(Photo credit: Artes Max)
Another pair of world championships for the Silver Arrows in 2017 may give the impression they were all-conquering, but this wasn't the case. Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel gave the team, and lead driver Lewis Hamilton, major headaches throughout the season. And had the Italian team not experienced their late-season implosion, the titles may have been much closer or even gone to Maranello – the drivers' crown in particular.
Despite this, it's easy to make a case for the W08 being the class of last year's field. Although the team wrestled with what they described as a 'diva' for much of the early part of the season, the car was still undeniably quick out of the box, especially in qualifying trim. This allowed the driver pairing to pick up six wins before F1's summer break, Hamilton claiming four to Valtteri Bottas' two, along with nine out of eleven pole positions.
The team resolved most of their issues by the summer, allowing a rejuvenated Hamilton to rattle off five wins in six between Spa and Austin, a run which effectively won him the world championship. As alluded to earlier, Ferrari's slip-ups in Singapore, Malaysia, and Japan cost them a realistic shot at the title – but make no mistake, Mercedes were deserved champions in 2017.
Impressions from testing
Mercedes' stellar start to the year began with an impressive pre-season workout in Barcelona. They may not have recorded the fastest times (more on that later) but they completed the most laps of anyone (1,040 compared to the next best of 929 by Ferrari), giving them over 500km more testing distance than their rivals. This not only shows an already impressive level of reliability early on, but if you examine the times, you'll see why many still consider Mercedes as 2018's title favourites.
According to Bottas, the main reason that Mercedes failed to impress on the timesheets (their fastest lap was only seventh quickest overall) was because they didn't go for a qualifying simulation, meaning their qualifying pace remains "unknown."
"For us, I have to say the pure one-lap pace is unknown, but I guess we'll find out in a couple of weeks," said the Finn, citing Mercedes' feeling they didn't "need to go for the absolute maximum" over the course of the two-week test. Ominous then, especially given how strong the W09's predecessor was on a Saturday.
Even more ominous was Mercedes' long run pace, where they were in a class of their own. Neither of the other frontrunners could get near them, with Ferrari and Red Bull at least half a second down on average over race simulations.
Sebastian Vettel has pointed out that most, if not all, of these runs were done solely on the medium tyre, something you can't do in a race, and so aren't wholly representative of the pace of the W09: But this is still damning for the chasing pack, especially considering the consistency and aforementioned reliability on display.
So will it be all smooth sailing for Mercedes this year? Well, maybe not.
Ferrari, and especially Red Bull, seem much closer to the front, and the Italian team were the ones who set the fastest time in testing when Sebastian Vettel strapped on the hypersofts and went for a qualifying run.
Despite this, Ferrari might not be as quick as they seem, with Vettel's fastest lap still being above the 1:16 threshold that many were expecting to see broken. When we consider this alongside potential reliability issues from an engine that has a habit of smoking when fired up, and messages from Vettel that the team still has more work to do to find pace, then you feel that Ferrari could be vulnerable.
The good news for Red Bull fans is that their team seems to be much closer to the leaders than they were last year. This could give them a massive advantage later in the campaign as their trademark development speed kicks in. The one thing that might hinder them is the Renault engine, a source of many frustrating days for the team last term.
Overall, you still have to consider Mercedes as the favourites: they have covered the most testing mileage, look the fastest in race trim, and are enjoying an already impressive record of reliability. These things usually add up to world championships and right now there is no one better in the sport at winning them than Mercedes.
It's really up to the other teams to come and beat them.
Lewis Hamilton enters the 2018 season in top form. He may not have won in any of the final three races of 2017 but first lap contact with Vettel in Mexico, an engine change in Brazil and a cruise to second behind his teammate with nothing to fight for in Abu Dhabi, hardly count as a man taking his eye off the ball. Let's not forget, he won five of the previous six before Mexico.
After last season's summer break, and Mercedes' modifications to the car, Hamilton seemed to hit another level, propelling him to his fourth world championship with three races to spare. Yes, Ferrari were partly responsible for this, but you can't take anything away from some stellar drives from the Brit, capped by a fantastic recovery drive in Mexico to take the title in dramatic fashion.
The debate around who is the best driver on the current F1 grid could fill a series of articles but you can't deny that Hamilton is right at the sharp end of that group. He has matured as a driver in his years with Mercedes, coupling his devastating speed with impressive race management, something that wasn't always his strength. This, combined with his uncanny speed in qualifying, has produced a devastating combination of skills.
But in Formula 1 you don't win titles without a winning car and this year's Mercedes is already looking up to the challenge. And when you consider that this car, like many before it, was designed around the 33-year-old's driving style, his title credentials are boosted further.
On the other side of the garage, Valtteri Bottas had an inconsistent first season with the team, but I believe it's one he will look back on with fondness. The Finn claimed his first pole position (of four) in Bahrain and three wins in Russia, Austria and Abu Dhabi – a fine return for any driver, especially given how quickly he was thrust into the Mercedes cockpit.
Nico Rosberg's sudden retirement at the end of the 2016 season left Mercedes scrambling for a replacement, with Bottas eventually appointed in the new year. This meant coming into an unfamiliar situation and driving a car that: a) he wouldn't be familiar with, and b) wasn't designed with his driving style in mind.
These factors caused problems for Valtteri, with his spin behind the safety car in China being a prime example of him not being familiar with the car. Further lacklustre performances such as Belgium, especially relative to his teammate, led to rumours that Mercedes wouldn't extend the Finn's contract into 2018. Thankfully, this turned out not to be the case, and he signed a one-year extension in September.
This was undoubtedly the right decision but having received the benefit of the doubt for his inconsistency last season, now is the time for Valtteri to step up. He will have to improve his performances and get much closer, or even beat, Lewis Hamilton if he wants to secure a longer term contract.
The good news is that Bottas appears much more comfortable this year as he reported after testing: "There has not been so many things to get used to, so it's been a lot smoother," explained the 28-year-old. "What I've felt so far with the handling of the car, the balance in general, how it behaves; it has not gone in the wrong direction." He continued, "We have made some improvements and the balance is more together. For my driving style and whether it suits me more, I don't know. It's up to me to adjust to the car. It's been a good beginning."
Given that this car is very much an evolution of last season's, scepticism about his driving style fitting the car is to be expected. But with Bottas more settled, and with the tools to get the right setup at his disposal, he should progress.
Hamilton vs Bottas: who will win?
It's hard to look past Hamilton for a winner in the team battle at Mercedes, but I expect Bottas to step up and give him a much harder time in 2018.
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