“Testing done, let’s go racing!”

After a stop-start testing season in Barcelona, Lewis Hamilton’s sentiment is shared by all the teams and the majority of fans. The time for tinkering is over, let’s get into the action.

The weather has played a huge part in the season so far with snow and rain halting much of the first week of testing and the only thing we really learned was that McLaren make a better snowman than Formula One car.

Now the cold weather has passed, the track is dry and we can head to Melbourne full of anticipation for another blistering season of drama.

The second week of testing provided a much better opportunity for the teams to really get to grips with how far their cars have come since last season. The top teams continued to show good form around the new surface in Barcelona with Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel completing the fastest lap ever seen on the Circuit de Catalunya, a ferocious 1:17.128 on the new hyper-soft compound tyre.

Ferrari are without a doubt the main challengers to Mercedes’ crown and there is very little to suggest that this will not be the case again this season. Vettel has a personal point to prove after Hamilton claimed another Drivers’ Championship, equalling the German driver’s total of four titles.

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Melbourne Grand Prix.

Vettel will be desperate to stop Hamilton from surpassing him, the two drivers share a lot of respect for each other but there is certainly animosity between the two as well. The way in which Vettel led the championship for the first half of last season will encourage Ferrari and he will do the same again this season, maybe even pushing Hamilton all the way.

A combination of reliability issues and rash decisions from Vettel, particularly in Singapore and Azerbaijan, cost him vital points last season and he will have learned from his mistakes and take them into a title fight this season.

His teammate, Kimi Raikkonen, will have a huge part to play in a Ferrari title challenge. Valteri Bottas played the role of a number two driver to perfection last season and his veteran compatriot, in possibly his last season in the Ferrari if not F1, will need to do the same this year.

Vettel looked a lone fighter at times last season with Raikkonen not being able to push Bottas in the same way Vettel pushed Hamilton, a large part of this season will come down to how the number two drivers perform.

“With all the expectation resting on the shoulders of Vettel and Hamilton, it can be expected that the Australian driver would love to barge his way into the fight.”

Daniel Ricciardo will be pleased with the way his new RB14 ran, completing the third fastest lap by team. Red Bull are looking to return to the front of the pack for the first time since Vettel made his move away from the Milton Keynes based team to Ferrari and team boss Christian Horner is confident that they have narrowed the gulf between themselves and the front two, even if they cannot yet challenge for the title.

Red Bull were content with their performance last year, Ricciardo and Verstappen picked up several podiums and Verstappen especially emerged as a real threat. His overzealous aggressive style, especially when overtaking, cost him on occasions last season. If he can cut that out than he will be a potential player at the front of the grid.

It seems that Red Bull have put a very good car underneath him and the Red Bull pair will enjoy once again not being favourites, they seem to perform a lot better when they can just focus on the drive and leave the attention to the other two teams.

Fan favourite Ricciardo is a wonderfully talented driver with a mature head to boot and he will be there or thereabouts again this season.

With all the expectation resting on the shoulders of Vettel and Hamilton, it can be expected that the Australian driver would love to barge his way into the fight.

Mercedes seemed to be much more relaxed than their competitors in testing and why not, they did walk the Constructors Championship last season. Rather than put both drivers through their paces Mercedes instead chose to split the days between Lewis Hamilton and Valteri Bottas to give them a well earned rest.

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They only finished seventh in the overall standings with Hamilton putting in a mediocre 1:18.400, over a second slower than his closest rival Vettel, albeit on the slower ultra-soft tyre.

This won’t worry Mercedes in the slightest, testing has historically proven to count very little in the regular race season and Mercedes are certainly still the team to beat with Hamilton the overwhelming favourite to make it a fifth world title and four in five seasons, the memory of Nico Rosberg’s title win is still fresh in his nightmares I am sure.

Hamilton has nothing to prove, he is statistically the best driver on the grid, he is still the master of Qualifying and at times last season he could have been racing all by himself he was so comfortable at the front.

Make no mistake, he is a fiercely competitive character and he will be desperate to stand outright ahead of Vettel on championships. Because of that all the pressure is on Hamilton but the role of his Finnish teammate cannot be underestimated.

As mentioned with regard to Kimi Raikkonen, Valteri Bottas will once again play a huge part in a Mercedes title push as he did last year. He is the number two driver and it will certainly be Hamilton that Mercedes favour with strategy but Bottas proved last season that he is a very capable racer himself.

Whilst he is kind-natured and willing to do everything to help the team, there is a fighting spirit within him and there will come a time when he will race for himself and could provide a challenge to his teammate in the same way that Rosberg did two seasons ago and just look how that turned out.

After the majority of testing proved to be a reliability horror show for Fernando Alonso and McLaren, you would be forgiven for thinking that the Spaniard would be finding himself fighting for points rather than podiums once again this season.

They were, however, given a slither of hope on the final day as Alonso recorded the second fastest lap of testing, a highly respectable 1:17.784. Whilst it is evident that Alonso’s future lies away from Formula One and more in the Indy500-style racing, he has maintained that he is 100% committed to McLaren for the upcoming season which is a big boost for the Woking-based team.

In spite of switching engine provider from Honda to Aston Martin and a slick new orange and blue paint job, their reliability still remains the biggest worry going into the first race of the 2018 season in Melbourne.

If they can keep Alonso on the track for an entire grand prix then there is a small chance that the highest paid driver on the grid will be able to challenge higher up the pack. Despite a marked improvement in pace from the 2017 season, it would seem that this is still a faraway dream for a team that not so long ago was fighting for world titles.

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Ordinarily that would be the conclusion of looking at the top teams but it would be remiss not to mention arguably the standout team of the pre-season. A remarkable show of pace and reliability from one of the smaller teams on the grid came in the form of Kevin Magnussen and Roman Grosjean’s Haas.

Magnussen set his team’s fastest lap in Barcelona, a 1:18.360 on the super-soft tyre which is supposedly roughly a second slower than the hyper-soft on which Vettel set the fastest lap of testing.

Team boss Gunther Steiner claims that Haas’ success was merely down to getting the tyres to work, a very simple solution indeed and one that I’m sure does not tell the whole story of the incredible strides they have made in the off-season.

With that in mind, should Haas be able to maintain the pace they showed in testing, they could provide a real stumbling block for the FIA. They have previously been accused of stretching their buying relationship with Ferrari beyond the legal limit and this debate could come to the forefront again with their remarkable improvement.

Politics aside, it will provide huge entertainment on the track if Haas can muscle their way into the front runners. Magnussen and Grosjean look more than capable of doing just that.

The real hero (or villain depending on your standpoint), of pre-season testing has been the new ‘halo’ device brought in to improve the safety of the drivers in the car. It has polarised not only the F1 fanbase but the drivers and teams as well.

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Toto Wolff said that he would take a chainsaw to the halo if he could whilst Jolyon Palmer described it as a “step too far”.  I don’t think there is a single person associated with the sport that truly begrudges the introduction of the halo, if it had been introduced years ago could it have prevented the tragic accident which caused the death of Jules Bianchi?

We will never know but Bianchi’s memory will forever be cherished in the sport and the majority of drivers are in favour of the meaning behind the halo, if not necessarily the aesthetics.

It makes getting in and out of the car more difficult and it will be harder for fans to identify specific drivers on the track but really what are these negatives when lives will potentially be saved by the device.

Most of the teams have managed to seamlessly integrate it within their designs as well and it will not be long before no one is even mentioning the halo any more, a worthy addition to the sport.

With the Australian Grand Prix now just over a week away the drivers will be getting into race mode and the teams will be looking to start the season as they mean to go on.

You would have to be a fool to bet against Lewis Hamilton taking pole position but as we saw last season, Vettel is capable of beating him off of the line and controlling the race from the front.

Ricciardo cannot be ruled out as a competitor at his home grand prix and there is not doubt that he will have the entire crowd cheering him on from the sidelines. The 2018 season on the whole should prove to be as exciting as 2017 and hopefully Ferrari will be able to push Mercedes all the way this season.

We know they cost themselves a shot at the title last year with a combination of poor reliability and hot-headed driving from Vettel. You need only look at Baku to see that the German is capable of losing his head when things are not going his way but there is no denying that he is one of the top two drivers on the grid, if not the top driver in terms of race ability.

Max Verstappen can also make a real go of it but he is still not in a car that is capable of challenging over the course of an entire season. Don’t expect Vettel to go quietly but Hamilton definitely appears to hold all the cards and we haven’t seen half of the capability of the Mercedes in the build up to the new season.

Overall it seems unlikely that anyone will be able to ruffle the feathers of the silver arrows and that fifth title that has so long eluded Vettel seems destined to sit on Hamilton’s mantelpiece when we come to Abu Dhabi and the season finale.

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