It’s time to go racing again. After a thrilling 2017 season that saw Lewis Hamilton clinch his fourth driver’s title, Formula One is back this weekend with the season opener in Melbourne, Australia. The 2018 season sees redesigned cars and tyres, the absence of some iconic circuits and the return of others to the calendar, promised changes in fortune for some big teams and drivers, and a clash between two four-time world champions.

Halo of safety

Let’s start with the cars. The most obvious change is the unsightly ‘halo’ device that extends above the cockpit of the cars, which is the culmination of the debate over driver safety that started after the tragic passing of Jules Bianchi in the 2014 Japanese Grand Prix. Aimed at offering extra protection to the drivers’ exposed heads, the halo is a three-pronged structure that attaches to the sides and front of the cockpit, with one of these pillars landing smack in the field of view of the driver. While most of the grid seems to have made their peace with the device and learnt to drive with it, public outcry for a better solution has still not died out.

The other major change comes in the form of two new tyre compounds introduced by Pirelli, meant to make racing more exciting but confusing everyone with the nomenclature of the tyres on offer. The slick tyres used in the dry now have added ‘Hypersoft’ and ‘Superhard’ tyres that sit on either end of standard ultrasoft, supersoft, soft, medium and hard tyres, potentially giving teams more strategies to choose from, depending on the tyres available for use in a given race weekend.

The big news is the swap in engine suppliers between McLaren and Toro Rosso. McLaren, which has struggled with Honda engines for the past few years, will now be powered by the more reliable Renault engines, while Toro Rosso switches to Honda. Whether McLaren, and their long-suffering double world championship-winning driver Fernando Alonso now regain their former glory, or Honda find redemption in a new chassis, remains to be seen. It is safe to say that most of the racing community would like nothing better than to see Alonso back in the fray, and duking it out with the champions that followed him, in a competent machine.

Brewing battles

The drivers championship seems set for some epic battles, with Mercedes’ dominance looking less apparent this year. Ferrari has once again produced what appears to be a fast car, which should give Sebastian Vettel enough ammunition for on-track fireworks against Hamilton when the four-time world champions clash on track. Red Bull’s Max Verstappen’s star has also steadily been rising, and the 20-year-old Dutchman is looking more likely to launch a serious championship attack this year.

Verstappen’s teammate Daniel Ricciardo will be one to watch as well, particularly since he’s among the few of the top drivers not currently in a long-term contract, signalling a willingness to move teams, which means the onus to perform will be on him. The ever-cheerful Australian will be more than happy to rise to the challenge.

Look to the future

2018 sees the return of the French and German grands prix, at the expense of the Malaysian grand prix, which, despite being a popular venue with drivers, had long been seeing dwindling spectator counts.

Formula One’s new owners, Liberty Media, will be hoping to turn this trend around, and make the sport popular among spectators again, in the interests of venues and revenues. Steps are being taken, including a massive social media push and an app for fans to keep track of the season.

That covers the basics of the 2018 Formula One season. Now, it’s off to Melbourne on March 25, where the races and rivalries resume as the five red lights go out.