Hello again from The Undercut, by the time you read this all ten teams will have launched their new challengers for the 2018 F1 season and the first test will have already begun and ended. While we won’t get a complete picture of each team’s competitiveness (there will be some major sandbagging going on) we will more or less confirm who is reliable and basically whether it will be a fight between only Mercedes and Ferrari or if Red Bull and engine partner Renault have done enough on their respective fronts to truly make this a three-way fight.
But I want to look at something less factual or definable than reliability or competitiveness. Something that influences every sport and just about every game and in my opinion creates the upsets, the thrills and can triple the joy of winning. The question in my mind is, who has the most to prove in 2018?
I have already for the record stated that the racing is going to be some of the best it has ever been and I honestly think that right now we are about to witness some of the highest level of race craft there is. With Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel, Fernando Alonso, Daniel Ricciardo, and Max Verstappen in cars that will hopefully allow each driver to ply their trade we really could be in for a whopper of a season.
That being said, there are a few drivers, teams and suppliers that have something to prove this year and that is the wild card that makes this season unpredictable. In the case of some, their future in F1 depends on it and in the case of others their legacy depends on it. Let’s get started shall we and in no particular order…
Ferrari – Knowing that Maranello started last year so strong and had a truly competitive car for the first half of the season, Ferrari more than likely feel it wasn’t so much that Mercedes won the championship, but rather that it was Ferrari who lost the championship.
To a degree they are right of course with all the reliability issues that plagued them at the worst possible time that really should not have happened. Taking Sebastian Vettel’s two gross errors (Baku and Singapore) out of the equation, Ferrari still could have won the drivers title had they not succumbed to reliability issues. So as far as I am concerned while the red cars are F1’s most celebrated team, they most definitely have a chip on their shoulder for this year.
Everyone, from the work force that has done an incredible job to match Mercedes on engine power, qualifying form, and race trim, to the team personnel that week in and week out put Ferrari in front of Mercedes up until the summer break, and most especially Sergio Marchionne, they all have something to prove this year and simply put, nothing less than the two big trophies that the FIA hand out at year’s end will do.
Sebastian Vettel – of all the F1 players which have something to prove, it’s two drivers that have more to prove than anyone. One is Fernando Alonso and the other is this guy Sebastian Vettel and he is the one that I think has the most to prove to the entire F1 community. It is for this simple reason. Baku. This will be moment that forever will haunt Vettel.
I love drivers with finesse, but I also like aggressive drivers and I know you do as well, Senna, Schumacher, Mansell… (there are too many to list) most world champions have that killer instinct, others as well, but the move in Baku while behind Lewis Hamilton was totally unacceptable and quite frankly I wonder how Vettel did not earn himself a black flag – maybe due to the lack of speed involved, who knows.
When Vettel and Mark Webber came together back in 2010 in Turkey I thought Vettel was to blame but I also liked the idea of him going for the gap, he clearly had the faster car. When Vettel passed Weber in the multi-21 episode I thought, just like Fernando, just like Michael, just like all champions – very selfish and that is ok by me. However crashing into someone regardless of brake testing or not (and it was clear from my vantage point Hamilton did nothing of the sort), was beyond the carbon fiber pale so-to-speak. Vettel went into territory that no current driver has, not Lewis, not Fernando, not Daniel, not Max, no one, not even the scrappy driving from the Force India drivers was as bad…
So this year for me and for many people and most importantly for Vettel himself he has to prove he can stay in the game with consistently great driving, which I know is within him, but most critically to grow up a little bit behind the wheel. All the complaining about Verstappen, let race control take care of that. The blaming of other drivers such as Lance Stroll when they came together on the cool down lap while collecting rubber (especially when it was Vettel’s fault) needs to stop and the foul language directed at Charlie Whiting during the Mexico GP is just plain shameful.
Simply put, Sebastian Vettel is a remarkable talent, and right alongside Hamilton could easily match Schumacher’s title count. He already has a slew of records, just look him up on Wikipedia, but that is only if he settles down and puts his driving first and his emotions a distant second.
Honda – If the third year with McLaren was make or break (and I guess that ended up “break”), then this fourth year in F1 is make or leave. With new constructor/partner Torro Rosso, Honda has a golden opportunity to come good. Not set the world on fire, not win a race, not even worry about the top ten, just produce a PU that will go the distance and not implode which caused the multiple grid penalties that were a constant for drivers Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne.
Pride is the order of the day in Japanese culture and saving face is the flip side of that coin and Honda’s woeful performance coupled with Alonso’s have no mercy radio transmissions did not allow the Japanese manufacturer either of these. With such a celebrated history in F1, Honda must be desperately looking to prove they still belong in F1. Race wins notwithstanding, forget the power issue for now, Honda has to prove they can make an engine that will actually race.
Fernando Alonso – As mentioned earlier, Fernando Alonso is right behind Vettel as far as something to prove, albeit for very different reasons. His choice to break contract and leave Ferrari early seems in hindsight a wrong move, although how any top driver can stay with a team longer than five years with no results is beyond me. My feeling is Hamilton or Vettel might have done the same. Let’s see how long Vettel lasts at Ferrari, before the prospect of a faster, race-winning car piques his interest – that will not be the case if Ferrari’s new challenger is up to it, but so was last year’s at the beginning of the season.
Back to the Spaniard, if Alonso has something to prove, and I think he does, it is to prove wrong all the naysayers that have acknowledged him in regards to race craft and his totality as a driver, but somehow want to cast him as the guy who is at the wrong place at the wrong time.
Let me ask you this, was he at Renault at the wrong time? Won two championships. Was he at McLaren at the wrong time? Won races and almost a championship. Was he at Ferrari at the wrong time? Was a race winner several times and almost won another two championships and was voted driver of the year twice by team principals, further burnishing his reputation in the annals of F1.
That all being said yes, surely there could be more podiums, more wins, more championships and I would be an idiot if I didn’t say so. What will make this all go away: the acrimony with Hamilton and McLaren way back when, the missed opportunity to drive for Red Bull just when they were hitting their stride or playing the long game at Ferrari and just waiting out the series of bad cars to get to these good ones – will be race wins and a championship if that is even possible.
This year will not be a championship one for Alonso, but I feel he has another two years in F1 and quite a bit could change within that timeline. What I think is definitely possible this year is that Alonso and McLaren can take a win or two off the title contenders in the way Red Bull did last year and that would be proof enough that the path this warrior has taken was his own and worth it – for it would seem to me if you are true to yourself one can never truly fail.
Daniel Ricciardo – Once the new guy on the block that was out-racing his teammate (none other than four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel), as well as snatching a win here and there from the mighty Mercedes, that is all history now and old history at that. In a role reversal Max Verstappen has taken all of Ricciardo’s thunder and along the way established himself as the new “fast guy” and has the race craft and speed to back it up.
It is going to be an interesting year for Daniel, he will be out of contract and really the only place for him to go is alongside Vettel at Ferrari or alongside Hamilton at Mercedes. One supposes that he could stay at Red Bull but Verstappen is quickly making Red Bull his team the way Vettel did despite the best efforts of Mark Webber. Reliability aside, the prevailing feeling from last year was Verstappen had the measure of his more seasoned teammate Ricciardo who it would seem is now the team’s de facto number two driver and one thing is for certain, Ricciardo needs to prove this year that he is not.
Valtteri Bottas – I like this guy, I have the type of personality that gets all wound up quickly, sometimes I even rush to judgment, just ask my wife or my kids (trust me I’m working on it). Maybe that is why I have always liked the temperament of drivers from the Nordic region, that frosty part of the world that somehow produces some of the best drivers.
They are fast and quiet, they generally don’t make a fuss and they let their driving do the talking or at the very least are quiet right up till the point that they tell you to leave them alone they know what they are doing…
However, regardless of the three wins Bottas has driving a silver arrow and regardless of how he acclimated to the Mercedes right away, I still feel he should have been closer to Hamilton. I am not alone in this observation and even Toto Wolff has mentioned Bottas has to raise his game for 2018.
If I am correct he was only offered a one-year contract so this is it. Bottas is super quick but like so many super quick drivers there can be ebb and flow to their speed. Unlike Hamilton who is super quick all time and then is un-catchable quick some of the time, this year Valtteri needs to prove to Toto and Niki (Lauda) that there is no need to consider Ricciardo because that is surely the back up plan for Mercedes.
McLaren (Zack Brown, Eric Boulliet) – One needs to say a few words about McLaren, once a powerhouse and a guaranteed race winner no matter what the regulation changes were, who was in the car or the general state of F1. Now they have lost their way. An unfortunate split with their works engine supplier and a very public falling-out between Ron Dennis and his partner Mansour Ojjeh resulting eventually in Dennis’s ouster, McLaren is under the new leadership of Zack Brown and Eric Boullier.
These two capable individuals clearly want the team to return to their winning ways. McLaren are not just around to make up the numbers, and racing for racing’s sake does not seem to be the McLaren way. McLaren race to win, period. Need I remind you all that behind Ferrari McLaren is the second most winningest team in F1. So Honda out – Renault in, and we have yet another new era at Woking. One could say McLaren and company have to prove themselves all over again and it begins in Melbourne with each and every weekend that the cars hit the track. The team, in their history correct color of papaya orange with dark blue accents, will be out to prove it every single Sunday. Cheers to that…
Red Bull – It has now been four years since the energy drinks company has won either championship and that was exactly the number of years in which they won both championships. It must be unnerving to the entire organization to have fallen so far of the mark. I know many fans are not in agreement with me when I say those four years that Red Bull was on top were 1) due to the off-throttle blowing that Renault perfected to a science, 2) the level of cheating that Red Bull was engaged in, whether it be flexing front wings, holes that keep showing up in the floor board and clever traction control, or 3) the obvious way the team sabotaged Mark Webber’s chances in 2010. I’m sure the other side of that argument is, Sebastian Vettel, Adrian Newey and just Red Bull in general were the reasons for the eight world titles, but whichever side you come down on, the longer Red Bull go without a title, the more it looks like it was a case of right place, right time for the chaps in Milton Keyes. So this year I suspect Red Bull want to be considered more than just a spoiler every so often when either Mercedes or Ferrari has a hiccup. Red Bull will be out to prove to the entire grid that 1) we can do this again and 2) we can do this again with another driver.
Sauber – With a history that is well known, this team has had several ups and downs – recently it would seem that the beloved team from Hinwil was on the decline. However things are looking up, and an infusion of cash and a new partnership with Alfa Romeo (partly because Sergio Marchionne wants more leverage against Liberty Media just like Red Bull has due to having two teams on the grid), the car has a slick new paint job and a rookie with promise.
This is a team under the new stewardship of the well-known and very experienced Frederic Vasseur and one I think really wants to re-prove itself again and not just compete for the scraps left over from Renault, Haas, and Williams. Sauber surely want to prove they are back, and back in a meaningful way, which is a euphemism for, “We have a quick car.”
Renault – Lastly, Renault, under the direction of Cyril Abiteboul and with a brand-new high-profile client in McLaren, have a whole lot to prove. They get some credit for being the engine to the eight Red Bull titles but that must seem a mighty long ago, was it the chassis or the engine? The French manufacturer must be fit to be tied that they allowed themselves to be so comprehensively out-designed by Mercedes with these new four cylinder turbos. I mean come on, it was Renault that introduced F1 to the turbo. That has got to hurt.
However this could be forgiven if, as Ferrari did, they quickly sorted things out and got on par with Mercedes, but we are now going into the fifth year of these new regs and still Renault is having issues. In fact, Abiterboul will be detuning their power plants for the opener later this month. Not too sure I like the sound of that, I’m pretty sure Verstappen would like to be starting the season opener with more power, but maybe this is a prudent decision. Maybe the guys at Viry-Chatillon need to prove they can build an engine to those new regs that will not falter, and then pile on the speed.
At any rate Renault have a massive amount of work ahead of them this season and if they don’t want the wrath of, let’s see… Helmut Marko, Christian Horner, Max Verstappen, Daniel Ricciardo, Zack Brown, their countryman Eric Boullier, and of course the ever-so-sarcastic on the radio Fernando Alonso they better prove their new PU is up to snuff.
And that is the rundown of who has the most to prove in the court of F1 for the 2018 season. It will be interesting to see how this will all pan out since nothing happens in a vacuum and all these drivers, teams and manufacturers are connected many times over in so many complex ways. Vettel can only win the championship if Ferrari can develop the car, Daniel can only really fight Max as long as he does not fall victim to reliability issues. Max can only really win races if Renault can deliver the horsepower. McLaren need Fernando to drive on another planet, Renault power to deliver the goods and a few mistakes from Ferrari, Mercedes and Red Bull. A tall order.
And so it goes, a lot of people have a lot to prove and won’t we fans be all the better for it while it plays out over 21 glorious weekends on several different continents both day and night with everything that makes this sport so great to follow. The speed, the adrenalin, the surprises, the rivalries, the triumphs and victories, the disappointments and unpredictability that can and usually does happen on Sunday, in a word the drama that is F1. I can hardly wait until March 25…