Everything You Need to Know About the 2018 Formula 1 Season
Winter doesn't mean hibernation in F1, it means full speed ahead.
The fireworks at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix signal the end of the festivities for spectators, and the beginning of an intense season of development for factory personnel. Design, testing, and manufacturing teams drop a gear to complete cars and spare parts for the upcoming season. Simulation personnel test aerodynamic elements and drill drivers to keep skills polished. Finance wings keep an eye on spending, and negotiate sponsorships. Drivers maintain fitness levels and take time off for family or friends. The grandstands are empty, but thousands of engineers keep factories at capacity through the coldest months of the year.
We are but one year into the new high-downforce era. Between 2009 and 2016, rear wings were raised, tires were narrower, and front wings, meant to be made simpler, have only increased in complexity, informing the airflow for the entire car. 2017 saw a return to wide, low-slung cars like those we last saw in 2008, forcing teams to redesign their chassis from scratch.
Furthermore, 2018 regulations demand use of the controversial "halo" safety device, which will prevent teams from focusing all their attention on improving their 2017 designs. Some teams have changed engine suppliers, for better or worse, and will have to account for the discrepancy in packaging requirements by rethinking rear-end design on the car.
I have been keeping up with every team's activities over the offseason, and while my original intent was to form a prediction as to where each team will finish in the World Constructors' Championship, the volume and variety of changes undergone by many midfield teams have made predicting the season a gamble. Even determining whether Mercedes or Ferrari will be stronger in 2018 is tricky, and I daren't put myself in a position to eat my own words.
The team's technical director, James Key, has a gift for designing a solid chassis on a tight budget, with prodigious Dutchman Max Verstappen offering tremendous praise to Key's creations. Toro Rosso's cars receive little development over the season, however, so the team's race seasons often get off to a promising start before the car's performance dips in relationship to the competition.
Despite becoming the factory team of Honda, which conveys special advantages for car design, the Honda engine has proven little more than a curse in the V6 era, with McLaren ditching the company for Renault after three consecutive years of feeble, fragile engines. Honda does not expect strong results in the first half of the season, which could take the edge off of Key's STR13, in spite of the confidence in Honda professed by Key, Dr. Helmut Marko, and driver Pierre Gasly. Any packaging advantages granted by Honda's tiny engine may also be offset by the team's loss of its head of aerodynamics.
Even if Toro Rosso manages to build a miracle of a chassis, the engine will almost certainly remain uncompetitive for much of the season, and the inexperience of the team's drivers does not help. Brendon Hartley and Pierre Gasly have less than a half season of F1 experience combined, with nine Grands Prix raced between them in the latter half of last season. I expect the team's green drivers and an engine supplier with a stained reputation to counter an initially strong Toro Rosso STR13 chassis, and restrain the team to dead last in the championship.
America's F1 team is still finding its footing. It entered F1 in the final year—2016—of the low downforce era, and had to redesign its car from the ground up for the following season. Despite a pair of remarkable finishes in early 2016, the team's first two seasons have been fraught with poor luck. Brake issues caused chronic hand-wringing for Haas, and a freak incident involving an improperly-secured drain cover pitched Romain Grosjean off the track in Malaysia, and caused nearly $1 million in damages to the team's car.
The team's status of the youngest in the sport makes it difficult for outsiders to gauge its strengths, with only two seasons under its belt, each in a different regulatory era, but Grosjean does the job for us. The French driver believes the team's weaknesses lie in midseason development and communication between facilities, and that its greatest strength is a solid chassis out of the gate. Kevin Magnussen nevertheless cited his difficulties with handling an oversteer-prone VF-17, and hoped that Haas will deliver him a more cooperative car in the future.
Part of why Grosjean considers development among Haas' shortcomings could be down to early termination of the VF-17's development, which team principal Gunther Steiner considers to be one of the team's foremost mistakes over the 2017 season. Nevertheless, respectable results for a novice team, treading new ground in every season in which it has taken part, has given the team a sense of confidence in its future.
Magnussen is faithful that the team can follow in the footsteps of fellow low-budget privateer Force India, which achieved a 4th place finish in the WCC in 2017, ahead of factory teams like Renault and McLaren-Honda. There are rumblings of a title sponsorship from Maserati in the team's future, similar to the relationship Sauber adopted with Alfa Romeo, wherein the team would continue to use Ferrari engines, albeit rebranded as that of another FCA-tied upmarket Italian carmaker. Eponymous team owner Gene Haas is a believer in his team, and hopes to escape the clutches of backmarkery by the end of the 2020 season, with hopes of a Grand Prix win by 2025.
Haas' situation resembles that of Toro Rosso in that its car starts strong, and sees little in the way of midseason upgrades, though it has little to worry about from its experienced drivers and dependable Ferrari engine. Difficulties with maintaining consistent performance over the season and an incomplete understanding of Pirelli's tires along with unproven development prowess could leave the team with lowly performance when compared to some of its intended rivals.
Its performance in its first two seasons was artificially inflated by underwhelming competition. Manor, Sauber, and Renault were non-factors in 2016, and the only teams that finished adrift of Haas in 2017 were equipped with third-rate engines, compared to Haas' 2017-spec Ferrari unit. Just one team is expected to suffer engine problems in 2018 (Toro Rosso), leaving the team's prospects poor, despite its improvements.
Much of the attention directed Williams' way in the off season was due to its open race seat, which many expected to be filled by Robert Kubica, for the comeback of the century. Alas, Sergey Sirotkin was found to be both faster and bring more sponsorship money, and the team selected the young Russian to race for them instead. Kubica nevertheless was hired as a reserve and development driver, and is already touted by Claire Williams as having a positive impact upon the team.
Personnel changes of greater significance are to be found in the team's design centers, as Paddy Lowe has returned to Williams after almost 24 years away. Lowe has a trophied history in F1, from Mansell's championship win in 1992 to both of Hakkinen's titles, Hamilton's first, and then Mercedes' dominant streak between 2014 and 2016, all influenced by Lowe's technical expertise. He has already made "quite substantial changes" to the way Williams designs its cars, and Lowe will not be alone in altering Williams' technical course, as his presence has helped coax Doug McKiernan into Williams.
McKiernan and Lowe were close at McLaren between 2007 and 2012, a period in which McLaren won its most recent championship, and came within spitting distance of another five. Additionally, aerodynamicist Dirk de Beer, present for Ferrari's 2015 revival, joined the team around the same time as Lowe.
Little in the way of specific technical information escaped the team over the winter, save for the observation that Williams is now the sole team on the grid thought to be using a transmission case constructed from aluminum, rather than a carbon. Gossip alleged that the team was behind on its crash testing, but a Williams spokesperson formally denied this to The Drive.
2017 for Sauber was damned not only by a compromised 2016-spec Ferrari engine and its undercooked chassis, but by an incomplete understanding of how the sensitive Pirelli tires worked, which the team cracked late in the season. On a more positive note for 2018, a cash influx, a competitive engine, and sharp personnel, including technical heads, strategists, and drivers stand to make 2018 Sauber's best season in recent memory.
Jorg Zander's return to Sauber may be old news, but the German's presence at the team is still relevant when examining the team's prospects. Zander bounced between F1 teams in the 2000s, from BAR Honda to Williams, BMW Sauber, back to Honda, and onward to Brawn—we all know how Brawn's inaugural (and sole) season went. He aided Audi's WEC program in 2015 and 2016, when the aging R18 e-tron quattro endurance racer was at its least competitive, but Audi nevertheless finished the season second in the championship. His breadth of motorsport experience ought to help the team develop a more mature chassis for 2018, and if the photos of the C37 released Tuesday are anything to go on, Zander is far from short on ideas for whipping Sauber into shape.
The team possesses the talents of race strategist Ruth Buscombe, whom I highlighted last May, for aggressive race strategies that saw Haas finish P6 and P5 in its first two races. Buscombe migrated to Sauber in mid-2016, and her strategy in Brazil that pushed Nasr to a P9 finish may well have saved the team. Sauber's anonymous dead-last performance in 2017 may have hidden her radical strategies from the public for much of the season, though it shone through in Spain, when Wehrlein achieved P8 on a one-stopper. With the C37 almost guaranteed to be on pace more often, it may give Buscombe more opportunities to sneak Saubers into occasional jackpots of points.
Italian carmaker Alfa Romeo's assumption of the role of title sponsor for the Sauber team comes with one of the most desirable perks in motorsport: Cash. Budgetary boons are critical for privateer teams such as Sauber, though let it not be forgotten that the team will also be equipped with current-spec 2018 Ferrari engines, rebranded as Alfa units, a la Red Bull's
Renault TAG Heuer engines. Sergio Marchionne, CEO of both Ferrari and Alfa's parent company, FCA, served to bridge the gap between the current and former FCA brands and the team.
Accusations that Alfa-Sauber will now play junior varsity to Ferrari, similar to Toro Rosso's relationship with Red Bull, have been waved away by team principal Frederic Vasseur, who describes Alfa-Sauber not as a Ferrari B-team, but instead an Alfa A-team, one which will follow the path of underdog Force India, racing for points with regularity, and occasionally snatching podiums from wealthier factory teams.
The team's coffers will further be filled by its sponsorship from Swiss watchmaker Richard Mille, which sponsored cars driven by Alfa-Sauber's rookie driver Charles Leclerc during the 2017 season of Formula 2, which Charles won handily. Leclerc's almost unrivaled performance in F2 has given some the impression that he's among the prodigious greats of his generation, the likes of which are seen on the rare occasion that a driver like Lewis Hamilton, Michael Schumacher, or Max Verstappen arrives in the sport.
I speculate Leclerc is being groomed by Ferrari and trained up at Sauber to be the replacement for Kimi Raikkonen, so even if his stay at Sauber involves an early morning check-out, he's almost guaranteed to have the eyes of every top team on him.
Force India, as it is known at present, became the last to launch its 2018 car on the first morning of the testing in Barcelona, potentially due to developmental delays caused by the halo. Despite reports that the team is changing its name to Force One, at the request of sponsors that desire a less regionally-specific name than Force India, no name change has yet manifested.
Some hurdles stand in the way of adopting the Force One moniker, such as domain squatters, and the fact that Force One (or Force F1) is on the forgettable side. The dates of the legal filings with the British government for the rights to the name are days after the team's deputy team principal Robert Fernley spoke of the difficulties of adopting the new name, suggesting the name may indeed have gone through. Regardless of name, the team attracted the sponsorship of German lubricant supplier Ravenol, which makes specialty fluids for motorsport and industrial applications, and industrial material processing company Duo.
What is known is that the VJM11 will be an evolution of the VJM10 concept, rather than a paradigm shift, as the team wishes to smooth integration of the halo rather than risk ruining its car with hasty design decisions. Additionally, the VJM11 will be a well-understood platform from the start, accelerating Force India's already rapid in-season development, accentuating what has historically been one of Force India's strengths. This will be further improved by planned upgrades to the team's factory, as well as refinements to the Toyota-owned wind tunnel facility that the team uses for car development.
Coming off its best-ever season, with a fourth place finish in the constructors' championship with 187 points, the team is worried by the rebounds of McLaren, Renault, and Williams. McLaren has been artificially handicapped by its Honda engine since 2015, keeping Mercedes-powered Force India ahead, but the adoption of a more competitive Renault engine could put the two in a position to clash. Renault is intending to win races in the 2019 season, and its path to the top is routed directly through Force India's territory in fourth. Its staff and budget dwarf Force India's, making the French team's overtake look probable.
Williams too, as outlined above, is taking on all the talent and cash it can, and its new design personnel may reverse the team's slide back down the grid.
Force India considers the best defense to be offense, and believes a podium-capable car to be the ideal way to maintain its fourth-place footing. The team even has what it considers a secret weapon: Esteban Ocon, whom the team's COO, Otmar Szafnauer, bills as an equal to Verstappen, but at a fraction the price. That is, for as long as the team can hold on to Ocon—Mercedes may want their prospect back any year now.
Compared with its competition, the Renault R.S.18 looks downright conservative. Not a good sign for a team that intends to leap from a sixth-place finish in the constructors' championship in 2017 to winning races in 2019. Renault has a reason for showing off such a conservative design, however: It's not the team's real car. A closer examination of the car claimed to be the R.S.18 reveals striking similarities with the 2017 car, the R.S.17, leading me to believe the car to be a redressed R.S.17 in a 2018 livery and with the year's mandated safety and aero changes applied.
So why would Renault, a team not anticipating wins in 2018, hide its car from the competition? The answer could lie with a man named Marcin Budkowski. As the FIA's technical director, Budkowski was privy to information on every single one of F1's rule loopholes and how teams are using them. A matter of months into his time in this position of knowledge, he issued his two weeks'. Teams immediately suspected he was heading to Renault, and they were right.
Budkowski's "gardening leave," a period in which he was unable to work in the industry, was originally set to be three months, but after backlash from the competition, Renault extended the period to around seven months, with Budkowski's first day to be April 1. He is not officially in a technical position, as he will adopt the title of executive director rather than technical director, but you would be hard-pressed to find anyone in F1 that believes he will not influence the team's technical direction.
A month after Budkowski's hiring at Renault was announced, the team's technical director, Nick Chester, stated the team would develop "a completely new car" for 2018, though no official connection between the hiring of Budkowski and Chester's statement has been made. Alongside the new chassis design direction will come a total redesign of the Renault engine, with every improvement pent-up since last spring bursting forth at the start of this season. Renault-powered teams endured frustrating engine failures throughout the year, owed to the development path chosen by Renault between 2016 and 2017, which took risks that didn't pay off, resulting in 13 engine or engine-related failures in 120 race entries by Renault-powered cars.
Three engines are allowed per driver for the entire 2018 season, after which, penalties will be applied for new engines. Thus, an engine must now last seven Grands Prix if penalties are to be avoided, and coming off a season of engine failure rate of almost 11 percent, reliability ought to be a huge concern for Renault. Development of the new engine was said to be months ahead of schedule as of October, which should put the team in the perfect position to achieve its winter testing goal of being among the top three in miles driven. One report claims Renault has achieved a 950 horsepower output, almost equal with Mercedes' 2017-ending figures, but Renault's competition will not be at a standstill. More on that below.
2017 was the straw that broke the not-so-camel-shaped hyphen in McLaren-Honda. Power woes remained, and reliability was worse than even in 2015. McLaren had enough, and announced months before the season's end that it would switch to Renault power from 2018 to 2020.
Despite the abhorrent performance, McLaren was adamant that its MCL32—which shuffled its feet to ninth in the constructors' championship, tying for its worst finish since 1980—was among the best chassis in the sport, singing the virtues of the MCL32 (but not its engine) on multiple occasions, despite admitting the package had its faults.
The now Renault-powered MCL33 ought to suffer a power deficit lesser than that faced by Honda-propelled cars, with engine data already giving Fernando Alonso renewed confidence in his team. If the team's chassis design is as strong as it boasts, McLaren's closest competitor in 2018 could be totally-TAG-not-Renault-engined Red Bull Racing. McLaren anticipated the possibility of parity between itself and Red Bull, and it launched its first assault on its rival with a veto of the "shark fin" aero element seen in 2017, with its motive reported to be the disruption of Red Bull's aero development.
Forgive the following paragraph; it is but personal, unfounded speculation in the midst of an otherwise largely factual recap. I suspect this could partially be the doing of Peter Promodrou, a former protege of Red Bull's Adrian Newey, who headed the aerodynamics team at Red Bull during its prime at the end of the V8 era, before boarding the McLaren boat in 2014. Promodrou would be familiar with the design philosophies of his former mentor, and may have advised McLaren to take a stance that he suspects could hamper the Newey-backed design team of Red Bull.
End of conspiracy theory.
It is believed that McLaren's relationship to Red Bull extends beyond adopting its former personnel. Red Bull was thought to have devised a way of overcoming the power limitations of the Renault engine in 2017 by lowering the car's rake (the angle of the diffuser in relationship to the track) for reduced drag on long straights. Likewise, it was reported that McLaren mimicked this trick, its power deficiency being even more severe than Red Bull's.
Some doubt that McLaren could be immediately competitive with Red Bull on the chassis design front, despite the apparent similarities between the two. The swap between Honda and Renault engines, which are reported to have wildly differing architectures and packaging requirements, must have its speed bumps. To complicate the problem, Red Bull has used Renault engines for the last 11 years, whereas McLaren has never once run Renault engines since its first Grand Prix entry in 1966. Multiple sources report that the aforementioned speed bump has been all but flattened by a McLaren eager to put its miserable Honda years behind itself, and that the change to Renault engines has gone just fine.
As Florence and her machine have foretold, McLaren and others feel the team's dawn has arrived. Team principal Eric Boullier is cautiously optimistic about the team's 2018 season, as are sponsors, according to an interview with McLaren Technology Group executive director Zak Brown. Sponsors to come forward for McLaren's benefit in 2018 so far include Dell, Brazilian petroleum company Petrobras, and others, but no title sponsor will hitch itself to McLaren this year.
The MCL33 we see on track Monday will be both a manifestation of McLaren's renewed confidence and a shadow of what's to come: The car may receive a "substantial" upgrade between testing and the season's start in 'Straya.
While Red Bull's engine handicap was far from being as crippling as McLaren's Honda-badged dead weight, the team still lost significant chunks of time. It detected a half-second gap between its TAG-branded Renault engine and those of competitors such as Mercedes at Brazil, making the capabilities of an Red Bull not bereft of horsepower an intriguing prospect. With the progress Renault has made in the off-season, there is reason to believe the gap between Red Bull and leading Mercedes and Ferrari teams will diminish, if not vanish—a possibility made further likely by Adrian Newey's increased involvement in the RB14's development.
The RB14 has stayed the course of the RB13's short-wheelbase development, but has also adapted to what kids these days call "the new meta," with shrunken sidepod inlets, and obsessive barge board and front wing complication, not to mention the addition of the halo and subtraction of the engine enclosure fin.
Even if Renault's engine progress and the RB14's chassis are satisfactory, the team is still fishing for more performance, and is evaluating partnerships with a variety of automakers to provide them with engines in 2019 and beyond. VAG brands Porsche and Lamborghini have been linked to future F1 involvement, but not until new regulations arrive in 2021, and Red Bull wants results sooner, with even a switch before next year on the cards. The two most probable options for Red Bull in the future are Honda and current partner Aston Martin.
Honda's program is being evaluated from within by Red Bull's younger sibling, Toro Rosso, which is providing the troubled Japanese automaker and engine supplier an environment in which it can develop its engine without the demand of immediate results. Red Bull gets the win-win of keeping an established engine partner (Renault) and trialing a new one (Honda), with whom it will cooperate to get its engine up to speed. Honda's apparent progress is reassuring enough that Max Verstappen's visit to the company's facilities was enough to convince the Dutchman to sign a contract extension through 2020. Red Bull promises to make a decision on its 2019 engine "by the summer," in reference to the FIA's sporting regulations requiring an engine change notification be filed by the 15th of May, the season prior to the changeover.
Aston Martin, on the other hand, is on a looser timetable. The company is among those interested in a 2021 entry, when engines are meant to be cheaper to develop and manufacture, with CEO Andy Palmer expressing a strong desire to become an engine supplier if regulations are more conducive to new competitors. Aston Martin and Red Bull joined arms in September, and the British luxury carmaker's name and logo will be displayed prominently upon the RB14 for the duration of the season, as seen above.
As for development of the Aston Martin engine, Cosworth has volunteered to involve itself in the project, due to its current involvement with the Aston Martin Valkyrie hypercar, which is a joint Red Bull-Aston-Cosworth creation. The company would shoulder the development of the 2021 engine between itself and Aston Martin, and presumably, Red Bull would get the right to first refusal to the status of factory team for the new engine.
Cosworth last supplied an F1 engine in 2013, when it powered Marussia, though it developed a hybrid V6 for the era of engines that began in 2014. The company, however, had no takers for its turbo V6, due to worries about the small engineering firm's ability to keep pace with the advancements made by the international automakers Renault, Ferrari, and Mercedes.
Tradition dictates no F1 season is complete without Ferrari throwing a tantrum and threatening a withdrawal from the sport. They say they're serious this time, as they always do, but there is no longer a Bernie Ecclestone to rush to Ferrari's side and wipe away its tears. Instead, Liberty Media is having none of the Scuderia's melodrama, with Chase Carey calling Ferrari's bluff, and stating that while the team is important to the sport, it does not deserve preferential treatment. McLaren head Zak Brown backed Liberty's greater good stance on the matter, agreeing on the value Ferrari adds to F1, but also that the team must not be favored.
In regard to the team's 2018 season, Ferrari CEO Sergio Marchionne's thoughts on the team's SF71H are in monochrome, as he stated that the car this year is either "a crap car or a real beast." Changes made to the Ferrari-powered Sauber C37 suggest the team has incorporated a long wheelbase design like that used by Mercedes, instead of the shorter wheelbase the SF70H was built upon. This is presumably due to the added high speed stability from a longer wheelbase, allowing lesser downforce levels on fast tracks, and by extension, less drag, and greater straight line speed. The car also features further-cinched side pod inlets, an evolution of Ferrari's radical 2017 design, and McLaren-esque front wing and nose setup.
Ferrari's engine was 15 horsepower below and a critical failure above Mercedes at the end of 2017, with three race-ending engine faults to Merc's two, despite supplying one fewer team. The most notable Ferrari engine to give up the ghost was Vettel's in Japan, which some see as the end of the championship fight. Keen to avoid a repeat of these problems in the demanding 2018 season, in which only three engines per driver are permitted, Ferrari's engine has been polished up enough to last seven Grands Prix, its design reportedly an evolved 2017 engine rather than a conceptually fresh design for 2018.
Furthermore, the improved engine has been lightened, and its power output is reported by a source close to Ferrari as having broken four digits, well in excess of Mercedes' peak power as of the end of last year. The boys and girls at Brixworth, however, have their own answer to the Scuderia's now four-figure-strong stable...
Mercedes and its customer teams will be powered by an overhauled 2018 engine design, which will incorporate new materials, decreased friction in critical areas, and greater electrical efficiency. The team managed 50 percent thermal efficiency during a test session in 2017, bringing the team close to the 1,000 horsepower bar.
On the reliability front, Andy Cowell, head of Mercedes' engine development, professed a distaste for the new three-unit engine limit. He says the attempt to reduce costs by restricting engine use and encouraging reliability is inflating the costs of testing programs, a cost which will not be recovered. Regardless, Cowell is confident that the 2018 Mercedes engine will last the requisite seven races, and that power levels will not noticeably dip to keep reliability in check. Mercedes' engine program will be further buoyed by the arrival of Lorenzo Sassi, formerly of Ferrari's own engine works, who was behind an unsuccessful 2017 upgrade to the Ferrari engine meant to make it a match with the Merc.
Italian media reported during the winter alleged that Mercedes was also playing with a new transmission design, one producing such heavy vibration that it was damaging the exhaust. There was an equal backlash from within Italian F1 circles against this story, however, with one journalist colorfully declaring the alleged vibration problems "cazzate."
The design of the team's 2018 chassis, designated the W09, was the subject of much deliberation. Under serious examination by all teams are the wheelbase (length between front and rear wheels) and rake, or the severity of the angle between the floor-based diffuser and the road. A short wheelbase keeps cars nimble at low speed, for circuits like Monaco, but it comes at the price of lesser stability on fast circuits like Monza. High rake means extra stable, floor-based downforce, but also more drag, and thus a lower top speed. A low rake has the inverse effect.
Mercedes' W08 subscribed to the long wheelbase, low rake school of thought, prioritizing performance on high speed circuits, whereas teams like Ferrari and Red Bull went for shorter cars with more rake. Mercedes played with the idea of a shorter car, though its car ultimately remained long, albeit with a higher rake.
Like its competition, the W09 has integrated smaller sidepod inlets, though more conservatively so than its Renault and Ferrari-engined foes. A new suspension design is also present, which might serve to offset Mercedes' early-2017 difficulties with tire temperatures, which earned the W08 a reputation as a "diva." While the W09 may carry some diva DNA forward, Mercedes will have worked to assure the W09 is assuredly less so—betting your silver dollars on the Silver Arrows again could be a wise investment.