There are still plenty of unknowns heading into the second race of the 2018 Formula One season. ESPN outlines six of them here.

Can Ferrari and Red Bull legitimately challenge Mercedes?

Despite Ferrari winning in Australia and Red Bull claiming the fastest lap, it’s still difficult to predict just how close the two teams are to challenging Mercedes across 21 races in 2018. A closely-matched start to the weekend was followed by the deflating moment in Q3 when Lewis Hamilton set a pole position lap more than 0.6s faster than second-placed Kimi Raikkonen — like getting a « a pie in the face », to quote Daniel Ricciardo. The questions which remain about the Mercedes’ ‘party mode’ (see below) which helped Hamilton complete that lap muddy the waters here.

The final stages of the opening grand prix suggested Ferrari and Red Bull can match Mercedes’ pace in race trim, although Hamilton’s inability to catch and pass Sebastian Vettel was also complicated by the fact overtaking opportunites come at a premium at Albert Park, prompting the world champions to turn its engines down in the final laps. However, that same factor probably prevented Ricciardo from showing the true pace of the Red Bull RB14.

As Christian Horner said after the race, Ricciardo’s fastest lap — which he was only able to set after dropping back from Raikkonen to gain some clean air — was the only one the team could judge its true pace on. Fans hoping for a genuine fight this season had better hope Horner’s assertion his team had « a lot of pace in hand » that it was unable to show in Melbourne is correct.

The freak nature of Ferrari’s win at Albert Park also meant most of the focus after the race was on the fortuitous victory and not the performance of the red car. Hamilton was not fooled, pointing out after the race that he had been unable to pull a significant gap to Raikkonen in the opening stint, adding: « I think their performance is better than it looked ». Ferrari now heads to a Bahrain circuit which should suit its strengths. If the team stays competitive in Sakhir, it will prove Hamilton’s fears were well-founded. NS

Just how good is Mercedes’ qualifying ‘party mode’?

The term ‘party mode’ was coined by Lewis Hamilton during a pre-season press conference and was probably over-hyped in the build up to the first qualifying session of the season.

According to the team, the Mercedes power unit has three basic power settings: one for practice sessions, one for the race and one for qualifying. The three settings dictate the ferocity of the engine’s combustion cycle via fuel flow and ignition timing and ultimately exist to offer the best balance between performance and reliability in any given situation. Sub-settings can be used to control the deployment of electrical energy from the ERS depending on the requirements of a particular lap at a particular stage of the weekend, with full deployment used in qualifying, for overtaking and at the start of a race.

« In terms of engine modes, the setting for qualifying will be the most powerful one, » Mercedes explained ahead of the Bahrain weekend. « This mode is only required for a few laps each race weekend, and usage varies according to the competitive context — sometimes this qualifying mode will be used throughout qualifying, sometimes only in the final Q3 session. « The available mileage is dictated by what is termed the ‘phase document’, which defines the limits to which the power unit may be used during each race weekend, and which is the same for the works cars and the Mercedes customer teams. »

That available mileage is limited even more this year now that three engines have to last an entire season, which is likely to favour the most reliable power units. Last year Mercedes had by far and away the best reliability record so its feasible that they have retained more bang for their buck in qualifying mode that their rivals.

Yet a comparison of the GPS data between Hamilton’s first and second runs in Q3 suggests it was not a change in engine settings that gave the world champion a sudden edge over the rest of the field but an improvement in the corners. Kimi Raikkonen’s Ferrari was actually quicker than Hamilton on all of Melbourne’s straights with the exception of the run to Turn 13 which is dictated by the speed carried through Turns 11 and 12. Hamilton later confirmed that he used the same setting throughout Q2 and Q3, meaning the extra lap time came from Hamilton finding his car’s sweet spot around the 5.3km lap. So while Mercedes does have a higher power setting reserved for qualifying (and has done since the dawn of the turbo-hyrbid era in 2014), it seems it was not the defining factor behind the car’s one-lap prowess.

Renault’s engine, however, does not have a specific qualifying mode and that’s why Red Bull were particularly keen to point out Mercedes’ power advantage in Melbourne. The hope is that the second spec of Renault’s R.E.18 engine will have an extra setting, but until then Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo will be hard pushed to take pole position at any circuit other than Monaco. LE

Will Haas’ rivals challenge its car design?

Success often breeds contempt in Formula One, and Haas’ impressive performance in Melbourne was no different. Had it not been for a double retirement due to two cross-threaded wheel nuts on separate cars, Haas would have taken the biggest points haul of its short existence in F1. Naturally, such a performance ruffled a few feathers among rivals teams in F1’s tight midfield, but the debate that ensued was not just about the design of the 2018 Haas, it was about the very essence of what it means to be a constructor in Formula One.

Since joining the grid in 2016, Haas’ business model has been based on buying as many common components from Ferrari as is allowed under the regulations. Those components include the engine, gearbox, suspension, electronics and hydraulics but must not extend to the aerodynamic surfaces of the car. Rival teams producing more of their own components with larger workforces have pointed out that the VF-18’s bodywork bears more than a passing resemblance to last year’s Ferrari, but while there is plenty of suspicion floating around the paddock there is no proof any aerodynamic IP has been exchanged between Ferrari and Haas.

The FIA says it « knows exactly » what is going on in the Haas/Ferrari relationship and maintains it is « completely legal ». Haas points out that having the same suspension as Ferrari means one of the fundamental aerodynamic principles of the car — its wheelbase – is transferred across. But while that may lead to some similar design concepts to this year’s SF71-H it has also been used as proof that the VF-18 is not a carbon copy of the SF70-H, which had a shorter wheelbase that the 2018 Ferrari.

Ultimately, and logically, Haas is making the most of its deal with Ferrari to produce the fastest car it can. The shared components mean some similarities are inevitable — to do otherwise would intentionally make the car slower for variation’s sake — but it is all within the regulations laid out by the FIA. The question now is whether rival teams such as Force India and Williams will go a similar route by buying more components from Mercedes and shunning their own research and development to date. F1 could end up with a series of satellite teams running very similar cars to the main manufacturers, which would reduce costs and make the field more competitive. But it would also make the smaller teams increasingly dependent on the bigger manufacturers and their decision to stay or remain in the sport. Ultimately, F1 needs to have a wider debate about what it means to be a constructor, but while there are competitive advantages to be gained that debate is unlikely to be given the objective opinions it deserves. LE

McLaren: Midfield team, or ready to challenge the top three?

Fernando Alonso’s fifth place finish in Australia was crucial for McLaren but it was also a freak result. In the same way that Sebastian Vettel would not have won the race without Romain Grosjean’s cross-threaded wheel nut and the Virtual Safety Car period which followed, Alonso would have been stuck in eighth without the Haas’ unfortunate turn of events.

While Alonso didn’t register the cleanest qualifying lap on Saturday, 11th on the grid was a fair representation of McLaren’s pace in Melbourne. Both Haas and Renault had a quicker car over one lap and while the McLaren had decent race pace, it would not have been enough to score more than a handful of points in a normal race. As a result, it seems a little premature for McLaren to start targeting Red Bull off the back of one unusual race on one of the calendar’s most unusual circuits.

Instead, McLaren will be looking to its upgrades over the coming races to move further up the grid. The team insist there is huge potential in the pipeline, but that’s a promise trotted out all too regularly by teams struggling for performance. Bahrain is likely to be a weak track for the MCL33 so another points finish will be seen as a positive result and a good omen for upcoming races in Shanghai, Spain and Monaco where it track characteristics should suit the McLaren. LE

Can Valtteri Bottas really match Lewis Hamilton across the season?

The most important season of Valtteri Bottas’ racing career got off to an inauspicious start in Melbourne: the Finn crashed out of Q3, meaning he started low down the order on one of the toughest tracks for overtaking. Worse still, the lack of the Finn at the front end of the grid hurt Mercedes’ chances of properly covering off the threat of Ferrari during the race itself. Hamilton made it clear after the race that Mercedes’ hopes of winning the title in 2018 rest on having two competitive cars at the front end of the pack: a clear message sent to his teammate.

One race does not make or break a season, especially when there are 20 to follow, but throughout winter testing Bottas insisted finding a consistent high level of performance throughout the year was the key to challenging or beating Hamilton across a season. Hamilton’s pole lap in Melbourne showed the level the world champion is operating at already — throughout the weekend he was displaying the sort of form which propelled him to the title after last year’s summer break.

The carrot of a contract extension is a huge incentive for Bottas to put the Melbourne crash behind him. That deal still looks like the Finn’s to lose. The good news for Bottas is that he has the chance to re-discover his form at a Bahrain circuit he has traditionally excelled on and where he claimed a maiden pole positon last season. If he has another poor weekend, the pressure and speculation will only continue to rise. NS

Where is Force India in the pecking order?

We have come to expect miracles from Force India in the past few seasons, which probably explains why seeing the team fail to score a point in Australia — the first time that had happened since May of last year — was such a surprise. The team’s uninspiring winter pace led to suggestions it had fallen down the pecking order but a huge upgrade package and the team’s form over previous seasons meant there was still an expectation it could compete for a spot in Q3 come Saturday in Melbourne.

As it turned out, the team was eliminated in Q2 and had to settle for 11th and 12th in the race, and it only had a sniff at a point at the end due to Haas’ implosion and the fact Carlos Sainz spent the closing stages of the race trying (successfully) not to vomit underneath his helmet. The step made by Renault and McLaren over the winter was clear to see in Melbourne and Force India clearly needs to up its game if it wants to match the two well-funded teams across the entire year.

But there is reason to believe the opening race was misleading. Force India is confident that upgrade package has given them « huge development potential » for the next few races. This is a team which has made a mockery of the bigger budgets of its nearest rivals in recent seasons and one which last year finished comfortably best of the rest behind the top three, so downplaying these expectations seems unwise at this stage. The next few races will help paint a picture of just where Force India sits within the new battleground to be the best of the rest in 2018. NS


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