There’s every sign that the controversy will rumble on, through the paddock and across fan forums where supporters will be asking whether it’s worth turning on again for the 2022 season, with many waiting for the FIA to address concerns over the inconsistent application of penalties and regulations.
Has F1 had such an embarrassment of riches at the sharp end of the grid before?
And every fan should be hoping that they do, because what happens this year in Formula 1 should prove intriguing, not matter where your sympathies lie after last season.
So if you’re on the fence, or a resolved to turn your back on the series and your television to another channel on Sunday afternoons in 2022, this is why you might want to give grand prix racing a second chance.
This year’s new set of regulations have been written with great racing as the primary aim. This year’s cars should be able to race harder and closer — as long as the theory works.
For years, the intricate wings and aerodynamic devices on cars have been hampered by turbulent ‘dirty air’ that washes off cars ahead. It has limited their pace when following closely, preventing closely-matched cars rivals from passing.
Reducing this effect has been central to the technical regulations, which force teams to rely more on ground effect for downforce.
In 2021, cars lost around 35% of their downforce when following in the wake of another car. As per F1’s simulations of the new cars, that number has been reduced to just 4% in some instances.
Designers will still be working around the clock to find ways of gaining an advantage. But, according to F1 technical chief Pat Symonds, loophole opportunities have been painstakingly limited, with the aim of preventing another double diffuser-style situation in which some teams gain an unpredicted and sizeable pace advantage by exploiting grey areas and open interpretations of the rules.
The FIA and F1 believes that the field spread in 2022 should be smaller than it was in 2021. Speaking to Auto Motor und Sport, the FIA’s technical head of single seaters Nikolas Tombazis indicated that the deficit is expected to be around 1.5sec total from the top to the tail end of the grid, as opposed to 3sec last season.
Imagine Lewis vs Max with even greater intensity — with a warring pack of Ferraris, McLarens, Alpines and AlphaTauris behind.
Strongest top-end driver line-up in years
Has F1 had such an embarrassment of riches at the sharp end of the grid before?
All told and despite Kimi Räikkönen calling it a day, the drivers on the 2022 grid hold 14 world titles between them: seven for Lewis Hamilton, four belonging to Sebastian Vettel, two for Fernando Alonso and the latest one going to Max Verstappen.
The experience of the former three still shines through across the duration of a season and they’ve proven that age is just a number, with no sign that their abilities are diminishing.
In Verstappen you have the heir apparent now sat atop the F1 throne but in the crosshairs of his rivals. His title-winning season was incredible, finally combining his obvious speed and talent with displays of unrelenting consistency to earn him his crown.
But he’s not alone in the new wave of talent ready to fight. George Russell has completed his internship at Williams and will now go head-to-head with Hamilton. His Sakhir ’20 showing proved he’s ready for the expectations that come with racing at a top team but will he be able to fight with his new team-mate from the off?
There’s the question of ‘what happens now?’
Ferrari has arguably the strongest driver line-up in 2022. It has had its sights set on the new regulations for some time with the private power unit agreement crippling it in 2020. Charles Leclerc is ready to win and has been for some time now, but the arrival of Carlos Sainz presents a new challenge for him versus Vettel’s final year in red.
After 2021, Sainz is winning 1-0 too, adjusting brilliantly during the year and securing several podiums. Can the engineers at Maranello now deliver a car worthy of delivering such obvious potential?
Familiar foe McLaren also has plenty of talent in reserve in the forms of Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo. The latter restored the team back to the top step of the podium last year while continuing to struggle to adapt to his new team. The former is overdue a maiden win, but his talent ceiling may still not have come into view. Ricciardo will be getting a blank slate and start on equal footing with Norris, surely he will be closer to his old Red Bull form this year.
And that’s not to discount the likes of Pierre Gasly and Esteban Ocon, two of F1’s newest winners. Gasly’s qualifying performances were incredible at times in ’21 while Ocon stepped up to the challenge of Alonso at Alpine and proved to be capable.
If you are worried that the new 2022 cars and the restrictive methods in which they have been created will lead to a dull development battle then think again.
While the new formula is certainly an aerodynamically-focused one, the development of the engines will still play a part in the narrative of the season, as power unit suppliers will get their final chances to adjust and tinker with the current generation of power units.
A cost-saving agreement to freeze the specifications of all F1 power units this year will mean that there are two key homologation deadlines this year the teams will be racing against.
The first is March 1. By that date, each power unit provider must submit the specification of the internal combustion engine, turbocharger and MGU-H units as well as exhaust, fuel and oil each team will use for the next four years.
By then, the first pre-season test will have wrapped up in Barcelona and there will be just three days after that final day of the first test in which to submit the official document locking in the spec of the six aforementioned components.
99% if not the entirety of the work towards those areas of the power unit will have already wrapped up by then but that’s not the only area of development team’s will have to work with this year.
The second deadline will be September 1, in the week ahead of the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort.
It requires that the MGU-K, energy store and control electronics systems be homologated to whichever specification is submitted on that date. Both of these deadlines will lock in that specification of engine component until the new power units are introduced in 2026.
Up until both of these respective deadlines, teams can introduce fresh specifications of each element as per the 2022 F1 technical regulations. Save for cost-saving, safety or reliability upgrades, that September 1 date is the final time teams can upgrade their engines.
If teams begin to struggle with either a pace differential or reliability deficit to rivals, such as Mercedes did in 2021, there will be a race against time to steady the ship before it’s too late.
These dates are therefore critical for the 2022 season and beyond.
Fallout from 2021
And then there’s the question of ‘what happens now?’
The FIA admitted during the winter that events in Abu Dhabi tarnished what was one of F1’s greatest-ever seasons and Max Verstappen’s maiden title. What is done about it, and the fallout from the controversy is likely to prove gripping viewing for fans of F1’s off-track dramas.
A review of safety car procedures, which were bypassed in Abu Dhabi is the first step in mending the bridges burned between the FIA and fans — as well as teams.
Then there are the big names involved in the incident and their next moves, chiefly, Michael Masi. There have been no signs that he’ll step down from his role as FIA race director despite many feeling that the Australian’s grace period after taking over from Charlie Whiting has expired.
Toto Wolff made clear his feelings when he belatedly conducted his post-race Abu Dhabi media briefing days after the finale. “I’m not interested in having a conversation with Michael Masi,” he said. “The decisions that have been taken in the last four minutes of the race have dropped Lewis Hamilton out of a deserved world championship.”
Whether or not the winter will have cooled tensions between him and Masi remains to be seen but there will be no lobbying of the race director in 2022, a positive move in the aftermath of 2021.
Lewis Hamilton’s silence after Abu Dhabi continues on. He is yet to confirm whether or not he’ll return to try and capture a record-breaking eighth title. He remains under contract with Mercedes for a few seasons yetbut so was old foe Nico Rosberg when he walked off into the sunset back in 2016.
Hamilton’s driving in the final rounds was impressive given the points situation and requirement to win all four of the final races to stand a chance of winning the title and overcoming Verstappen. Surely he can’t walk away now while showing such strong form.
And then there’s the world champion. He’ll be running number one on his car this season as is the champion’s right but will he be able to retain it? Verstappen has said he has now achieved his life’s ambition of becoming world champion: “everything that comes now is a bonus,” he stated after the Abu Dhabi race.
With Adrian Newey at the helm of the Red Bull team and the new era an aerodynamically-focused one, surely Red Bull will be in the frame once again to secure either championship, but will being a world champion calm Verstappen down in wheel-to-wheel racing or has 2021 internally justified his aggressive approach?
He pulled no punches all year long against Hamilton and after a season of acrimony off track as much as on it, the lines are still blurry as to what is and isn’t allowed.
Verstappen’s modus operandi has been right up to the limit and even over it at times but the race stewards have only muddied those waters. Indecisiveness and contradictory decisions have left drivers unclear on the rules of engagement.
They must be tidied up for the new season and won’t be left alone by the FIA as fans and drivers seek clarity on what is allowed and what isn’t. Nobody wants to have races hanging in the balance as often as in 2021 pending a post-race stewards room decision.
Following the final race of 2021 and the statement from the FIA on its investigation into the controversy, this will be improved for ’22.