Preview: Mercedes to face tough competition as F1 season gets underway in Australia

Source: Xinhua| 2018-03-22 22:12:45|Editor: Xiang Bo
Video PlayerClose

By Michael Butterworth

BEIJING, March 22 (Xinhua) -- The 2018 Formula One season kicks off on Sunday in Melbourne, Australia, for what will be the first of 21 races to decide this year's World Drivers' and World Constructors' championship titles.

The 2017 drivers' champion Lewis Hamilton will be looking to hit the ground running Down Under, but he and his Mercedes team are sure to face a tough fight to remain at the front, with Ferrari and Red Bull likely to be snapping at their heels.

This year also sees the introduction of the Halo cockpit protection device, designed to improve driver safety. So, with motorsport fans the world over eagerly waiting to see how this year's contenders grapple with old foes and new challenges, Xinhua takes a look at the runners and riders in this year's championship.

Mercedes (2017: 1st, 668 points)

44. Lewis Hamilton (2017: 1st, 363 points, 9 wins)

77. Valtteri Bottas (2017: 3rd, 305 points, 3 wins)

Having scooped the drivers' and constructors' titles for the last four years, Mercedes remains very much the team to beat in 2018. However, the Silver Arrows were pushed all the way by Ferrari last year and will have to be at their best to stay at the head of the pack. Reigning champion Lewis Hamilton produced some of his best drives in 2017, giving the lie to the notion that his famously jet-set lifestyle outside the car might start to affect his performances inside it, and the Briton will be angling for his fifth world title. Though he won three races, teammate Valtteri Bottas struggled to keep pace with Hamilton for much of 2017, and with his contract up at the end of this season, the Finn will be under pressure to deliver results quickly if he is to hang onto his drive beyond 2018.

Ferrari (2017: 2nd, 522 points)

5. Sebastian Vettel (2017: 2nd, 317 points, 5 wins)

7 Kimi Raikkonen (2017: 4th, 205 points, best result 2nd)

2017 was very much a case of what might have been for Ferrari. The Prancing Horse produced its best car in many years, but a series of unfortunate accidents and poor reliability when it mattered put paid to any chance of wresting either crown from Mercedes or Hamilton. The iconic Italian marque will be pinning its hopes of a world title on four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel. The German scored five wins in 2017, and clearly enjoyed being a genuine contender again, though his season was pockmarked by flashes of impetuosity. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen endured another frustrating year as he was once again plagued by inconsistency. The 2007 champion is now without a race win in five years, and Ferrari's notoriously demanding bosses may give the laconic Finn the boot at the end of the season if performances do not improve.

Red Bull (2017: 3rd, 368 points)

3. Daniel Ricciardo (2017: 5th, 200 points, 1 win)

33. Max Verstappen (2017: 6th, 168 points, 2 wins)

With arguably the most naturally talented driver pairing on the grid, 2018 may be the year that Red Bull comes back into title contention. The drinks-backed outfit typically shows well on tight, twisty circuits, and after a slow start to 2017, a raft of improvements helped Max Verstappen score two wins towards the end of the year. Fresh from inking a new long-term contract, the young Dutchman will be eager to see Red Bull's upward development trend continue into 2018. Though he scored an opportunistic win in a race of attrition in Azerbaijan last year, Daniel Ricciardo ended 2017 somewhat in the shadow of his mercurial teammate. The ever-grinning Aussie is out of contract at the end of this year, and may find his cheerful demeanour tested to the limit if rumours of the Red Bull hierarchy favouring Verstappen turn out to be true.

McLaren (2017: 9th, 30 points)

2. Stoffel Vandoorne (2017: 16th, 13 points, best result 7th)

14. Fernando Alonso (2017: 15th, 17 points, best result 6th)

After a disastrous three-year alliance with Honda yielded more in the way of retirements than points scores, McLaren will be hoping for better things after switching to Renault power for 2018. The once-proud outfit last scored a race win back in 2012, and the team's best chance of success lies with Fernando Alonso. Despite spending much of 2017 languishing at the back of the grid, the two-time champion remains one of the most complete drivers on the grid, and the Spaniard will be eager to fight at the front once again. Belgium's Stoffel Vandoorne showed flashes of potential in his rookie year, but like Alonso, his talents often went to waste in an uncompetitive car. With pre-season testing having delivered mixed results, the true level of McLaren's competitiveness in 2018 remains to be seen.

Renault (2017: 6th, 57 points)

27. Nico Hulkenberg (2017: 10th, 43 points, best result 6th)

55. Carlos Sainz (2017: 9th, 54 points, best result 4th)

Another team under the microscope, Renault will be keen to take a sizeable step forward this year, having declared its intention to mount a title challenge by 2020. And while the French marque's engine gave best to Ferrari and Mercedes last year, pre-season testing indicated that the gap may have been closed over the winter. The team also has a competitive driver line-up, with Spain's Carlos Sainz transferring from Toro Rosso towards the end of 2017 to join up with German Nico Hulkenberg. Both drivers are highly rated within the F1 paddock, and though winning races in 2018 might prove a bit of a stretch, the team will be hopeful their young chargers can push each other towards the sharp end of the grid.

Williams (2017: 5th, 83 points)

18. Lance Stroll (2017: 12th, 40 points, best result 3rd)

35. Sergey Sirotkin (2017: N/A)

2018 may prove a tough year for Williams, whose cars have gradually decreased in competitiveness over the last four years. The team dropped the ball somewhat last year in terms of recruitment, resulting in two inexperienced and largely unproven drivers for the upcoming season. After an inconclusive rookie year in 2017, Canadian Lance Stroll will be keen to prove that he is in Formula 1 on merit, rather than by the dint of the $20 million that he is rumoured to be bringing to the team. In the other car, Russia's Sergey Sirotkin makes his F1 debut this year, and also comes with a sizeable sponsorship package. But while the Williams coffers might be pleasingly full, 2018 may turn out to be a disappointment if its youthful driver pairing fails to meet expectations.

Force India (2017: 4th, 187 points)

11. Sergio Perez (2017: 7th, 100 points, best result 4th)

31. Esteban Ocon (2017: 8th, 87 points, best result 5th)

In sharp contrast to Williams, Force India has generally punched above its weight in recent years, and managed to net fourth place in last years' constructors championship. However, maintaining that position in 2018 may prove tricky, with pre-season testing appearing to suggest several other midfield runners had leapfrogged the garishly-liveried "Pink Panthers". Behind the wheel are French rising star Esteban Ocon and Mexico's Sergio Perez, who ended up clashing on track a little too often last year in their quest to outdo each other. Though both drivers remain highly-rated, calmer heads will need to prevail in 2018 if Force India's recent upward trend is to continue.

Haas (2017: 8th, 47 points)

8. Romain Grosjean (2017: 13th, 28 points, best result 6th)

20. Kevin Magnussen (2017: 14th, 19 points, best result 7th)

Since appearing with a bang at the beginning of 2016, Haas has gradually slipped down the order, with drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean frequently lamenting the car's ineffective brakes over team radio in 2017. Both drivers have struggled for form somewhat in recent years. Denmark's Magnussen has drawn the ire of fellow racers for his aggressive driving style, while Frenchman Grosjean's long-held dream of a seat at Ferrari looks further away than ever. However, an encouraging pre-season yielded some eye-catching lap times and suggested that a corner may have been turned. If Haas can maintain a solid level of development throughout the year, some have suggested that F1's only American team might be the surprise package of 2018.

Toro Rosso (2017: 7th, 53 points)

10. Pierre Gasly (2017: 21st, 0 points, best result 12th)

28. Brendon Hartley (2017, 23rd, 0 points, best result 13th)

One of the most intriguing stories of 2018 will be how Toro Rosso measures up to the rest of the pack, having taken on the previously slow and unreliable Honda engine discarded by McLaren at the end of last year. Pre-season testing suggested that the Italian team may have timed the change well, with Honda appearing to have finally found some consistency. Toro Rosso serves as the junior partner to Red Bull, who will be in need of a new engine supplier at the end of 2018, and will no doubt be keeping a watchful eye on the performance and development of the Honda powerplant. Neither Frenchman Pierre Gasly nor New Zealand's Brendon Hartley have been in F1 for long, though both have gained interesting experience racing in other categories, and will be keen to impress in their first full F1 season.

Sauber (2017: 10th, 5 points)

9. Marcus Ericsson (2017: 20th, 0 points, best result 11th)

16. Charles Leclerc (2017: N/A)

Sauber has spent much of the last few years plowing a lonely furrow at the back of the pack, though that may be set to change this year. The announcement of a tie-up between the Swiss strugglers, Ferrari and Alfa Romeo means a brand new look and a 2018-spec Ferrari engine for this year's Sauber. Ferrari will also be monitoring the progress of Monaco's rising star Charles Leclerc, who is part of the Italian team's young driver program and makes his F1 debut for Sauber having dominated the feeder Formula 2 championship in 2017. After failing to score a world championship point and generally looking a little out of his depth last year, Sweden's Marcus Ericsson might be considered a touch fortunate to have retained his seat, and will be ready for better things in 2018.