Sunny skies and a picturesque setting underneath the Sydney Harbour Bridge was the perfect scene for the launch of the 2020 Supercars Championship season.
Finally the 2018 season is upon us, and with just days to go until the cars take to Melbourne’s Albert Park street circuit, now is the time to get your season predictions in.
Across a gruelling 21-race calendar, which teams will succeed and which will flounder? Who can best their teammate and who will fail to find a seat for 2019?
Lewis Hamilton (44), Valtteri Bottas (77)
Throughout preseason testing the reigning constructors champion oozed the coolness of a squad that knows it’s onto a winner, and with the W09 an evolution of last year’s car, there are no prizes for plumping for a fifth Mercedes constructors title.
An advantage as large as some preseason models suggest would leave the responsibility for creating title tension with Valtteri Bottas, but the Finn had teammate Lewis Hamilton’s measure on precious few occasions last year. Without employing Nico Rosberg-style mind games to destabilise the increasingly confident Briton, there’s little reason to believe Hamilton’s fifth title isn’t there for the taking.
2. Red Bull Racing
Daniel Ricciardo (3), Max Verstappen (33)
Red Bull Racing’s principal recent weaknesses have been underpowered engines and underprepared cars. Late last season its chassis won with a lack of grunt; an out-of-the-box quick car should therefore present a credible threat regardless of power.
While Ferrari has struggled with aerodynamic reimaginings, RBR’s design team have penned an evolutionary chassis that will contend for class-of-the-field honours.
Max Verstappen is newly re-signed; Daniel Ricciardo is out of contract, and the Australian’s decision will be based on the RB14’s competitiveness as well as his own against his teammate. Ricciardo performs in crunch moments. This battle is too close to call.
Sebastian Vettel (5), Kimi Raikkonen (7)
Ferrari has historically struggled to perpetuate momentum after underdog seasons, and this year looks unlikely to be an exception. The team has been bold to adapt its competitive 2017 car, but it has fallen behind Red Bull Racing in the process, and RBR must be favourite to out-develop the Italian team.
Can the Ferrari power unit bridge the gap? Only if the Renault engine is a genuine shocker, which is unlikely. The real challenge will be handling a small step backwards without embarking on an ugly and unnecessary round of bloodletting.
Sebastian Vettel beats Kimi Raikkonen in a landslide. Obviously.
Carlos Sainz (55), Nico Hulkenberg (27)
The first of many fascinating midfield battles. Renault made enormous strides last year despite its underwhelming power unit to have the fourth-fastest car by season’s end. Consistency and momentum will win it fourth place against engine customer McLaren, and with title tilt pegged to 2020, nothing less would be acceptable.
Fascinating too is Carlos Sainz’s battle with Nico Hulkenberg. The former’s reputation rests on beating his teammates and the latter needs a competitive teammate to perform. They will benefit each other, but Hulkenberg will come off second-best in what could become a defining season for the – whisper it – journeyman.
Romain Grosjean (8), Kevin Magnussen (20)
The quasi-American team’s 2018 performance – its sophomore season but the first under new regulations – was an important clue that Haas is made of the right stuff, and preseason testing suggested it’s in the P4 hunt. I’m buying the hype.
The trick to that consistency is the blending of off-the-shelf Ferrari and Dallara parts with Haas’s own performance bits. This and no major changes this year will pay dividends.
This is therefore a big year for Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen as they continue rehabilitating their careers. If the car is as refined as testing suggested, Grosjean will use it best.
Fernando Alonso (14), Stoffel Vandoorne (2)
McLaren set the bar impossibly high by proclaiming it would be a Red Bull Racing-beater with the same power unit. Inevitable and predictable teething problems during testing have likely put paid to that dream.
I expect McLaren-Renault to be competitive by the end of the season, but lost points to unreliability early will cost it championship positions and leave it with a well-egged face.
Fernando Alonso, if he can control his emotions, will put Stoffel Vandoorne away in a close contest while the team pulls itself together.
7. Force India
Sergio Perez (11), Esteban Ocon (31)
F1’s best bang-for-buck team tested with a car scarcely upgraded from last year’s version, but even though Force India, with the smallest budget of all constructors, has a major upgrade for Australia, holding back the cashed-up Renault and McLaren was always going to be a bridge too far. Haas’s leap forward, however, will be a disappointment.
Though Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon agreed to an armistice after numerous clashes last season, both know beating the other is crucial to any big-team promotion. Only Ocon comes out of it alive.
8. Toro Rosso
Pierre Gasly (10), Brendon Hartley (28)
Honda’s preseason reliability pleasantly surprised Toro Rosso, Formula One and perhaps even Honda. Though it remains the weakest of the four power units, Toro Rosso expects the gap could close this season – but that’ll be too late to make up for small early scores.
Pierre Gasly is a highly rated rookie, but Brendon Hartley is a two-time World Endurance Champion, making this a more potent line-up than appears on paper. Harley’s experience should see him edge the Frenchman.
Lance Stroll (18), Sergey Sirotkin (35)
Williams’s slide from successive third places in 2014–15 has been excruciating – last year it barely managed fifth, and this year looks only worse.
Paddy Lowe is now in control of design and believes this new-concept car has potential to be unlocked, but the team has a poor development record in recent years. Reversing that trend will define this season.
The Lance Stroll-Sergey Sirotkin battle holds much intrigue, with neither highly rated. Stroll, with a year of F1 experience, would be disappointed not to lead the Russian, cementing his reputation as a pay driver in the process.
Marcus Ericsson (9), Charles Leclerc (16)
Sauber, with fresh backing from Alfa Romeo, will continue the arduous rebuilding process after teetering on the brink of collapse in 2016. The Italian euros will begin taken effect this season, so meaningful advances won’t be evident until late in the year and into 2019.
Charles Leclerc’s junior results have marked him as one of the generation’s most exciting new talents, and few rate Marcus Ericsson’s chances of beating the Monegasque – the Swede’s main task is to limit the damage sufficient to keep his seat from Antonio Giovinazzi in 2019.
Now we only need wait for the lights to go out this Sunday at Albert Park, when even the best of predictions could yet be proved flawed.