By Bulali Dazana
The only certainties were the dates. The previews were mysterious and the leaks spunk from everywhere like those of a perforated bucket. This was the build-up to the 10 Formula 1 teams for the 2018 season revealing to the racing public what they had produced over the European winter.
As is characteristic of this sport, they came at us fast, bringing to an end what is the equivalent of the Western Cape drought for die-hard Formula 1 fans. There are few sports in the world that make last year’s equipment instantly archaic and irrelevant as soon as the chequered flag drops at the final event. The sense of a new dawn at the start of a F1 season is simply unmatched.
Every year in F1 brings about its own unique mystery. Some years the uncertainty is fundamental to racing as it was with major engine regulation changes in 2014 and the aero re-think of 2017, and some years it’s superficial and mainly in the minds of the frenzied fanatics.
This year it is largely superficial. The sport was acquired by Liberty Media in late 2016 and they have gradually been asserting themselves and their vision for the enterprise step by step. When F1 fans tune in en-masse to Free Practise 1 in Melbourne, the corner of their TV screens will contain an unfamiliar logo for the first time in more than 15 years. The now famed and familiar F1 logo was brought in by Mr Bernie Ecclestone in the early 2000’s to mark the “new millennium” (remember that?) and was symbolic of the globalisation of the sport beyond its European roots. The new logo comes in as Liberty Media marks its territory and a transition of the sport from a billionaire’s dictatorship to a corporate product, growing and adapting in the age of crypto-currencies and social media.
Social media and the overall rise in consciousness have had another effect on F1.
In 2018, the age old tradition of having young beautiful women in tight fitting clothing on the starting grid will be no more. My guess is that the “woke” generation started interrogating the ideology and the role of sexualising women in the sport. The rise in gender-vigilance must have raised questions such as: the stereotypical type of woman that was used for this purpose, why it was just women as opposed to a diversified gender and racial representation etc. Liberty Media decided to take the easy way out and can the whole thing rather than endure unnecessary criticism. The women will now be replaced by young aspirant racing drivers from lower formulae and carting. Great!
Now, on to some cars! This season will see the most dramatic safety intervention in F1 in recent history.
There was a time when drivers participated in the sport with the tacit acceptance that death was an inherent risk of racing, and when one got into a racing car they accepted a 20% chance that they may never get out. This seemed reasonable to the racing generation of the 1950’s. It cannot be lost on us that this was the generation that had lived through WWII and raced on airfields that would have been susceptible to bombing at any given moment just a few years prior. Their idea of the risk of death was fundamentally different to what ours is today. Subsequently, safety has become a priority in all forms of motorsport. The tragic 2014 passing of Murussia F1 driver Jules Bianchi, 20 years after the death of the legendary Ayrton Senna, has led to drastic measures with regard to driver cockpit protection.
After multiple considerations, the FIA has settled on the Halo and it has appeared on all the cars launched in 2018. It is hardly aesthetically pleasing, but until research is complete on more elegant solutions such as the aero-screen, the Halo is here to stay. Congratulations must go to Red Bull Racing for launching a car so beautiful that no even noticed the Halo! There’s no doubt after having followed testing that the Halo significantly obstructs driver identification which is traditionally clear from the helmet designs. There was a great suggestion by Fernando Alonso that the Halo be coloured in a design mimicking the helmet design of the driver. I hope he is taken up on this by as many teams as possible as it makes driver identification a lot easier for the fans.
While the Halo stirs some souls, the drivers market has been a lot less emotive. The big 3, Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing have all retained their driver line ups from 2017. Further down the field, Williams and Toro Rosso bring in 3 rookies drivers between them. This may create the illusion that there’s not much to say about the driver market in 2018 but nothing could be further from the truth. The stability of drivers at the front of the grid could well be rocket significantly based on this year’s performances. Ferrari is in all likelihood parting ways with 2007 World Champion Kimi Raikkonen at the end of this year owing to the fact that the ice cold Finn more than likely comes to the end of his second F1 career. Add to this Mercedes’ reluctance to cement fellow Finn Valteri Bottas into the team by granting him only a 1 year contract extension in 2017 and potentially we have 2 seats available for the 2019 season at 2 front running teams. Daniel Ricciardo is the man that comes into focus. Ricciardo has shown time and time again that he has the metal for a world championship challenge. He announced himself in no uncertain terms as a top driver by casting a shadow over then reigning world champion Sebastian Vettel in 2014, and followed it up with some of the most spectacular late breaking overtakes we’ve seen in the last 3 years. While his record at RedBull has been respectable, the team has made strong indications that its future is structured around sensational youngster Max Verstappen. Perhaps Ricciardo will want to move on from the team that brought him through its young driver programme into F1, but where will he go?
A team of 2 ferociously competitive drivers is a complicated beast that only works well if the correct dynamic exits. The seats may open up at Mercedes and Ferrari, but both teams have well established alpha males at the helm. How much influence does Sebastian Vettel really have over who occupies the Ferrari car beside his? It would be delusional to believe he will welcome the man who took the shine off his amazing run of 4 world championships. Lewis Hamilton on the other hand is on record as stating that he fears no driver on the grid and would welcome any team mate at Mercedes. This must be taken in context. I have no doubt Hamilton enjoyed 2017 as undisputed Mercedes no.1 driver far more than he enjoyed the tight psychological intra-team battles with Nico Rosberg. If Red Bull does not produce a package capable of keeping up with Mercedes and Ferrari, you can bet the speculation around where Ricciardo will drive in 2019 will reach fever pitch this year.
The last 2 weeks have seen Formula 1 return to its familiar pre-season testing ground in Barcelona, Spain. With very little technical regulation change, the pecking order has remained rather steady with Ferrari putting down the outright fastest time over the 2 weeks. Extremely cold and snowy weather put a limit to running on certain days but teams were able to work around this with lap counts running routinely over the 100-lap mark on sunny days. Mclaren put in the second fastest lap after a highly disrupted testing schedule characterised by reliability issues, followed by Red Bull in third, with Mercedes not showing their hand on the new Pirelli hyper-soft compound. The main curiosity was focused on the two engine swapping outfits of Toro Rosso and Mclaren. After 3 very painful years, Mclaren decided to ditch the Honda power unit and along with it, works team status. In 2018, Mclaren will run a Renault power unit as a customer team. Mclaren shouldn’t expect to be back to their winning ways, but the team may be able to restore some pride and on a more practical level, some desperately needed sponsorship. Toro Rosso has inherited the Honda engine and the paddock would have been abuzz with chatter when they ran a virtually perfect testing programme, hitting the 100 lap per day mark often. The pace was not bad either but for Honda, the aim will be to finish races this year. There’s speculation on why Honda seems to be rebirthed with suggestions that Torro Rosso has been far more accommodating to the Japanese culture than the famously rigid Mclaren. If we’re being frank, the team will serve the role of a testing platform this year for their big sister team, Red Bull Racing. Red Bull and Renault have had a frosty relationship in the hybrid era, culminating in Red Bull running a Tag Heuer branded Renault power unit from 2017. Should Honda come alive with Torro Rosso this year, we can expect to see Red Bull-Honda in a works relationship in the not too distant future.
Williams was slowest in testing and the memories of this team as a force in F1 seem to be fading more and more each year. The hopes that former Mercedes technical director Paddy Lowe would bring the team forward are yet to manifest. Sauber was second from the back, running arguably the best looking Alfa-Romeo livery, and a 2018 Ferrari power unit. For the last few years, Sauber have run year old Ferrari power but the relationship between the team and Ferrari has developed into a junior team/senior team one and they will now run 2018 Ferrari power with essentially 2 junior Ferrari drivers. Force India, which was supposed to undergo a name change over the winter, was third from the back. This team has achieved amazing results in context of their budget over the last 2 years, sealing 4th in the Constructor Championship in 2016 and 2017. Haas and the Renault works team filled the midfield in 4th and 5th positions as was to be expected. Haas would have left testing happy with the result, while Renault works team would be coming under some pressure from the French manufacture providing their backing.
The complex hybrid power units will be nearing their final stages of developmental evolution in 2018. The seasonal component allocation has come down every year since 2014 and this year the teams will have to make do with just 3 of each component for the 21 race season. Grade 3 mathematics will show that this requires a team to run a car for 7 races without a component failure in order to complete the season without an engine penalty. The idea is to cut the cost of racing by forcing competitors to develop more reliable components, rather than the traditional “change everything after every race” approach. Towards the end of 2017, we had a rather farcical situation where teams ran out of components and were running sub optimal power unit performance in races. This is not at all in the spirit of this competition and if reliability has not improved over the winter, we could see this happen even earlier in the season than it did last year, a real tragedy should it materialise.
Predictions? A wise man once told me that prediction is a fool’s game. What I will say though, is that the Tifosi will be desperate to see the scarlet red Ferrari taking a few more chequered flags than it did last year. Ferrari has not won a drivers title in over a decade. This cannot sit well with the most celebrated outfit and in many ways a cornerstone of the sport. For those looking for omens, the last time Ferrari won the drivers’ championship, we had a French Grand Prix on the calendar. This event returns in 2018, although at a different circuit. What is sure is that Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton have no intention to let up on the waning domination they have enjoyed since 2014. Testing is indication of what’s to come, but ultimately, Sunday 25th March is when the lights will go out Down Under.
It will be a race not to miss.