F1 2022 season preview: New designs, new drivers but one familiar rivalry
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.