2018 Australian GP Preview
By Bob Constanduros
The waiting, the predicting, the bullshit – whatever else you want to call it – is nearly over. This is being written in the Melbourne press office on the eve of the Australian GP, first of the 21 round 2018 Grand Prix season and we have about 24 hours until the start of the season. It’s a time of catching up with friends who weren’t at the Barcelona testing and seeing what Liberty Media has changed – all hopefully for the better. It’s also a time for appreciating better weather than in Europe and particularly in Barcelona. Just to make you envious, the air temperature at 1pm is 21 degrees but expected to rise to mid-twenties today.
That’s going be quite alien to the teams because the ambient temperature in early springtime Barcelona never got anywhere close to that. The track temperature is 38 degrees and surprisingly, the track temperature in Barcelona did approach that but it’s surely going to get hotter here.
What’s that got to do with all this? Well Pirelli have not only expanded their range for this year’s championship to seven available compounds, but also made them softer, after admitting that they were too conservative last year. So while the tyre range in Melbourne is the same as last year – ultrasoft, supersoft and soft – they are actually a stage softer than last year which should make things interesting, as last year’s winning strategy was a one-stop soft to ultrasoft for the first four.
The weather in Barcelona wasn’t the best and indeed, the first few days were pretty much a wash-out. So teams still have a lot to learn. Some explored the full range of Pirelli’s tyres, some stuck to relatively hard compounds, others set quick times on Pirelli’s new hypersoft compound and preferred to use those for shortish runs because they heated up quicker. So the picture – as usual – is quite blurred.
Some managed to set quick times, some relatively slow but unworried; there were a few surprises, promises of major technical improvements to come. As usual, teams were saying ‘wait until Melbourne’ and as usual, at the end of this weekend, they will be saying ‘wait until Barcelona.’ Some things just don’t change in Formula One.
But this race – and probably the first half of the season – is important. The regulations for this year’s championship haven’t changed much. OK, there is the halo which will alter the look of the cars and which causes much argument but is here to stay, whatever we think of it. There is the lack of shark fins, T-wings and monkey seats – all aerodynamic aids seen at the back end of the cars from the engine cover backwards. But there isn’t a lot more when it comes to technical regulation changes.
Therefore, the cars haven’t changed much and frankly, they’re not going to for some time – until 2021 – so this year’s championship is pretty much what we’re going to get until 2021 when quite a few other things may change as well. What we will see from now until then is evolution rather than revolution. Sure, Williams and Sauber have new cars and new philosophies but most of the others are simply evolutions – although Mercedes say that their new car’s coke bottle rear end packaging around the back of the engine cover and side pods is worth 0.25s. But as with everyone else, just working on every single little detail may eventually bring tiny improvements which, when added together are worth a substantial amount. But it’s having the resource – financial and therefore the people – to effect that development.
So who has done the best job during the off-season? Testing revealed that although they only set seventh fastest time in the most number of laps, Mercedes – who spent much of the time on the medium compound tyre – had a car that, when the times were corrected by tyre compound and fuel load, appeared to have the fastest time in comparison to others. Furthermore, the car looked good, the drivers in top form and Lewis Hamilton walking on water. The challenge is for his teammate, Valtteri Bottas, to match or beat Hamilton which he managed in the first part of last year but then had several ‘off’ races which cost him dearly and relegated him to certain number two.
So who can challenge Mercedes? There are two candidates: Red Bull, who have done an excellent job on their chassis if they’re still slightly hobbled by Renault’s lack of power, and Ferrari who have improved the car and apparently upped their engine power by 10bhp, but who have hit an early limit in terms of driveability.
Red Bull were actually second fastest in terms of corrected times. The car proved good in slow and medium speed corners but not so good in quick corners. They could be up to 40bhp down on their competitors, but the car looks good. Having said that, they also need reliability after failing to finish twice as often as Ferrari and Mercedes last year. That particularly affected Max Verstappen, but he and Daniel Ricciardo are a formidable driver pairing, perhaps the hungriest in the field.
Ferrari actually finished fourth on corrected times even if they were quickest overall, and they achieved the second most testing mileage. The car looked balanced but wouldn’t hold on when pushed. It has a longer wheelbase than last year, along Mercedes lines and a steeper rake – along Red Bull lines – but the team will need to understand those changes. And once it does so, hopefully there will be improvement but if not, Ferrari may feel the need to change its personnel and then the team has to rebuilt all over again. In spite of occasional bouts of red mist, Vettel is still clearly a class act with support from Kimi Raikkonen – but maybe he needs to be pushed by a young pretender: Ricciardo, Leclerc?
Sauber still need to understand their new aerodynamic development, so it’s the other six who are snapping at the heels of the top three. Both McLaren and Force India are due to debut major aerodynamic developments in Melbourne. The former suffered appalling reliability in various areas while being quite quick on hypersoft tyres in testing, while the latter were simply slow as they worked on the car’s base platform. Williams were understanding their new philosophy although improved in the final days with their inexperienced young drivers.
Third on corrected time, surprisingly, was therefore Haas. The car wasn’t particularly innovative or adventurous on initial examination but it looked good in testing. What the team has to do is initiate a development programme throughout the year. They have got to the bottom of Romain Grosjean’s brake problems providing he does what he’s told which is, apparently, to brake earlier – not really in a racing driver’s DNA! But Kevin Magnussen is showing maturity.
Behind Ferrari (4th on corrected) and Williams (5th) was Renault who has been slowly growing into the factory team that it is and is beginning to reap the rewards. They ended last year well but they have to work on setting the car up for kerbs and bumps, which will manifest itself at Melbourne. They have two hungry drivers, pushing one another. The team is knocking on the door of the big boys, now’s the time to show it, but still has the disadvantage of a lack of horsepower when run conservatively.
And that’s what we will see in Melbourne, proof of this hierarchy. A lot, however, will be unknown to the teams, particularly after an abbreviated testing schedule. The conditions may be perfect outside – at the moment, at least – but a lot still has to be shaken down for all the teams and of course, it’s how the base product is handled and developed throughout the year which will also matter. So as ever, there is potential this year and how it is presented to you, the fan. As usual, nothing is happening and everything is happening