Now or never for Sebastian Vettel as Ferrari star bids for coveted fifth world title

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As testing drew to a close at Circuit de Catalunya on Friday, Sebastian Vettel must have been brimming with confidence as he jumped on a flight back to his home in Switzerland.

The four-time world champion was fastest over the eight days of testing in Barcelona – and looked a cut above his rivals which represents a significant boost for Ferrari ahead of the start of the new season in Melbourne on March 24.

Irrespective of how this season goes, the German will still go down as one of the greats of F1 even if he has not dominated the sport since his world title wins between 2010-2013 with Red Bull.

However, with the rising competitiveness of the sport – and the emergence of young stars like Max Verstappen and Esteban Ocon – this is the season Vettel needs to step up another gear if he wants to win a fifth world championship.

If the 30-year-old doesn’t do it this season he never will.

Three barren years at Ferrari have bore him just seven victories – and although 2017 was perhaps his best year yet with the Italian marque – the unreliability of the car cost him at critical moments.

The Heppenheim native led the championship at the halfway stage in July but suffered setbacks in Singapore, Malaysia and Japan – paving the way for Lewis Hamilton to seal a fourth world title with two races remaining in Texas.

The car is the most important piece of any driver’s puzzle and after a strong pre-season, Vettel is surely gathering some of the old magic again in the new SF-71H car that boasts more power, better braking and effective grip from the tyres.

Ferrari may have been quickest around the circuit in northern Spain but it is world champions Mercedes who appear to be in best shape.

But while the Silver Arrow have maintained the edge, it is set up to be an intriguing battle between both their lead drivers – as Hamilton and Vettel attempt to break away from each other and climb to the second-highest rung on the ladder with Juan Manuel Fangio on five world titles.

With the new car firing – the German has reason to believe this could finally be the season where he can challenge Hamilton for that coveted world title.

In some respects, the leap in performance Ferrari made last season has given Vettel, team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and the rest of the Prancing Horse plenty of optimism for 2018.

Vettel’s single lap times looked promising over the eight days of testing – including a stunning unofficial track record of 1:17.664 – that was subsequently lowered by Raikkonen on the final day.

With both drivers setting the fastest lap times of the winter, this should give Vettel a major advantage if he can qualify ahead of his rivals, on fast tracks where race strategy is likely to be one stop, such as Monza and Mexico.

Sport is about confidence, belief and skill, and Vettel needs to believe he can finally threaten Hamilton at the front of the grid consistently over the course of the season.

It is inevitable car issues will curtail each of the drivers in at least one race across the eight-month season – however, when the car is in fine fettel Vettel needs to showcase his class behind the wheel.

When contrasting him against his rivals, Vettel has the mental characteristics to handle pressure and is equally adept at overcoming the oversteer. Although he may not have the pace or determination to get a near-perfect qualifying lap like Hamilton, he has the ability to push the envelope in each race.

Of course, it’s nice to see different drivers finish on the podium, but to have Vettel consistently challenging the likes of Valtteri Bottas, Hamilton or Verstappen across the full season will make for a more captivating battle for fans.

Whether he steps on to the podium at Yas Marina Circuit in November with the world title or not, 2018 will be the litmus test to prove where he stands in the list of great drivers.

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Ferrari raise the bar as Sebastian Vettel dominates F1 testing in Barcelona

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McLaren ended Formula One’s pre-season schedule rooted to the bottom of the lap charts after concluding their winter schedule with another frustrating day.

Lewis Hamilton’s world championship-winning Mercedes team passed through the 1,000-lap barrier on Friday following another bulletproof pre-season campaign, but McLaren have completed only 599 laps, the fewest of any of the 10 teams.

Defending champion Hamilton signed off his winter schedule by completing nearly a century of laps on Friday morning. Hamilton, who managed 97 circuits, was 11th on the timesheets with Mercedes yet to show their true one-lap pace.

Valtteri Bottas took the team’s lap tally for the day to 201 after taking over testing duties from Hamilton in the afternoon. The Finn finished sixth in the order.

With the first race of the season set to get under way in two weeks in Australia, we take a look at how each team fared in Barcelona.

Ferrari

The speed of the Scuderia surprised a few people over the past two weeks and the Italian marque look to have made a considerable jump from this time 12 months ago. They have no issue clocking up the laps, with Sebastian Vettel completing 187 in one day alone – a distance of nearly 800km. The German also produced a new unofficial track record to top the timesheets on Thursday. But whether they can continue to bring this form into Melbourne and the rest of the season remains to be seen.

Mercedes

There’s no doubt the world champions will be challenging for podiums in most of the races this season, but the key will be how close their rivals are in the new machines. Lewis Hamilton set the fastest time of 1:19.333 in the first week and continued to be a menace around the Circuit de Catalunya throughout the second. Consistently solid but they do not appear unbeatable.

Red Bull

The early pace setters on week one, but still set 100 laps fewer than Mercedes. But with two victories from the final five races of last season, Christian Horner’s side will certainly be challenging for more podiums this time around, especially with a more reliable car and two commanding figures in Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo. If they want a shot at a first title since 2013, however, they need to start by showing their consistency in Melbourne. Mixed testing but still solid if unspectacular.

McLaren

Team boss Zac Brown played down some of the failings during testing, but the reality is the new Renault-powered car completed fewer miles than any other team. Fernando Alonso missed nearly seven hours of testing on Wednesday following another car failure. Stoffel Vandoorne, meanwhile, spent more time in the garage than on the track on Tuesday – completing a session-low 38 laps. Overall, It was a disappointing two weeks for a team that were expected to make the most headway.

Williams

A solid two weeks for Williams, and definitely a workload Paddy Lowe will be content with when he sits down to analyse the data in Wantage next week. With much pressure on his shoulders, Sergey Sirotkin showed he was ready for the new campaign and will be eager to impress come Melbourne – with reserve driver Robert Kubica lurking in the paddock. 19-year-old Lance Stroll had a productive two weeks, clocking up the mileage. When they have more track time, the British marque should be around the midfield but may be off the likes of McLaren and Force India.

Toro Rosso

An encouraging week for Toro Rosso as the team’s new partnership with Honda got off to a positive start. Frenchman Pierre Gasly topped the mileage charts with 229 on the first week, with Brendon Hartley looking more comfortable behind the wheel than did he did towards the back end of last season. Franz Tost’s team look to have made more progress than most of the other teams, but can they carry that form into the new season?

Renault

A solid start to the year for the French outfit as they bid to push the likes of Mercedes and Ferrari at the top of the grid. The yellow RS18 is certainly the best looking car in Formula One but it is hoped the engine reliability will be able to help them steer free of trouble. Team chief Cyril Abiteboul has described their start as the best since 2014 – and with Carlos Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg clocking up the miles with ease, it looks to be the beginning of a new dawn for Renault.

Sauber

Although they struggled for long periods in testing, it was exciting to see how 20-year-old sensation Charles Leclerc fared against his team-mate Marcus Ericsson – now in his fourth season at Sauber. The poor weather may have proved costly on week one as they attempted to work out the fundamentals of their new design, but expect the Swiss outfit to be closer to their rivals, especially with the new Ferrari engine.

Force India

Testing didn’t prove too useful for a team who are expected to be challenging at the front of the grid, with Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez only competing 79 and 65 laps respectively in the first week. They were fairly consistent across the second week – with the Frenchman posting 130 laps on Wednesday. Work still needs to be done before the first outing in Australia, but expect both drivers to be a consistent presence in the top eight.

Haas

The American team maintained their consistent form during testing week – with Kevin Magnussen setting solid times throughout the two weeks of testing. The Dane even finished P2 on Thursday – with a stunning 1:18.360. With two top-six finishes since 2016, Haas have reason to be encouraged despite Romain Grosjean being among the slowest drivers. The Frenchman will no doubt be back to his best come March 24.

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Can anyone challenge Lewis Hamilton and other key questions ahead of 2018 Formula One season

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Lewis Hamilton will go into the new season as the overwhelming favourite to win his fifth world title, but the key question will be which drivers can challenge the Brit.

With the new cars set to shake up the grid, F1 fans will be hoping the likes of Max Verstappen, Valtteri Bottas and Sebastian Vettel can light up the front of the grid and challenge for wins.

Here, we take a look at other key questions ahead of the new season.

Can anyone challenge Hamilton in 2018?

There is a genuine feeling that Vettel can finally be a consistent threat to Hamilton this time around – but will it be another case of early season optimism or can the German claim a fifth world title?

It’s now or never for Vettel – who turns 31 in July – and the new Ferrari SF71H is his best chance.

The same can be said of Hamilton’s team-mate Bottas.

The Finn had arguably his best season ever in 2017 with 13 podiums – including three wins – and grew in confidence and had more faith in his ability as the season progressed.

But will the 29-year-old sit back and let Hamilton dominate or will he finally step up and have a say in the championship race?

Expect Verstappen to have say in the title battle too.

The Dutchman had a torrid start to last season with seven retirements but finished strongly with two wins in Mexico and Malaysia – and also showed in Japan and America why he has the potential to be a future world champion.

However, in order for Verstappen to make this dream a reality, he needs to be consistent across the season.

Will Kimi Raikkonen do enough retain Ferrari seat at end of 2018?

There’s no doubting his popularity, but the 2007 world champion has done little to warrant a seat for Ferrari due to his inconsistency over the past few seasons.

The Finn may have finished fourth in the drivers’ standings last season, but the Ferrari man has failed to win since the Australian Grand Prix in 2013.

If it wasn’t for the reliability issues of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo, then the 38-year-old could well have been lower in the standings.

For a driver on the fifth highest salary, he does not justify his position as an elite driver with the second best team in the sport. Could 2018 be the Ice Man’s final F1 season?

 F1 Winter Testing in Barcelona - Day One

Who will come out on top in the battle of the Red Bull drivers?

The weight of expectation continues to grow as Verstappen steps out for his third season at Red Bull.

A disappointing opening to the 2017 campaign that included seven retirements had the 20-year-old frustrated with the reliability problems of his team.

But Dutchman finished strongly with two wins in Mexico and Malaysia.

When his car was firing, he out-qualified his teammate Daniel Ricciardo (13 out of 20 times) – and with a more reliable machine this term – he is sure to wrestle for more podiums.

It won’t be both Red Bull drivers at the top of the standings, however, so Ricciardo needs to make a statement and show his aggressiveness and overtaking skills as he enters into the twilight of his career.

Nine podiums last season will certainly raise some optimism, but this could be a seminal year for Ricciardo as Verstappen will have a more reliable car at his disposal to battle for wins.

Expect Verstappen to come out on top – and further underline why he has the potential to be a future world champion.

How far will McLaren rise with new Renault power?

After three years under unreliable and underperforming Honda engines, McLaren have finally swapped for Renault power in a move that is set to bolster their chances of securing a podium finish for the first time since 2014.

McLaren executive director Zak Brown has revealed the car passed its crash tests and is producing promising numbers in simulations – with Stoffel Vandoorne clocking the fastest lap during the fourth day of testing in Barcelona last week.

The car’s pace may be difficult to figure out after less than a week of testing, but in the wider scheme of things, it represents a significant boost as McLaren aim to clamber back slowly to the front of Formula One.

In Fernando Alonso, they have one of the most gifted drivers on the circuit – and although 37 in July – could be the man to inspire the Woking-outfit to success again.

Will the halo affect racing?

One of the major talking points over the past few weeks has been the introduction of the halo.

The halo is closed-cockpit protection device which has been made compulsory to give the drivers protection from flying debris on the tracks.

For 2017, the minimum weight limit went up 26kg from 702kg to 728kg due to the wider cars and bigger tyres. However, with the halo, the FIA has added another 6kg to the cars this campaign.

But with the mountings and brackets that are needed to secure this, the weight of the car could be heavier again – meaning teams will have to find ways to save weight in other areas to boost performance.

It’s bad news for the likes of Nico Hulkenberg of Renault – who is the tallest and heaviest driver.

The halo may be uglier and it may slow down cars, but it’ll certainly be safer.

Can star man Leclerc flip Sauber’s fortunes?

2016 and 2017 were seasons of the struggles for the Swiss outfit as they accumulated just seven points from the 41 races.

But fresh financial backing from Alfa Romeo could be the launching pad the team needs to revive their prospects.

With access to the latest Ferrari power units – Sauber could be in with a shout of competing for consistent points this campaign.

In new signing Charles Leclerc, they possess one of the most promising young drivers in the sport.

The 20-year-old Monaco native dominated F2 as a rookie last season – and the question remains whether he can produce the same magic on his F1 bow?

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