At first sight, and with the notable exception of the new Halo device, not much seems to have changed in Formula 1 this season.
The frame and engine, the rules are the same, and the top team are back with an unchanged driver line-up – including the reigning champion Lewis Hamilton’s bid for a fourth crown in five seasons with Mercedes to take the general state of F1 world title count to five.
But as ever with F1, it’s all about the details. And there are a lot of small changes that will have an impact this year, both on and off the track. We asked ex-Renault F1 racer Jolyon Palmer, who has joined the BBC Radio 5 Live commentary team for the 2018, on some of the main storylines of the coming season.
Can anyone stop Mercedes?
Mercedes has dominated from the time that the V6 turbo engines are introduced in 2014, claiming a double again last year, despite a challenge from Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel.
Pre-season testing suggests that the Mercedes is still the team to beat, even though Palmer says that Red Bull could be his opponent closer. “The Red Bull ended last year strongly with a few wins and can build,” says Palmer. “They started last year on the back of the foot in the testing phase and developed well, and are in much better shape this year.”
McLaren and Honda to move on:
After three increasingly acrimonious seasons, McLaren and Honda on the scene, avery public divorce at the end of last year. The british team of McLaren has landed a supply of customer engines from Renault and Honda regained its place on the grid by accepting to provide the Toro Rosso, the Red Bull ‘B team’.
So far, the Honda looks a lot better: Red Bull is the highest number of laps for each team interesting, while McLaren suffered reliability woes.
“The Toro Rosso was the surprise of the pre-season,” says Palmer. “It’s been incredibly reliable so far.” That said, he warns against writing off McLaren: “They had a lot of reliability problems in testing, but Fernando Alonso has put in some good times. They should develop a lot. When you switch to another engine supplier, and ‘ how to start a new relationship.”
The freedom effect:
This will be the Freedom of the Media second full season in charge of F1 and the first where you can really make its impact felt. That has meant a lot of tinkering around the edges: the grid girls are gone (sparks of a great public debate); grid the children are in the; boot times have moved on; social media and online streaming are in the process of development; and the F1 is also getting its own global theme tune (and, no, not The Chain).
“In general, I like what Freedom are doing,” says Palmer. “I’ve been running for a year under Bernie [Ecclestone] and a year in Freedom, and that they are going in the right way and with good intentions. They are modernising the F1 a bit, taking the point of view of the driver and other interested parties.”
The greatest option that may interest fans is the change of start times: the races will start at 10 minutes past the hour, with the European races mixed back in time to try to increase votes.
Although the Malaysian Grand Prix has been axed, the return of the French and German GPs-the latter, which will be held at the Paul Ricard, is back for the first time since 2007 – means that the calendar stretches to 21 races. That ties in with the higher level, set in 2016.
“Do 21 rounds of the 2016, it’s been tough. By the end of the season, you’re pretty much shattered,” says Palmer. “But it was manageable. Freedom are pushing to have more races, maybe up to 25. It is a fine line to dilute too much.”
The 21 races are crammed into the calendar this year: the French, Austrian and British GPs will take place in three consecutive weekends in the month of June and July. Even though Palmer says that the execution will be mitigated by close the distances between the events, he admits that it will be difficult for the driver. “The challenge will be to maintain concentration for three weeks,” he says.
Who’s driving where in 2018:
Mercedes-AMG – 44 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) 77 Valtteri Bottas (FIN)
Ferrari – 5 Sebastian Vettel (GER) 7-Kimi Raikkonen (FIN)
Red Bull-Tag Heuer [Renault] – 3 Daniel Ricciardo (AUS), 33 Max Verstappen (NED)
Sahara Force India-Mercedes – 11 Sergio Perez (MEX) 31 Esteban Ocon (FRA)
Williams-Mercedes – 18 Lance Stroll (CAN) 35 Sergey Sirotkin (RUS)
McLaren-Renault – 2 Stoffel Vandoorne (BEL) 14 Fernando Alonso (ESP)
Renault – 27 Nico Hülkenberg (GER) 55 Carlos Sainz Jr (ESP)
Haas-Ferrari – 8 Romain Grosjean (FRA) 20 Kevin Magnussen (DEN)
Red bull-Honda – 10 Pierre Gasly (FRA) 28 Brendon Hartley (NZL)
Sauber-Ferrari – 9 Marcus Ericsson (SWE) 16 Charles Leclerc (MON)