F1 season preview part one: Renault, Toro Rosso, Haas, McLaren, Sauber

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The first part of ESPN's team-by-team preview for the 2018 Formula One season looks at the bottom five from last year's championship standings


Drivers: Nico Hulkenberg and Carlos Sainz
Engine: Renault
2017 points: 57
Fastest lap in testing: 1:18.092 (fourth fastest)
Title odds: 250/1

The progress of Renault's long-term plan -- the one it hopes will culminate in a championship challenge by 2020 -- will be under the microscope this season. The French manufacturer team has kept expectations in check since returning to the grid in 2016, but this coming campaign feels different to the two which preceded it. No-one, least of all Renault, expects the yellow and black car to challenge for a championship this year but making a big step towards the front three -- especially Red Bull, powered by its own engines -- is absolutely essential.

After showing promise in pre-season, being able to regularly fight for podiums has to be the goal for the team if it wants to remain on course to be a legitimate title contender in the near future. Renault is bolstered by several things. Though it has struggled to match Mercedes in both performance and reliability in the turbo-hybrid era, it is encouraged by the dyno tests conducted ahead of the season. It also continues to invest in and patiently build its F1 operation, hinting at the potential for some serious development over the course of the year.

What's more, it comes into the new campaign with Carlos Sainz signed on for a full season alongside Nico Hulkenberg. The addition of Sainz late last year had a clear benefit on the team's performances and now gives Renault one of the most competitive driver line-ups on the grid -- a pair hungry to land themselves on an F1 podium for the first time. Renault could well be the surprise package of the 2018 season.

Toro Rosso

Drivers: Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley
Engine: Honda
2017 points: 53
Fastest lap in testing: 1:18.363 (sixth fastest)
Title odds: 1000/1

It would be wrong to use Toro Rosso's surprisingly productive winter tests to suggest it is about to leap up the order in the early parts of 2018. The team enjoyed good reliability over the weeks in Spain but how much of that Honda can maintain -- and whether it can find a step up in performance to go with it -- once all the engines are turned up in Melbourne is likely to define how Toro Rosso fares in the opening races.

Honda is still coming from a long way back and is still expected to be the slowest of F1's four engine builders in the early parts of the year. Defining this team's 2018 will be how big its incremental gains are through the season -- technical chief James Key has a good chance to remind the paddock why he was touted as the next big thing several years ago. It will also be fascinating to see how Honda operates and progresses away from the toxic environment it faced towards the end of its time with McLaren, which was all too eager to publicly blame all its shortcomings on the Japanese company.

However, as good as the Honda deal is for Toro Rosso, it still gives the Faenza squad the feel of a laboratory experiment this season -- senior team Red Bull will be looking for an engine next year and would happily accept a deal with a Honda outfit finally over the worst of its V6 turbo era nightmares. Toro Rosso's main job in 2018 is seemingly to steer Honda through any remaining difficulties it may have with its F1 power unit before handing over its factory status to the former world champions at Milton Keynes.


Drivers: Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen
Engine: Ferrari
2017 points: 47
Fastest lap in testing: 1:18.360 (fifth fastest)
Title odds: 2500/1

Haas enters uncharted territory in its third season. For the first time since joining the grid, the American team comes into a year without a major regulation change. After making its debut with one generation of F1 car in 2016, a significant overhaul to both cars and tyres in 2017 meant Haas was unable to properly evolve and learn from the lessons of its opening season. Last year it very much looked like an infant F1 team as it struggled with teething issues: brakes were a lingering point of contention, while the team often struggled to understand or fully utilise the ultimate performance from Pirelli's wider, chunkier tyres.

This year it is avoiding excuses -- Gene Haas expects his fledgling F1 outfit to be within 0.5s of technical partner Ferrari in 2018. That's a monumental ask for any team outside the top three, but with F1's most extensive technical partnership at its disposal and a growing aerodynamic department of its own, Haas has all the tools it needs to do so. There is a quietly optimistic mood at the American outfit following a very encouraging pre-season, which included some eye-catching lap times on the softer compounds. But showing glimpses of pace in February and remaining competitive in November are two very different things.

Starting higher up the order is all well and good, but in both its years on the grid Haas' performances have fallen away as the year has progressed having failed to match the development of rivals. In what looks set to be another tight fight in the midfield, Haas simply cannot afford a repeat of that in 2018 if it wants to finish higher up the pecking order.


Drivers: Fernando Alonso and Stoffel Vandoorne
Engine: Renault
2017 points: 30
Fastest lap in testing: 1:17.784 (second fastest)
Title odds: 33/1

McLaren is a team with few valid excuses left in the bank this year. After three years dismally off the pace with Honda, it now has a power unit which can be competitive this year. The team may not be able to challenge for a championship in 2018 but it has nowhere to hide -- Red Bull will have the exact same power unit, while Renault's factory team is likely to be a direct competitor as the season starts. After years of insisting it had the best chassis on the grid, only to be held back by a succession of underpowered and unreliable power units, comparisons to the results of Red Bull and Renault will linger throughout the year and McLaren's season will be judged accordingly.

Pre-season gave reasons to be optimistic but the true pace of the team is one of the fascinating unanswered questions in 2018. Fernando Alonso, as always, will dominate all things McLaren this season. The fact the Spaniard has been allowed to take on such a gargantuan schedule this year, mixing F1 with the World Endurance Championship, is likely to take its toll later in the season but also shows how much CEO Zak Brown was willing to concede to keep the two-time world champion with the team.

Alonso is McLaren's best chance of maximising the performance of the MCL33, but his contract expires at the end at the end of the year. With his head clearly turned by the prospect of winning Le Mans and the Indy 500 in the future, Alonso is unlikely to hang around long-term at McLaren if it does not show significant progress this season.


Drivers: Marcus Ericsson and Charles Leclerc
Engine: Ferrari
2017 points: 5
Fastest lap in testing: 1:19.118 (ninth fastest)
Title odds: 2500/1

Several years of languishing a long way behind the nearest car should come to an end in 2018. Over the past two seasons, Sauber has been treading water and consolidating its F1 operation in anticipation of the sort of deal it signed at the end of 2017 -- a partnership with Ferrari and Alfa Romeo. On top of that, last year it also secured the services of the ambitious and well-regarded Frederic Vasseur as team boss. The Frenchman appears to be the right man to drive Sauber back up the grid, but it will not be an easy or simple road back to competitiveness.

Though the C37 featured a completely revised aerodynamic concept, pre-season testing suggested it is going to be a handful for Marcus Ericsson and Charles Leclerc to drive in the opening races. But with a 2018-spec Ferrari engine (one which was originally set to be a Honda), the team has a good baseline once it understands and irons out some of the C37's erratic behaviour. The target for Sauber later this year is likely to be a cluster of teams fighting over scraps in the midfield, but the Swiss outfit is still likely to be making regular departures from Q1 as the season begins.

Coverage of Formula One in the U.S.A. will return to ESPN this year and begins at Melbourne's Albert Park with the Australian Grand Prix. Full programing details below (all times Eastern Time):

Rolex Australian Grand Prix
Practice 1 - Thursday, March 22, 9:00 PM - ESPN3
Practice 2 - Friday, March 23, 1:00 AM - ESPN3
Practice 3 - Friday, March 23, 10:00 PM - ESPNEWS
Qualifying - Saturday, March 24, 2:00 AM - ESPN2
Race - Sunday, March 25, 1:00 AM - ESPN2