A new era dawns as the F1 drivers prepare for the 2022 season to get under way in Bahrain
We’ve been building up to it for years, but the wait is finally over. Formula 1’s new era, complete with revolutionary sleek new cars, is here and with it comes an unpredictability that could make the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix weekend utterly absorbing.
F1’s technical regulations have been overhauled for this year in a bid to allow the cars to follow more closely, particularly through corners, which in turn should improve the quality of racing.
The early signs are positive, with drivers giving chase to their rivals in pre-season running and finding that it was easier to stay within one second without suffering understeer. How easy it’ll be when we enter racing conditions remains to be seen – but we’ll get our first genuine read of the reality when the lights go out on Sunday.
Qualifying will give us a hint of the pecking order, something that has been even harder to predict after testing this year. Red Bull appear to be the ones to beat. Ferrari are just off in second and Mercedes third, with silver-shod Lewis Hamilton and George Russell looking disheartened by their W13’s form in Bahrain.
But we’ve seen time and time again that testing form doesn’t always translate to race pace. Mercedes are masters in turning a low-key testing performance into a victory-contending one come race one of the year.
Ferrari’s form is intriguing. They had close to the perfect pre-season, and while it might be expecting too much to think they will have leapt up to be title contenders, there’s a quiet confidence inside Maranello that they are much closer to the front and in contention for regular podiums and on occasion race wins.
The rest of the pack is too tricky to call.
There are question marks over McLaren’s reliability, after they finished bottom of the mileage charts last week with a front axle issue forcing them to spend too much time up on stands in the garage. If they can sort that out, they look quick.
Alpine looked all at sea early in pre-season, but pulled it back in the final two days and appear to have hauled themselves into the midfield.
AlphaTauri look pretty handy, Alfa Romeo look quick but fragile, while the Haas VF-22 is refined but hasn’t got enough miles on the clock for the team to be confident about their pace. Aston Martin went under the radar and are too tricky to read, while Williams look reasonable but unspectacular.
Plenty to talk about then, as the F1 family rolled back through the Bahrain paddock gates on Thursday, some having flown back home after testing – Yuki Tsunoda was back in the UK on the simulator, for example – while others have stayed out in between.
They would have been hoping for warmer conditions, though. Strong winds have been battering Bahrain in recent days – and they continued into Thursday, with jumpers and jackets needed, so chilling was the breeze. The forecast suggests conditions will improve as the weekend goes on, which will be a relief to the drivers – as such a strong breeze, and one which is frequently changing direction, would make things difficult.
Traditionally, Thursday is media day – but it’s all change for 2022. Drivers can arrive at the track knowing that they won’t spend much – if any – time in front of a microphone, with most of those duties shifting to Friday morning ahead of the weekend’s first practice session.
That led to a more relaxed feel, with drivers easing themselves into the weekend with a track walk and some engineering meetings. Aside from the chatter about who looked good and who looked to be struggling, the thrill of the prospect of a renewed battle between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen was high up on the agenda.
Hamilton went off-radar for much of the winter before breaking his silence with some pretty punchy chatter, saying we’ve not seen the best of him yet. Verstappen, meanwhile, appears to have grown even more confident, the Dutchman evidently glowing from the buzz of having the number one on his car after winning his maiden title.
Verstappen is certainly the happier of the two after pre-season running, but there was a perceived gap between them last year heading to race one, and it was Hamilton who turned the tables to take a shock win – making it five years in a row that the driver who won the first race of the season failed to go on to win the title.
There were happier times at McLaren as Daniel Ricciardo was back in the paddock, having spent his second extended stay in a hotel room in four months (the first was when he quarantined on returning home to Australia for the first time in two years) after he tested positive for Covid-19.
The Australian’s trademark smile was plastered across his face, as he felt significantly better and was raring to go. Time will tell whether missing the whole Official Pre-Season Test will hamper his chances of hitting the ground running this weekend, though.
Ferrari look clear of McLaren in terms of performance, with many feeling Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc could be regularly nipping at the heels of Mercedes and Red Bull.
Sainz edged the upper hand last season, finishing a career-best fifth in the drivers’ standings. It’ll be interesting to see how Leclerc responds this year. Both are happy with where the car is, with the power unit looking particularly impressive – but they’re understandably not getting carried away.
There was frustration at Aston Martin, though, with news that Sebastian Vettel is out of this weekend’s race after returning a positive Covid-19 test. Their reserve Nico Hulkenberg is flying over today and will be ready to go for first practice on Friday. It’s not ideal preparation – and he hasn’t yet driven 2022 machinery – but he’s well-versed in his role as super sub, having done so for Racing Point three times in 2020.