The 2018 F1 season begins with the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne this weekend.

The major engine regulations are the same as last year so it would be a surprise if there are hughe changes in the pecking order and we should expect Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull to be at the head of affairs

As ever ahead of the first weekend we can read the runes from pre-season testing to get an idea of the landscape for the season ahead. Hamilton endED the first week of pre-season testing with fastest time, on the medium tyre, 0.5 secconds clear of anyone else, nearly all using softer tyres.

In the second week though Ferrari finished the eight-day test with four leading times though there are still doubts about a potential title challenge as world champions Mercedes, along with Red Bull, once again opted against unleashing their full potential.

Still there is enough to suggest that this will be a close three way battle for the title
“I think we will be close enough to be in the hunt,” said Daniel Ricciardo. “It’s been a better winter than last year. Ferrari turned it up the last couple of days but we are there or thereabouts. It looks like Ferrari can challenge Mercedes if we can’t and it could be quite close.”

On the penultimate day at Barcelona, both Mercedes drivers completed full race simulations – and to ominous effect. Close reading of the charts found Valtteri Bottas around a second per lap faster than both Red Bull and Ferrari. However, another important caveat was to be found in the small print: Mercedes only ran on the mediums. Bottas subsequently denied Mercedes were really one second clear but it was a reassuring question to answer.

“Mercedes are going into this championship as very much the favourites,” accepted Red Bull’s Christian Horner.

The general demeanour around the leading teams told an interesting tale too. Hamilton was relaxed and assured, describing the W09 as an “improvement” and telling reporters “last year’s car was great but this car feels better”.

Of coure there are usual pre-season caveats about reduced running, unknown fuel loads, varied engine settings, different tyres, and contrasting performance targets.

Most likely there is a clear top three of Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes with the world champions out in front but with their advantage perhaps greater in race trim than qualifying.

Elsewhere

* Renault looks to be the best of the rest, albeit amid concerns that the top three have moved further away from the chasing pack

* McLaren is the wild card in the pack as a result of their unreliability but with the team still confident their chassis and engine package can deliver a profitable season once a happy compromise is achieved between the Renault unit and the MCL33′s tight packaging.

Season outright odds are
Hamilton 10/11
Vettel 7/2
Verstappen 6/1
Ricciardo 12/1
Bottas 14/1
Alonso/Raikkonen 33/1
Bar 150/1

Each way terms widely available in the market are 1/5 1,2,3

Skybet offer us 8/1 about Verstappen, and he looks to be the best each way value here, with the front two short enough. Verstappen is a future world champion and I wouldn’t be surprised to see him challenging at the head of affairs this season