(photo credit: LGEPR)
It's here. The first race week of the Halo era has begun. The teams are in Australia, unpacking the carbon fibre, electronics, wheels, wings and power units that will tell us, over the next seven days, who did the best research and development during the off-season. There are dozens of questions to be answered but only a few will count to every Formula One fan.
Who will win?
Last year, Sebastian Vettel proved the impossible was possible around the Albert Park circuit - the first driver to beat the Mercedes team in a straight fight on track since the dawn of the hybrid era in 2014. It was inspiring and ushered in the most exciting season in years, with true title contenders from multiple teams.
This season brings expectations of a similar- if not closer - fight, with three teams ready to pounce. And many F1 fans are dying for that parity. With testing revealing little, and rumours around the paddock each suggesting a different team has a title chance, it remains to be seen who will triumph.
In reality, you would expect Mercedes to maintain an advantage over the rest of the field. And with three wins in the last four seasons, there is little to suggest they are on the back foot. Make no mistake, the title is theirs to lose. But it is reasonable to expect one or both of Ferrari and Red Bull to be gnashing at the heels of the W09. Albert Park is where the conjecture will end.
McLaren & Renault exposed
It's time for both McLaren and, to a lesser extent, Renault to put up some big results. Nobody is expecting them to storm the gates and win in Australia, but they will be expected to be the best of the rest. Anything less, particularly for McLaren, who heaped blame on former partner Honda, should be considered a failure. And with arguably the best driver on the grid under contract this is a true make-or-break year for the Woking team. Placing behind the top three teams is absolutely nothing to be ashamed of, but if McLaren are to prove they still are still a marquee team in F1, they need to produce a big point’s haul. The ingredients are there. It's time to prove they can mix them properly.
A similar situation exists for Renault. Their title wins are still relatively fresh in the memory and their stated aim after returning to the grid as a works team in 2016 was to reattain those heights. A sixth-place finish in 2017 was a solid result and gives them something legitimate to build on. With improved driver talent since Carlos Sainz replaced Jolyon Palmer, better results are expected - even if the team hasn't delivered a big step forward in development.
Like Max Verstappen, Sainz has great ability and a deep desire to have that recognised. With an improved car at his disposal, this is his year to prove it. His teammate, Nico Hulkenberg, also has something to prove. His quiet excellence since his early career fireworks have left him with the longest streak of starts without a podium in F1 history. Having a better stablemate to take the heat off will allow him to focus on himself and finally reach the level he has long been tipped to achieve.
Where are Force India? Has the storm which always seemed on the horizon last year finally enveloped them and relegated them to being just another team? Until proven otherwise, I would have to say yes. They brought nothing to pre-season testing and have put all their developmental eggs in an Albert Park update. Let's be clear, considering the tightly locked midfield, Force India had better hit a towering home run in Melbourne if they want to finish fourth in the Constructors Championship for a third consecutive season. The driver talent exists to deliver results and they have previously done an excellent job at squeezing the most from their limited budget. And while wins are unlikely, it is important not to take backward steps. My fear is that they have and I expect them to be fighting for minimal points in Australia.
Red Bull pecking order
Red Bull are in one of the most enviable positions in motorsport with two elite-level drivers, a top team manager, the sport's top aerodynamicist, a decent budget and a social media juggernaut all behind the former world champions. And unlike rivals Mercedes, who inherited their winning components from Ross Brawn, the team knows what it takes to build a winner. Based on testing, it looks like 2018 might be their year to return to prominence - even if a title doesn't materialise.
So what are the negatives? Until this point, Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo have appeared to get along like famous friends. Their battles on track, excluding Verstappen's mistake in Hungary last year, have been respectful and cost the team next to nothing. Conversely, the teammates at Force India have gone down the opposite road, fighting like dogs in a pen at every corner and costing the team large hauls of points and possibly even their first win. But, could this happen at Red Bull?
Like it or not, Ricciardo is a potential candidate in the 2019 vacant-Mercedes-race-seat sweepstakes and will drive like he wants it. Verstappen is an animal in the car, capable of nearly anything, and will be keen to extract the most out of the RB14's improved reliability and potential. While I don't see a season like the Force India pair had last year, I expect a higher number of anxiety-inducing incidents on the track. Albert Park may give us a glimpse of what is coming, but expect solid top-5/podium finishes from either or both drivers while they push for number one status in their team.
The 2018 season begins
Story lines will unfold, questions will be answered and others will be raised as the first race of the 2018 season gets underway. And if recent history is any indicator, Mercedes will emerge victorious to stamp their mark on the early season. However, F1 fans will hope that familiar headline will be written on the back of a more competitive slugfest this term.
How do you see the new season panning out? Who is capable of ripping up the script in 2018? Let us know in the comments below.