Formula One fans were delighted when the 2017 cars appeared with wider tyres, bigger wings and a return to the classic looks of bygone years.
By Graham Duxbury
But now, the time-honoured open-cockpit layout that F1 cars have featured for the last 67 years, disappears with this year’s introduction of the halo, the result of five years of research into increased frontal head protection by the FIA, the sport’s governing body.
While many traditionalists bemoan the halo’s introduction, it was inevitable as driver safety advances have been in F1’s DNA since crash helmets were made compulsory in 1953.
In addition to the halo, additional visual changes to this year’s cars include the disappearance of the “shark fin” extension to the engine cover and the banning of “T-wings” designed to “condition” (smoothen) the aerodynamic airflow to the rear wing. The small gearbox-mounted wing – the “monkey seat” – is also outlawed.
New liveries are set to appear on the grid this year. Notably, the Alfa Romeo brand is making a reappearance for the first time since 1987 as the Italian manufacturer becomes the title sponsor of the Sauber team. The engine powering Sauber drivers Marcus Ericsson and newcomer Charles Leclerc is, in fact, a rebadged Ferrari unit.
Honda, having been through a very public divorce with McLaren, becomes the engine supplier to the Toro Rosso team and its new driver pairing of Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley.
This year’s updated regulations, mandating only three engines for the entire season (instead of four) could see Toro Rosso suffer more than other teams should Honda’s notorious unreliability endure.
Toro Rosso’s former Renault engine supply goes to McLaren whose drivers, Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne, are expecting far better results this year.
Carlos Sainz seems to be relishing his transfer from Toro Rosso to Renault. If the French team makes the strides expected of it in the power plant department, he and teammate Nico Hulkenberg should have a successful 2018.
No longer newcomers to the F1 scene, the Ferrari-powered Haas team could be another strong contender in the mid-field should its decision to abandon on-going development of its 2017 car early last season to focus all efforts on the ’18 car bear fruit. Undoubtedly Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen are hoping so.
Another team vying for domination in the mid-field is Force India. Rumours of a name change circulated last year, but chances are the status quo will be maintained as far as branding is concerned. The striking pink cars are again driven by the competitive duo of Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon.
Probably the biggest disappointment of 2017 was the gradual push to the back of the grid by the once-great Williams team. Mercedes-powered, its performance deficit was hard to explain. With the departure of veteran Felipe Massa, the team now relies on young pay-driver Lance Stroll to take on the team-leader mantle. Joining him will be the Russian, Sergey Sirotkin, last year’s development driver at Renault. He brings significant financial backing from Russian billionaire Boris Rotenberg. Sirotkin and Stroll will form 2018’s most inexperienced F1 line-up.
Another team in the throes of a major rebranding exercise is Red Bull which is now known as Aston Martin Red Bull Racing after agreeing an ‘innovation partnership’ with the car manufacturer. While the tie up could point to a new engine being developed for 2021 when new regulations come into force, the team will be relying on Renault power for the foreseeable future.
Hopefully, Renault’s promised upgrade will allow Daniel Riccardo and Max Verstappen to challenge for wins without having to rely on unreliability from Ferrari or Mercedes-Benz.
Ferrari’s driver line-up remains unchanged with Kimi Raikkonen again partnering Sebastian Vettel. For the Scuderia to mount a championship challenge this year, any weaknesses in the car’s design, hybrid power or driver performances must be eliminated. Is this a tall order for the Italian team that unaccountably stumbled at the final hurdles last year?
In lifting both the constructors’ and drivers’ titles, Mercedes-Benz and Lewis Hamilton demonstrated a degree of superiority in 2017 that was hard for anyone to emulate. While the early season saw a determined dogfight between Lewis’ Mercedes and Vettel’s Ferrari, it increasingly became clear that Lewis had gained the upper hand. Teammate Valtteri Bottas ended the season on a high with a win in Abu Dhabi.
Should Mercedes maintain the advantages it enjoyed in the closing stages of 2017 Hamilton should have an even easier path to his fifth championship win.