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2018 Formula 1 season preview - the new cars, new rules and what to expect

Jordan Katsianis
23 Feb 2018

With Ferrari, Mercedes, McLaren and Red Bull the latest teams to show off their improved 2018 F1 cars, here's a rundown of what to expect

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Most of the major teams have now revealed their 2018 Formula 1 entries, all adhering to the addition of the controversial 'halo' alongside a slightly more subtle set of technical changes than were applied between the 2016 and 2017 seasons.

Last year represented one of the bigger technical shake-ups in F1, headlined by faster and more aerodynamically aggressive cars compared to previous years. As a result, the eyes of the world were peeled to see if a new F1, no longer under the rule of Bernie, could begin to answer the call of fans and critics. In 2018 the changes have been less substantial, but still aim to bring further excitement to the sport, with a continued effort to improve in-race overtaking and a renewed focus on louder, more dramatic engines.

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With such a large technical regulation change in the preceding year, you’d be forgiven for thinking that not much would have changed, but instead the governing body of F1, the FIA, deemed it necessary to take the first steps towards introducing a closed cockpit.

The result is the much-contrived ‘halo’, a three-pronged section that sits over the driver’s head, further protecting him or her from race debris or other moving objects that could harm the driver. Although it is ridiculous to object to a new feature whose raison d’être is based purely on improving safety, it’s the execution of the halo that has been a major point of controversy leading up to the 2018 season.

Each of the teams will, of course, be subject to these new rule changes, but elsewhere, the major point of difference this year is the shake-up of where each team will source their power units. After three disastrous years running the under-performing, unreliable Honda unit, McLaren has switched to a vastly improved Renault engine that will also feature in Renault’s factory team and Red Bull.

To stay in the game, Honda’s powerplant will now nestle under the engine covers of the Toro Rosso cars, playing a development role for Red Bull’s eventual adoption of the Japanese engine in 2019. Ferrari and Mercedes will keep hold of their respective engines, while Renault is hoping its 2018-spec engine will have closed the gap on its rivals.

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Despite winning three races in the 2017 season, Red Bull has been hamstrung by the underpowered Renault power unit, explaining its desire to move on from the French brand. For now though, if Renault’s efforts have paid off, Red Bull’s typically impressive chassis could bring back a third championship contender in 2018. Alfa Romeo will also make a return to the sport, although unlike its Italian Ferrari cousin it will be as a title sponsor of Sauber, rather than a standalone team.

The cars

Mercedes-Petronas

Mercedes-Petronas’s dominant F1 season last year did not start off with the obvious advantage it had enjoyed in years previous. In the early stages of 2017 Mercedes was hit by reliability issues, which kept Ferrari level on points. By mid-season, however, Ferrari’s relative lack of race pace started to show, and Mercedes reasserted its dominance in the championship by pulling out a considerable points lead by season’s end.

Without the intense internal battle of 2016 between drivers Lewis Hamilton and 2016 championship winner Nico Rosberg, Hamilton capitalised on his car’s impressive performance and reasserted Mercedes-Petronas’s domination of the sport in the latter half of the season. For 2018, both Hamilton and Valterri Bottas will hold their seats, with Bottas no doubt feeling the pressure to up his game after being comprehensively out-driven by Hamilton.

As for the car, Mercedes has shortened the wheelbase of the W09 compared to last year, with the likely aim of increasing low speed cornering agility. Likewise, the highly-strung nature of the 2017 car, often described by the team as a ‘diva’, will be widened according to engineers: especially important considering the reduction to three allotted engines for the season.

McLaren MCL33

McLaren’s hoping its consecutive few years of languishing at the back of the field will come to an end in 2018 thanks to a change of engine suppliers, from Honda to Renault. The Honda/McLaren partnership is steeped in history, but after a disastrous few seasons of an underperforming engine, Honda and McLaren have parted ways.

The switch to Renault might not sound like the obvious answer, considering it has had its own problems, but they pale into insignificance compared to the frustration McLaren has had with its Japanese partners, this irritation often bubbling up in comical radio messages between driver Fernando Alonso and the team. Alonso will also remain as a driver in 2018, alongside Stoffel Vandoorne. 

Along with the new engine, McLaren has also made progress on the car, with most insiders commenting on how relatively simple the front suspension and aero is on the car released in pictures. This may, of course, change in testing, but for the moment, McLaren either knows something no one else does, or is keeping its tech close to its chest. The orange livery has remained, now donning blue highlights and a simplified set of graphics.

Ferrari

Ferrari was Mercedes’ closest adversary in 2017 as both teams traded wins in the first half of the season. However, despite its initial pace, Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Räikkönen began to drop off the pace in the latter half of the season, a problem multiplied by Mercedes’ reliability gains.

Ferrari’s 2018 car – the SF71H – has moved closer to the Mercedes, with a longer wheelbase improving both stability in high-speed corners and aerodynamic efficiency. The power unit will remain largely the same as last year, with improvements in reliability the key deliverable.

The Ferrari’s compact side-pod intakes look to have shrunk further still, while the front wing’s increased complexity compared to last year’s car also looks to be another change. Unsurprisingly, the red paint scheme is also much the same as in previous years.

Renault

Renault’s 2017 season was an improvement compared to 2016, but the team still ended up behind key mid-table rivals Williams and Force India in the manufacturers' championship. Both Carlos Sainz and Nico Hülkenberg have kept their seats.

The key to continuing its rise up the standings in 2018 will be Renault’s improved power unit, with the French team hoping to close the gap in performance and fuel consumption over Mercedes and Ferrari. As a result, a huge amount of development time has gone into the core Renault power unit, which will now also be utilised by McLaren and Red Bull.

The R.S.18 livery has maintained its yellow and black colour theme, although the split gloss and matt elements have gone, replaced by a mostly black look only highlighted with the bright yellow elements along the top of the bodywork.

Sauber

Alfa Romeo’s new title sponsorship of Sauber came as a welcome change. Although the manufacturer, which is steeped in F1 history, is not back as a full-time manufacturer team, it’s still nice to see the badge appear on the side of a car.

Now running a current 2018 Ferrari power unit, Sauber is hoping to jump off the bottom of the standings and act, like Toro Rosso does for Red Bull, as a technical test-bed for the main Ferrari team. Marcus Ericsson and 20-year-old former Ferrari junior driver Charles Leclerc will be behind the wheels.

Red Bull

The last few seasons have been a source of continued frustration for the Red Bull team, saddled with an underperforming power unit sourced from Renault. Frustrations last year bubbled over between team and engine supplier, resulting in 2018 being the final season of the pairing before Red Bull’s move to Honda engines from 2019.

Red Bull’s support team, Toro Rosso, has already made the controversial move to Honda, but after three long years at the rear of the field any instant improvements on last year's results in the Red Bulls are far from a foregone conclusion. So far the RB14 has been launched in the team’s usual pre-season development livery, with the real thing to be revealed next week when testing kicks off in Catalunya.

In the cockpit will be the same pairing of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen from the last couple of years. Both drivers have shown considerable talent, so if their cars are up to it, expect to see them closer to the front end of the field more consistently this year.

Williams

Williams was team number two to show off its 2018 F1 entry called FW41. Under the stewardship of Williams’s chief technical officer, Paddy Lowe, and head of aerodynamics, Dirk de Beer, Williams is hoping to put its disappointing 2017 season behind it and return to its usual place further up the mid-field. Like all other teams, Williams has had to integrate the controversial halo into the design, looking more integrated than on the HAAS revealed previously.

A similar Martini livery remains, now sitting with more black bodywork below the iconic white paint. Don’t be deceived by the lack of the FW40’s engine cover-mounted fin or its aerofoil: these aerodynamic add-ons will likely make an appearance after the first round of testing.

Canadian driver Lance Stroll will maintain his driver’s seat, with the retirement of Felipe Massa leaving the door open for Sergey Sirotkin to fill the second seat. Meanwhile, F1 and WRC veteran Robert Kubica has also been signed as a development and backup driver.

HAAS

HAAS’s 2018 contender was the first car to be revealed this year, with the American team hoping to mirror the relative successes it had against tail-end rivals in 2017. The cars will once again run Ferrari power units, and like the Williams above, have a significantly reduced fin atop the engine cover as the biggest contrast compared to last year’s car.

The livery also remains much the same as last year, featuring the corporate colours of the team’s namesake HAAS Automation. The team had a focus on removing as much weight as possible to then replace it with ballast, bringing it back up to the legal weights. This allows HAAS the ability to place ballast in the car in opportune positions to better control the weight distribution. Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen are poised to keep their seats, too.

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