Formula 1 2022 season preview

What a season that was:

  • an amazing late season comeback by the reigning champion against all the odds that narrowly, so narrowly, failed;
  • an aggressive, new champion who showed little respect for history or to others (“he came right up on the inside at the last moment and I had to step immediately out of the way or we would have crashed” said the reigning champion of one early season incident);
  • more press and media attention than ever creating little space for neutrality between the two title protagonists;
  • a mid season British GP that boiled over into controversy;
  • protests, allegations and insinuations about rear wings;
  • in the midst of all the title headlines, a rain affected start leading to a first win for a popular driver (and the first win for their team);
  • a high impact crash that saw a race ending with one of the title protagonists in hospital;
  • some inconsistent applications of the rules by stewards leading to accusations of bias;
  • changes in the approach to rules and appeals against those changes as the season went on;
  • a controversial final race, where tyres played a key role and with doubts over the outcome even after the race had finished.

Yep, 1976 was a heck of a season [1]. Peter Windsor said of it that “fittingly, no ending could have been more bizarre”.

Of course, 2021 wasn’t bad, either, and the same epitaph would fit.

I’ll be honest. I’m disappointed that the race director in Abu Dhabi didn’t red flag the race, pull everyone in, allow them all to fit new tyres and race to the end. Then we’d have known. As more than one Indycar driver pointed out with a side order of “and you accuse us of manufacturing tension”, that’s what would have happened in America. But this way, we’ll never know. This way, fans will always be able to make a fair case for either of the protagonists to be the better, more complete driver driving a faster car.

I think that Alain Prost would have won the 1990 championship if that first lap Suzuka crash hadn’t happened. Senna was always better handing out pressure than handling it, Prost was driving with a champion’s intense desire to make history, the Ferrari was probably the better car by that point of the season, and Senna went out of the next race with a mechanical problem. Assume Prost finished ahead at Suzuka, and won in Australia and he’s champion. Am I a deluded fan picking facts to fit my preferred version of history or is that a reasonable analysis?

That same question is what you could ask every single poster on every motorsport forum who has been suggesting that Masi didn’t follow the rules in Abu Dhabi, or that the Mercedes rear wing / engine mode in Brazil wasn’t right, or that Bottas took out Max on purpose in Hungary, or that Hamilton crashed in Baku because Ross Brawn pressed a destruct button on his remote control.

pic by Automative Rhythms, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I think Masi got it wrong and I think it got personal between him and the team bosses, which is crossing a line in any job. It would have been hard for him to continue. But real sport is messy. Sometimes we think we’d like it to be simple but it’s the unknowns and the mistakes that create the drama, the narrative, and the passion. If it was a scrupulously fair test of ability, then you wouldn’t have top ten best driver lists at the end of the season because the points table would already show it and we’d have – Alonso and Reutemann fans look away – stopped having title-deciders on tracks as poor as Abu Dhabi.

The result still matters, though. It matters a lot. It’s been a decade since we had a new champion defending their crown so we might have forgotten how this works, but Lewis hasn’t. It’s not an accident that champions tend to come back driving better after the psychologically enhancing impact of a championship win. Remember the scrappy Vettel of 2010 (Turkey, Spa) and the Vettel of 2011? Or Alonso in 2006 and Schumacher in 1995? Or even Nigel Mansell in 1993?

Frank Williams never quite worked this out but winning is a centrifugal force for drivers; championships and a stable team environment breed more championships. How many multiple champions never won back to back championships? In the entire post-1950 history of the sport it’s 6, and no-one has done this since the 1980s[2], so the stats are heavily weighted in favour of Max.

I don’t think that’s the only intriguing factor so, in time honoured [3] “10 things” tradition, here’s my list of what I’ll be watching out for this year:

1. Hit me baby one more time

Let’s get this one out of the way. Max won a championship by going to the edge and sometimes over it, and Lewis realised that he wasn’t going to be able to continue giving Max room if he was to catch him. Both Lewis and Max know that a 22 race season went down to a few points; both know that the upper hand is going to be harder to achieve this year than it was last year. Assuming that both Mercedes and Red Bull have performance levels that put them in the same grid zone it’s not if Lewis and Max come together, it’s when; and then it’s going to be whether a rotating cast of stewards has any chance of attaining more consistency than last year.

Imola has been the scene of a few early season controversies in the past, Spain likewise. They’re races 4 and 6 this year; it would be surprising if we made it through to the end of the first quarter of the season without contact. (And if you’re George Russell, you wouldn’t admit this publicly but that’s probably exactly what you’d like to see in order to sneak through and grab a win early on in your Mercedes career.)

2. Red alert

The interesting question to ask about 2022 is whether it’s going to be Mercedes vs Red Bull again. The smart money says that they shouldn’t just be looking at each other. Ferrari paid more dearly than anyone else for the COVID-inspired year’s extension of the old regulations into 2021, hobbled as it was by a power unit deficiency. It’s been a while since they were in the mix and history shows that they’ll be back at some point. Testing, albeit with all of its showboating and sandbagging, has looked good for them.

The team in red also have one of the best matched driver pairings on the grid. When Ferrari went for Leclerc they hadn’t gambled on someone that inexperienced since Villeneuve. That this turns out not to be a not inappropriate comparison suggests that Leclerc might be the driver with the speed to break the Max and Lewis stranglehold. Meanwhile, Carlos Sainz has the experience of having gone toe to toe with Max in close quarters over a season in his back pocket, and that’s going to make for a fascinating battle when they end up disputing the same piece of tarmac.

Jen Ross, CC BY 2.0, via Wikimedia Commons

3. First time winners

Ocon, Gasly, Perez and Leclerc have seen to it that it’s been five years since we had a season without the feel good experience of a first time winner, even if the first three of these won as a result of circumstances and speed. At Sochi last year Norris, Sainz and Russell qualified in the top three grid positions. Mystifyingly, none of those three have yet picked up a win. They’ve all got close, they all look more more than ready as drivers and – critically – they all seem to be in possession of the equipment necessary to win.

Pick one from three if you want to predict the next first time winner, but I’m not sure I’d bet against all three finding the top of the rostrum in 2022. If there’s an alternative to a post-Lewis period of Verstappen dominance with Leclerc trying to get in edgeways, then this trio is where it’s going to come from.

4. Best of British

At some point in the next few years, Sir Lewis will walk away and there will be a new leading British F1 driver. Traditionally, we have a gap between these. (If you were an F1 fan in the pre-Lewis era, you’ll remember struggling to find a Brit with a chance of winning to support on a Sunday. Watching David Coulthard drag a Red Bull team from the wrong end of the grid and into respectability whilst hoping that BAR/Honda would eventually sort out a car for Jenson was as good as it got for a while.)

We don’t know who will take over from Lewis as leading Brit: not because of a lack of options but because we have so many. In 2018, the top three of the F2 championship was: George Russell, Lando Norris and Alex Albon. All were British (or part-British in Albon’s case), and all ascended to F1 seats. I doubt we’ll see a British graduating class like this in a single year again.

As the winner of F2 that year and picked for development by Mercedes, Russell always looked to be destined for great things but it’s Norris who has seized the initiative in the intervening years. 2022 might be the year where we find out which one of them is going to be Silverstone’s chosen in 2027. Russell finally has his big chance in a car worthy of his talent, but he needs to manage the psychological scenario of being team-mate to a seven time world champion and show that Mr Saturday can graduate to Mr Sunday. Norris, meanwhile, simply has to maintain momentum, but that’s not going to be as easy as it sounds when his inherent advantage over his team mate in understanding the McLaren car philosophy is ebbing away a race at a time.

5. Will the Tsunoda Tsunami last the season?

The brutal Drive to Survive episode and “Franz Tost was in better shape than me” media interviews with Yuki Tsunoda are, on the surface of it, amusing. I could make some decent jokes about laundry and gyms here but I don’t think it’s all that funny when you stop and realise a career is on the line. However I try I can’t understand why the team is allowing the current scenario to happen. Alpha Tauri are not fools, they have careful comms management around everything else that goes on, and allowing a driver born in this century to speak to the media in a second language like this is only ever going to end badly. I’d say that Yuki needs to find Nikita’s media team and offer them a job, but it’s probably already too late for that.

My assumption is that Tsunoda’s presence in the team is not unconnected to the Honda (or Honda inspired) engines that power the Red Bull stable. My assumption is also that, in allowing a media open season on Yuki, the team have either run out of patience or think that the press will serve as motivation.

Yuki clearly has talent and Japan deserves a winning F1 driver more than any other nation. We’ve been here before, though. Bringing drivers into F1 too quickly and without the right support can end a promising career faster than any other, and Red Bull have done this far too often. Either there’s a couple of big results early on or – most likely – Yuki starts to feel the pressure, his form dips; he doesn’t see out the season and gets relegated to some sort of development role [4]. It’s not even like there are no alternatives: Red Bull currently have five Red Bull junior drivers in F2, including the Japanese F3 and F4 winner Ayumu Iwasa.

6. The Red Bull reject bin

Christian Horner and Adrian Newey’s determined attempt to cosplay the 70s editions of Bernie Ecclestone and Colin Chapman shows no signs of letting up any time soon. Along with Sergio Perez’s much lauded display of team loyalty in Abu Dhabi this presents a dilemma for the two previous audition candidates for the best supporting actor, I’m sorry, I mean the “Australian” seat at Red Bull: Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon.

You’ve come into a good F1 seat, showed some pace and had some opportunities, but you’ve come up against a talent defined as the future of the entire team who has their feet well and truly under the table… and you’ve bounced off them. You’ve been privately then publicly criticised by the team, your confidence has dropped, you’ve had some bad luck; then suddenly you’ve been lapped by your team mate, written off by the media, dropped by the team and found yourself staring at the end of your F1 career before you’d even thought it had begun.

How do you come back from that? It seems as though the short-term goal is “do well and establish yourself at your new team”. Pierre is a couple of years ahead of Alex here and he’s delivered on this one, even before scooping that win at Monza in 2020. The problem is: what’s next? How can you sort out those persistent rumours of poor race management when you’re mid-grid and you have the biggest qualifying gap over your team-mate of anyone apart from the comical gap that Mick Schumacher had over Nikita Mazepin? What team can you hope to move to? Piastri will be next in at Alpine whenever Alonso decides to move on, and the limited number of teams on the grid means that unless Vettel walks away, there are no other options for Gasly.

Albon had the biggest rags to riches to rags story of anyone in recent F1: going from a Formula E seat to Toro Rosso to replace Gasly at Red Bull in the space of 13 races, followed by a season at Red Bull, after which he was dropped. This year at Williams he will be deemed to have failed if he doesn’t beat his team mate and he will be deemed to have failed if he does beat his team mate. A couple of decent points results when others fail to finish and still being there in 2023 is probably the best possible outcome for him.

It’s difficult to see much more than survival on the horizon for either of them. At some point mid season, someone will write an article recommending that one, or both, of them consider a future in Le Mans Hypercar or Indycar or Formula E or [insert alternative formula here]. That would be a loss for F1.

Christopher Down, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

7. Team pipe and slippers

One of the treats served up by 2021 was the occasional chance to see Alonso, Raikkonen and Vettel slugging it out in midfield – more than 110 years and 7 world championships between them, but still happy to put it all out there if a solitary point looked up for grabs. With Raikkonen retired, a business never long on sentiment is going to be quickly asking a lot of questions about Alonso and Vettel if it looks like there’s any dimming of talent.

Yet this ignores the fact that Alonso and Vettel led the overtaking league for last season en route to outscoring their respective team mates (in Alonso’s case, even when including a quiet few early season races as he re-acclimatised to Formula 1). No-one who saw his performance at the sprint races, his canny delaying of Hamilton to allow his team mate to win at Hungary, or being the first driver to work out the best line through the Zandvoort banking can question Fernando’s commitment.

Vettel was quieter, but he was handicapped with a car that had lost a huge amount of performance due to the penalties on the low-rake concept and then had no development from round 7 onwards. The angst in his voice after the delay in a pitstop cost him a chance of victory in Hungary, a podium at Baku and a smart 5th at Monaco: those are not the signs of a man going gently into the racing twilight, even before you take into account the team feedback on his levels of commitment to improving their approach. Of all those on the grid at the moment, you suspect Vettel would make the best team principal.

Too often in the past, poor safety standards have ensured that champions don’t stick around and risk their lives to race on in F1 past their mid-30s. [5] Both Vettel and Alonso seem to be finding new motivation. Let’s enjoy it while we can.

8. A Haas-ty retreat?

The departure of the Mazepins and Uralkali from F1 was about as blunt a reminder that money doesn’t buy class, competitiveness or sportsmanship as the sport has received since the Andrea Moda team. Following on from the Rich Energy sponsorship debacle, it’s tarnished the image of the Haas team. After a couple of seasons where staying on the grid [6] seemed the extent of their ambitions, the assumption of most was that owner Gene Haas would be happy to sell up to the highest bidder and move on.

And then two things happened. Firstly, the Andretti bid to run a new team in F1 pops up and says that Gene Haas has turned down several bids from them to buy the team. Secondly, the team re-hires Kevin Magnussen to replace Nikita Mazepin. That’s a move that gives the team an established driver for Mick Schumacher to measure himself against, but it’s also a move that suggests that budget wasn’t an issue: there are drivers out there who could come with a nice bit of sponsorship but Kevin isn’t one of them.

What’s going on? Is Gene Haas playing a clever game to maximise the value of the team before finally selling to the Andrettis, or was 2020/2021 a blip whilst they prepared a new car that will return them to competitiveness for 2022? The Ferrari technology that they’re running is likely to be far more competitive this year, so it’s not out of the question for them to return to the nimble team that debuted in 2016 and showed up several established teams (Williams, I’m looking at you) in the way it re-used technology from other teams.

We’re still not sure what the identity of Haas is. The Mazepin Exodus has forced the issue: this season will establish whether they are they going to make some money and prop up the end of the grid, or whether they are going to rediscover some competitive instinct, get themselves in the midfield mix and beat Alfa Romeo to the role of the true Ferrari B team.

9. Motorsport manager

Having steered Team Silverstone [7] through some tricky times Otmar Szafnauer reacted to Laurence Stroll’s appointment of former McLaren boss Martin Whitmarsh above him by leaving and taking up a role in Alpine’s restructured management. He’s been replaced at Aston Martin by ex-BMW man Mike Krack.

According to some reports, the change in regulations that affected the low-rake cars based on the Mercedes concept lost Aston Martin as much as two seconds a lap. That was not the performance that Laurence Stroll was looking for from a team that had won a race with Perez in 2020 and then hired a four time world champion to replace him. Alpine, meanwhile, licked its wounds after Danny Ricciardo had left them for a customer team, and occasionally flickered whilst looking like another entry in F1’s long list of teams shackled to manufacturer bureaucracies that find it hard to react quickly to change.

If anyone can harness the potential of Alpine, Szafnauer would appear to be a good bet. The expansion of Aston Martin into a heavyweight team with an increased number of staff and resources for the first time is a riskier bet, and Whitmarsh certainly had his share of criticism for his involvement in the structure that gave birth to the McLaren Honda debacle.

There is pressure on both teams to improve after a poor 2021. The difference between other teams and Alpine and Aston Martin is that it appears the pressure to improve is aimed squarely at the people behind the cars, and not the multiple world champions driving them. What goes on in the pits is never as obvious as what happens on the track, but it’s every bit as important.

10. The Finnish line

For a tiny country, Finland has long boxed well above its weight in F1. After Keke Rosberg became their first race winner and then first champion, he moved on to act as manager to JJ Lehto, Mika Hakkinen and son Nico [8]. Mika Salo and Kimi Raikkonen were later joined by Heikki Kovalainen and Valtteri Bottas. Between those eight, there’s five championships and a decent number of wins. If you award Salo the moral win that he moved over and donated to Irvine’s championship push, then it’s only Lehto who failed to win a race. (And the only other Finnish driver ever to appear in a F1 race was Leo Kinnunen’s appearance in the Swedish GP in 1974.)

After having at least one national representative on the grid since the late 80’s, it looks like Valtteri Bottas may become the end of the line. He’s had more than a few disagreements with Kimi Raikkonen over the years, but has now ended up replacing him at Alfa Romeo. He becomes the only Finnish driver in F1 at the age of 32, with no obvious national replacements on the horizon. Finns will be hoping that moving from the front of the grid to a team at the back that appeared to be its own worst enemy at points in 2021 allows Valtteri the chance to assert himself as team leader and set himself for the next phase of his career.

[1] I think a book comparing the 2021 and 1976 seasons in detail would be a great out-in-time-for-Christmas-2022 option and I’d like to point out to any publishers reading this that I could do a great job on it 🙂

[2] For the sake of the pub quiz question, the six drivers who have won more than one driver’s championship but never won back to back championships are: Graham Hill (1962, 1968), Jim Clark (1963, 1965), Jackie Stewart (69, 71, 73), Emerson Fittipaldi (72, 74), Niki Lauda (75, 77, 84), Nelson Piquet (81, 83, 87). You could, of course, make a case for factors outside their control intervening in several of these cases to prevent them winning back to back titles – Notably Clark in 62 and 64 and Lauda in 76.

[3] I didn’t do a 2021 season preview, but 2021 was 2020 part 2, really.

[4] If he follows Takuma Sato’s career trajectory, we can look forward to Indy 500 wins for Yuki in 2040 and 2043.

[5] Yes, that’s a generalisation and there are a few exceptions – Fangio, Brabham, Graham Hill, Mansell – amongst the great. But think of the races we could have had: Jackie Stewart vs Gilles Villeneuve, Fittipaldi vs Piquet, Hunt vs Mansell, Prost vs Amon.

[6] One of the reasons I’d like to see more teams in F1 is that the threat of being outqualified and not on the grid would stop the sort of treading water exercise we saw from Haas in 2020/21, where it simply recycled the previous year’s car, accepted that it was slower and waited for next season. If there was a chance that they weren’t going to make the race, that would never have happened.

[7] Common term for the team that started as Jordan, then went through Midland, Spyker, Force India, and Racing Point identities before most recently ending up as Aston Martin.

[8] Nico has dual Finnish and German nationality, and raced under the German flag.

Header Image: Lukas Raich, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

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