Vettel and Red Bull move clear in second practice

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As he looks to win the Singapore Grand Prix for the third time this weekend, Sebastian Vettel has sent out a signal of intent to his rivals by finishing fastest in second practice at Marina Bay on Friday night.

Vettel was joined by teammate Mark Webber at the top of the timesheets as nearest rivals Mercedes could only finish one second behind the German driver’s best time, suggesting that Red Bull may be in line for a third consecutive victory as their stranglehold on both championships tightens.

Following on from FP1, the majority of the drivers came out early to post a time on the medium compound tire. Having failed to challenge the top two during the first session, Sebastian Vettel quickly set about establishing his dominance by posting a blistering time of 1:46.853 early on to lead from Nico Rosberg and Fernando Alonso. Lewis Hamilton and Mark Webber were quick to join the party, with the Australian driver going fastest of all; a full three-tenths up on his teammate’s time. The two teammates traded fastest times, but Webber remained ahead after the teams had completed their first runs.

Daniel Ricciardo was the first driver to switch to the super-soft tire, immediately jumping up to P2 behind future teammate Vettel. The rest of the field soon followed suit, with the difference in performance between the two available compounds this weekend being significant (1.5 seconds according to Webber’s engineer). Vettel soon proved this by going almost two seconds quicker than his teammate, with Webber improving to cut that gap to just six-tenths. The rest of the field seemed unable to respond: Nico Rosberg was Red Bull’s closest challenger, a full one second slower than Vettel.

Following these runs, the majority of the teams opted to focus on their long runs in preparation for the race on Sunday, thus failing to improve on their quickest times. Ferrari’s struggles from FP1 persisted as both Alonso and Felipe Massa wrestled with the back-end of the F138 through the final sector. Williams’ good form from the first session failed to continue as they dropped down the order and Pastor Maldonado spun on two separate occasions. Caterham resumed normal service to move back ahead of Marussia, albeit only by a couple of tenths.

Despite laying down an ominous pace, Vettel will know from experience that poor luck can scupper all hopes of winning a race. At Silverstone earlier this year, he led the majority of the grand prix before suffering from a gearbox failure and being forced to retire from the race. However, he and Red Bull will be encouraged by their showing on Friday.

F1 Preview: 2018 Australian Grand Prix

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Save for two occasions, in 2006, and 2010, the Australian Grand Prix has served as the season-opening event for the FIA Formula 1 World Championship since 1996, and this weekend’s event will be the 21st time that the city of Melbourne has kicked off the Formula 1 campaign.

The 2018 season is the fifth one of the current hybrid power unit era, the second season of the current aero regulations, and the second under Liberty Media’s guidance.

Last year saw titans Mercedes AMG Petronas and Scuderia Ferrari duel for supremacy for most of the season before Mercedes distanced Ferrari late in the season to take the constructor’s title and the driver’s title, with Lewis Hamilton, who is now tied with Sebastian Vettel on four world championships apiece.

Four drivers on the grid have Formula 1 world championships to their name: Hamilton, Vettel, Kimi Raikkonen, and Fernando Alonso. Scuderia Toro Rosso’s Brendon Hartley also has a world championship to his name as a two-time titlist in the FIA World Endurance Championship.

So, what can viewers expect from the 2018 curtain-raiser in Australia? A handful of things to watch are below?

2018 Australian Grand Prix – Talking Points

Does Anyone Have Anything for Mercedes?

Only on one day during pre-season testing did a Mercedes driver lead the way – Lewis Hamilton was fastest on the final day of Week 1 at the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya.

However, all indications were that was by design, with the team focusing the majority of the second week, if not the entire second week, on long runs with their W09 EQ Power+ chassis.

Such a decision is an ominous one, in that it indicates the team is very comfortable with the amount of speed in the car and did not see a need, or desire, to show their hand during testing.

With that in mind, the Mercedes duo of Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas may yet again have the best and fastest cars, and the team looks poised to potentially make it five constructor’s and driver’s championships in a row.

Ferrari and Red Bull Look to End Mercedes Reign

The biggest threats to Mercedes are undoubtedly Ferrari and Red Bull, the only other teams to win in 2017.

And both teams displayed a lot of pace during testing, particularly in the “one-lap speed” category. Ricciardo set a lap record around the Catalunya circuit during the second week, only for Vettel to supplant that mark later in the week. Teammate Kimi Raikkonen led the way during the final day of testing.

It is unknown how that pace will translate over the course of a race distance. Mercedes appeared to have an edge on both Ferrari and Red Bull over long runs and race simulations, but there is also a theory that neither Ferrari nor Red Bull had their true long-run form on display.

Still, if a team is going to knock off Mercedes, it will likely be either Ferrari or Red Bull.

McLaren on the Rebound?

Put simply, the previous three seasons for McLaren F1 Team were a bit of a disaster. Their partnership with Honda yielded point totals of 27 (2015), 76 (2016), and 30 (2017) in a three-year venture that was defined by poor reliability and underwhelming power.

The relationship hit a boiling point last year and both entities parted ways ahead of the 2018 season, with McLaren signing a new power unit deal with Renault.

Testing went better than in previous years, though the team continued to battle reliability problems. However, all issues appeared to be minor, needling issues rather than more significant, foundational problems, as the other Renault teams (Red Bull and Renault Sport F1 Team) had solid runs with few reliability issues.

The car does appear to have speed in it, so if the reliability problems are behind them, McLaren could be in for a rebound season.

Stuck in the Midfield Again

Formula 1’s battle amongst the midfield is set to be as fierce as ever as a host of a several teams have a chance at being “best of the rest.”

Sahara Force India has been the frontrunner from the the midfield teams each of the last two years, finishing fourth in the constructor’s title in both 2016 and 2017, though if the steady conflict between drivers Esteban Ocon and Sergio Perez continues through 2018, it could hamper their efforts significantly.

Renault Sport F1 Team and Haas F1 Team look to improve on their 2017 form, while Toro Rosso is in a new partnership with Honda power units…and has experienced a surprisingly smooth pre-season as Honda’s 2018 platform looks significantly better, with the team enjoying a solid run of testing with few, if any, reliability problems.

Williams Martini Racing and Alfa Romeo Sauber appear to be at the back of the pack entering the season, but both could battle for points finishes if those ahead of them falter.