As we move closer to the start of F1’s ‘new era’, let’s take a look at the drivers and teams who will be competing for the top honours. Last season’s finishing positions will be in brackets.
Drivers: Sir Lewis Hamilton? (2nd) and George Russell (15th)
Sir Lewis will be back to try and regain the title following the controversial events of 2021’s season finale in Abu Dhabi. There had been questions about whether Hamilton would retire, though Hamilton himself never spoke about it and virtually withdrew from the public eye until Mercedes unveiled their new car. Ability-wise Hamilton has it in him to beat Verstappen but he also knows Verstappen can beat him, so the quest for a record-breaking eighth world championship will not be an easy one. Hamilton has spoken of wanting to come back stronger – we shall see if he can.
One person who probably won’t beat Verstappen is George Russell. The young Englishman is replacing Valtteri Bottas and he remains something of an unknown, inexperienced quantity. His one prior opportunity to race a Mercedes saw him look set to comfortably beat Bottas at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix, until a tyre mix-up at a pit-stop ruined his race. However, that was but one race, without any serious pressure. Can Russell do it when it matters? Toto Wolff believes he can, and the Mercedes team principal has access to data we at home don’t, as well as having more experience in this sort of matter. Ultimately the question is whether Russell can get up to speed quickly enough to be of a benefit to the team. He had some good results with Williams in 2021 and is quick in qualifying. He will need time.
Red Bull (2nd)
Drivers: Max Verstappen (1st) and Sergio Perez (4th)
After a turbulent and sometimes torrid experience in the turbo-hybrid era, Red Bull Racing finally managed to marry their chassis to their Honda engine and produce a car capable of challenging the Silver Arrows. This led to Verstappen claiming his first ever F1 world championship and it saw Perez take only the second win of his long career. Naturally expectations will be high, but so will the confidence of both the team and the drivers. Verstappen himself now knows he can win, which will do wonders for him. If there is a niggle, it’s that Perez was at times cut adrift from Verstappen and not really in a position to act as a supporting driver. In fairness, Verstappen has had a few teammates in recent years, and none have been able to match him for pace.
All things being equal, Verstappen and Red Bull will be fighting from the front for glory once again. The unknown factor lies in the new regulations, but Red Bull have Adrian Newey, one of the best car designers in F1, and if anyone can develop a car that can exploit the new rules to the max, it will be him. For that reason I expect Red Bull to be fighting for both titles in 2022. Whether or not they can fight for the constructor’s title (something Mercedes have dominated in the turbo-hybrid era) will depend largely on what Perez can do, and whether he can get closer to the front-runners.
Drivers: Carlos Sainz Jr (5th) and Charles Leclerc (7th)
F1’s oldest and arguably most famous team bounced back from a miserable 2020 to finish third in the constructor’s championship in 2021, overcoming the challenge posed by old rivals McLaren. In a somewhat surprising situation, Carlos Sainz proved to be slightly quicker than Charles Leclerc, finishing 5.5 points ahead of his teammate. Both consistently scored points throughout the season, and Sainz continued his steady improvement. There is hope that the new car (which Ferrari have stated is a thorough redevelopment of everything) can be another step forward.
It would be great to see Ferrari scrapping for wins on merit. Their drivers are quick, and with the right machinery Leclerc in particular could be a title contender. However the team has experienced false dawns before. Their last driver’s and constructor’s titles came in 2007, and despite competitive cars in 2017 and 2018, their car development has been ropey to say the least. No wins for the last two seasons is not a great look for Ferrari, and they will be very eager to avoid a fourth year without success. It seems they are on an upward trajectory and they have the resources to match Red Bull and Mercedes, what they need to do now is make the most of the new regulations.
Drivers: Lando Norris (6th) and Daniel Ricciardo (8th)
McLaren slipped down a place in the constructor’s championship in 2021, having finished third the year before. This is despite taking a first race win (at Monza) since 2012. The team put in some good performances but strategically came unstuck at a few races – most notably not ordering Norris to pit for wet tyres as rain began to fall in Russia, a decision that cost Norris a podium and quite possibly a win.
Of their two drivers, Norris proved quicker over the course of the season, though Ricciardo won in Italy, hence why Norris ended up finishing fairly comfortably ahead of his teammate. With a whole new type of car to get used to, everything is reset and Ricciardo will be keen to demonstrate his own lauded ability. The Australian is quick, and famous for being brave on the brakes. This quality could serve him well in scenarios where he can follow other cars more closely through corners. Meanwhile, the team will hope to take advantage of the budget cap and how it will restrict the top teams’ car development, for McLaren make use of Mercedes engines, and they will want to exploit that to close the gap.
Drivers: Fernando Alonso (10th) and Esteban Ocon (11th)
Alpine had a fairly decent 2021, though they didn’t manage to build upon their 5th place (branded as Renault) in the 2020 season. The highlight would seem to be Ocon’s victory in a chaotic and damp Hungarian Grand Prix, where some brave defensive driving from Alonso held up a charging Hamilton long enough to grant Ocon the win. Despite the win, Ocon finished behind the more experienced and consistent Alonso in the standings, and Alpine collected less points than in 2020.
What can be expected of Alpine in 2022? It seems any further visits to the top-step of the podium will depend on crazy circumstances, for barring major and unlikely engine improvements, the car lacks the power to challenge the teams above them. Alonso is one of the best in the business and he has a track record of overcoming deficiencies in his cars, but even he cannot perform miracles and miracles are what Alpine need if they are to be competitive in 2022. Ocon will quietly get points but I don’t expect him to beat Alonso over the course of the season.
Drivers: Pierre Gasly (9th) and Yuki Tsunoda (14th)
Red Bull’s ‘B’ team had a mixed time of it in 2021. Gasly’s resurgent form continued, and he even picked up a podium in Azerbaijan, but it was also clear he was carrying the team, for Tsunoda was well off Gasly’s pace. Tsunoda’s best performance was 4th in Abu Dhabi, and whereas Gasly scored 110 points, Tsunoda only managed 32 points with the same car. Perhaps I am being unfair, for 2021 was Tsunoda’s first season in F1, and that’s always a bit of a learning experience.
No one expects a great deal from AlphaTauri, with the team serving as a training ground for would-be Red Bull drivers, but they share the same engine with the parent team and they have bright spark in Gasly, who has improved immeasurably since his time at Red Bull. Tsunoda will need to demonstrate he’s on an upward curve, for Red Bull are quite ruthless, and anything less than an improvement could see him replaced.
Aston Martin (7th)
Drivers: Sebastian Vettel (12th) and Lance Stroll (13th)
What a disappointing season for the team. As Racing Point in 2020 they finished 4th in the standings, so this is a pretty big dip, especially considering the effort that went into mimicking the Mercedes design. Neither Vettel or Stroll were able to shine, despite a podium for Vettel at Azerbaijan. All too often at least one of their cars would finish outside the points, and neither driver impressed.
Vettel has struck me as something of a spent force in the last few years. The four-time world champion and winner of 53 races has a lot of experience but couldn’t bring that to bear in 2021, and only narrowly beat Stroll, a driver of average ability. It could be that he’s waiting on what the 2022 regulations bring, but both Aston Martin and Vettel have a lot of work to do in order to improve on a season where they went backwards.
Stroll seems like a nice guy but he’s in F1 because his father owns the team. That’s the cold, hard reality. He’s not a talentless hack but he’s not someone who’s ever going to be super-quick, even in the best car. I’m not expecting anything exciting from this lot.
Drivers: Nicholas Latifi (17th) and Alexander Albon (NA)
Williams improved upon 2020 with some better results and even a podium (borne out of luck to a degree, at the farcical Belgium Grand Prix, but it still officially counts), but the loss of George Russell means there’s something of a void, talent-wise, and Latifi, whilst reliable, is unexciting and unlikely to win many points. He’s not aided by the struggles of the team, that sadly lost their founder, Sir Frank Williams, last year. The team came under new ownership in 2020, but much investment is needed if they are to ever get back to their dizzying heights of the 80s and 90s.
Joining Latifi is Albon, who spent last season as a test driver for Red Bull, having been demoted from the team at the end of 2020. Albon had a good season for Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri, then struggled alongside Verstappen, and now has a second chance at proving what he can do. He won’t be able to shine brightly at Williams, due to the car, but I believe he will beat Latifi, and the first rule is ‘beat your teammate’.
Alfa Romeo (9th)
Drivers: Valtteri Bottas (3rd) and Guanyu Zhou (NA)
Alfa Romeo have swapped one experienced Finn for another – Bottas needed to raise his game in 2021 and couldn’t quite manage it, so now he finds himself filling the shoes of Kimi Raikkonen, who retired at the end of 2021.
Bottas is usually quite consistent, but he’s moving to a team that struggled to make any sort of impact last year. They finished 9th in 2020 and stayed there in 2021, and they lack the punch of bigger teams around them. I’ve mentioned repeatedly that the new rules could unhinge the established order a little bit, but the fact remains that some teams are bigger and more experienced than others. Bottas could be slightly quicker than Raikkonen was at the end, but he’d got a fight on his hands.
Zhou comes in as Formula 1’s first Chinese driver, and the young man will also bring money to the team, but there were quicker drivers in Formula 2 last season, so his money seems to be the main driving force behind his arrival. That said, he finished 3rd in the F2 standings, which is hardly bad, and he won four races on his way to doing so. He also won the F3 Asian Championship in 2021. A pay driver then, but one who might offer more pace than pay drivers are normally expected to have.
Drivers: Mick Schumacher (19th) and Nikita Mazepin (21st)
The cold reality for Haas is that they had the worst car on the grid last season, and by a considerable margin. They made the decision to more or less abandon their 2021 car in favour of focusing on 2022, so anything less than an improvement will be a disaster. They scored no points, so scoring anything will be progress, but given the time they’ve spent preparing for 2022, they must expect to be beating Williams and Alfa Romeo.
In Schumacher they have a talented driver, who won F2 in 2020. Ferrari have taken him under their wing, so the chances are he will follow in his father’s footsteps at one point. At the majority of races where they both finished, Schumacher beat Mazepin, and I would very surprised if things changed in 2022. After all, there are 20 regular drivers in F1, yet Mazepin finished 21st. It takes a unique ‘talent’ to manage this, but it’s because of Robert Kubica, who stood in for Raikkonen at two races. Kubica’s results were enough to bump Mazepin down, which isn’t a flattering indicator of the latter’s ability.
I’ve joked a bit about Mazepin and his ‘glorious’ performances, but let’s get serious. He is in F1 purely for his father’s money. His actions – both on track and off it – have not been worthy of an F1 seat, yet here he is. I cannot fathom any scenario where he will become an F1 great, and my view is he is occupying a place another driver deserves. Time will tell.