Often times the mid field has had the best battling on track in modern F1, but we never see it because the focus is always on the race leaders. Force India and Williams have been the teams to beat after Ferrari, Mercedes, and Red Bull. But with 2018 kicked off, Toro Rosso and Renault have something to say about that. McLaren too, despite a worrying lack of reliability in testing, seem to have genuine performance. They’ve even had a bit of luck too: McLaren itself sits third in the Constructor’s points, while Alonso is in 4th in the Driver’s Championship. Already, 2018 looks to be much better for the Woking crew. It would be silly to expect that to remain the status quo though and I suspect that after a few more races, McLaren and Alonso will filter a bit lower into the field.
Still though, the fact that Renault, McLaren, STR, and Haas are all in the mix right away is great. No car really has a major advantage at this point, so we should see different teams perform well at different tracks. Force India has struggled a bit, but they almost never come out of the gate strong. (This is sadly due to a severe lack of funds. FI usually has to beg for their championship earnings early in order to stay in business over the winter and this puts a dent in their off-season development.). So, expect them to improve over the next few races as their VJM11 matures. Even little Sauber, the 30 year old team that has looked on the verge of foreclosure for years now, has been revitalized with the arrival of Alfa Romeo sponsorship and a strong rookie driver in the form of Charles Leclerc. While I doubt they will be consistent points fighters in 2018, the fact that they are no longer scraping the bottom of the barrel is a great sign. There has been one major negative to the first two races of 2018, and that has been the utter collapse of Williams. We’ll be digging more into them a bit later in the year, but the fact that they have gone from being a consistent podium finisher to utter back marker in 4 seasons should be ringing alarm bells at Liberty Media. Williams is in dire trouble, and after Bahrain, Paddy Lowe admitted he had no idea why the FW41 was performing so poorly. If Williams continues to struggle this badly, they are going to be in even more trouble than McLaren and Sauber have been. At least when McLaren was at the bottom of the points sheet, it was due to blown engines and not due to just being the slowest car on the grid. Williams is in real trouble, and unless the team stumbles on an answer soon, it’s not going to end well for the 41 year old team.
China is going to be close. The mix of long straights, the tight, downhill Turn 1-2-3 chicane, and the sweeping Turn 12 make for a track that requires both good top speed and good low speed handling. It typically suits high powered, low-downforce cars. Maybe that is why Mercedes powered cars have won every single Chinese GP in this decade, save for 2013. The Mercedes F1 team has won every Chinese GP in the hybrid era, and there is little reason to believe they will not win again in 2018. In 2017, Vettel’s Ferrari was fairly close to Hamilton’s Mercedes at the checkered flag, but Red Bull Racing could be a spoiler this year. It is going to be tough for them to win (RBR has only one a single Chinese GP), but they could easily steal points from either of the lead teams. What is going to make the race especially interesting is the tire choice from Pirelli: Medium, Soft, and Ultrasoft. That’s right, we’re skipping the Super Soft. I don’t think Pirelli has done this before and this could make for some great Hail Mary strategies. Could we see a repeat of Spain 2013 when Alonso drove at 100% for the entire race on the softest tires he could? Who knows! (Note: I promise you all this is what I actually had written a week ago. Not a bad guess if I do say so myself! Though the prediction that it would be an easy Mercedes win was a bit wide of the mark).
Chinese Grand Prix
Red Bull On A Charge…For Now
For the first time in five years, we saw six cars covered by less than half a second in qualifying. Red Bull was the slowest of that group of six, but they were still in contention on what is ostensibly a power track. On race day, we saw each of the three teams lead for a portion of the race. Ferrari started the charge, but then a slow pit stop and a mistimed gap let Valtteri Bottas get around Sebastian Vettel and take the lead for Mercedes. With the Safety Car, Red Bull was able to get Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen in the mix with better pace due to fresh tires. The new tires certainly helped the RBRs (who were always going to be at a disadvantage here due to their powerplant), but what was really surprising was how close the RBRs were in pace to Mercedes and Ferrari. Renault has allowed their teams to turn up the wick slightly and it seems the mix of power and chassis is going to allow the Red Bulls to challenge for the championship. Finally!
Ricciardo’s stunning victory was very much tempered by Max Verstappen experiencing a bit of brain fade. I’ve said before how I hoped after Hungary 2017 (where he knocked out his own teammate), Red Bull had sat Max down and put some sense into him. His wins in Malaysia and Mexico were damn near perfect and showed a lot of new maturity. China showed the teenager Verstappen again and it wasn’t pretty. Max should have won China, but threw it away through his own mistakes, first by attempting an overly ambitious pass on Hamilton, followed by an even more foolish pass of Vettel that resulted in both cars spinning and a penalty for Verstappen. The good news? He admitted he was trying too hard after the race and apologized to Vettel after spinning him out.
I think this was the first time Max really realized how much his mistakes actually cost him. It’s one thing to crash out early on (like in Bahrain), and to have no idea what could have been. But China clearly showed Verstappen exactly what he lost out on: an almost surefire win. Everyone needs that slap in the face to grow up: that realization that “the situation I am in is completely of my own making.” China was the most poignant, but Australia and Bahrain were also examples of Max throwing away decent finished by trying too hard too early. In Australia, Max ran wide, damaged his floor, then had no rear grip from Lap 9 on (this damaged floor was what caused his Turn 1 spin on Lap 10). In Bahrain, Max ran Hamilton off of Turn 1 and picked up a puncture for his move, eventually damaging the differential and causing a DNF. All of three of these races could have been solid podiums. Instead, Max is 8th in the Championship with a long road to the front. Red Bull has the car and Ricciardo proved it can win: Max just needs to turn it from 100 to 99 to get himself in contention.