Australian Grand Prix: Does F1 finally have a three-way battle?

What can we expect for the 2018 F1 season? (2:20)

ESPN's Jennie Gow and Sam Collins discuss what fans can expect from the new season as it kicks off this weekend in Australia. (2:20)

The conclusion of winter testing in Barcelona means one thing: It's time to get the 2018 season underway with the Australian Grand Prix.

Focus on... The pecking order

As is so often the case ahead of the season-opener, we head to Australia with many unknowns. Does Formula One finally have a three-way battle at the front of the grid? Can Lewis Hamilton match Juan Manuel Fangio with a fifth world championship? Which team will be the leader of the midfield pack?

While we may not have all of these questions answered by Sunday evening in Melbourne, what we will have is a much clearer picture of where each team sits in the 2018 pecking order.

Having said that, testing suggested Mercedes and Ferrari will likely resume their battle at the front. The reigning world champions look to hold a considerable edge in long-run and race simulation while Ferrari demonstrated the best single-lap pace of any team.

Red Bull also look to have made significant gains during the off-season and with the proven driver pairing of Max Verstappen and Daniel Ricciardo you'd be bold to rule them out of contention from the outset.

And then there's McLaren -- now powered by Renault -- who finally look to be emerging from the Formula One wilderness. In terms of year-on-year improvement during testing, McLaren bested the field with a twelve month improvement of over three seconds per lap and could be the wild card Formula One has been searching for.

2018's midfield battle should also be intriguing with plenty more questions set to be answered. Will Force India continue to lead the way? Can Williams rediscover some magic? How will Toro Rosso fare with a Honda power unit?

In need of a win? Sebastian Vettel

Ferrari began the 2017 season with a bang as Sebastian Vettel stormed to victory Down Under and you'd think something similar will be needed this year if the team is to capture their first title in over a decade.

Consistency was the issue for Vettel and Ferrari during the 2017 campaign. The Scuderia claimed three wins from the opening six races but only managed to add another two victories to their tally through the remaining 14 rounds.

Vettel arrives in Melbourne searching for his third win at Albert Park and 100th career podium finish. It should also be noted that teammate Kimi Raikkonen is hunting his first win in five years and first for Ferrari since the 2009 Belgian Grand Prix.

As if Vettel didn't need any further motivation ahead of the season-opener, on the two occasions Lewis Hamilton has won in Melbourne (2008 and 2015) he has gone on to claim the world championship.

In need of points? Daniel Ricciardo

After 2017's horror home weekend, Daniel Ricciardo will have points on his mind when he arrives in Melbourne.

The Red Bull driver crashed out of qualifying at Albert Park last year -- for what was just the second time in his career -- before going on to retire with a fuel flow issue after just 25 laps.

Ricciardo will be eager to bounce back at home especially considering he ended 2017 with three retirements from the final four races.

Another driver who will endured a disappointing end to last season was Carlos Sainz.

After an impressive season at Toro Rosso, which was highlighted by a sensational fourth-place finish in Singapore, Sainz made the move to Renault only to finish his campaign with four retirements from the final six races.

The talented Spaniard has scored points in each of his previous three races in Australia and will be looking to continue that streak when he begins his first full season with the team.

Tyre talk

Available compounds: Soft, supersoft, ultrasoft

Pirelli's pointers:

  • Albert Park is a semi-permanent street circuit that's not used extensively during the year, so the track can be particularly 'green' and slippery at the start of the weekend.

  • Wear and degradation is on the whole quite low. Most cars stopped just once last year, with the most popular strategy being ultrasoft to soft.

Minimum starting pressures: Front 22psi, rear 19.5psi

Weather forecast

Given that Melbourne is known as a city where it's not uncommon to experience all four seasons in a day, a weather forecast might be somewhat pointless here.

Nevertheless, Friday and Saturday are expected to be warm with a top of 28°C before it cools down to 21°C on race day. There's also a 70 percent chance of rain on Saturday, with Sunday's chance of precipitation hovering at 50 percent.


Such is the expectation that Mercedes will have the upper hand in Melbourne that Lewis Hamilton's victory odds are 1/1. Sebastian Vettel is at 10/3 while Valtteri Bottas has tempting odds at 7/1. Daniel Ricciardo is 15/2 for a first home victory since Alan Jones won the non-championship Australian GP in 1980 while a dream start for McLaren and Fernando Alonso is considered unlikely at 66/1. However, if you fancy a flutter on Alonso being the first to retire, his odds are at 12/1.

ESPN's prediction

The many unknowns make the Australian Grand Prix one of the toughest races of the season to predict.

However, if we do take anything away from winter testing it's that Mercedes' impressive race simulation pace should see them running at the front once again.

Winner: Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)

Bonus prediction: Red Bull to outscore Ferrari

TV schedule (U.S. only)

Thur., March 22
Practice 1 9 p.m. ESPN3

Friday, March 23
Practice 2 1 a.m. ESPN3
Practice 3 10 p.m. ESPNEWS

Sat., March 24
Qualifying 2 a.m. ESPN2

Sun., March 25
On the Grid 12:30 a.m. ESPN2
Race 1 a.m. ESPN2
Race (encore) 11 a.m. ESPN2
Race (encore) 1 p.m. ESPNEWS
Race (encore) 9 p.m. ESPNEWS