F1 2018 preview: Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, Force India, Williams

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The second part of ESPN's team-by-team preview for the 2018 Formula One season looks at the top five from last year's championship standings, including the three teams most likely to fight for the title.


Drivers: Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas
Engine: Mercedes
2017 points: 668
Fastest lap in testing: 1:18.400 (seventh fastest)
Title odds: 1/2

The reigning world champions appear to be the team to beat again in 2018. Pre-season gave little reason to expect otherwise and nor do the preceding four years of the V6 turbo era. Mercedes' championship last season was perhaps the most impressive as it came despite a sweeping overhaul of Formula One's regulations, highlighting why this is one of the sport's all-time great dynasties.

Spearheaded by Lewis Hamilton, who at times last year appeared to be operating at the peak of his talent, the German manufacturer will be a formidable opponent for anyone close enough to challenge. Hamilton is likely to secure a contract extension in the early part of the year and goes into the season as the odds-on favourite for a fifth world championship.

But 2017 proved Mercedes is not unbeatable. Despite a strong second half of the season, Ferrari's implosion in the final rounds basically handed Mercedes the championship when the fight looked to be going to the wire. The W08 car the team labelled "a diva" was tricky to understand and struggled to find the same performance gains on Pirelli's softer tyres as Ferrari and Red Bull did. With Pirelli introducing altered compounds for the 2018 and pre-season suggesting the W09 is little better on the softer tyres, Mercedes has a lot of work to do to ensure its latest car stays at the front end of the grid.


Drivers: Sebastian Vettel and Kimi Raikkonen
Engine: Ferrari
2017 points: 522
Fastest lap in testing: 1:17.182 (fastest)
Title odds: 10/3

Ferrari used last year's overhaul of aerodynamic regulations to mount a serious championship challenge, only to see its season fall apart late on after a series of engine failures. Having proved it has not forgotten how to build a title contender, the Italian team seemed quietly confident coming into the new campaign. Pre-season gave mixed messages about the order at the front but Ferrari is clearly going to start the year in the mix. Sustaining an aggressive and successful rate of development throughout the season -- all while avoiding the failures of 2017 -- will be key to its success this time around.

Sebastian Vettel drove as well at certain points last year than he ever did during his dominant spell at Red Bull. The German driver clearly relished being back in title contention and there's little reason to think he will not be operating at a similar level in 2018. However, by keeping Kimi Raikkonen despite his frustrating inconsistency, Ferrari appears content not to win the constructors' championship -- Mercedes and Red Bull both have a more rounded driver line-up to take that accolade. Despite occasional flashes of the old Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion was very rarely on the same level as Vettel. A repeat of that this season could be damaging to Vettel's title ambitions if Red Bull is also in the hunt for big hauls of points throughout the year.

Red Bull

Drivers: Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen
Engine: Renault (Branded as TAG Heuer)
2017 points: 368
Fastest lap in testing: 1:18.047 (third fastest)
Title odds: 10/3

Red Bull could finally be back in title contention if the team is as close to Mercedes as pre-season suggested. Despite never having a package capable of winning the championship since F1 swapped V8 engines with the current V6s turbos, it has continually shown its aerodynamic prowess by finishing each season since with an aggressive upwards development curve. The problem has always been the gap to overhaul has simply been too big.

Analysing Red Bull's gap to the front at the Australian Grand Prix will give some idea about how the rest of the season will play out and how likely the team is to be in the mix. If its tight at the top in Melbourne, it will very much be game on for 2018.

If the package is good, we also know its driver line-up is up to the challenge. In Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo Red Bull likely has the best and most competitive pairing on the grid. This will also provide a fascinating narrative if Red Bull is in the title hunt -- the two ultra-competitive drivers have so far enjoyed a good relationship, barring a brief spat after colliding in Hungary last year. Given the nature of F1 that harmony is unlikely to continue if both Red Bull drivers feel they can win a maiden championship this season. Managing that, and ensuring it does not derail a championship bid, will be just as important to Red Bull's chances of winning as its car development plans.

Force India

Drivers: Sergio Perez and Esteban Ocon
Engine: Mercedes
2017 points: 187
Fastest lap in testing: 1:18.967 (eighth fastest)
Title odds: 300/1

Formula One's serial overachievers face a big task in 2018. The team which has made out-performing its limited budget a habit in recent seasons had an underwhelming pre-season where it appeared to be lacking performance. Last year it was consistently best of the rest by some margin ahead of a packed midfield battle, but that cluster of teams is likely to make a step forward this year.

Renault and McLaren, both equipped with an improving engine and big budgets, are likely to close the gap to the top three. Force India faces a big task in competing with both over a 21-race season but if any of the grid's smaller outfits can do it, the one emblazoned with a striking pink livery seems the most likely. Force India's supply of Mercedes engines means it has a good baseline if it can get everything right with its car, and we know it is a team which relishes the sort of challenge ahead this year.

Rumours still exist about a name change ahead of the season, one which the team hopes will open it up to new and improved sponsorship opportunities in future, but that is unlikely to cause too much distraction to one of F1's most efficient race operations.


Drivers: Lance Stroll and Sergey Sirotkin
Engine: Mercedes
2017 points: 83
Fastest lap in testing: 1:19.189 (tenth fastest)
Title odds: 500/1

By contrast to Force India, Williams has struggled over the last two years to improve a car during the season. A radical new aerodynamic concept was unveiled this year, spearheaded by Paddy Lowe and Dirk de Beer, and that rarely leads to an immediate upswing in performance. During testing, Lowe admitted the team is still a long way from understanding the true potential of the revamped FW41. With development likely to be what defines Williams' season, attention naturally turns to the two men chosen to pilot this year's car.

Ever since the launch, deputy team boss Claire Williams has been defiant about her team's selection of the grid's most inexperienced driver line-up, F1 sophomore Lance Stroll and rookie Sergey Sirotkin. The team has taken a huge gamble by investing in youth for its race squad and its ability to learn about and develop the FW41 will rest largely on their shoulders. Robert Kubica is a popular addition to the team as reserve driver but his knowledge of Pirelli's notoriously tricky tyres is also limited after seven years out of Formula One, though his input is likely to be invaluable as the season progresses.

If Williams struggles early in the year, questions about the decisions made in the months leading in to the season are likely to be rife. Given how tight the midfield is expected to be at the start of the season, Williams cannot afford to have made a fundamental error in judgement.

Coverage of Formula One in the U.S.A. will return to ESPN this year and begins at Melbourne's Albert Park with the Australian Grand Prix. Full programing details below (all times Eastern Time):

Rolex Australian Grand Prix
Practice 1 - Thursday, March 22, 9:00 PM - ESPN3
Practice 2 - Friday, March 23, 1:00 AM - ESPN3
Practice 3 - Friday, March 23, 10:00 PM - ESPNEWS
Qualifying - Saturday, March 24, 2:00 AM - ESPN2
Race - Sunday, March 25, 1:00 AM - ESPN2