(Photo credit: Artes Max)
The first three rounds of the 2018 Formula 1 season have produced some interesting results, most notably Daniel Ricciardo’s spectacular win in Shanghai last weekend. Behind the top three teams a pecking order has yet to be properly established. Several teams have made significant developments while others appear on a downward trajectory.
Renault have been one of the more consistent teams in a tight midfield battle so far this season, with Hulkenberg finishing seventh in Australia and following that up with a pair of top-six results in Bahrain and China. The first two races saw Renault outshone by a midfield rival - McLaren’s Fernando Alonso in Melbourne, and Toro Rosso’s Pierre Gasly and Haas’s Kevin Magnussen in Sakhir - but in Shanghai, the German was only behind the two Mercedes and Red Bull drivers, and Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen. On paper, Renault have a great opportunity to pair an in-house engine and chassis divisions. This “works” opportunity is only utilised by two other teams. Mercedes and Ferrari.Those teams have made this work for them and find themselves at the front of the grid.
Renault know if they aren’t mixing it with Red Bull by the end of the season they might lose some of their talent. The pairing of Hulkenburg and Sainz is arguably one of the strongest on the grid. In Sainz they have an eager youngster looking to learn and pick up points where available. He is not perfect and can sometimes perform under the radar, but when he and Max Verstappen were teammates at Toro Rosso, he kept F1’s prodigal son at bay. In Hulkenburg, Renault already have their title contender - give him the car and the 'Hulk' would deliver.
Overall, with their development potential combined with their driver pairing, I predict them to finish fourth in the Constructors' Championship.
Having claimed they had one of the best chassis but were being held back by their engine last term, McLaren had expectations of battling for podium finishes and race wins following their switch from Honda to Renault power. However, Fernando Alonso's best qualifying position was 11th in Australia, followed by 13th in Bahrain and China. He finished fifth in Melbourne and seventh in the other two races. This is more indicative of the driver's performance than the car's.
Teammate Stoffel Vandoorne has qualified behind Alonso in all races but has also scored points with ninth and eighth-place finishes in Australia and Bahrain.
In McLaren we have an enigma. The pace should be nearer Red Bull's, but we may have underestimated the tuning Red Bull have done in-house since rebranding their Renault power unit as a Tag Heuer. McLaren will look to do something similar with their own engines in the fullness of time as straight-line speed is still plaguing the team. This was clear in qualifying in China where the two drivers ran line astern to maximise potential down the longest straight.
If McLaren want to fight Renault for best-of-the-rest crown, they need Alonso on top form, which is virtually always a given. But they also need to develop their car. It's been a while since the team were in a development war that had any serious significance in terms of points, but given that the regulations are unlikely to change dramatically anytime soon, it might be worth going under the radar for the rest of the season and mounting a proper challenge in 2019, which could well be Fernando’s last.
Despite claims they are abusing their relationship with Ferrari to an illegal level, Haas have been the big surprise of 2018, with Magnussen and Grosjean both determined to compete and deliver results.
The philosophy that has seen the F1 team’s sister outfit setting the pace in NASCAR with four wins in six races this season, is standing them in good stead in F1 too. Where Marussia/Manor, Caterham and HRT eventually failed to make a go of manufacturing their own chassis in its entirety, Haas have shown that the optional route - buying the maximum permissible technology from Ferrari and having Dallara complete the package - can be made to work. And work well.
Hass came in to the sport on the back of former FIA President Max Mosley’s promise of a $40 million budget cap which never materialised. But when you compare them to the 21st century’s other newbies such as Jaguar and Toyota, who came in with big budgets, they must be given credit.
However, we’ve seen this before where teams such as Haas, Force India, and Williams produce quality cars at the start of the season but become less competitive as the campaign goes on, while the likes of Renault and McLaren continue to develop. Overall, I wouldn’t be surprised to see Haas plateau and finish the season in sixth or seventh place in the Constructors' Championship.
Gasly and teammate Brendon Hartley were dumped out of Q1 in China and then collided during the race while trying to trade places near the foot of the order. Toro Rosso had been expected to fare worse than in Bahrain, partly because China’s long back straight exposes Honda’s weaker energy recovery systems compared to its rivals.
Gasly thought the team could close its deficit to the midfield leaders after Friday practice but said it "lost massive pace" ahead of qualifying and carried that into the race. "A tough, tough weekend overall," was Gasly’s verdict. "We didn't have the pace compared to our main competitors."
Now running Honda engines, Toro Rosso are arguably the most interesting team in the grid this year. If they are competitive enough, then Red Bull are likely to run Honda engines in 2019/2020 and beyond. In Gasly, they have a huge talent and while Hartley has potential, he could easily end upon the list of easy-to-forget Toro Rosso drivers.
Depending on how their engine develops over the season, they could fight with McLaren and Renault for the higher positions or slip into the Sauber-Williams tussle.
After taking fourth in the constructors’ championship for the second successive year last term, this campaign has been tougher going for the Silverstone-based team so far, with Esteban Ocon’s point for tenth place in Bahrain all they have to show for their efforts. At the same point last year, they already had ten points.
With other teams catching up, Force India could be the epitome of a midfield runner this season. The wheels would have to come off for them to slip into a Williams-esque struggle, but equally they don't have the money to develop their car at the same rate as Renault and McLaren.
A seventh place constructor’s finish would represent a step down from last season but a more realistic position given relative budgets.
Sauber – Alfa Romeo
Belief - it can go a long way in sport. Last year, with an underpowered, underdeveloped car and question marks about their future, there was little positivity to be found at Sauber. That has all changed in 2018 with Ericsson’s ninth place in Bahrain (his first points in 50 races) the first fruit of a refreshing change in mind-set at the Swiss team. With Alfa Romeo on board comes fresh money, a fresh perspective and fresh livery.
Sauber entered the 2018 season with a newly designed car, the C37. But Ericsson says a large chunk of the team’s performance gain so far has come from now having access to Ferrari’s latest-spec power unit. Overall, there is still a mountain to climb for the team to get back to the podium-challenging days of 2012. But this season can already be considered a relative success, something no other team on the grid can say.
It has been a season of struggle so far for the British team, with the FW41 proving uncompetitive and difficult to set-up. There was slight encouragement during final practice in Shanghai when Sirotkin went tenth quickest, and although he ended up 15th in the race – one position behind teammate Lance Stroll – the Russian was encouraged by what he feels was a more competitive showing. Sirotkin eventually ended up 19 seconds adrift of the points after making a second stop under the Safety Car, but he believes some strange tyre performance masked even better pace in the closing stages of the race.
Realistically, looking at the potential of the other teams and driver line-ups, Williams are lacking the budget and experience to develop the car. It’s a vicious cycle: Not having the money to pay the big drivers and opting for raw talent/ paid drivers, therefore compromising the experience a veteran driver might bring. If Williams can survive the next few years, there may be more good times ahead, but there is a fear Williams could be driven out of the sport by 2020. If Red Bull go with Honda, Williams could be handed the lifeline of being Renault's primary customer team.
With their main competitor, Sauber, already scoring points in Bahrain, Williams look likely to finish bottom of the pile in 2018.
Money could be the main factor in deciding who wins out of this finely poised midfield battle. But dare I say it, driver talent may also play a part. Either way, this season's midfield battle is set up to be one of the most competitive in a while. And with engine choices, driver line-ups and next year's budget's on the line, there is plenty to fight for.