Karun Chandhok's F1 2018 season preview

05th March 2018
Karun Chandhok

Formula 1 2018 kicked into action last week with the first four days of official testing at the Circuit de Catalunya, home of the Spanish Grand Prix. The weather did its best to spoil the teams’ efforts to put mileage on their new-for-2018 challengers, but all of them at least got some vital initial running.


Once those first four days had run their course and there was some data to pore over and some lap times to dissect, we sat down with former HRT and Lotus F1 driver-turned Channel 4 TV pundit Karun Chandhok to see what he thinks the season has in store.   

“As is so often the case when trying to analyse the relative performances of the new cars and, in the case of Sergey Sirotkin and Charles Leclerc, rookie drivers, it’s very hard to draw any conclusions this early. However, I’m following it as closely as ever and trying to extract as many meaningful snippets as I can. I write little notes to paint a picture of who’s where at the beginning of the year and who makes the biggest improvements during the year. They’re useful for comparison purposes as the season unfolds, and to see whether my predictions were correct!

“First of all, I know you’re going to want to know what I think of one of the most controversial aspects of F1 for many years: the halo. I’ve had many questions and comments about it. Aesthetically, of course, it’s hideous – you’ll find very few people who like it – and it seems to me like an after-thought that’s been knocked up in someone’s shed and just been bolted on. Whether its arrival is the answer to a question no one was asking is open to debate. What I do know is that every single racing driver who ever lived accepts the risks. None has ever been forced to drive a car. Given the choice, a driver wouldn’t run a halo – for weight, centre-of-gravity and aerodynamic reasons, mainly. However, the FIA had to been seen to be doing something, in the wake of the tragedies of Jules Bianchi, Justin Wilson and Henry Surtees, but I wish a bit more thought had gone into it. The Indycar screen is an elegant solution, with Scott Dixon declaring himself happy with it. I’m a purist, of course, but if we have to have something then a canopy would be better.

“The halo’s here to stay, for the time being, so let’s just accept it and move on. If the racing’s amazing, we might all forget about it! Here, then, are my initial thoughts about the stars of our favourite show – the 10 teams and their drivers – ahead of the opening Grand Prix in Melbourne on March 25th.”



Chassis – F1 W09 EQ Power +  

Engine – Mercedes F1 M09 EQ Power +

Drivers – 44: Lewis Hamilton (GB); 77: Valtteri Bottas (FIN)

“The biggest question is: can anyone knock Mercedes off their perch? They’ve been a class act for four years, with a level of domination rivals can only dream of. Their motivation is still so high, too – both team principal Toto Wolff and Lewis Hamilton are raring to go again. There may be plenty of speculation over Lewis’s future – how long will he stick around? – but to me he still has the aura of a winning machine. He’s gunning for title number five, there’s no doubt about that. His team-mate Valtteri Bottas is under pressure in year two if he wants to keep his seat. He must get closer to Lewis on Saturdays and Sundays if he’s going to stay in 2019, because there are some highly rated guys on the radar who’d kill for that drive. Judging by the opening few days, there’s no reason why the F1 W09 won’t carry on where last year’s car left off, although Mercedes will be wary of the improved challenge from Ferrari and Red Bull.”



Chassis – SF71H  

Engine – Ferrari 063

Drivers – 5: Sebastian Vettel (D); 7: Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) 

“Sebastian Vettel was Hamilton’s closest challenger in 2017, and that’s likely to be the same again in 2018. The German won five times last year, twice more than Bottas managed in the second Merc, but Ferrari couldn’t get quite enough performance out of the SF70H to get any closer. Vettel has shaped the team around him now, with Kimi Raikkonen still very much a number two. It’s easy to slam Kimi but he’s still quick on his day – his pole at Monaco was pretty mega, wasn’t it? There are plenty of people who question why Ferrari hang on to him and it’s a decade since the team made a serious back-to-back challenge for the title, with Kimi and Felipe Massa in 2008/2009. This is a very important season for the Scuderia as they try to topple Mercedes. The SF71H looked good straight out of the box last week, but conditions hampered progress as the week unfolded. This week will be very telling.”


Red Bull  

Chassis – RB14

Engine – TAG Heuer RB14 (Renault)

Drivers – 3: Daniel Ricciardo (AUS); 33: Max Verstappen (NL) 

“I’m pretty sure we’re going to see Red Bull closer to Mercedes and Ferrari this year. The team was kicking itself that the RB13 was on the back foot early in 2017, thanks to windtunnel-correlation issues. With that sorted, they were right there in the last quarter of the season. The real interest for 2018 lies in what Renault have managed over the winter. Their early talk of engine penalties is a bit of a concern, and there’s no question they need more power and better reliability. Renault holds so many cards, and the performance of the R.E.18, badged a TAG Heuer in the back of the Red Bull, of course, determines how many cars we’ll have in the Championship battle. The dynamic between Ricciardo and Verstappen is fascinating, too. They’re both class acts and will push each other, the team – and Renault – as hard as they can.”   


Force India

Chassis – VJM11

Engine – Mercedes F1 M09 EQ Power +

Drivers – 11: Sergio Perez (MEX); 31: Esteban Ocon (F)

“The Silverstone squad punched well above their weight in 2017, which was great to see. Fourth in the Constructors’ Championship behind the big three was remarkable. With a decent chassis, Mercedes engines and Perez and Ocon pushing each other hard – too hard on occasion! – it’s a great package. The team haven’t shown their hand, yet, with Barcelona proving fairly inconclusive. It was really a systems-check test, with big upgrades promised for the next four days of running this week. Force India will need to produce something special to defend fourth in the Championship, especially with Renault, Toro Rosso and McLaren already looking better.”



Chassis – FW41

Engine – Mercedes F1 M09 EQ Power +

Drivers – 18: Lance Stroll (CDN); 35: Sergey Sirotkin (RUS) 

“I wonder if Williams is in a bit of a holding pattern. They’ve lost Felipe Massa, opted against Robert Kubica and settled for rookie Sergey Sirotkin. I do think they need to look at their young-driver programme. The team was always good at scouting Formula 3 paddocks to unearth the next big thing like they did with Juan Pablo Montoya and Jenson Button. It could be, though, that they are going to spend a year getting the money and infrastructure in place, and the factory upgraded, and then go for an A-lister for 2019. What can we expect from Stroll and Sirotkin? If the FW14 and Mercedes engine package gels nicely, especially now that Paddy Lowe has his feet firmly under the table at Grove, they could spring a few surprises. I’d love to see a return to 2014 levels of competitiveness, but that may be a tall order given how other teams have improved during this hybrid era.”



Chassis – R.S.18

Engine – Renault R.E.18

Drivers – 27: Nico Hulkenberg (D); 55: Carlos Sainz (E)

“I take my hat off to Renault, especially for supplying engines to Red Bull and McLaren; you wouldn’t see Ferrari or Mercedes doing that! I think it gives the French firm a huge database of information with which to improve. What the works team won’t want, though, is to be beaten by customer teams. The new car looks pretty good already, with the strong pairing of Hulkenberg and Sainz absolutely aiming to top the always-intense midfield fight. Team Enstone has had a big recruitment drive, too, so the tools are in place for a good improvement. The scrap with McLaren could be fascinating as the season progresses.”  


Toro Rosso

Chassis – STR13

Engine – Honda RA618H

Drivers – 10: Pierre Gasly (F); 28: Brendon Hartley (NZ)

“Out goes Renault power at the Red Bull junior team, and in comes Honda. And it’ll be compelling to see if Toro Rosso can gel better with the Japanese engine than McLaren did over the past few seasons. The very public split with McLaren will have strengthened Honda’s resolve as it bids to regain credibility. I do wonder what the future is for Honda. Is F1 all about an engineering exercise or success for them? If I was Liberty Media, I’d be doing all I could to help Honda so that the sport had a four-way manufacturer fight with Mercedes, Ferrari, Renault and Honda. That aside, the STR13-Honda already seems a good package with early reliability looking OK, especially in light of a relatively last-minute marriage. In fact, I can’t remember the team having such a straightforward first test as they had last week. They will be relishing a partnership with a big manufacturer so may well shine this year.”  



Chassis – VF-18

Engine – Ferrari 063

Drivers – 8: Romain Grosjean (F); 20: Kevin Magnussen (DK)

“You have to remember that Haas is still such a young team. I know they’ve had a leg-up from Ferrari since day one but they’ve done a respectable job nonetheless. What they need to do this year is try to eradicate some of the inconsistencies of 2017; they got into Q3 on some occasions, yet struggled to get out of Q1 on others. The midfield ranks, at which retained duo Grosjean and Magnussen are aiming, are hugely competitive, so they’ll need to be much more efficient. The honeymoon’s over now so they’ll need to be on it week in, week out.”



Chassis – MCL33

Engine – Renault R.E.18

Drivers – 2: Stoffel Vandoorne (B); 14: Fernando Alonso (E) 

“It goes without saying, of course, that this is a massive year for McLaren. They have to prove that it was worth walking away from a $100million deal with Honda. I understand how the frustration set in early on; this was Honda, after all, who won all those titles with McLaren, Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost in the late-1980s. The team have nowhere to hide now, as Zak Brown has confirmed publicly. People ask me regularly about Fernando, his gamesmanship and extra-curricular racing. He’s a master politician, there’s no doubt, but he’s still hugely motivated. He loves racing – which is why he did the Indy 500 and Daytona 24 Hours and is doing Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship with Toyota. I have asked myself whether he’s happy to go off and do other stuff because he knows that McLaren aren’t going to be a title contender, but I hope I’m wrong. Fernando and McLaren running at the front would be superb – it might help them land a sponsor to fill all that empty space on the car…”



Chassis – C37

Engine – Ferrari 063

Drivers – 9: Marcus Ericsson (S); 16: Charles Leclerc (F)

“This should be the year when Sauber loses its back-of-the-grid tag. The Alfa Romeo deal brings the ionic brand into the spotlight and aligns Sauber further with Ferrari. Having the new 063 engine really should help it move up the grid. F2 champion Charles Leclerc is big news and his placing at Sauber means he’s very much on Ferrari’s radar for the future. It’s a sensible move for him to learn the ropes, and a second year at Sauber in 2019 would mean he could capitalise on knowing the circuits and making a bigger impression. The C37 hasn’t yet made any noteworthy headlines, so this week’s second test will be crucial for the veteran Swiss privateers.”

So, let’s see what unfolds this week and, more importantly, in the opening few races of the year. If push came to shove and I had to pick a World Champion – in the Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships – I’d have to say Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes. They’re the perfect combination right now and it’s hard to see anyone stealing their thunder. For the sake of F1, I hope it’s someone else, but it seems like a long shot.

Karun Chandhok was talking to Henry Hope-Frost

Photography courtesy of LAT Images

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