Tuesday, 6 March 2018

F1 2018 Season Preview: Mercedes - Deja vu all over again

The question remains the same. For the fifth pre-season in a row. Just how is Mercedes to be toppled? All Mercedes statistics since the start of F1's hybrid era in 2014 are crushing: four championship doubles from four; 63 wins from 79...

Photo: Octane Photography
You could make the case that the rest are still no closer to answering it either. Doubtlessly Mercedes last season faced its strongest challenge in this spell. But even so it got 12 wins from 20, and wrapped up both titles well ahead of time.

Last season too the Merc had infamous 'diva' characteristics. But even that may take hope away from rivals - it gives the car obvious room in which to improve for 2018. The car looks like one that's sought to optimise what it was doing in 2017, rather than one seeking a new direction.

Like 12 months ago Mercedes has launched a car with conspicuous greater detail than any other. It ended the first Barcelona test with clearly the fastest laptime, and one set on harder tyres than its pursuers. Like 12 months ago all left the test with a strong sense that Merc is comfortable. The figure of three tenths clear was banded around. The noises from the camp seeped with understated assurance.

Still you may have spotted at this point that 12 months ago Merc in spite of all this did not win the opening race, indeed took the best part of half a season to reestablish its place as the stick-on race day pace-setter. One can speculate also about a parallel universe in which Ferrari didn't implode late in the year, didn't get unlucky with safety cars more than once earlier in the campaign and its lead driver didn't drop a couple of clangers.

Indeed in another echo of 12 months ago Barcelona trackside observers had the Merc more twitchy than some of its foes, pointedly the Ferrari and Red Bull. It was consistently slower than those two in the twisty final sector as well. And in 2018 Merc is alone in not pursuing the Red Bull style 'high rake' philosophy, so has nowhere to hide.

And unlike in most preceding seasons Merc didn't turn up to the first test and crush everyone on mileage. It was beaten by Toro Rosso and only did eight more tours than Ferrari. You might point at the weather, but that was the same for everyone.

In spite of these you're still well advised not to back anyone else for wins and titles. Mainly for the reasons outlined at the start. Perhaps the most likely point at which Merc will dismount its perch is 2021, when the regs and financial settlements are set to be re-written. Sobering.

Lewis Hamilton - Car #44
Photo: Octane Photography
As has been the case with his team, a familiar question has for a while followed Lewis Hamilton around. Yet unlike that about his team Lewis's question was from many perspectives answered last campaign. There was plenty of reasons to think we were at last seeing Lewis at something like his full and considerable potential.

Clearly he appreciated the less fraught post-Nico Rosberg environment in the Merc squad; a squad that no doubt was more focused on him than before too. Equally clearly he relished the battle with Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari. His qualifying proved a real talisman, and some of his pole laps - such as in Silverstone, Monza and Sepang - were something from another planet. This is always handy and was particularly so in a season wherein overtaking was more difficult. And while his pace and flair remained - as did his always underrated brain power - mistakes were almost entirely absent. Against all expectations it was funny man Lewis who delivered when the title fight really came to a crunch, and straight man Seb who got things wrong.

Really the only thing that will stop him keeping up his end of the bargain this season is complacency, and there's not much sign of that either. These days he's a driver as formidable as his team.

Valtteri Bottas - Car #77
Photo: Octane Photography
His team-mate summed up the challenge rather brutally. "It's difficult coming to a new team and learning new ways, new controls and now he's gone through the whole learning process, he's going to hit the ground running," Lewis Hamilton said of Valtteri Bottas recently.

"So there's no more excuses for sure."

We know by now what Bottas offers. Pace, industry, stoicism. He's shown plenty that he's a racer and a smart one. While out of the car all at Mercedes (not least Lewis) appreciate the calmer environment he facilitates.

While if you're a fan of end of season form feeding into the next then Bottas is one to watch; he ended 2017 with two poles on the bounce and took the final win. More of the same in 2018 and he will indeed be a formidable contender and even Lewis will likely reassess. As Lewis noted he'll this campaign have his feet more under the table as well - we shouldn't forget his promotion was 11th hour. But somewhere among it all maybe is the rub. Bottas's 2017 campaign started patchily, got better by mid-year and some spoke of him as a title outsider, but no sooner did we say that than it got awful, before he knuckled down and effected an upturn at the end. Was it coincidence that his best performances came when it didn't really matter?

Whatever the task for Bottas is clear - he must string his peaks together this season. He's also in the final year of his Merc contract. So this time it really matters.

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