. The other two aren’t as safe in their futures – and there’s one more driver at the sharp end who could hold the key to who races where in 2019.
If Daniel Ricciardo does take the route of leaving Red Bull for pastures new, he must have his eyes on the seats at Mercedes and Ferrari. The past two seasons have seen race wins for the popular Australian, but the slow starts that Red Bull has made as a team heavily impacted on his championship chances. Max Verstappen has kept faith to sign a new contract, but will the temptation of moving to a team with championship ambition, and therefore unlocking the driver market as a whole, be too much for Ricciardo to ignore?
Will Renault join the fight?
Mercedes vs. Ferrari has been the thread that has defined the power unit competition since the introduction of the V6 turbo hybrid regulations. Renault have been a distant third on their own thanks to Honda’s woes, but with the reintroduction of a works team in 2016, can they continue to improve and take the fight to the big two?
Investment, consolidation and improvements have all happened since then. Renault has also been brave in their choice of customer teams since then too – McLaren and Red Bull are no slouches and won’t accept an inferior product for long, as the latter have demonstrated for the past few seasons. Can Renault use this as motivation to become the manufacturer powerhouse and additional competitive power unit builder, the sport is in desperate need of?
Does Verstappen have a championship challenge?
As mentioned above, Red Bull has struggled to get their car right and fast out of the box in recent seasons. By the final third of the year, they seem to have caught up in terms of pure pace, but the rumblings from pre-season testing are that the former champions have hit the ground running.
If this is found to be true, then both of Red Bull’s drivers have a shot for World Championship glory, meaning one of the most exciting drivers to come into F1 for more than a decade, Max Verstappen, could realise a boyhood dream.
This would be breaking new ground for the Dutchman; he’s won races where Mercedes failed (Spain 2016) and taken a race by the scruff of the neck to dominate (Mexico 2016), but still has question marks around his temperament around his racecraft when wheel-to-wheel, and has a history with F1 race stewards that reads like a naughty schoolchild being held in detention.
Max Verstappen has the potential to bring fireworks to a closer title fight than we’ve had in recent seasons, but can he deliver on the next level?
Is Hamilton still hungry?
The German wants to emulate his hero Michael Schumacher by winning a championship for Ferrari, while Hamilton’s focus on matching and beating his idol Ayrton Senna has been achieved. Does going on to equal, or even surpass, Schumacher’s total of seven world championships a motivation for the Brit?
Hamilton’s contract expires at the end of this season, and it’s no secret that music and fashion are avenues he wants to explore, but with the current F1 regulations stable until 2021 it’s clear that there are more wins and titles possible for Hamilton to take. The temptation may be too much to walk away from as the title of the greatest of all time is, for the most part, ripe for the taking, so why walk away?
Hamilton has said himself the start of a new season is a reset for him to refocus on winning the challenge of the season ahead. Moving his sights on Fangio’s five titles, Schumacher’s seven and only being 29 race wins from taking the most in history is more than enough motivation to keep going.