In 2021 F1 fans were treated to a great title battle between Hamilton and Verstappen, while Gasly and Norris lit up the midfield. But who will be the star of the show in 2022?
Leclerc and Verstappen
The mood music of pre-season testing had Red Bull top with Ferrari right behind and Mercedes just a bit further back. This was pretty accurate, but in both qualifying and the race, the triumph was set to go to the Prancing Horse. Leclerc drove flawlessly to regain the lead twice when Verstappen passed him after pitting, and the Ferrari proved more reliable as both Red Bulls (and Gasly’s AlphaTauri, which uses the same engine) suffered terminal reliability failures. Sainz was there to collect 2nd, making it a perfect 1-2. And their chief rival scored no points at all.
But an F1 season these days stretches close to two dozen races, and one result, however good, is not enough to say everything’s done and dusted. Red Bull must urgently sort out their reliability failures, which came as something of a surprise late on but perhaps should not have. With new cars under very different regulations, it’s to be expected that some have sailed too close to the wind and have parts that aren’t quite up to the task in race trim. There were parts of the circuit where the Red Bull was significantly faster than the Ferrari (and vice versa). In terms of pace, the lead drivers of Ferrari and Red Bull were very closely matched indeed but reliability was the telling difference. If Red Bull can pull ahead in development then the reduced loss of downforce due to new regulations will make passing on-track, and overturning a points deficit in the title race, that much easier.
Failures determining title victors have been the case before. Raikkonen could have won multiple titles with McLaren but reliability failings, and shocking bad luck in this regard was the only reason Hamilton lost out to his teammate Rosberg in 2016. Right now, early days though it is, the season looks like being a Leclerc versus Verstappen battle. And the Monegasque is looking pretty good.
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The Question of Hamilton (and Sainz. And Russell)
Hamilton is one of the greatest drivers of all time, and picking up the surprise podium in Bahrain took his tally to a faintly ridiculous 182 top 3 results for the Briton. It was very unexpected on this occasion, however, as the Mercedes had looked well behind both Ferrari and Red Bull (and it was, on pace). The team believes their sidepods, not so much skinny as anorexic, are a fundamentally good design but there’s a clear performance gap to the top two. Reliability, though, was rock solid, and there is enough speed in the Silver Arrows to be the best of the rest. In Hamilton and his talented new teammate Russell there’s a solid lineup but unless the car can be sorted out this will be a tough year for Hamilton to endure after almost total domination during the previous era of regulations.
It’s also worth mentioning the teammates of Verstappen and Leclerc. Perez is a good driver but will always be the sacrificial lamb for Verstappen. Sainz, however, may be a different matter. Leclerc’s long contract does make him appear a de facto number one but his Spanish teammate finished ahead of Leclerc by 5.5 points last year. The two, over a season, are much more equal in terms of speed than most other pairings, which is great news for Ferrari on a team basis. But with Verstappen certainly getting any advantage at the expense of his teammate it remains to be seen whether Ferrari, notorious for team orders (“Fernando is faster than you”), will risk letting its drivers race one another or whether Sainz will be politely encouraged to give way. We’re still way too early in the season to know the answer to that, but if Verstappen, or Hamilton, become a threat to the Prancing Horse then team orders may well be in the offing. And here the advantage for Ferrari is that their two drivers are very evenly matched and can use team tactics in a way that Red Bull, with Perez perhaps further down the track, may not be able to copy.
Russell put in a phenomenal performance when he acted as Hamilton’s substitute during the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix and only missed out on a win due to incredibly bad luck. He’s been consistently impressive in the Williams over the years and, having graduated to the Mercedes team, will be looking to match Hamilton. But that’s easier said than done and the elder Briton had the better of it in Bahrain. Russell needs a little more speed himself, and a better car to be in contention this year.
It can be tempting to focus almost entirely on battles at the sharp end, especially with such a ferocious and close contest as we got in 2021 between Hamilton and Verstappen. However, the midfield can throw up some fantastic drives as we saw last season with McLaren’s Norris and Gasly of AlphaTauri. One race is not enough to get a firm idea of who’ll be a superstar of the midfield in 2022 but it is sufficient to give us some indications.
In Bahrain, the best of the rest were undoubtedly Magnussen (5th) and Bottas (6th). Denmark’s Magnussen only got called up by Haas at the eleventh hour, after his not necessarily popular predecessor Mazepin got ditched due to his Russian oligarch father’s connections with Vladimir Putin. The Dane wasted no time getting to grips with a radically different F1 car and went on to put in a very strong performance (he did lock up a couple of times under heavy fuel early on, but was always likely to lose places to Hamilton and Perez anyway). Fifth is great for the team and shows great potential for both car and driver.
Bottas had a stonking qualifying to outpace one Mercedes and line up alongside another one (his ex-teammate Hamilton). It is true he had an atrocious start and lost eight places right off the bat, but experience and a solid car (and a couple of Red Bull retirements) enabled the Finn to recover all the way back to 6th, where he’d started. Better yet, his teammate Zhou Guanyu, China’s first F1 driver, got the final point on his debut, another good indication that Alfa Romeo’s new C42 car is in fine fettle in 2022. To start with, at least. There are lots of races to go yet.
The Development Race
The development race always makes a massive difference to the pecking order (McLaren and Aston Martin must be hoping that’s the case this year). In days gone by we had a traditional format, whereby Red Bull was too slow to challenge Mercedes initially but by the time they got on even terms the title had already been claimed, and the silverware polished and shipped off to Hamilton’s trophy cabinet. That said, in 2021 it was Mercedes that had poor pre-season testing before bouncing back spectacularly.
With new regulations, it’s to be expected that this season will see a more rapid rate of development than in the recent past, regarding both innovations and copying other teams. This is a double-edged sword, though. An update that doesn’t work as it should mean you stand still, or go backwards when rivals surge ahead. Reliability is also essential, as Red Bull learnt to their cost at the first race in Bahrain. Beyond Red Bull and Mercedes, one team that always punched above their weight in development was Aston Martin. They’re too far back this year to compete for the title, it seems, but in future seasons they could yet be a force to be reckoned with.
At the moment, the 2022 season is shaping up to be a Leclerc versus Verstappen affair. But don’t count out Hamilton or Sainz entirely.