The 2018 Formula One season got off to a flying start in Australia on March 25, seeing Sebastian Vettel take the win for Ferrari over defending world champion Lewis Hamilton, who finished second for Mercedes. It is not the first time these two drivers have battled at the front, nor will it be the last. The result emphasizes one of the main storylines to watch in Formula One’s new season.
2018 marks a historic milestone: Four-time world champions will battle it out on the grid, and it is all but inevitable that the year will end with a five-time champion. Who this winner is will determine the best driver of this generation, as Hamilton and Vettel finally duel in equal machinery.
Hamilton burst onto the Formula One scene in 2007, outperforming his teammate and then defending two-time world champion Fernando Alonso. In only his sophomore season, Hamilton won the championship for McLaren. Vettel also debuted in 2007, and became the youngest ever race winner at age 21 in 2008 for Toro Rosso (still the team’s only victory), and youngest-ever champion two years later for Red Bull. He proceeded to dominate, winning three more consecutive titles for four in a row, and cementing Red Bull as the team to beat. In 2014, it was Hamilton’s turn.
When he made the switch to Mercedes in 2013, Hamilton put himself in excellent racing position for the coming years. In 2014, Formula One went through major regulation changes, switching to hybrid engines, and it was Mercedes that hit the ground running. It was quickly obvious that with the new cars, Mercedes was leagues ahead of the rest, and Hamilton waltzed to his second title, with his teammate Nico Rosberg placing in second.
After the disappointing season for Vettel, he made the switch to Ferrari, but Hamilton still cruised to another title in 2015, again with Rosberg behind him. By the time 2016 rolled around, the speculation around who could beat Hamilton shifted from Vettel to Rosberg, as the Mercedes cars remained leagues ahead. Vettel could only hope to be the best of the rest. Rosberg rose to the occasion, and in a vicious battle handed Hamilton his first ever championship loss to a teammate.
2017 saw regulations change, offering a chance for other teams to bridge the gap dividing them from Mercedes. Mercedes was also struck by the surprise retirement of Rosberg, leaving them without a driver for their second car. Ultimately, they struck a deal with the Williams team to acquire driver Valtteri Bottas in exchange for establishing cheaper rates on Mercedes parts. 2017 was the closest season in years, and Vettel was finally able to again challenge Hamilton. Ferrari was closer, but ultimately fell short, and Hamilton won his fourth championship. Bottas also failed to put up the same kind of fight as Rosberg.
2018 sees the two teams finally with practically equal cars. It is the true clash of the titans.
The second-biggest storyline is that of Fernando Alonso. Often regarded as the best driver in Formula One, the aging veteran may still be able to fight for victories. After winning two championships early in his career, Alonso was forced out of McLaren to Ferrari due to the emergence of Hamilton. There, he spent years finishing second to Vettel’s Red Bull in a far lesser car, outperforming his car and teammate every year. In 2015 he returned to McLaren as they entered a partnership with Honda, hoping that the pairing would work as it had before in the 90s. Instead, Honda provided the worst engine on the grid, and the world-class talent was stuck going slowly. This year, McLaren has dumped Honda for Renault—the same engine provider for Red Bull—and though not the best, it should give Alonso the ability to fight for wins at some tracks. His fifth-place finish in Australia already ties his highest since returning to McLaren.
Red Bull also could win with a decent car, and their duo of young phenom Max Verstappen and the energetic Daniel Ricciardo is possibly the most dynamic in Formula One. In the midfield, Haas and Renault have looked strong, and the debut season of Sauber’s highly touted rookie Charles Leclerc will be watched closely. Formula One is also under new ownership as the American group Liberty Media begins its first full year. The second race takes place in Bahrain on April 8. Now that you’re up to speed, why not check it out?