F1's 2022 Season Is More Than Max and Lewis
Last year, Formula 1 wrapped up its initial turbo hybrid V-6 era with an all-out season between the two best drivers and teams on the grid. They fought to a stalemate, with Mercedes winning the constructor's title while Red Bull's Max Verstappen took a driver's title off Lewis Hamilton after a controversial officiating decision. That was then. Following a complete reset of F1's downforce paradigm, 2022 is a whole new era entirely.
Seven-time series champion Lewis Hamilton remains the title favorite, but Mercedes seems to have lost its dominant form in testing. Both Hamilton and new teammate George Russell have been down on their car in the press, with Russell going as far as to call it closer to Alfa Romeo's pace than that of the presumed leaders. Radical new sidepods introduced in testing last weekend have done little to reduce "porpoising," a bouncing effect caused by floor downforce elements repeatedly stalling out and reactivating at speed; that leaves what the Mercedes struggling for straight-line speed, something it's done best since the V-6 hybrid powertrains debuted. Reading too far into a driver's concerns about speed can be misleading (Hamilton complains about the car ahead of every championship season), but Mercedes certainly is not where they expected to be.
Red Bull is much closer to their offseason expectation. Their new-for-2022 RB18 does not look like the world-beater it was in the first half of 2021, but it seems competitive with the other leaders and, in hands as capable as Verstappen's, ready to start winning races immediately. Unfortunately for Red Bull, Mercedes are not their only competition. A different competitive landscape has put them in the middle of what might develop into a deep group at the front of the field.
After two tests and a day of practice sessions, the buzz around the F1 world is that Ferrari may have built something special. Their new car, called the F1-75 because Ferrari seems to sincerely believe that keeping the same naming format two years in a row will damage their operation, is one of the best-looking cars on the grid. It also seems to be one of the fastest. Drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr. have been fixtures near the top of testing and practice sessions long enough that there is some real hope one of the two could open the season with a pole tomorrow. For a team that has yet to win a race in the 2020s, it is a potentially massive leap forward.
McLaren, too, seemed to be onto something special in the first preseason test at Barcelona. In the second at Bahrain, that speed seemed to be gone. That trend continues through one day of practice for the race, but their platform may be promising enough to develop a winner in-season. Like McLaren, all of Alpine, Aston Martin, and AlphaTauri have been race winners from the mid-pack group over the past two seasons. Each manufacturer seems to have a promising chassis and lead driver of their own, although Aston Martin leader Sebastian Vettel is sidelined by COVID-19 this weekend. Even Haas, a team that more or less abandoned the 2021 season in progress to focus development on its 2022 car, seems to have improved pace greatly this year: Their Kevin Magnussen led the scoreboards after a day of testing last week.
All of this is still theoretical, but the time for theory is quickly coming to an end. The first F1 qualifying session of the season, the first session that matters, is tomorrow morning. The Bahrain Grand Prix then opens the season at 11:00 a.m. ET on Sunday. In the U.S., you can catch that race on ESPN.
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