For the first time since the dawn of the Mercedes era – the team has now won eight consecutive constructors’ championships – there is genuine uncertainty about how the Formula One season will unfold, with the Bahrain Grand Prix on Sunday kicking off the new campaign.
A raft of new regulations, the biggest change in the sport since 1983, has prompted every team to drastically redesign its car, while Mercedes was beaten in the drivers’ championship last year for the first time since 2014.
Last season’s dramatic conclusion in Abu Dhabi saw Red Bull’s Max Verstappen win his first world championship, pipping seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton in the final lap.
Russia in isolation
In near unison with the rest of the sporting world, F1 moved to sanction Russia following its invasion of Ukraine. The sport’s governing body announced that the Russian Grand Prix, originally scheduled for September 23-25, could not be held “in the current circumstances.”
Shortly afterward, it terminated its contract with the Russian Grand Prix promoter, “meaning Russia will not have a race in the future,” read an F1 statement.
The Russian Grand Prix had been due to move from Sochi to the newly renovated Igora Drive circuit in St. Petersburg in 2023.
Haas, meanwhile, terminated the contract of its Russian driver Nikita Mazepin as well as its title sponsor Uralkali, a Russian fertilizer producer part owned by Mazepin’s oligarch father, Dmitry.
Lewis Hamilton vs. Max Verstappen
Hamilton and Verstappen’s rivalry shaped F1 in 2021, a season widely acclaimed as one of the greatest ever due to their extraordinarily close title fight.
In recent years, Verstappen has emerged as the only driver capable of challenging Hamilton’s dominance, and their rivalry will define the contours of this season too.
During their season-long duel in 2021, they crashed into each other three times – at Silverstone, Monza and Saudi Arabia.
The denouement was even more dramatic. Arriving at the final Grand Prix of the season, the two drivers were level in the race for the world championship.
Verstappen secured pole position in qualifying, but Hamilton overtook him as they rounded the first corner and held a commanding lead for much of the race.
It seemed the title was decided until a late safety car effectively restarted the race with Verstappen just behind Hamilton on newer, faster tires. Verstappen overtook Hamilton and won his first world championship.
The fallout of the controversy still lingers. At 37, Hamilton is approaching the end of his career and will not have many more opportunities to claim the outright record of world championship wins.
He currently sits on seven, level with Michael Schumacher, but his motivation does not seem diminished by the controversy in Abu Dhabi.
“I would say so,” Hamilton replied when asked if he was a more dangerous driver than before, in a video uploaded onto Mercedes’ Twitter page.
Verstappen is at the opposite end of his career and has long been billed as a potential multiple world champion. Last season, the Dutchman’s consistency was remarkable as he finished first or second in every race he completed without damage to his car.
He is the focal point of the Red Bull team, with whom he will remain until at least 2028.
The traditional merry-go-round of drivers swapping seats ended rather late this year as teams sought to fine-tune their rosters ahead of the 2022 season.
Alfa Romeo will sport an all-new driver’s line up as Zhou Guanyu, the first Chinese F1 driver, joins the team – the only driver making his F1 debut this season.
Zhou joins Alfa Romeo after finishing third in Formula Two last year and serving as a test driver for both Renault and Alpine.
“To be the first ever Chinese driver in F1 is a breakthrough for Chinese motorsport history,” Zhou told F1. “I know a lot of hopes will be resting on me and, as ever, I will take this as motivation to become better and achieve more.”
Valtteri Bottas also joins Alfa Romeo, replacing the retired Kimi Raikkonen. His seat at Mercedes has been given to George Russell, after months of speculation, who in turn is replaced by Alexander Albon at Williams.
Russell’s association with Mercedes stretches back to 2017 when he joined their junior driver program.
Following Haas’ dismissal of Mazepin, Kevin Magnussen will rejoin his old team on a multi-year deal. Previously, Magnussen drove for Haas from 2017 until the end of the 2020 season.
Not since 1983 has F1 introduced such sweeping new regulations governing the designs of the cars. These new regulations aim to make overtaking easier by shifting the aerodynamic focus from the wings to underneath the car.
The car’s design will help to create downforce – crucial to the performance of F1 cars, allowing the tires to continue gripping the track at extreme speeds – by controlling the airflow around it.
However, the 2021 cars lost much of their downforce when traveling behind another car. This was due to the disrupted airflow that trails behind the lead car, a phenomenon often referred to as ‘dirty air.’ As such, it can be difficult to overtake – particularly on corners – since the driver in front has a natural advantage.
By redesigning the cars and shifting the principal site of aerodynamics to underneath the car, F1 hopes to reduce the impact of this ‘dirty air’ and facilitate overtaking. They estimate that the 2022 cars will only lose 4% of their downforce within three car lengths of the car in front and 18% within one car length.
The true effects of these new regulations will only be apparent when the racing begins on Sunday, but during testing, Pierre Gasly and Hamilton provided a preview as they, briefly, drove side-by-side along the track.
“It was interesting also to follow and just to get some data and feeling following other cars… we kind of overtook each other a couple of times, stayed close to each other – and it was definitely an improvement, so I think racing should be quite fun this year,” Gasly told F1.
What happened in testing?
Preseason testing assumed added importance this year, due to the new regulations and car designs on display.
Red Bull performed well, with their newly crowned world champion Verstappen setting the fastest time by nearly seven-tenths of a second on the final day of preseason testing in Bahrain.
Both Ferrari drivers recorded consistently quick laps in Bahrain, suggesting their car’s reliability, while Charles Leclerc set the second-fastest lap time behind Verstappen.
Mercedes, meanwhile, unveiled a drastically different car to other teams, featuring much narrower sidepod inlets: a design that could prompt challenges, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff acknowledged.
Despite this, their test runs lagged someway behind Red Bull and Ferrari. Both Russell and Hamilton downplayed their chances in Bahrain, citing the car’s continued issues with porpoising – a phenomenon that occurs when a car reaches its top speed and bounces up and down on its suspension – during testing.
“It’s definitely bouncing around a lot from within, it’s not the comfiest in all honesty,” Russell said to F1. “I don’t really care about comfort if the performance is there but at the moment the performance isn’t there.”
“We are a step behind our rivals, and we do have a lot of work to do between now and next week to understand because, in every condition, the Red Bull and the Ferrari seem a step ahead of us.”
Last year, Mercedes’ testing was also beset by issues as they completed the fewest laps of any team, but Hamilton still won the opening race in Bahrain. Similarly in 2019, Mercedes looked up to half a second off Ferrari’s pace in testing and then finished one-two in the first race of the season.
Still, they will need to improve drastically to challenge the preseason performances of both Ferrari and Red Bull, and such improvements may take a couple of races to implement.
McLaren were another team who underperformed during testing in Bahrain, plagued by braking issues.
Behind the top four teams, there was little to separate the midfield in testing, with Haas, AlphaTauri, Alpine, Aston Martin and Alfa Romeo all performing relatively well. Williams struggled on Day 2 of testing in Bahrain with a brake fire but suffered no other major setbacks.
‘Drive to Survive’
Drive to Survive has become almost synonymous with F1 in recent years; the popular documentary series on Netflix has done much to boost the sport’s popularity around the world.
According to ESPN, average viewing figures for Grands Prix in the US have increased since Drive to Survive was released, rising from about 547,000 in 2018 to 928,000 in 2021.
The dramatic, controversial conclusion of last year’s championship prompted some, including Lando Norris, to wonder if it had been manufactured for the show’s benefit.
Speaking to BBC Sport, James Gay-Rees – the show’s producer – rebuffed these criticisms.
“It’s just people under enormous pressure making decisions in the moment,” he said. “There’s no way anybody was thinking: ‘Will this play well on Netflix?’”
The show has previously been criticized for its tendency to exaggerate interpersonal rivalries and warp timelines.
Nonetheless, even if Drive to Survive does not shape the storylines throughout the season, it will shape their public perception.
How to watch
In the US, ESPN is set to show every F1 race, practice and qualifying as will F1 TV Pro, the official streaming service of F1, which costs $79.99 per year.
Practice for the opening race of the season – the Bahrain Grand Prix – begins at 8 a.m. ET on March 18, qualifying will take place on March 19 from 8 a.m. ET and the race is scheduled for March 20 at 11 a.m. ET. ESPN’s full schedule for the season is available on their website.
A full list of broadcasters worldwide is available on the F1 website.