(Photo credit: Artes Max)
It's always nice to start the season with a bang (metaphorically, not literally, lest you want to hear a hundred R&D folk cry), and getting a good haul of points on the board can really give a team a mental boost after a hard winter. However, for some drivers, those points can act as a pressure release after an off-season in which their place on the grid has been questioned. So, who are the drivers who really need everything to fall into place in Melbourne?
It seems to be a habit to think each season will be Kimi’s last, usually extenuated by poor performances at the start of the year suggesting age has finally caught up with The Iceman. Yet he gets a reprieve from Scuderia bosses, and his overall performances reflect what’s expected of a No. 2 driver at a top team. But this is Kimi Räikkönen, former F1 World Champion - the youngster got within a whisker of dethroning Michael Schumacher in 2003, nearly pushed Alonso to the wire in 2005, and stormed back from 2 years out to silence critics in the 2012 Lotus. Fans expect more from the coolest customer on the grid, but the last four years in the Ferrari have underwhelmed.
Testing suggests Ferrari might have the quickest car this year, and the pressure will be on Kimi to push it to its limits. He won’t be expected to win races while Sebastian Vettel is still on the track, but he needs to get passed the Mercedes and offer his teammate protection. Only twice last season did he beat both Mercedes drivers (being the junior partner in 1-2 finishes at Monaco and Hungary) and he squeezed out a single Merc on just six occasions. If Ferrari want to claim the top prizes this year, more is needed from Raikkonen. On the site of his last F1 victory five years ago, it's time for The Iceman to light fires again.
The man who squeezed Vettel out of Red Bull as the team’s next World Champion prospect - 2014 feels so long ago for Daniel Ricciardo. Since then, a drop off in pace to Mercedes has hurt him out front, but the long-term pain is coming up behind him in the shape of Max Verstappen. Ricciardo only kept himself ahead in the standings last year thanks to his teammate's ill fortune in the reliability stakes, and he needs to set his marker down quick if he wants to claim top billing this year. Failure to do so puts him in the same shoes as Vettel four years ago, only without the four world titles to show for his efforts. Whilst dreams of multiple titles may fade with each passing year, being Red Bull number one driver is a prime spot to challenge from. Slip from here and he may find history doesn't even remember him as one of the great nearly men of the sport. His performance this weekend could define how his future pans out.
Let's not forget Renault have been World Champions in recent years – ask Fernando Alonso about his two titles in 2005 and 2006 (and we will talk about him further on). After a gap away from the sport as a standalone works' team, Renault have taken major steps back towards the front of the field. There will be pressure throughout the team to show they should be taken seriously as a competitive outfit. However, it's fair to say Hulkenberg will feel the pressure more than Carlos Sainz. Whereas the Spaniard still carries his rookie tag – this being his fourth season and first full year outside of Toro Rosso – Hulkenberg has been racing since 2010. Having shown genuine bursts of pace during his Force India days, the idea behind his move to Renault was to give him a car to challenge for podium positions. Like Ricciardo, the pressure is amplified by the rising star next to him, so he is another driver that needs to stamp his authority early on this year.
Aged just 19, in your sophomore season, and you're now de facto lead driver for one of Formula Ones iconic teams. Add to that questions about your place on the grid at all (pay drivers are ten-a-penny, but one who’s commercial backer is also his father seem's somehow sacrilegious) and suddenly you’ve got a huge burden of expectation on your shoulders. Oh, did I forget to mention your test driver is one of F1's hottest talents, backed by an emotional call to see him return to racing after serious injury? Or that your team underwhelmed somewhat in testing?
And you thought your 9-5 was stressful.
Maybe saying Stroll must score well in Melbourne is too strong. But if he can make the car look competitive against his rivals, then that’s an achievement. However, he’ll be dreaming of those days in Baku and the only podium of his brief career. Getting the Williams into the points come Sunday would really silence a lot of doubters out there.
Pressure doesn’t just land on the shoulders of the young and inexperienced. Fernando Alonso, one of the grid's most experienced and highly rated drivers, carries his own burden. Sadly for the former two-time champion, a lot this pressure has been brought on himself. During the deterioration of the McLaren-Honda partnership, the Spaniard tried to be diplomatic and not criticise the engine directly. He spent a large chunk of last season talking up the chassis at every opportunity, but during races, he regularly let fly about lack of power on the radio - perhaps not the most subtle way to show his frustrations at the Japanese company's engine. And there will be many back in Tokyo praying for Toro Rosso to make Alonso choke on those words.
There are few drivers on the grid who believe in their ability as much as Nando does, though with two titles under his belt, one can’t really argue. However, since the adaptation of the Renault engine, the McLaren hasn’t exactly made the jump to the front that Alonso has claimed. True, he put in a flying lap at the back end of testing, but if we are talking about consistency – the bedrock of any good season – then the only place it applied was back in the garage, fixing another fault. Put the car into the points in Melbourne and all these doubts slink away, but fail to do so and the reputations of both McLaren and Alonso could be damaged beyond repair.
Which driver will prove the doubters wrong in 2018? Let us know in the comments below.