Hamilton vs Vettel: The fight for a fifth title

2017 teased and tantalised snippets of the heavyweight battle between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel but ultimately came up short due to the Mercedes driver’s domination in the post-summer races combined with Ferrari’s self-destruction in the Asian flyaway rounds.

While last year did develop into an intriguing tussle between the pair, which spilled over into something more in Azerbaijan, with the title race effectively over four races from the finish fans were denied a tense finale.

Ferrari is keen to learn its lessons from last season and keep the pressure on Mercedes while the German manufacturer knows it can’t afford another year managing a ‘diva’ car with resurgence from Red Bull, McLaren and Renault also expected in 2018.

This all adds to the enticing equation with both Vettel and Hamilton on four F1 world titles apiece and the chance to match Juan Manuel Fangio to go joint-second on the all-time list.

The end of McLaren’s malaise…

The 16th of March will be frantic but tinged date for McLaren as it makes last-minute preparations at its Woking base before heading to Melbourne for the 2018 Formula 1 season opener. The day will mark four years since McLaren’s last podium (a last win stretches back almost five-and-a-half years) and it is the longest stretch in the team’s F1 history without a rostrum appearance.

The downturn for McLaren started before Honda’s arrival as a Mercedes customer with just two podiums (both at the same race) stretched over 2013 and 2014. But the real pain kicked in during its Honda partnership with unreliable and underpowered engines which sparked multiple fallouts.

McLaren is almost unrecognisable to when it achieved its last podium back at the 2014 opener in Australia: Ron Dennis, Jenson Button and Kevin Magnussen all long gone while in terms of senior figures just Eric Boullier remains having only officially joined the team at the start of 2014.

Very much seen as a sleeping giant in F1, McLaren look set to reawaken with Renault power units and a driver duo in Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne hungry for success.

…And the end of Honda’s heartache

The other side of the coin to the McLaren situation sees Honda move into a new partnership with Toro Rosso which is seen as a new beginning on its F1 comeback. Similar moves have been made to rejig its senior management with Yusuke Hasegawa replaced by Toyoharu Tanabe.

While a more constructive relationship with Toro Rosso is expected, Honda is aware of the pressure to deliver a reliable engine as it continues to play catch-up to its engine manufacturer rivals as it looks to restore its reputation in the sport having three years of failure with McLaren.

In Toro Rosso a safe testing bed can be set up without the fear of constant criticism from multiple sides, while Pierre Gasly has experience with Honda from his Super Formula campaign and Brendon Hartley was seen as a key figure in the development of Porsche’s all-conquering 919 Hybrid in the World Endurance Championship.

Liberty pushes forward with fan engagement and F1 LIVE

While Liberty Media’s initial moves as new F1 owners have been met with a mixed sounding board one major hit from 2017 was the F1 LIVE event at London’s Trafalgar Square. F1 drivers and cars on the city streets up close and personal to the public, presentation stages, interviews and live music delighted thousands of onlookers by really bringing the sport to the people which had rarely been done before.

Liberty’s opening up and encouragement in fan engagement not just by its organisation but also by teams has breathed new life into F1 and something many are keen to see continue into 2018.

Speculation has already grown around more cities hosting F1 LIVE events like London’s while FOM continues to actively investigate ways to increase action at the circuit both on and off the track. The show could look very different, very soon.

More of the same in MotoGP

2017 was arguably one of MotoGP’s best-ever seasons, the sport is enjoying an all-time high with a well-balanced competition between manufacturers and riders, the emergence of new stars like Johann Zarco against the established names of Marc Marquez and Valentino Rossi.

Controlled ECUs, Michelin tyres and a sprinkling of wet-weather races has certainly aided MotoGP in recent seasons and with the expected resurgence of Suzuki and Aprilia plus the continued progress of KTM it isn’t unfeasible to believe a six-way manufacturer fight could develop throughout the 2018 campaign.

The upcoming season is well set-up with plenty of questions which need answering. Can Marquez’s reign in MotoGP be halted by a continued resurgence from Andrea Dovizioso and Ducati or could Yamaha get back to the top after a tough final few rounds to the year.

Stronger parity between World Superbike manufacturers

As expected World Superbike rule-makers have introduced a range of changes to the series for 2018 with the aim of reeling in the Kawasaki and Ducati domination and levelling the playing field across the entire grid. The biggest change is the adoption of a rev limiter as a performance balancing system by using an algorithm to calculate relative performance per manufacturer. Simply put, the better a manufacturer does, the bigger the rev limit and the opposite applies in the other direction.

Concession points and concession parts with cost capping will also come in for this season with successful teams limited to what they can upgrade during the season while the update options are widened for those playing catch-up.

The jury remains out on how it will swing the World Superbike championship, while Kawasaki have been focusing on developing its 2018 ZX-10RR using lower revs for a number of months, but the idea of a unified-specification ECU as seen in MotoGP and BSB has been put on the backburner for now.

With Kawasaki and Ducati, and in particular Kawasaki’s Jonathan Rea, becoming such a dominant force over the past three years organisers and sponsors feared without change the sport would effectively starve itself without close competition on track. Time will tell on the changes for 2018 or whether even bigger rule adjustments may be needed in the future.

A strong start to the FIA WEC 'Super Season'

The FIA World Endurance Championship was left reeling following Porsche's decision to close its LMP1 programme at the end of 2017, leaving Toyota as the only manufacturer racing in the series' top class. The fix was a tweak to the LMP1 regulations and a revised 13-month 'super season' calendar, stretching from May 2018 to the 2019 running of the 24 Hours of Le Mans.

Toyota committed to staying in the championship, and will be joined in LMP1 by a raft of privateer teams that have all opted to step up. While they may struggle to take the fight to the Japanese manufacturer in raw pace alone, as we saw last year at Le Mans, to finish first, first you have to finish.

WEC seemed to be in a precarious position when Porsche pulled the plug, but is now looking in far better health. The GTE-Pro class will be booming this year, with BMW joining Porsche, Ferrari, Ford and Aston Martin in its ranks, and with Fernando Alonso looking poised to sign with Toyota for a decent part of the season, interest should shoot up.

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