More Ferrari success or a Red Bull resurgence? – 5 storylines we’re excited for ahead of the 2022 Saudi Arabian Grand Prix
Formula 1 returned with a bang in Bahrain last weekend and the exciting start continues with back-to-back races, so here’s a look at some of the talking points we think are going to be making the headlines at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit.
1. Have we seen the true pecking order?
Throughout pre-season testing, as we focus on lap times and long runs there is always a caveat added that we don’t truly know what any team is doing until we get to qualifying at the first race. Then, every car is at its absolute fastest – low fuel and full power – and we see what the raw pace is like.
But that raw pace is only specific to that first track, and the characteristics of the Bahrain International Circuit reward top speed, good traction and a car that’s strong in low-speed corners.
So the question remains whether Ferrari’s impressive start and 1-2 result is a sign of things to come for the rest of the season, or if it will prove to be one of the Scuderia’s strongest venues and Red Bull will move to the fore elsewhere. Similarly, Mercedes might fancy their chances more on smoother circuits where they can run their car lower without it being unsettled by the bumps.
Ferrari have been quick in Bahrain before while not being strong for the whole season, but this year feels like they really do have the potential to be title contenders, so Jeddah will tell us more.
2. Red Bull’s reliability issues
It was no surprise to see Ferrari and Red Bull at the sharp end in Bahrain, with Mercedes lagging a fair distance behind the top two, but what was surprising was that it was Red Bull who had the biggest reliability concerns.
There hadn’t been anything during pre-season testing that suggested Christian Horner’s team should be overly worried about the challenge presented by the first race, and the way the race weekend panned out the car looked in good shape.
Throughout the 2021 season, there were only six occasions when a Red Bull didn’t see the chequered flag, and five of those were due to crashes and incidents – the final one being when Sergio Perez retired at the end of the Abu Dhabi GP.
Yet 2022 started with a double-DNF that Red Bull believe was caused by related issues - which suggests there could be a weakness that needs addressing - while Pierre Gasly in the other Red Bull-powered car also retired. Given the tight turnaround between Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, there will be a lot of focus on whether the clearly-quick RB18 can last the distance once again without compromising on performance.
3. Are Mercedes customers in trouble?
Red Bull probably feel they have a better problem to try and overcome than the Mercedes customer teams, based on the evidence from the opening round.
While the works team managed to salvage a very solid haul of points by finishing third and fourth after the Red Bull retirements, the three teams Mercedes supply - McLaren, Aston Martin and Williams – were all languishing at the back of the field throughout the race and engaged in their own private battle.
It’s a far cry from the start of the V6-turbo era when Mercedes power dominated, and it’s certainly unexpected to see a deficit to the other power unit manufacturers, but how much is caused by the engine itself and how much is in combination with the car designs that have been adopted is another question.
Seeing as Lewis Hamilton and George Russell reached Q3 and finished in the top four, it’s clearly possible to be competitive with a Mercedes power unit, and Williams occupied a similar position to last year at the opening race. But for Aston Martin and McLaren, expectations were much higher and they will need to find a quick response.
4. Sebastian Vettel’s availability
It must be said that despite the surprising lack of pace from the Mercedes customer teams, Aston Martin did have a disrupted start to the season after Sebastian Vettel tested positive for COVID-19 on the eve of the opening race weekend.
Vettel was ruled out on Thursday morning and so Nico Hulkenberg had to head out to replace his fellow German at very short notice, only driving the car for the first time in FP1. Against that backdrop, the fact he outqualified team mate Lance Stroll was massively impressive, but Stroll came through to finish 12th and lead the Mercedes-powered pack.
If Vettel is fit to return this weekend then Aston Martin will be hoping that gives the team a better chance of getting a bit more out of the car as the four-time world champion knows it well from testing, but Hulkenberg will be staying in the region to ensure his availability if Vettel is ruled out once again.
Hulkenberg does also now have the added experience of the opening race and should be more comfortable if called upon to race for a second week in a row, so either way Aston will target a stronger showing.
5. New era vs previous era comparisons
A quirk of the 2022 calendar means we are heading to Jeddah to race for the second time in four rounds, as the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was the penultimate race of the 2021 season.
While that makes it a relatively familiar setting for the teams, the track has had a few tweaks since that opening race following feedback from the drivers. Sight lines have been improved and there’s a slight modification to the final corner, but the the rest of the actual track layout is the same.
And that means we have a great opportunity to truly compare the cars that ended the previous era and the cars that have been introduced in 2022 on the same circuit.
Usually there’s a year between events and in that time the older car will have been developed, and the new car will also have been updated. But Jeddah last year saw cars right at the end of their upgrade cycle and therefore at their best performance level, while going back for round two this season means we’re very early in the development process with the 2022 designs.
It will be fascinating to see the clear differences between the two cars in the various types of corners, as well as on overall lap time. The new cars will be slower given the changes, but still produce incredible performance.
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