The 2022 Formula One season is about more than just the renewed battle between reigning champion Max Verstappen and the man he dethroned, Lewis Hamilton.
It will be a heavily revised version of F1’s high-speed soap opera, featuring new race management, all-new cars designed to create closer racing, and a reshuffled cast that will launch into the unknown at this weekend’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.
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Fourteen weeks after the sour, contrived and controversial last-lap drama in Abu Dhabi that ended Hamilton’s four-year reign as champion and ushered Verstappen to a first title crown, the curtain rises on a ‘revolutionary’ new show featuring the most sweeping technical rule changes in 40 years.
The return of ‘ground effect’ aerodynamics for the first time since 1983 with much bigger wheels and fatter tyres, a freeze on power unit development and a tighter budget cap, down to $140 million dollars excluding drivers’ salaries, may throw up arguments and shocks.
But below the surface, away from the gleaming visible alterations and the uncertainties brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, the human drama will remain unchanged — at least for now.
Wounded Hamilton returns
Bitterly disillusioned, but now repaired, Hamilton, 37, returns from a hermetic off-season to resume his quest for a record eighth title 750 kilometres up the coast from the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi where his hopes of winning last season’s title battle with Vestappen were dashed.
As Hamilton’s Mercedes team and Red Bull swapped heated claims and counterclaims, the architect of F1’s greatest furore, Race Director Michael Masi, was muzzled and later removed from his role by the International Motoring Federation (FIA), which itself underwent an upheaval.
Masi had delivered an improvised interpretation of the rules to avoid the race ending behind a safety car. That handed Verstappen, on new tyres, a clear advantage for the last-lap showdown and not only gifted him the title, but also “tarnished the image of F1”, according to the FIA.
Within days, the FIA had a new president in Dubai’s Mohammed Ben Sulayem, who promised a review that came with a restructuring of race direction under two men, German Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas from Portugal, aided by the return from retirement of the vastly experienced Briton Herbie Blash as a permanent adviser.
Hamilton and Mercedes welcomed the changes — without which the Briton might have retired — with Verstappen less than happy that his title was somewhat tarnished.
Maintaining his characteristically pugnacious style, the Dutchman last week mocked claims from his rival that he would be to slow to challenge for race wins in his new Mercedes. “It’s always like that isn’t it?” he said.
After spending most of the winter in retreat in Colorado, Hamilton re-emerged burning with “righteous fire”, according to his team. “You can turn these emotions into power and strength and that’s what I am doing,” he explained. “If you think what you saw at the end of last year was my best, wait till you see this year.”
At 37, Hamilton remains young and fit enough to compete again if he is motivated, but unlike Verstappen, he will have a new teammate in fellow-Briton George Russell at Mercedes and, after early testing, a car that is “a handful to drive”.
“There is potential within our car to get us there,” said Hamilton. “We just have to learn to extract it — there are some hurdles to overcome.”
In typically enigmatic style, Hamilton announced in the UAE on Monday he will be adopting his mother’s name, probably to race as Lewis Hamilton-Larbalestier.
Like Verstappen, Russell is 24 and will provide a youthful and dynamic rivalry to Hamilton that may help lift Mercedes to exploit their potential with the new cars after five years of comparative serenity with Valtteri Bottas.
The Finn has joined Alfa Romeo to partner China’s first F1 driver Guanyu Zhou in an all-new line-up.
Russell, who dazzled as substitute for a Covid-struck Hamilton in Bahrain in 2020, has been replaced at Williams by London-born Thai driver Alex Albon.
Danish driver Kevin Magnussen also returns alongside Mick Schumacher at Haas.
In final testing in Bahrain last week, Verstappen topped the times ahead of Schumacher, but warned it meant little. “No one gives full beans at testing,” he said.
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was an impressive third, prompting Hamilton to tip the Italian team, and consistent McLaren, as likely challengers.
Russell was fifth and Hamilton 17th, results that meant little ahead of a revised 22-race calendar, trimmed from 23 events following the cancellation of the Russian Grand Prix.
The second instalment of the Max v Lewis thriller will also include three sprint races at Imola, Spielberg and Sao Paulo before concluding, again, in Abu Dhabi where all concerned, except for the American owners of the sport’s commercial rights, will hope to avoid a repeat of last year’s furious finale.
Drivers to watch
Three months after the explosive end to last season, Formula One returns on Sunday in Bahrain with Max Verstappen leading the way from deposed champion Lewis Hamilton.
With new-look cars and driver line-ups, here are the ones to watch.
Lewis Hamilton (Britain)
Hamilton is recharged as he seeks an unprecedented eighth drivers’ title. Shaken and demoralised at the messy way his crown slipped from his grasp in Abu Dhabi, Hamilton said he was thinking of quitting the sport. But the 37-year-old showed last year he is at the top of his game, taking a record 103rd win and the same number of poles, while admitting Mercedes “still have a lot of work to do” to match the preseason testing pace of rivals sauch as Red Bull and Ferrari.
George Russell (Britain)
The Mercedes academy graduate landed the prized seat after impressing with his poise and potential at Williams. Out qualifying his then teammate Robert Kubica in all 21 races in his rookie season in 2020, and scoring his first points and podium last year, the 24-year-old from Norfolk is no stranger to sitting behind the wheel of a Mercedes, after filling in for Covid-19 hit Hamilton at Bahrain in 2020, with a bungled pit stop conspiring to deprive him of a debut win.
Max Verstappen (Netherlands)
Despite the controversial circumstances surrounding his Abu Dhabi triumph no one could deny that the erstwhile ‘Mad Max’ was worthy of his hard fought world title. With Honda supplying the perfect leaving present in an engine fit to tackle the might of Mercedes the flying Dutchman went toe-to-toe with Hamilton and came out on top. Fastest in testing last week, he knows he is in for an almighty fight to hold on to his crown. The 24-year-old appeared relaxed in the run-up to Sunday’s season-opener, saying it’s “important that you have a good time while in F1 and you have actually fun with the people you’re travelling with, and I definitely have that”.
Sergio Perez (Mexico)
His maiden win in Bahrain in the penultimate race of 2020 earned him a seat and a pivotal role in his teammate’s assault on the world championship. A fourth-place finish, after a second win in Baku, in the drivers’ standings has every chance of being improved on this term by the man whose barnstorming performance in holding up Hamilton when briefly in the lead in Abu Dhabi showed how he is the perfect teammate.
Charles Leclerc (Monaco)
The Scuderia look to have turned the page after their annus horribilis in 2020 with their worst season in 40 years, moving up from sixth to third in the constructors standings last time out. While Leclerc was bettered by his teammate in 2021 he has much to look forward to in his fourth season with the team after a positive three days testing last week. “It’s definitely one of the smoothest preparations I’ve had for a season,” he said. It’s 14 years since Ferrari won the last of their record 16 constructors titles and while breaking that run may be a tall order, Leclerc will at least be counting on bagging the team’s first win since 2019.
Carlos Sainz (Spain)
The Spaniard is in his second season at Ferrari with his four podium finishes lifting him to fifth in the 2021 standings, two places above Leclerc. His two-time world rally champion father started the year with a third success in the Dakar Rally — Carlos Sainz junior will want to add further lustre to the family’s silverware in 2022 with his maiden F1 success in his seventh season.
Daniel Ricciardo (Australia)
Knocked out of last week’s preseason tests by Covid-19, the grinning Aussie with a ruthless touch embarks on his second season with McLaren. His move from Renault pitted him against a talented younger teammate and he finished the campaign two rungs behind Norris in eighth spot. His only visit to the podium was a memorable one with a win at Monza, his team’s first win since 2012.
Lando Norris (Britain)
Four podium finishes and a pole position helped earn Norris a contract extension to 2025 with the former F1 giants who are emerging from seasons in the wilderness. The 22-year-old from Bristol is central to the team’s plans to once again be fighting for championships. A first Grand Prix win is just around the corner for Norris who finished 11th in his rookie campaign for McLaren in 2019, then ninth and last year sixth.
Nicholas Latifi (Canada)
Latifi made his mark last season, but not in the way he would ever have wanted. His shunt in the closing stages of the season-finale in Abu Dhabi triggered a sequence of events that led to Verstappen depriving Hamilton of the world title. At his team’s launch he revealed he had hired bodyguards after death threats. After two seasons alongside Russell now is his chance to rekindle the impressive form that lifted him to second in the 2019 F2 championship.
Alex Albon (Thailand)
The London-born Thai makes his return after being let go by Red Bull at the end of his first full season in 2020. George Russell’s replacement debuted for Red Bull’s sister team Toro Rosso in 2019, graduating to become Max Verstappen’s wingman. The popular softly-spoken 25-year-old was retained as test driver by Red Bull last year and now back on the grid will want to add to his two podium places.
2022 F1 calendar
March 20 — Bahrain Grand Prix, Sakhir
March 27 — Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Jeddah, Saudi Arabia
April 10 — Australian Grand Prix, Melbourne
April 24 — Imola Grand Prix, Imola, Italy
May 8 — Miami Grand Prix, Miami, Florida
May 22 — Spanish Grand Prix, Barcelona
May 29 — Monaco Grand Prix, Monte Carlo
June 12 — Azerbaijan Grand Prix, Baku
June 19 — Canadian Grand Prix, Montreal
July 3 — British Grand Prix, Silverstone
July 10 — Austrian Grand Prix, Spielberg, Austria
July 24 — French Grand Prix, Le Castellet
July 31 — Hungarian Grand Prix, Budapest
August 28 — Belgian Grand Prix, Spa-Francorchamps
September 4 — Dutch Grand Prix, Zandvoort, Netherlands
September 11 — Italian Grand Prix, Monza
October 2 — Singapore Grand Prix, Singapore City
October 9 — Japanese Grand Prix, Suzuka
October 23 — United States Grand Prix, Austin, Texas
October 30 — Mexican Grand Prix, Mexico City
November 13 — Brazilian Grand Prix, Sao Paulo
November 20 — Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Abu Dhabi, UAE
Recent F1 Drivers’ Champions
2000 Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari
2001 Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari
2002 Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari
2003 Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari
2004 Michael Schumacher (GER) Ferrari
2005 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault
2006 Fernando Alonso (ESP) Renault
2007 Kimi Raikkonen (FIN) Ferrari
2008 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) McLaren
2009 Jenson Button (GBR) Brawn
2010 Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull
2011 Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull
2012 Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull
2013 Sebastian Vettel (GER) Red Bull
2014 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes
2015 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes
2016 Nico Rosberg (GER) Mercedes
2017 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes
2018 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes
2019 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes
2020 Lewis Hamilton (GBR) Mercedes
2021 Max Verstappen (NED) Red Bull