Formula 1 build-up to 2022 Season


Few seasons in Formula 1’s 70-year history have ended as controversially as that of 2021, where the nail-bitingly tight title challenge between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen was gradually overshadowed by the off-track decisions of the sport’s race directors – a situation that still haunts Formula 1 as it gets ready for what should be a fascinating new season.

After years in the doldrums due to a rather complete lack of competitiveness in the sport, 2021 offered all the right ingredients for a renaissance of interest and excitement. For one, the Mercedes team that had so completely dominated the grid for the better part of a decade had a rejuvenated Red Bull Racing team to contend with – ensuring that this year, at least, the battle for the top-two spots wouldn’t be between two Mercedes cars – and in the second instance, the revival in global interest following the success of the F1 series on Netflix, Drive to Survive.

Combined, these two factors promised to bring F1 back to where it belongs, and the 2021 season did not disappoint. Lewis Hamilton has been the top talent in F1 for an entire decade, but in the young Dutch driver, Max Verstappen, Red Bull have the perfect contender for the title. Like Hamilton, he is not only a superbly gifted driver, but also endowed with an almost zealous motivation to win, and the concentration and personality needed to achieve it. Armed with cars that were closer in performance than they had been for almost ten years, the drivers took to the challenge with relish.

2021 – a year of excitement and controversy

Almost from the off it was clear that this would be the year that Mercedes hegemony would be challenged, and Verstappen was the man to do it. The early part of the season set the scene for a mouth-watering battle between these two rivals, and as the competition heated up so early respect steadily gave way to a more cynical approach. Both drivers were guilty of questionable actions, a situation to which the increasingly erratic decision-making of the race leadership headed by Race Director Michael Masi added significant fire.

In the second half of the season, the neck-to-neck title race that was so enthralling was increasingly spoiled by highly questionable decisions, though on the whole the damage was more or less evenly spread between the two drivers. One sad low point was the lack of action following Verstappen’s crash at Silverstone after Hamilton pushed him off the track, but it was easily equalled on the final, deciding race day, when the same team headed by Michael Masi once again confused their own regulations by allowing Verstappen to approach Hamilton in a safety car restart. 

As a result, a rejuvenated Verstappen was able to challenge and eventually pass Hamilton, to win the race and take the title. British fans were understandably seething, but looking back over the season it was a chaotic but perhaps somewhat poetic balancing act that cancelled out some of the damage done to Verstappen’s challenge earlier in the season. The reason that we’re still talking about 2021 when reviewing the start of the 2022 is an indication of just how much this latest in a growing tradition of ‘referee interference’ is damaging the sport.

2022 fallout

We’re rightly looking forward to another exciting season, but the events of 2021 are still casting a shadow on the new year, as Hamilton, irate about losing out on the final race is threatening to pull out of the sport. It seems a tad childish and unsportsmanlike from a driver who has not exactly had to endure much headwind during his career, but it follows an initial legal action by Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff (later dropped) and the team and Hamilton boycotting the sport’s post-season awards ceremony.

He/they may still be punished for the latter, which breaks the rules and the gentleman’s contract of F1, reflecting a 2022 season start already soured by the events of 2021. Hamilton is hinting at wanting to pursue a Hollywood career and his existing activities in R&B/Hip-Hop, but few really believe that he will not be joining the Mercedes line-up against new challenger, George Russell, the young Englishman who showed such promise last year and will likely not be the supporting act that Finn Valtteri Bottas was.

For Hamilton and Mercedes alike, the days of easy dominance appear to be over, and for the rest of us – and the sport itself – that is good news, as it really had got a little bit too predictable. The 2021 season reminded us just how exciting Formula 1 can and should be, and there is no immediate reason to believe that Red Bull Racing-Honda at least, won’t be stepping up to the challenge again. The Max Verstappen/Sergio Perez combo seems to be working well (Checo helped Verstappen a great deal in the final race) and Honda seem revived thanks to their first engine-based F1 title in decades.

How the cards stack up

Mercedes and Red Bull will therefore lead at the front, followed by a Ferrari team where the performance of Spaniard Carlos Sainz during 2021 has earned him equal status alongside Charles Leclerc for the 2022 season. Most of us hope that Ferrari will finally mount a credible challenge again this year, but it may not be the time to hold your breath (yet). Other contenders for the sub-top can be McLaren, which was revived in 2021 and even managed a Grand Prix win with Daniel Ricciardo. French outfit Alpine, which also scored a win through Esteban Ocon, is patiently working its way up, and it remains to be seen if they can build on last years’ solid results. 

The same is true of Alpha Tauri, where Frenchman Pierre Gasly once again impressed – surely, he must soon be ready for a big team – and of Aston Martin, where veteran and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel was not always able to overshadow teammate and team owner’s son, Lance Stroll. Williams, too, showed signs of improvement, and with George Russell making way for a big move to Mercedes, it is former Red Bull hopeful Alex Albon who is lining up with Canadian driver Nicholas Latifi. Alfa Romeo are more likely to languish in the lower rankings, though their line-up with the experienced Valtteri Bottas and the young Chinese driver Zhou Guanyu – the first Chinese F1 competitor ever – is definitely intriguing.

Russian bad boy Nikita Mazepin and German good boy Mick Schumacher (yes, his son) are likely to make up the tail of the peloton, despite enthusiastic noises by the American Haas team that they are gunning for a mid-table spot in 2022. We’ll believe it when we see it, but one thing is for certain, with significant car and rule changes, drama overspill from 2021 and a (hopefully) continued challenge from Red Bull, the 2022 F1 season sure isn’t going to be boring.

First published in Essential Magazine

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