Formula 1 returns to action at the Belgian Grand Prix (August 27-29) after a four-week summer break for the first of nine events in just 13 weeks that will close out the 2022 season.
Autoweek breaks down some of the key questions for the remainder of the season.
When Will Verstappen Wrap It Up?
They can’t all be classics. Last year’s title battle wasn’t decided until the last lap of the last race (and even then, it rumbled on for a while).
This year’s championship chase is surely a case of when, not if, given the strength of Max Verstappen and Red Bull, and Ferrari’s propensity to self-combust—a character trait that shows little sign of suddenly ceasing.
Verstappen is 80 points clear of a fading Charles Leclerc. In F1, that translate to pretty much a three-event lead, with nine to play. Due to Sprint and fastest-lap points, here’s the advantage needed to wrap it up after the following Grands Prix. Brazil: 26 points, Mexico: 60 points, Austin: 86 points, Japan: 112 points. Perhaps Ferrari will defy recent convention and strike back, take it to Abu Dhabi, and set up another tantalizing showdown. But that’s unlikely.
Verstappen isn’t going to chuck it away. And at least this one won’t have an asterisk next to it.
Autoweek Prediction: Get the champagne ready for either Austin or Mexico—they were the scene of Lewis Hamilton’s runaway triumphs in 2017-19.
Can Mercedes, Hamilton, Continue Streak?
Never before has Lewis Hamilton returned from Formula 1’s summer break still winless in a season.
His record of taking a victory in each of his F1 seasons dating back to his rookie year in 2007 has looked in danger ever since the early Grands Prix revealed deep weaknesses within Mercedes’ W13, while Hamilton was off the pace as he took on the bulk of experimental set-up work.
However, the pre-recess races provided optimism for the Mercedes camp. Hamilton claimed three straight thirds and a pair of seconds, and on two occasions—Britain and Hungary—could have won if the cards had fallen slightly differently. The Safety Car in Britain thwarted a potential race-winning strategy while in Hungary he started only seventh after a DRS issue in a session brilliantly topped by team-mate George Russell. The younger Briton backed up Hamilton in race trim in France and Hungary to give Mercedes successive double podium results.
There’s even the prospect of Mercedes reeling in Ferrari for second place in the Constructors’ Championship; the gap is only 30 points.
Autoweek’s Prediction: Given recent form Mercedes will surely be in contention at more grands prix across the final nine events. Hamilton should pick up one win from that run.
How Will the Alpine/McLaren Battle Play Out?
Alpine and McLaren entered the summer hiatus split by four points in their pursuit of fourth in the championship.
Both teams hold long-term title aspirations but neither have made the leap forward to suggest that is realistic just yet, with Alpine seemingly stuck in a forever hinterland and McLaren regressing from a peaky 2021 campaign. They remain separated by only four points but now there is an intriguing potential for needle both between the two teams and within the separate camps, following the situation surrounding Oscar Piastri.
McLaren and Daniel Ricciardo are surely headed for an expensive divorce while Fernando Alonso and Alpine both know the next nine races are a swansong and ‘El Plan’ will never be realized. As the teams continue to develop, and make plans for 2023, departing drivers will not be part of those discussions.
Autoweek’s Predictions: Drivers and teams are professional, though the initial atmosphere may be a little tense. Alpine has a faster car, and two drivers scoring regularly, so should inch further clear.
Can Haas Make a Leap with Big Upgrade?
Haas was still able to score points with its launch-spec car well into the season. It held off on updates, choosing to bring one big upgrade, rather than little and often per most rivals. That came in Hungary, for Kevin Magnussen, with the VF-22 strikingly comparable to Ferrari’s F1-75.
That’s no surprise, as team principal Guenther Steiner openly admitted that Ferrari’s car acted as inspiration, simplified by running the same PU/gearbox etc.
Hungary was all about understanding, learning and gathering data, which will be useful for the rest of 2022 and beyond. Mick Schumacher should get the car too from Belgium, with its performance, and Haas’ utilization of the package, crucial if it is to retain seventh in the standings—or maybe reel in the ailing Alfa Romeo for sixth.
Autoweek’s Prediction: Understanding, and then exploiting, the upgrade package is a big test for Haas given its struggles in 2019—when it last truly brought updates to a Formula 1 car. For that reason, resisting AlphaTauri should be its main ambition.
Can Retiring Vettel Get One Last Shining Moment?
The second half of the season will be a farewell tour for Sebastian Vettel, who will bow out after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The four-time World Champion has scored 53 victories and 122 podiums but has had to settle for diminishing returns in recent years amid Aston Martin’s struggles. This year Aston Martin is only ninth in the standings, with Vettel’s best result an excellent sixth in Azerbaijan, but its AMR22 has shown more promise in recent races.
The primary weakness has been the car’s lack of one-lap speed, leaving Vettel and Aston Martin facing too steep a recovery in race trim, and unable to exploit the performance it believes is in the car. Vettel raced from 18th to ninth in Britain and from 18th to 10th 18th Hungary; qualify higher up the grid and that will make Sunday significantly smoother.
Autoweek’s Prediction: Unlikely. However, in a crazy race anything could happen. Singapore and Japan have often been happy hunting grounds for Vettel, so keep an eye out for him there in terms of pure performance, though we’re talking a haul of points not podiums.