Ferrari have targeted their first Formula One title in a decade after dominating testing in Barcelona last week.
But can the Italian marque finally overcome Mercedes and lift the title? Niall McCague, Tom Biggs and Stuart Appleby discuss whether it’s a two-horse race between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton, what the Pracing Horse need to do to win the constructors’ title and what impact Kimi Raikkonen could have.
Agree or disagree with our writers? Let us know as they go head-to-head in our new-look three question debate.
Is it a two-horse race between Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton?
NM: Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel will go into the new season as the overwhelming favourite to win the title, but with the new cars set to shake up the grid, fans will be hoping to see the likes of Valtteri Bottas, Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen challenging for glory. Although some drivers have shown improvements, it’s difficult to see anyone else but Hamilton or Vettel seal the drivers title – both of whom are chasing an impressive fifth crown.
TB: Come the end of testing, the question wasn’t whether Ferrari had closed the gap on Mercedes, but whether Red Bull were closest to the world champions. Vettel may have set an unofficial lap record in Barcelona, but had very little to say, perhaps the biggest indication he’s not completely happy. Hamilton, meanwhile, told reporters “last year’s car was great, but this car feels better.” The outlook is ominous for his rivals – this could be a one-horse race.
SA: Yes, it’s all a bit too predictable. Hamilton is without doubt the out-and-out favourite to claim his fifth world title, with successful testing in Catalonia going to show Mercedes should be even quicker this term. The Briton is unfazed by Vettel’s preseason pace and it’s that single mindedness which underpins the 33-year-old’s desire to triumph again. Vettel and Ferrari are primed for second but won’t have the staying power to top the charts.
What do Ferrari need to do to win the constructors’ championship?
NM: Although Ferrari ran Mercedes close last season before unreliability scuppered Vettel’s championship bid, the last of their 31 title victories was back in 2008. If the Prancing Horse are to win the constructors’ title this season they need Vettel and Raikkonen to be on the podium in nearly every race. Whether they have the pace and consistency to challenge Mercedes remains to be seen, but Ferrari need both drivers to push harder in a bid to score more points.
TB: Last year, Vettel made a stunning start to the season, finishing in the top two in all of the first six races. But while Mercedes were working away to improve their car, Ferrari stalled, allowing their rivals to steal a march from Silverstone onwards. Improved reliability will also be required if Ferrari are to end Mercedes’ supreme dominance. Four retirements and a did not start proved much too costly up against the everreliable Silver Arrows.
SA: The Italian team have got people talking about their new SF-71H car, its speed and endurance on the track, which can only be a good thing. Vettel’s fastest lap and longevity in Spain definitely boosted confidence – giving Ferrari some early season belief. Whether they have the power to trouble Mercedes consistently is up for debate but Vettel needs to use his experience to hang in the title picture as long as possible.
Is Kimi Raikkonen prepared to simply aid Ferrari and Vettel’s championship bids?
NM: 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 set an unofficial lap record at testing in Barcelona last week, but has failed to win since the Australian GP in 2013. Seven podiums in 2017 may show some improvements, but for as long as Raikkonen is with Ferrari, they will struggle to have a driver to help Vettel win.
TB: While Vettel put up a gallant fight, his teammate seemed to accept he was well off the pace in 2017 and did little to try and change that. For Ferrari to stop Mercedes, they’ll need Raikkonen to accept his place in the team, while also altering his outlook and attitude, with more podiums and support for Vettel a necessity. The problem is, he seems to have lost the nous to halt Mercedes, unlike the German. He could well hinder their hopes.
SA: The veteran Finn may have finished testing with a bang but will want to go about 2018 on his own terms, given there’s speculation it will be his last campaign. Both he and Ferrari are looking to the future, but given the Ice Man enjoys a good relationship with Vettel, he will be prepared to play second fiddle again and help the team. Raikkonen is a man of few words but the fact he’s content with the car’s performance so far is a good sign.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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?
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.
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.
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.
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.