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F1 Takes a Step Into the Unknown As Hamilton and Verstappen Resume Rivalry

There’s no guarantee Formula 1 will be able to produce the same drama and excitement in 2022 that it served up in 2021. Last year, the sport reached a new height as Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen vied for the championship. With every race, there was intrigue and incident. F1 might not witness such a captivating duel between two rivals for a generation.
2022 presents a fresh start for all 10 teams and 20 drivers. F1 has introduced the biggest overhaul of technical regulations in a decade with cars now designed to overtake more frequently. There should be more wheel-to-wheel racing. These changes, originally planned for 2021, have been in the pipeline for a long time and there isn’t much certainty on how they will change the sport.

This makes 2022 difficult to predict. Testing in Bahrain has revealed a widespread ‘porpoising’ issue for a number of teams with some cars visibly bouncing, but there is a sense there could be more competition at the front of the pack with Ferrari faster at this stage of the season than they have been for a number of years.

Mercedes have voiced some concerns over the performance of their car, but the Silver Arrows (who will be racing in a silver livery again this season) have a history of ‘sandbagging’ and delivering when it really matters on race day. Nonetheless, Lewis Hamilton’s comments are cause for concern for Mercedes. “At the moment, I don’t think we will be competing for wins,” said the seven-time world champion.

Hamilton has a new teammate in the form of George Russell. Long tipped as a future world champion, the 24-year-old finally has the machinery beneath him to truly compete after three frustrating years with Williams scrapping near the back of the pack. Russell’s testing performances have suggested he will be a formidable force.

The dynamic between Hamilton and Russell will be the subject of close examination. Valtteri Bottas proved himself as the perfect teammate for Hamilton over four years, accepting his role as Mercedes’ second driver to help the team. Will Russell be willing to do the same given his own ambitions of one day becoming world champion?
Of course, Hamilton’s biggest rival remains Max Verstappen who controversially claimed his first world championship in the final race of last season. The fallout of the final few laps of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix still swirl around F1 with race director Michael Masi removed from his position as a consequence, but Verstappen is still the man to beat in 2022.
Verstappen topped the timing charts on the final day of testing in Bahrain following the application of sidepod design upgrades by Red Bull. Mercedes, on the other hand, have designed a car without any sidepods, leading to much discussion over the legality and effectiveness of the design. Toto Wolff and his mechanics have remained tight-lipped over the purpose.
Haas have caught the eye with their testing times. Indeed, the American team topped the timing sheet on day two in Bahrain with many predicting they will be more competitive than they were in 2021, when the season was merely about survival. Kevin Magnussen’s late return to the team in the place of Nikita Mazepin could also help Haas compete for points in 2022.
On the basis of testing, though, there is the most buzz about Ferrari. The Scuderia could compete for race wins in 2022 again with their car seemingly the most reliable on the grid at this stage. In Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, Ferrari also has two capable drivers both capable of delivering points on a regular basis.
McLaren struggled in Bahrain after some promising performances in Barcelona and so it’s not yet known what sort of 2022 they will experience. Their trajectory over the last few years has been an upward one, but the regression to a fourth-place finish last year suggests they might have hit a ceiling in their development.
Daniel Ricciardo certainly has more to offer than he demonstrated in his first season at McLaren, even taking into account his victory at Monza, but the Australian missed the second test in Bahrain while the car has experienced issues with overheating brakes. McLaren has some problems to solve before the first race weekend of 2022.
Alpine improved from Barcelona to Bahrain in terms of their testing performances, but they still appear to have reliability issues. Fears over the dependency of the car have been heightened by Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi who recently confirmed the manufacturer had prioritised engine performance over reliability.
Pierre Gasly will be hoping to improve on his ninth-place finish in the drivers’ championship while AlphaTauri needs Yuki Tsunoda to retain the composure he showed in the second half of the season. 2021 was a rookie year for Tsunoda, but his team now require him to deliver on a more regular basis.

Bottas has picked up a seat at Alfa Romeo following his exit from Mercedes while Alex Albon is back in F1 as Russell’s replacement at Williams. As always, though, the primary focus will be on the front of the pack, particularly in a year where there are so many unknown elements. Anything could happen.
Hamilton and Verstappen might well resume their championship battle, but they could have greater competition. Mercedes could struggle for victories, as Hamilton fears, or their innovative car design could give them an advantage over all others on the grid. Ferrari might be a force again, or this could be another false dawn for a team that hasn’t won a drivers’ or constructors’ championship since 2008.
F1 has waited a long time for 2022. There is a lot riding on the technical changes brought in for this season, but the fresh start presents all 10 teams with an opportunity. The last time F1 made such far-reaching changes, Mercedes started an era of dominance. F1 is hoping that doesn’t happen again.

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Graham Ruthven headshot
Graham is a football writer with bylines at Forbes, BBC, The Guardian, The New York Times, MARCA and more.

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