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2018 F1 Season: Half-way review

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With an unexpectedly close title race unfolding, technical modifications will be the main focus for all teams in the upcoming summer break. So too will strategies relating to ‘secondary’ drivers, and how they may decoy rivals, enabling their team to get the best results possible. Here, Automotive Blog looks at the constructors that stood in the top five of the standings prior to the British Grand Prix.

Mercedes

The double retirement suffered in Spielberg by the Mercedes duo, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas, was the Silver Arrows’ first since returning to F1 in 2010. Though his true feelings are only known to himself, four-time champion Hamilton at least appears confident that the disastrous Austrian Grand Prix was a mere aberration. Regardless of what happens to Mercedes in the remaining races before the summer break, 2018 has seen some genuine cracks emerge in the Silver Arrows’ apparent infallibility. Technical issues, such as the ones which denied Hamilton victory in the season-opening Australian Grand Prix, will need to be ironed out over the summer if Mercedes are to keep Ferrari (and even Red Bull) at bay.

Aside from the drivers, much of the pressure is also being shouldered by Mercedes’ chief strategist James Vowles. His apology over the team radio, for failing to pit Hamilton while the Virtual Safety Car was in deployment, is an illustration of just how far Mercedes could fall if the slump in form is not arrested. With the Austrian Grand Prix also coming after a particularly expensive engine upgrade, that race was much more than a simple missed opportunity. With a redesigned fuel pump, the like of which could have prevented Mercedes’ double retirement in Spielberg, the first riposte is already in place. However, while the enhanced aerodynamic package will further aid the Silver Arrows’ cause, the team has chosen to hold back on unleashing an upgraded power unit.

Audio: James Vowles apologises to Hamilton on team radio during disastrous Austrian Grand Prix.

Ferrari

Ferrari has already made some vital upgrades ahead of the remaining July races, with a redesigned floor and engine cover for the SF71H chassis. There can be no denying that Ferrari and Mercedes are – quite rightly – trying to outdo each other. With Ferrari also becoming an increasingly popular draw for those comparing odds on Oddschecker, especially with those looking to utilise free bets from companies like Sky Bet, Mercedes cannot afford to lose much more ground in the race for the title. The improvements to the floor area are particularly novel, with a third extra slot allowing for better airflow throughout an area of the car that can overheat, to the detriment of the driver. Issues such as excessive flexing and jarring between the long slots and curved channels have also been eliminated by this latest upgrade.

The engine cover, with increased curvature, allows for more efficient, streamlined cooling. Like Mercedes, Ferrari cannot afford any double retirements, with the title race between Vettel and Hamilton looking likely to go to the wire. Appearances of the low drag wing, as seen in Azerbaijan, are set to remain sporadic in the short term, with the possibility of more regular appearances after the summer break. Though he is in the midst of a fifth year without silverware, Sebastian Vettel has cut a confident figure in the 2018 car. These improvements can only boost him further, with the German still enjoying residual momentum from an unexpected double-blast of wins at the start of this season. The last time Vettel did that, he won his second consecutive world title (in 2011).

A point-for-point repeat of 2011 appears unlikely, but in recent years, Hamilton has outed himself as a ‘form’ driver, who relies on continual momentum to get results. On a level playing field, Vettel is perhaps Hamilton’s only equal. Yet, unlike other British greats such as Mansell and Hunt, adverse situations out of his hands will get the better of him more often than not. Ferrari’s focus must not necessarily be on winning every race after the summer break, but in preventing Hamilton from getting enough momentum to do so himself.

February 2018 – the SF71H is launched.

Red Bull

Though Red Bull has won a good share of races this term, the main focus is now on the long-term; specifically, how the switch from a Renault power unit to a Honda one (in 2019) will aid their cause. According to various reports, Honda’s development of a power unit for Red Bull will be a particularly intensive process – even by Honda’s own standards. An infamously bad period, when Honda supplied the power unit for former F1 great McLaren between 2015 and 2017, has deeply affected Honda’s reputation. Even the results of this season’s Canadian and French Grands Prix, in which Honda’s engines suffered badly, have cast doubt on Red Bull’s decision to make the switch. Nonetheless, Honda chief Masashi Yamamoto has asserted that ‘minute’ details will form the nucleus of the Spec 3 power unit.

Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner has also spoken out, stating that the decision to switch was based on the wish to be “competitive” with Mercedes and Ferrari. While the Honda power unit development team (along with the Red Bull team) has no choice but to be optimistic, Mercedes boss Toto Wolff can be more liberal with his views. Yet, despite Honda’s recent chequered past, Wolff has stated in no uncertain terms that the switch gives Red Bull an optimal chance of making genuine title challenges.

Daniel Ricciardo’s stunning performance in Shanghai is a primary reason that Red Bull remain in theoretical title contention

Renault & Haas

Nico Hulkenberg’s failure to get any sort of positive result in Austria has increased the pressure on Renault to justify their modifications in the races immediately before and after the summer break. With Renault’s power unit also failing Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo in Shanghai several months ago, the enhanced turbo cannot arrive soon enough. Without a containing measure working alongside the new engine (with the old turbo) Renault’s priority of risk over reward has backfired in the short term, but with Renault set to lose Red Bull in 2019, the ability to focus on the in-house team will be increased. Being forced to use a third turbo, Hulkenberg is in danger of sustaining a penalty sooner rather than later, but Renault boss Cyril Abiteboul has asserted that his project is still on schedule.

For a Formula 1 outfit that remains extremely young in relation to its rivals, Haas has made impressive progress. This season has seen the American outfit overtake more established constructors like Force India and McLaren, with that process aided by a strong performance at the Austrian Grand Prix. Yet, a fairytale, like Brawn’s 2009 season, is as distant as it ever was. Haas boss Guenther Steiner remains respectful of Renault and knows that it is only by very fine margins that Haas remain in realistic contention for fourth place. He holds Force India and McLaren in the same regard and believes that they will have a stronger than average second half of the season. There can be no doubt that both Haas drivers, Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean, have shown great strength of character after a poor start to the season in Australia.

Grosjean, in particular, has endured a very stern test of his psychological credentials. After failing to score a single point in the first eight races of the 2018 season, the Frenchman’s fourth-place finish at Spielberg bore all the hallmarks of a genuine road to recovery, rather than a dreaded ‘false dawn’. From here, the key to success for Grosjean and teammate Magnussen is the evasion of trouble for the sake of high finishes. Haas’ VF-18 car bears similarities to Ferrari’s own machine, and while some are critical of this, those that want a more level playing field have cautious reason to root for Haas. Consecutive finishes in the points-scoring zone, even if via a paltry tenth place finish, will provide both of Haas’ drivers with much-needed confidence, as every team prepares for a raft of changes over a busy summer.

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