(Photo credit: Morio)
The sights, the sounds, the smell, the crowds, the celebrities, the grid girls (okay, grid kids this year) and the cars - F1 is back and RealSport are ready.
Since 1996, Melbourne has firmly established itself as the perfect venue for the season opener and has provided the sport with some memorable moments. From Villeneuve's P1 on his qualifying debut in 1996 to Montoya’s embarrassing spin when leading in 2003, Albert Park is a track where anything can, and usually does, happen.
As a way to calm our excitement, we locked our experts in a room armed only with a crystal ball and a plentiful supply of a well-known energy drink, and asked them to look into the future.
Who will win the drivers’ and constructors' championships? Who will win the midfield battle? Who will be the surprise package? And who will bring up the rear?
Here are their visions laid bare.
Who will win the drivers' title?
Tom Wharton: The drivers' championship is Lewis Hamilton's to lose, such is the certainty of the W09. Vettel will fight admirably, producing a few red fireworks and giving us all hope, but the difference in the machines will once again prove decisive. However, this year will not be decided as early as Mexico and it could be a three-horse race down to the wire.
George Howson: I believe Hamilton will claim his fifth championship come November. That being said, Ferrari and Red Bull look to be Mercedes’ closest challengers and I expect them both to threaten Hamilton and Bottas for race victories.
Sam Dulledge: Valtteri Bottas doesn't quite have the race craft and experience to match up to multiple champion Hamilton. The Brit seems to be in the form of his life, and it will be a tough fight to wrestle a fifth title from him in 2018.
Shwuaib Malik: I expect another Hamilton vs. Vettel shootout for the championship, and I favour the Brit to come out on top again.
Matt Ashman: I think the title could go to any of the top three teams. We have so much to learn about these cars: Which cars suit which tracks, corners, even types of tyre? Which drivers are on form this season? What mechanical issues will affect different engines?
Andy Lutgen: Another championship fight between Hamilton and Vettel would be good to see with Verstappen giving his rivals a hard time if the car is reliable and quick enough. Ricciardo, Bottas and Raikkonen need to show that they can keep up with their teammates. It would be great to see all of them fighting for victories, similar to 2010 where we had five drivers close at the top and four still in the title hunt at the season finale.
Who will win the constructors' title?
TW: Watching Mercedes sandbag their results during pre-season can drive an F1 fan bonkers. Yet they do it year in, year out and they look as confident as ever heading into the first race. Ferrari may have destroyed the unofficial lap time during the second week of testing in Barcelona but Mercedes keep the advantage due to their consistently faster lap times during race simulations.
GH: Ferrari may have grabbed the headlines with Vettel’s new lap record, but I’m predicting another season of Mercedes dominance. The Silver Arrows have been bullet-proof during testing and have consistently been the fastest during race simulations while attempting to hide their ultimate one-lap pace. The W09 looks to be the complete package and in the hands of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, I think the Brackley outfit will win their fifth constructor’s title in a row.
SD: Looking at testing, it seems like Ferrari are once again strong. Paddock gossip says they could have gone faster than their record lap from Day 7, which says a lot for how much the cars have improved from last year. By adding up the differences in compounds between Ferrari on hypersofts and Mercedes on the mediums, Ferrari end up 0.5s faster which is obviously untrue. Mercedes must surely be there, and not so far behind. And when push comes to shove, it's difficult to look beyond Mercedes and Hamilton for both championships. The team are their same confident selves we have seen over the past few years.
SM: I see the 2018 season being like last with Mercedes and Ferrari scrapping it out for the title. I hope that Red Bull will put up a better challenge, but I fear that a three-way fight is unlikely due to the team’s slow starts in recent seasons.
MA: Personally, I want Ferrari to win after all this time. But to see Alonso fight for wins would be also awesome.
AL: Testing gave us an impression about the competitiveness of each team but we need to see the first few races to get a better picture. I expect that Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull will be the teams capable of winning races and hopefully it will be mixed up at the front.
Who will emerge from the midfield?
TW: The midfield looks to be tight, with five teams closely matched. Credit has to be given to Renault for continuing the upward trajectory since their return to the grid in 2016 (and for the best-looking car in 2018) which also hauls new-customer McLaren up the running order. Force India brought nothing to the test, with Sergio Perez openly criticising the car as it stands. They are counting on a big update for Australia to keep them in the hunt for fourth but have a productive Toro Rosso and fast Haas joining the aforementioned McLaren and Renault as teams keen to displace them.
GH: Renault and McLaren look much improved, the former due to an improved driver pairing and the latter from an improved power unit. McLaren’s poor reliability will be a concern going into Melbourne but their pace looks solid. Haas looked to be quick in Barcelona and I expect them to be challenging the likes of Force India and Williams at the edge of the points. Toro Rosso look to be reliable with the Honda power unit, albeit not quick.
SD: The big question is: where are McLaren? The team have been dogged by reliability issues, which they really didn't want in their post-Honda era. The car also looks slower than expected, so Fernando Alonso may have to look to his WEC drive if he wants to stand on the podium in 2018.
SM: I see a closely contested midfield which should provide great entertainment over the season. With Renault and McLaren expected to improve in 2018, we'll see if Force India can keep their position as the ‘best of the rest’ team. I still see there being a sizeable gap between the fourth-place team in the standings and F1’s big guns.
MA: The midfield fight will be fierce this season but Haas are my tip for surprise package. Force India are always strong, Mclaren may also sit around this area and you’ve got Alfa Romeo-Ferrari money getting pumped into Sauber so you’d expect them to get stronger.
AL: I expect one of the newly formed partnerships of McLaren/Renault or Toro Rosso/Honda to give us a surprise.
Who will bring up the rear?
TW: With two inexperienced drivers and the slowest car on the grid, I Expect Williams to be terrible in every regard with both drivers fighting Marcus Ericsson for the fewest points total. They will finish last, one place down from a more-settled Sauber.
GH: I envisage Sauber improving on 2017 but still being 2018’s backmarkers.
SM: I expect Sauber to be bringing up the rear of the grid as they did in 2017, with Haas, Toro Rosso and potentially Williams competing for ninth in the constructor’s standings.
MA: Williams might be the slowest team on the grid by mid-to-late 2018. And with their woefully weak lineup I expect them to struggle.
What else should F1 fans look out for?
TW: Max Verstappen will show us why he's a definite future world champion, again, while also keeping still-awesome Danny Ricciardo in his mirrors. With the addition of the Renault power unit to the back of the McLaren chassis - and the departure of Honda - Fernando Alonso should see his most competitive season since 2013. Look for him to impress and make us all wonder what miracles he could achieve in a top ride. Look also for Verstappen, Sainz and Ocon to assert themselves as true number one drivers at their respective teams and look for an impressive debut from young Charles Leclerc.
SD: The team to look out for is Red Bull. Daniel Ricciardo has said this is the strongest the team has looked since 2014 and you can see why when you look at the testing results. It will be interesting to see if their two drivers can continue their friendship while fighting for a championship instead of the occasional race win. Will the team implode under their own hype and allow a championship challenge to slip away to Ferrari and Mercedes?
MA: It’ll be nice to see the F1 calendar return to France (and at the Paul Ricard circuit too) and I think the F1 spectacle will be better than ever as Liberty Media enter their “Sophomore” year in charge.
What are your predictions for the 2018 F1 season? Join the debate now by leaving a comment below.