THERE are few things as sweet as the hope and eagerness that accompanies the week before the start of a new Formula 1 season. Right now every enthusiast’s expectation is sky high. Their optimism and expectation are ready to be encouraged or sunk by the unpretentious but all-powerful stopwatch. On Friday morning, the cars will trundle out of the pitlane and onto Australia’s Albert Park circuit for the first official practice session of the 2018 season. A warm, fuzzy feeling will fill your heart as a smile spreads across your face: F1 2018 is a go. The famed part-time Albert Park circuit in Melbourne will host the season opener for the 22nd time. At 5.3km in length, it remains somewhat of an outlier in terms of layout. As it utilises public roads, and even part of a car park, it is more akin to a street circuit. These unique characteristics do have the ability to soften a car’s shortcomings as opposed to a track such as Bahrain’s Sakhir International circuit. Twelve months ago in Australia, Sebastian Vettel stepped onto the podium and Ferrari made a clear statement of intentions. Ultimately, 2017 didn’t go the way the Italian team would’ve predicted or wanted, but they have learned valuable lessons from it. But Ferrari doesn’t start the 2018 season in quite the same standing as it did last year. A big question mark lingers over the Scuderia and if they have closed the gap to Mercedes or even have fallen slightly off the pace. Preseason testing was difficult to read, but still many persist with the opinion that Ferrari is not in Mercedes’ league. Instead, it’s Red Bull who has seemingly made the bigger step forward. But still, despite the dynamite driver pairing of Daniel Ricciardo and Max Verstappen, their biggest Achilles’ heel remains the Renault engine’s power deficit. However, if the RB14 is what its preseason form has suggested then they may hit the ground running in Australia. Meanwhile, the midfield looks like it is poised to deliver some close racing as several teams find themselves in close contention. The surprise of this pack may be the American Haas team who appears to have made a step forward in almost all areas. Contrastingly, Williams and Sauber are likely to duke it out at the back of the grid. For McLaren, who have endured harrowing reliability in preseason, there will be nowhere to hide. So many of the team’s issues over the last few years were heaped onto Honda’s shoulders. However, despite having a new partnership with Renault, the problems persist. Despite this, Fernando Alonso and co are optimistic about the season and insist there is nothing to be concerned about. We may pour over countless points of data and hundreds of laptimes from testing and scrutinise every picture taken in the two weeks, but the fact remains that the true pace of the 2018 contenders will only be revealed come race day.