• IN WORDS: Lewis and Valtteri Throw Forward to 2018

Mercedes drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas feel refreshed and energised after the winter break, ready for the challenges of 2018...

'I'm just looking forward to racing again'

Unsurprisingly, when Lewis and Valtteri were asked what they are most excited about for the new Formula One season, they both replied with the exact same answer: they can't wait to get back behind the wheel and return to racing!

While the winter presented them with a chance to take some time off, see their family and friends and get away from the F1 bubble for a while, they're racing drivers. They love driving cars around some of the world's most famous racing circuits at over 300 km/h. It doesn't escape their minds for long.

"I'm just looking forward to racing again," Lewis says. "It's crazy - I've been racing forever, but it's still freaking good. I still get the buzz. I could race pretty much every day."

It's a feeling Valtteri knows very well: "It's always super exciting to drive the new car for the first time and get a feel for it. And knowing that so many hours of work have gone in to it makes it even more special."

A driver's return to the factory is always a significant and exciting time. There are engineering meetings, simulator sessions, media and team commitments. But, it's also a chance to find out how things are progressing with the new car and see everyone after the winter break.

'It felt great to be back,' Lewis explains. 'It's always such a great working environment in the factory. The first time back is always exciting because there's great anticipation of the car being built.

'It's very humbling to see everything coming together. People have worked so hard on this, committed for such a long period of time. I'm just keen to get out there and take it to its limits. I'm one of only two people who get to drive it and there's this proud feeling because I know how much work has gone into getting the car ready.'

The F1 regulations have remained fairly stable across the winter, but there are still some important changes to be aware of, particularly the 'Halo' cockpit protection device. It has caused quite a stir and split opinion, but Valtteri's tried it out in the simulator and shared his verdict.

'I have done more than one race distance in the simulator with the halo and I got used to it during the first race,' the Finn says. 'Initially it was a bit weird to see the halo, but I got completely used to it; it's not disturbing any more so I'm fine with it.

'I'm sure it's going to look a bit strange for all the fans initially as well because there's never been anything like that on a Formula One car. But as it is with all the changes in the past, something new always looks a bit weird in the beginning, before people get used to it. If the halo can protect even from a small injury, then that's a good rule change.'

Its very humbling to see everything coming together. People have worked so hard on this, committed for such a long period of time. Lewis Hamilton

There's also been a reduction in the number of engine components that drivers have at their disposal in 2018, something Lewis believes will be difficult for teams and also put more pressure on the drivers: "It's getting harder and harder for the team in Brixworth and the people in Brackley, but they're continuously rising to the challenge which is great to see.

"I think it will be tough for everyone this year with the regulation changes. It puts more emphasis on me, making sure that I'm very careful with the engine. We just need to make sure that we maximise it as much as possible. Reliability will continue to be a key player in the sport as it has been in previous years. But I know that I got the best team working as hard as they can to make sure that we're at the forefront of that."

It's not just the technical regulations that have gone through changes, there's also been tweaks to the F1 calendar, with the French and German Grands Prix both returning. "I'm excited to be going back, Germany has such a great fan base for motor racing," Lewis adds. "It's important that we go to countries where there is a long lifeblood of fans because this sport would be nothing without its fans.

"We are going to new countries and new territories which currently might not have a real fan base and the goal is always to encourage new people to join. But we can't ignore the true fans that are at the heart and core of this sport. So I'm really glad that we're going back to both Germany and France."

Across a major regulation change, Mercedes retained the top spot in both Championships last year. But, the team came under pressure from Ferrari and Red Bull in 2017, and Valtteri's keeping a close eye on those two teams this season. However, he's also expecting a few surprises.

'On paper, Ferrari and Red Bull look like they will be our toughest competitors,' he admitted. 'But we should not underestimate any other teams. It's a new season and you never know what people in other teams have come up with. McLaren and Renault can be very strong. And you never know about Williams either. They have shown some strengths in the past few years. So it's going to be really interesting.'

Lewis is looking ahead to his sixth season behind the wheel of Mercedes F1 machinery. How does he reflect on the past five years? 'It's hard to believe that it's already our sixth year together,' the Brit admits.

'It feels like it's gone by so quick. I remember my first time coming to the factory in Brackley, doing my first seat fit and it's just strange to think that now we're here as far down the line. It has just been a dream experience - working with the greatest team and extending my relationship with Mercedes who I signed with when I was 13. It's been an emotional rollercoaster together.'

On paper, Ferrari and Red Bull look like they will be our toughest competitors Valtteri Bottas

'I definitely want to fight for the Championship'

So, it's set to be a big year for Lewis, and Valtteri's got high hopes for his second season with Mercedes: "I want to use all the things that I learned last year," he says, looking ahead to 2018. "This year is all about executing and delivering the results.

"For me, consistency is the key. I had some really good races, but then I had races where I was not on the level I wanted to be. I want to be on a good level on every single race weekend - that's going to be the goal for me this year. I definitely want to fight for the Championship."

It's shaping up to be an exciting 2018 season already, and the racing hasn't even started yet! One thing's for sure... Lewis and Valtteri have their eyes on the prize.