Formula 1 in 2018: What is every F1 team working on this winter?
The car regulations are relatively unaltered for 2018 but that doesn't mean the teams are currently idle...
By Pete Gill and Ted Kravitz
Last Updated: 26/01/18 10:15am
Although Formula 1 is currently in the midst of a three-month race 'shutdown', there has been no rest for the sport's teams this winter.
Despite the absence of track action, the teams will have barely drawn breath over the Christmas period as around-the-clock work continues on their 2018 cars.
As ever in F1, it's a race against time: testing starts on February 26 in Barcelona and every team will be looking for as much track time as possible over the eight days of running at the Circuit de Catalunya before the season starts on March 25 in Australia.
For 2018, the regulations are relatively stable, meaning the sport's car designs are unlikely to be as radically redrawn as they were twelve months ago - with one exception.
That was the mid-summer curveball confirmation from the FIA that the 'Halo' head protection device would be mandatory in 2018.
Putting this carbon fibre-wrapped titanium 'bull bar' around the cockpit has a fundamental effect on the car's aerodynamics - not to mention the structural demands it makes on the monocoque.
Force India typified the feeling in the pitlane when they warned that everyone would face "a big struggle" to have the Halo ready for testing.
Will any team go radical in 2018?
Each outfit will have particular priorities they will be seeking to address, but inevitably, Mercedes will be the subject of most attention when they unveil the W09 next month.
Although the W08 facilitated another title double for the team in 2017, it was described as a 'diva' by the team due to its inconsistent behaviour. Lewis Hamilton said the car was saddled with "fundamental" flaws.
Those issues almost cost Mercedes both world championships. Had Red Bull and Ferrari had more power and been more reliable, the W08's shortcomings would have been punished more than they ultimately were. We know Mercedes are not about to make that mistake again, but we won't know until February if they're going to do something radical about it.
We've had the odd clue here and there that Merc are going to reverse out of the development A-road they're in and join the high-rake 'motorway' shared by Ferrari, McLaren, Red Bull, Renault and pretty much everyone else.
Technical director James Allison, an aerodynamicist by trade, hinted at trying something different when he said Mercedes were building "something with a slightly sweeter temperament".
Team boss Toto Wolff added: "We want to keep the diva but remove the capricious character."
In simple terms, the high rake concept might not provide the most peak downforce, but it does tend to deliver driver-friendly downforce across a range of setups, ride heights and tyre requirements.
Ferrari and Red Bull believe it's the way to go - and Mercedes could join them.
This might also coincide with a shortened wheelbase: the W08 was the longest car in the field and paid a weight penalty because of that. Expect the W09 to be on the minimum weight limit from the start.
What to expect from Ferrari and Red Bull?
Ferrari's ambition will be to repeat their vast improvement of 2017. If they manage that, Sebastian Vettel believes Ferrari will be unbeatable, but they have to get on top of their unreliability.
"To improve your performance you need to improve your car and your package but as well you need to improve your organisation," said Mattia Binotto, the team's technical chief in October. A week later, Ferrari confirmed the appointment of Maria Mendoza to aid the Scuderia's under-fire quality control department.
But Ferrari still have plenty of room for improvement around their car design.
According to media reports this week, the new Ferrari will be around 6cm longer than its predecessor - mirroring the long wheelbase concept favoured by Mercedes in 2017.
Ferrari also offered an insight into their aerodynamic thinking for 2018 when they trialled a 'Red Bull-style' diffuser in practice at Abu Dhabi and the subsequent test.
Indeed the interchangeable nature of aero parts between Ferrari and Red Bull could end up costing Mercedes. Red Bull copied Ferrari's bargeboards mid-season and they worked. As both teams find more gains from the high-rake concept and they push each other along that development motorway, Mercedes could well be left behind.
This might be wishful thinking for Red Bull as they face their own challenges. The FIA are getting tough on suspension systems whose primary purpose is to optimise aerodynamics and tyre performance rather than suspend the car.
Pit lane rumours persist Red Bull gain the most advantage from being able to vary the rising rates of their front suspension. Simply put, the front of the car drops under braking into a corner and stays low, only to rise up gradually through the corner.
The effect is to give the car a near-perfect balance: getting the best from the car's aero at all points - no matter what type of corner. The days of engineers having to compromise between low speed and high-speed balance are gone.
It's all very clever, but the FIA's Charlie Whiting, perhaps egged on by other teams, is cracking down with more technical directives. Whiting is putting the onus on the teams to come to him and prove everything they have around the suspension satisfies the rules on primary purpose. This might be hard to do as much of the magic happens when the car is on track so it's impossible to police... but the policemen won't give up.
On another front, Red Bull are putting pressure on engine suppliers Renault to lift performance this year. "We are hopeful the engine situation will improve and we are getting a lot of promises that will be the case," boss Christian Horner told Sky F1.
But one significant change at Red Bull with the RB14 will be its release date, with the team planning an early launch in response to their slow start in 2017. "It always feels like we start on the next year's car early enough but maybe what we think is early isn't early enough," said Daniel Ricciardo. "I know for next year it has been brought forward more than it was for this year."
The car's livery will also be a point of interest: will it include prominent branding from Aston Martin, their new title sponsor?
Can McLaren catch up after the late switch to Renault?
McLaren have repeatedly stressed they believe their chassis was a match for any other in 2017 and, as such, Eric Boullier predicted in late-2017 that their 2018 car will be "evolution" rather than revolution.
"The Halo and other stuff in the regulations are making the job harder for the engineers but it looks good so far," added Boullier.
Nor are there any lingering concerns over the late timing of their switch to Renault power in September which only belatedly occurred after McLaren's self-imposed deadline had elapsed. "We made the decision to change the engine manufacturer two weeks too late for our schedule," Boullier reported in December. "But these two weeks have almost been recovered."
So much now depends on whether Renault can deliver a competitive and reliable power unit.
Renault, of course, have their own team to consider this winter. 2018 marks the team's third full season as a works outfit and the pressure will be on to deliver some tangible returns.
"Our dream is to reach the top team again and our target is to fight for the championship by 2020," said Renault chief Cyril Abiteboul. To stay on target, podiums will be a minimum requirement. A car which is capable of maintaining its single-lap competitiveness in race stints without chewing up its tyres will be just the tonic.
"Next year we need to show a progression," team advisor and former world champion Alain Prost told Sky F1. "We need to get closer and closer all the time. This year was difficult but next year we should show quite a big step."
But standing between both Renault and McLaren from the top four will remain the perennially-underestimated Force India team who won't be resting on their laurels in 2018.
"The fact that the lap time is out there means it's doable, we've just got to find it," said team chief Otmar Szafnauer in Abu Dhabi.
"We have to get the fundamentals right again: We have to have a strong engine partner, which I think we will have. We have to have understand the tyres. We have to have two competitive drivers. But most of all we have to have a chassis and aerodynamic package which is competitive."
A weighty issue for all the teams
One subplot from the introduction of the Halo that drivers and car designers will have in mind this winter is the component's weight. The Halo's safety mountings reputedly weigh up to 14kg.
If so, there will be further pressure on drivers to keep their weight lean for 2018, with Renault's Nico Hulkenberg revealing Renault have already asked him to diet for next season and Romain Grosjean joking he'd have "to lose a bone" if he was to lose any more weight.
Can any of the lesser lights break the mould?
Ultimately, while the Halo will provide an immediate visual contrast to 2017, the general design of the 2018 cars will be a matter of evolution. As Mercedes' Allison put it: "The new challenge of refining your current weapon will be the same for everyone."
Williams, after a deeply disappointing 2017, will make more alterations to their car than most. "We will be making some quite substantial changes," technical boss Paddy Lowe confirmed. "There will be quite a few areas where we will be changing philosophy."
For Sauber, the new alliance with Alfa Romeo will have a benefit in that they are once again Ferrari's 'B' team. That means a brand new engine to make Ferrari protégé Charles Leclerc look as good as possible. Where this shift in favour towards Sauber leaves Haas F1 remains to be seen.
But there won't be any hiding place for Toro Rosso or Honda in their first year of partnership. "We are on schedule," Toro Rosso boss Franz Tost said in December.
But the problem with Honda and their affiliated team is that we've heard such positivity before. The proof will be delivered - or not - on February 26 and beyond.
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