Formula 1 world champion Max Verstappen has the number one on his car and the Red Bull driver intends to live up to the billing when he starts his title defence in Bahrain on Sunday as the early favourite for victory.
The Dutchman, who clinched his first title at a controversial Abu Dhabi Grand Prix last December, was fastest in pre-season testing last week at the same Sakhir circuit that hosts the floodlit opener.
Verstappen will want also to do better than 2021 in Bahrain when he started on pole position but finished second after being forced to give up the lead to Mercedes rival Lewis Hamilton for going off track to overtake.
“I’m very excited to turn our attention to racing now; it’s a whole new era for the sport and anything can happen,” said the 24-year-old.
“The car looks good and as a team we are in a good place.”
Formula 1 has undergone its most radical rules overhaul in decades with new-look cars designed to create better racing and several teams eyeing an opportunity to upset the established order.
Ferrari in particular seem set to end a winless streak dating back to the 2019 Singapore Grand Prix, but drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz have been keen to play down their car’s potential.
“I feel we are still a bit behind Red Bull,” said Leclerc.
“I don’t think we are speaking about a (gap of a) second like last year or even more the year before, so I feel it is going to be closer for sure and this is already a good sign.”
Mercedes, who are tied with Ferrari as the most successful team at Sakhir, having won there six times, are chasing a fourth consecutive win at the venue.
However, the team, beaten in Bahrain only twice since 2014, struggled to get their car dialled into the track’s layout during testing, suffering more than others with bouncing on the straight.
Hunting for a ninth consecutive constructors’ crown, and with Hamilton now alongside youngster George Russell as the sport’s most successful driver, chasing the eighth title he felt robbed of in 2021, Mercedes cannot be written off.
“It’s a clean slate for everyone and all to play for,” said team boss Toto Wolff. “I’m excited to see what the weekend has in store.”
The season-opening weekend will also see the return of experienced Dane Kevin Magnussen at Haas as a replacement for sacked Russian Nikita Mazepin.
Nico Hulkenberg stands in for Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin after the four-time champion tested positive for Covid-19.
Rookie Guanyu Zhou, meanwhile, becomes the first Chinese driver to race in Formula 1 when he lines up on the grid for Alfa Romeo.
Formula 1 chief executive Stefano Domenicali said the controversial end to the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix had not eroded the trust of the sport’s fans as it prepares to embark on a new era at this weekend’s season opener in Bahrain.
Verstappen clinched his first title at the Yas Marina season finale after race director Michael Masi altered safety car procedures to move only the lapped cars between the Dutchman and race-leading Mercedes rival Hamilton out of the way.
That allowed Verstappen’s Red Bull, on fresher tyres, to pass Hamilton for the win, leaving the Briton feeling robbed of an unprecedented eighth world title and sparking a backlash from fans.
“I think that, to be honest, the trust is already there,” Domenicali told Sky Sports F1 pundit and former racer Martin Brundle at Bahrain’s Sakhir circuit.
“We had last week a meeting with all the promoters and all the broadcasters and all the partners. Almost all the places we are going to are sold out. That means that Formula 1 does not have a problem,” the Italian added.
Formula 1’s governing FIA has replaced Masi with two new race directors, Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas, who will alternate in the role. FIA stalwart Herbie Blash is returning as a permanent senior adviser to them.
The governing body has also changed the wording of safety car rules and is setting up a virtual race control room away from the track, inspired by football’s VAR, to aid the race directors.
A revised edition of the 2022 sporting regulations states that “all”, rather than the more ambiguous “any”, lapped cars must unlap themselves before a restart. Masi had allowed the race to resume after only the lapped cars between Verstappen and Hamilton, then leading, had unlapped themselves.
That allowed enough time for one last lap of racing, with the Dutchman on fresh tyres and able to overtake his title rival.
Domenicali, a former Ferrari team principal, said it was important to create infrastructure to support the race directors but decisions shouldn’t be made by committee.
“Race direction has to be an entity organised in the proper way. But the race director is a person who has to make the right decision,” he said. “And he can make the right decision if he is well supported, if he has all the tools that are available for him to make this judgement.”
He said a decision about whether to publish a report on the Abu Dhabi investigation, set to be presented before the FIA’s World Motor Sport Council on Saturday, was up to the body.
“That is the aim, to have let’s say a step forward, to move forward from Abu Dhabi,” he said.
The 2022 cars are heavier and have bigger wheels than before. They look very different to the 2021 models thanks to an overhaul aimed at making overtaking easier and the racing more competitive and exciting.
There is plenty of debate already about the spirit of the rules, to what extent the changes will be successful, how teams have read them and whether some have pushed boundaries too far.
“This is by far the biggest change in regulation I think the sport has ever seen,” commented Aston Martin technical head Andrew Green. “My career goes back to 1991 and it trumps anything from 1991. I think it trumps everything as far as F1 is concerned.
“It’s a completely new concept, a completely different way of approaching a regulation. It’s been a massive challenge. It’s been exciting for sure.”
Formula 1’s managing director for motorsport, Ross Brawn, another veteran whose career dates back to the 1970s and who has run teams and also served as a Ferrari technical director, hailed a real break with the past.
He said the aim was to get a closer competition going for the future while still leaving it a meritocracy.
“I think there’ll be a bit of disparity at the beginning but I’m confident these rules and this regime and this culture will lead to much better racing.”
The most obvious changes are the increase in wheel size from 13 inches (33cm) to 18 inches, with low-profile Pirelli tyres, and new-look front and rear wings designed to reduce the aerodynamic turbulence for cars following behind.
There are fairings on the front wheels and radically different interpretations of the sidepods, which are almost non-existent in the case of champions Mercedes, while the floors generate more ground-effect downforce.
“We may see that we don’t quite hit a bullseye in terms of following (cars), but we’ll still be so massively ahead of where we were, because the (old) cars were dreadful,” said Brawn. “We’ll still be a long way ahead of where the old cars are and then we’ll evolve it.”
The race weekend has also been condensed, with media activities moved to Friday from Thursday and more points for the three Saturday sprints to be held in Imola, Austria and Brazil.
Each team will also have to run young drivers in two Friday practice sessions over the course of the season.
The budget cap, now reduced to $140-million, has introduced another strategic element.
“You have to decide extremely carefully where you invest your dollars in R&D. In the past it was a little bit easier because you could follow various avenues in chasing performance,” said Mercedes boss Wolff.
“Today you have to decide which one has the highest potential and then embark on it. So it’s a totally different way of operating for the big teams.” Reuters/DM
Team-by-team guide to the 2022 Formula 1 season
44-Lewis Hamilton (Britain), 63-George Russell (Britain)
Mercedes are chasing a record-extending ninth successive constructors’ title, with Hamilton seeking to push his many records (103 wins and poles) into new territory after missing his eighth crown in a controversial end to 2021. Russell joins from Williams in place of Valtteri Bottas in an all-British line-up and hoping for a first F1 win. The W13 car has had problems with downforce on the straights but history has taught rivals to be wary of Mercedes claiming to be off the pace.
Prediction: Third at the moment but cannot be ruled out.
1-Max Verstappen (Netherlands), 11-Sergio Pérez (Mexico)
The number one replaces 33 on Verstappen’s car as the Dutch youngster starts as world champion for the first time. Red Bull set the pace in testing and looked pretty pleased with their car’s trouble-free performance. Pérez, hoping for a contract extension beyond 2022, is now well settled in and has an important team role to play.
Prediction: Early favourites, fighting for both titles.
16-Charles Leclerc (Monaco), 55-Carlos Sainz (Spain)
Ferrari have not won a race since Singapore in 2019 or a title since 2008, but long-suffering fans have plenty to be excited about, with the car looking well balanced and quick in testing and rivals pointing to them as the team to beat. Sainz is no longer a newcomer at Maranello and the partnership with Leclerc is working well.
Prediction: Race winners, top two on current form.
3-Daniel Ricciardo (Australia), 4-Lando Norris (Britain)
Another settled line-up, with the experienced Ricciardo hoping for a much better season after a difficult first year at Woking despite leading a one-two at Monza. That was McLaren’s first victory since 2012 and Norris will be hoping to add his name to the list of winners in 2022. The Mercedes-powered car is quick but was troubled by brake problems in testing while Ricciardo was sidelined by Covid-19.
Prediction: Fourth again, but looking for race wins.
14-Fernando Alonso (Spain), 31-Esteban Ocon (France)
Under new leadership, with principal Otmar Szafnauer moving from Aston Martin. Testing was mixed, troubled in Barcelona but with the car looking much more solid by the end in Bahrain. Double world champion Alonso (40) is as committed as ever in a season likely to determine his future in F1 with highly rated Australian reserve Oscar Piastri waiting in the wings.
Prediction: In danger of slipping back.
10-Pierre Gasly (France), 22-Yuki Tsunoda (Japan)
Honda have officially departed although the engine remains the same. Gasly, a race winner, is still the leader while Tsunoda should be more consistent after his rookie year. The car looked strong in testing.
Prediction: Targeting fifth, more likely to stay sixth.
5-Sebastian Vettel (Germany), 18-Lance Stroll (Canada)
Luxembourger Mike Krack has taken over from Szafnauer as team principal at a Mercedes-powered team going through big changes, with a new factory being built and staff expansion. Seventh was a disappointment in 2021 and a return to the top four is the target.
Prediction: Midfield battlers.
6-Nicholas Latifi (Canada), 23-Alex Albon (Thailand)
The former champions pulled themselves off the bottom in 2021 but the Mercedes-powered team remain something of an unknown quantity. Red Bull-backed Albon returns to the grid after a year racing in the German DTM series and with plenty of hunger. Latifi is now in his third season.
Prediction: In danger of slipping back.
77-Valtteri Bottas (Finland), 24-Guanyu Zhou (China)
Bottas, replacing retired compatriot Kimi Raikkonen, has a leadership role to play as he starts his post-Mercedes career alongside the only rookie driver on the grid, and first Chinese to start in F1. That will guarantee plenty of interest but points will still be hard to get, with reliability a concern even if the Ferrari-powered car appears fast.
Prediction: Ahead of Williams.
47-Mick Schumacher (Germany), 20-Kevin Magnussen (Denmark)
The only team not to score in 2021, Haas have made headlines already with the Russian invasion of Ukraine leading to a split from title sponsor Uralkali and Russian driver Nikita Mazepin. The return of Magnussen should raise morale as well as providing a benchmark for Schumacher in the German’s second season. The Ferrari-engined car looks a lot better than last year’s.
Prediction: Points, back in the midfield. Reuters/DM