If you read this hot off the press on Sunday, you may also just have witnessed the first race of the 2022 F1 season in Bahrain just a few hours ago, and seen Charles Leclerc / Ferrari win it ahead of his team mate Carlos Sainz and Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton, after Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez’ cars both broke down because of engine-related issues in that last three laps of the race. Next to a 1-2 for Ferrari, the new season is off to a good start with some suprises, a dramatic end with Red Bull’s debacle, one safety car phase and generally great racing!
The season that started today is one of many changes, as already described in my post from October last year, see here if you missed or as a reminder. Given big changes to the cars, it’s perhaps a good thing then that there isn’t that much happening on the side of the drivers, with 15 of 20 being in the same seat as last season. Of the five that aren’t, two have switched teams, two return to F1 having been absent last season, and one is a newcomer. Let’s have a quick look at who’s who.
George Russell is certainly the one name to look out for this season. Having done small wonders in an impossible Williams car over the last years, George is the driver to keep your eyes on this season now that he’s finally in a good car, taking over Valtteri Bottas’s seat in Mercedes next to Lewis. This of course means Valtteri moves, and he does so joining Alfa Romeo Racing, replacing retiring Kimi Räikkönen. This is obviously a move in the “wrong” direction, so it must have felt great for Bottas to be quicker in qualifying than Russell, and end the first race in P6. The Alfa car is predicted, based on pre-season training, to be one of the positive surprises this year, and if the first race is anything to go by, this seems to be confirmed with the Alfas ending sixth and tenth.
Valtteri’s team mate at Alfa will be the relatively unknown Chinese driver Zhou Guanyu. The 22-year old from Shanghai is China’s first F1 driver, but he’s lived in the UK since the age of 12. After some promising results early on, he became part of Ferrari’s driving academy in 2014 and moved on to the one at Renault five years later. He debuted in F2 the same year and scored enough good results over the coming three seasons to convince Cédric Vasseur, team principal at Alfa, to give him a chance. He’s also the driver who will “open” the Chinese market with it’s 1.4bn inhabitants for real to the F1 circus… Finally, the two returning drivers are Alex Albon who lost his seat at Red Bull two years ago and now returns to replace George Russell at Williams, and Kevin Magnussen who returns to Haas after a season away, replacing the not very successful Nikita Mazepin. Kevin hasn’t been enjoying the beach while away but rather raced notably in the US Indy series, and he needed only one race to show he’s not lost the pace, ending the first race in P5!
Moving on to the cars I won’t go into all the big changes introduced this year, see my earlier post for that. The objective of the changes was notably to make the races more even, as the airflows under the cars that create the sucking-to-the-ground venturi effect means the cars lose less traction when being close behind the car in front than with the old wing system. That’s exactly what we saw in today’s race in Bahrain with notably fantastic racing with multiple takeovers between Leclerc and Verstappen in the first half of the race. It looks promising in other words! And even if the top teams from last year can generally be expected to be the same, it’s clear that Ferrari currently has more speed than Mercedes, which starts the season as slowest of the top three teams. A few weeks ago the assumption was still that Lewis was bluffing when he was discussing the team’s lack of speed, but as the season has drawn closer, it’s become obvious that Mercedes is not fully there yet, and have some work to do.
Things are definitely more relaxed over at Red Bull, and at the time of writing, pretty festive at Ferrari! By the looks of it it’s these two teams that will dominate the first part of the season. Everyone was expecting Red Bull to come out on top in the first race, but Ferrari seem to be very much up there, fully able to compete for race wins, not only when the Red Bull cars break down. If that’s confirmed there’s no doubt that the Leclerc – Sainz drive pairing isn’t far behind Verstappen and Perez at Red Bull, if at all, and we could be in for some great racing. Looking at the midfield teams, Alpine looks good, as does Alpha Tauri, whereas Aston Martin and especially McLaren do not look very competitive, at least not yet. Finally the three teams at at the end of the field last year, Alfa, Haas and Williams, have all made progress, with Alfa and Haas looking to have moved into the upper part of the midfield. With Williams also clearly making progress, it’s actually McLaren who find themselves at the end of the field at he start of the new season.
We probably all remember the absolutely crazy last race of last season, where race director Michael Masi was at the center of a lot of controversy with his decisions notably on which cars would be allowed to underlap. That had consequences, and not only in making Verstappen the 2021 world champion. Masi is gone and has actually not been replaced by a new director, but rather by a group of people who will take race-related decisions together. Not only that, a remote center in Geneva has also been created that will supervise the race from afar and be able to decide on important incidents. The F1 circus thus seems to be set on less controversy, which together with what looks like great prospects for more exciting racing than in years can only be a good thing!