We are finally reaching the time of year when you can smell the rubber and hear the roar of the engines. The first round of the 2018 Formula One World Championship is nearly upon us, and for some drivers it will be the most important year of their career so far.
A seat in F1 is one of the most competitive jobs in the world. With only 20 on offer, and even fewer seats in cars capable of winning races, the pressure can be too much for many to handle. As with every season, there will be some new faces on the grid when the lights go out in Melbourne in a few weeks, but for the more established names in F1, 2018 represents a critical moment in their careers. Can they establish themselves as future title contenders? Or will they get lost in the shuffle down the grid and be phased out by the next generation?
Carlos Sainz Jr
Sainz’s road to 2018 has been shaky. For Toro Rosso, his biggest claim to fame was that he went toe-to-toe with Max Verstappen in the same car. With Verstappen quickly becoming a race-winner and widely regarded as one of the best on the grid since his move up into the lead Red Bull team, you would think Sainz’s star would be on the rise, but not so.
Keen to keep him as a backup in case Verstappen or Daniel Ricciardo were poached, Red Bull kept him under contract, and he remained at Toro Rosso, where he roundly embarrassed Daniil Kvyat last year before he became a bargaining chip in Red Bull’s never-ending feud with Renault.
He finished the 2017 season in the Renault team, scoring a seventh place in his first race and finishing a career-best ninth in the Drivers’ Championship standings.
With a full winter at Renault and a car that is built around him, Sainz now has the chance to establish himself as a team-leading, point-winning driver in F1.
Vandoorne’s first full year in Formula One was not a happy one. He entered with massive expectations after winning GP2 in 2015 and claiming McLaren’s first point in 2016 when he raced in place of an injured Fernando Alonso. In 2017 however, the Honda power unit’s legendary status as the most unreliable piece of machinery in modern F1 kept him firmly rooted to the back of the grid, while the lack of power made life almost impossible for him to make up places.
Vandoorne finished the year with just three points finishes, leaving him in 16th place in the championship and with a large sense of disappointment.
After much wrangling and negotiating, McLaren freed themselves from the grips of Honda and agreed an engine deal with Renault. While they are not on the same level as Ferrari and Mercedes, the Renault engines are more reliable and quicker, and together with McLaren’s long history of producing brilliant chassis’ it means the Woking outfit will take aim at Force India for fourth place in this year’s Constructors’ Championship.
To get there, they need both drivers scoring points regularly, and while there is little doubt about Fernando Alonso’s class, Vandoorne’s ability to be a race-in, race-out contender is still theoretical at this point.
Vandoorne turns 26 later this month, and while young in the wider sporting world, in F1 it means it is time to prove yourself or get out of the way.
Speaking of Force India, Esteban Ocon enters his second year with the team needing to prove a point. In 2017, he was a fiercely competitive and competent young talent. In 2018, he needs to show maturity.
Last year was full of clashes with teammate Sergio Perez, and while there was plenty of blame to go around, Ocon needs to prove he can play nice within the team and still perform.
As the most advanced member of the Mercedes driver development programme, Ocon is in a prime position to at least be considered for the 2019 seat in the team which is open. As a four-time defending Drivers’ and Constructors’ champion, Mercedes expect the best, and it will be on Ocon to convince Toto Wolff and Niki Lauda that he should be given the seat over the team pursuing the far more expensive options of established names.
That means listening to team orders and not costing himself and his team points through needless collisions with Perez this year. Ocon has a huge opportunity in front of him this season, but he needs to seize it with both hands or risk being passed over for the next man, as happened to Pascal Wehrlein.
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