PALMER: Five key questions for the final nine races of 2022
This weekend’s Belgian Grand Prix marks the return to action for Formula 1 after the summer break. And with plenty of racing still to come in this entertaining season under F1’s all-new regulations, we asked former Grand Prix driver and F1.com analyst Jolyon Palmer to take a look at five key questions that need answering in the remaining nine races of 2022…
Will Mercedes be in the fight?
While nobody outside of Mercedes ruled them out as their struggles became apparent in the early part of the season, it does now look impossible for them to mount any level of championship bid from here.
But the sights have been recalibrated at the Silver Arrows and now the objective is on winning a race or two this year rather than fighting for the title. Lewis Hamilton is only nine races away from completing his first ever winless season in Formula 1.
The team have been getting closer, gaining better knowledge of their car in the European rounds before the summer break and they will be contenders for victory again in the second phase of the year, as they were at Silverstone. Hamilton has also been getting on top of the car and his team mate George Russell more often as the season has gone on, so he could well be able to net that elusive 2022 win yet.
There’s also the impact of a new technical directive coming into force in Belgium which clamps down on flexible floors – an area Mercedes believe has been helping Red Bull and Ferrari this season so far.
Can Ferrari sort out their issues?
The summer break surely came at a good time for the Scuderia, who needed a bit of a reset after a string of sobering results. Even their wins in Silverstone and Austria were partly overshadowed by issues on the other side of the garage as they suffered from strategy miss-steps and engine blow outs – two key issues that have derailed Ferrari’s title challenge this season.
The strategy team or process surely needs a shakeup, but the worry has been that boss Mattia Binotto has never accepted Ferrari’s strategy errors, publicly at least, which makes it difficult to learn from them and avoid repeating them in the future. I’m sure though at Maranello there must have been major inquests behind closed doors.
Changes can be made to help reliability of the power unit mid season and both drivers have already had grid drops for exceeding their PU allocations. Major reliability overhauls would typically take some time to implement, though, so they are likely not in the clear yet this year.
Finally the drivers need to regain confidence in the team and themselves – something Sainz managed to do well after a tough start to the year. Maybe the summer break was the perfect tonic for Leclerc and he can approach the remaining part of the season as fresh and composed as he was in the opening rounds.
Can anyone stop Max?
Ferrari should have been the team to cause Red Bull headaches, but it hasn’t worked out that way, and Mercedes aren’t in a position to concern Red Bull either at this stage.
After Monaco there was a thought that the biggest test for Verstappen could be from his team mate, but Sergio Perez’s own challenge has faltered since his Canadian Grand Prix retirement. Whilst Verstappen is getting stronger at Red Bull this season, Perez is falling further away from the front – he’s barely been within half a second of pole since a fine Baku effort in early June.
So with an 80-point lead in the championship and only nine races to go, perhaps only Max can stop Max at this point. He’s a driver who has looked more assured this year returning as a champion, and it will take more than a monumental effort from someone else to turn this around.
They will need a couple of Max mistakes or Red Bull slip-ups to help reduce the deficit and add some pressure, or perhaps for this new technical directive to have a bigger effect on the order than anticipated.
Can Ricciardo get on top of the McLaren?
With just four points finishes to his name and exactly a quarter of team mate Lando Norris’ points tally, it’s no surprise that McLaren were evaluating their options for 2023, and the word is they’ve struck a deal with F2 champion Oscar Piastri, albeit with some contractual complexities to play out.
I rate Norris as one of the fastest drivers in the field, but for an eight-time Grand Prix winner to be beaten like this, it’s clear that something just hasn’t clicked for Ricciardo at the team. He can be a top tier Formula 1 driver in the right environment – he’s shown it throughout his career – but for whatever reason his time at McLaren has turned into a nightmare that has threatened his F1 future.
He could badly do with another Monza-style standout result to remind everyone of his capabilities at this moment and that opportunity may yet come around for him. I doubt after a year and a half whether he will ever fully get on top of the McLaren, but I do suspect that he will be better off out of it for next year anyway. And it looks like there could be a seat at Alpine that may well have his name on it if he does find himself out of time at his current team.
Who else can surprise this season?
It’s been a season so far of very few surprise results, despite a number of issues for the big teams and a huge slip back in relative performance from Mercedes. So far there has always been at least one Ferrari or Red Bull managing to survive an entire weekend unscathed to win when other dramas happen, and Mercedes’ bulletproof reliability has ensured they pick up the podium places as well.
It all means after 13 races Lando Norris is the only driver outside of the top three teams to grace the podium. He finished P3 back in Imola – a race where both Ferrari drivers crashed and Mercedes were too slow to pick up the pieces.
But the remaining races should still pose good chances for the rest of the pack. Mixed weather at Spa can create opportunities, Monza has had shock winners for the last two seasons and then there’s the return of some punishing circuits like Singapore and Suzuka.
The other thing we will see more of for the rest of the season will be reliability issues or teams taking grid penalties for replacing components as they start to reach or exceed their PU allocations, with some power hungry circuits on the horizon as well.
So far it’s been relatively fruitless in terms of standout results for the midfield, but I expect there will be some good opportunities to come their way yet.