Lewis Hamilton's 2009 comeback shows he can win in F1 this season


If the first race of 2022 is anything to go by, we're set for another thrilling F1 title battle this year — and Lewis Hamilton could well join it, writes Tony Dodgins

Lewis Hamilton smiles after finishing on the podium at the 2022 F1 Bahrain Grand Prix

Red Bull's misfortune put Hamilton on the podium. He'll be hoping to be there on merit as soon as possible

Florent Gooden / DPPI

It would be premature to make assessments based on a sample of one, but the great news from the Bahrain F1 season-opener is that despite what Christian Horner called “the biggest chassis change in 40 years,” it looks as if we have another evenly-matched battle at the front.

Whenever there’s such a significant regulation shake-up, the danger is always that one team aces it and the rest are miles behind. But from the moment the cars all ran in low fuel, soft-tyre qualifying spec at Sakhir, Ferrari and Red Bull were nip and tuck. And, given a rivalry dating back to karting that was not always warm and friendly, shall we say, Max Verstappen / Charles Leclerc has the potential to make Verstappen / Lewis Hamilton look like handbags.

Preseason testing in Barcelona and Bahrain pointed to Red Bull and Ferrari stealing an early march, with the order behind somewhat fluid. Verstappen looked a likely pole man from the moment Red Bull ran its definitive aero package on the last day of the Bahrain test and the RB18 moved the goalposts.

Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen with karting trophy

Leclerc and Verstappen: karting rivals in 2012


“I was pretty sure that Red Bull would be quicker than us in qualifying,” Leclerc admitted, “so pole was a good surprise. Until my last Q3 run I wasn’t happy with my driving. I knew the lap was in there but I just hadn’t put it together. These cars feel completely different. I’ve tried many different styles and still needed to find the perfect one.”

It was an interesting point. More stringent crash test requirements and the change to 18 inch wheels and tyres, have bloated today’s F1 cars to almost 800kgs — more in keeping with heavier endurance sports cars than the pinnacle of single-seater racing. Consider that a three-litre Niki Lauda championship-winning Ferrari 312 from the mid-seventies, complete with flat-12 engine, weighed just 575kgs!

“Tyre degradation, especially with race weight, was going to be important,” Leclerc added. It was a view shared by Verstappen: “In Bahrain you really need to make sure that the car is working in the race. Qualifying was a bit hit and miss. Q2 (which Max topped) felt good, but in Q3 it was tough to get a balance.”

Max Verstappen passes Charles Leclerc in a shower of sparks at the 2022 F1 Bahrain Grand Prix

Sparks fly as Verstappen and Leclerc battle for the lead in Bahrain

Mark Thompson/Getty Images

There were two new factors to cope with: Pirelli’s new tyres and 2022’s buzz word: porpoising. Ferrari had done some strong race runs at the Bahrain test but Red Bull hadn’t done much in terms of long runs. And coping with porpoising or ‘bouncing’ impacts ride heights and suspension set-up.

Porpoising was prevalent in the previous ground effect era in the late seventies / early eighties, until flat-bottom cars were mandated for ’83. There weren’t too many technical brains in the paddock with experience dating back that far, notwithstanding Adrian Newey, which may or may not have been significant. Mercedes seemed to be the most seriously afflicted, with the Ferrari better and the Red Bull better still.

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Porpoising happens when the underfloor is responsible for a much higher percentage of a car’s downforce and air flow separation occurs as it approaches maximum speed / load on the straight. Downforce is suddenly reduced, ride height rises and then, when the airflow re-attaches, the ride height reduces again until separation occurs once more and the car rises again. The cycles continues and the car rocks back and forth, like a porpoise / dolphin dipping in and out of the sea.

The term was coined by Mario Andretti back in 1979 when he tested Colin Chapman’s Lotus 80 ground effect car, a more extreme development of the all-conquering Lotus 79 with even longer venturi tunnels which the design ace and Lotus founder could not persuade to work properly.

Some expressed surprise that porpoising was still a factor 40 years later, given the sophistication of today’s wind tunnels and simulation tools. But the reasoning is quite simple, as Ferrari’s team principal Mattia Binotto explained: “Such behaviour is normal with this type of car. It cannot be simulated in the wind tunnel because it occurs at 250-270km/h and the regulations limit wind tunnel speed to 180km/h.”

McLaren of Lewis Hamilton in 2009

Hamilton in 'McLaren's worst car ever', '09

Grand Prix Photo

Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton in 2022

Hamilton will be hoping Mercedes recovers faster than McLaren in '09

Grand Prix Photo

All things considered, Hamilton was happy to qualify his Mercedes fifth: “I’m not going to say I’m relieved, because the guys ahead of us are in another league, but I’m really happy considering where we’ve been in testing.” Qualifying times revealed that Mercedes was seven-tenths away, but Toto Wolff figured that the reality was more like half a second. Still, a new situation for Brackley/Brixworth since 2014!

Hamilton has been here before. In 2008, he won his first world championship with that most dramatic of final laps at Interlagos aboard McLaren’s MP4-23. Then came significant aero changes for ’09, with front wings lower and wider and rear wings taller and narrower. Not to mention trick double diffusers from Brawn, Toyota and Williams.

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With McLaren’s MP4-24, a car Eddie Jordan suggested was “possibly the worst car McLaren has ever designed,” Hamilton and Heikki Kovalainen found themselves propping up the pre-season testing times. With fundamental aero problems, things didn’t improve for a considerable time. By mid-season McLaren had just 13 points in the constructors’ championship and Hamilton did not visit a podium until round 10 in Hungary.

By then, McLaren had a significant upgrade package on the car and Lewis actually managed to win at Hungaroring. He did it again in Singapore and graced the podium five times in the final eight rounds. Engineers in the F1 paddock are fond of the expression: you can’t polish a turd — if a car starts off bad, it’s never going to be a world-beater. In ’09 though, McLaren had some pretty good dusters!

Lewis will be profoundly hoping that Mercedes does, too, although the W13 is nowhere near an MP4-24 in the dollop stakes. If Mercedes can get on top of it somewhat quicker than McLaren managed back in ’09, imagine a championship battle between an evenly-matched Verstappen, Leclerc and Hamilton! Perhaps I’m getting greedy…

Lewis Hamilton and Charles Leclerc on 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix podium

Will Mercedes development see these two fighting for the title with Verstappen?


Ironically, that ’09 season signalled the end of McLaren’s works Mercedes status and tipped the balance in persuading Stuttgart to become a full works entity in 2010. McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh even magnanimously oiled the wheels of a Mercedes power unit for Ross Brawn, who was bereft after Honda’s withdrawal. Talk about taking a Kalashnikov to your own foot…

Leclerc, who took the 2019 pole in Bahrain and led convincingly until he had an engine issue (he wound his engineer up about the same thing on the last lap last Sunday!), has always been excellent around Sakhir but Carlos Sainz had problems keeping him in sight throughout the season’s first weekend. In a year in which Maranello seem to be title contenders, that is going to develop into an interesting dynamic.

Sainz did a great job in his first season at Ferrari. Even if finishing ahead in the points table did not reflect the true competitive picture between the two, an average single-lap deficit of just a tenth to the guy some will tell you is the quickest driver on the grid, was highly impressive. In Bahrain though, Carlos was scratching. Yes, he finished second, but whereas Charles had the measure of Verstappen up front, Sainz came under pressure from Perez and the late race safety car disguised how much further up the road Leclerc actually was.

ari of Charles Leclerc at 2022 Bahrain Grand prix

Leclerc’s lead was closed down behind the safety car

“In FP1, FP2 and FP3 I was very far behind, the most I’ve ever been at Ferrari and that’s why, even with a one-two that we scored, I’m not entirely happy with the weekend,” Carlos admitted. “As a Ferrari driver, it’s been my most difficult weekend and it just shows that I need to put my head down, understand this car, understand where Charles is making the difference with his driving and the way that he’s approaching the corners and driving the tyres, also in the race. I need to improve if I want to fight for a win. I will put my head down and try to do some steps coming into Jeddah.

“Can I improve it from one weekend to another? I think I can. Can I cut down the deficit completely? It’s a very good question. In the end, let the bad weekends as a Ferrari driver be P2! I’ll take it and move on.”

Guenther Steiner celebrates Kevin Magnussens points finish at 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix

Guenther Steiner celebrates Kevin Magnussen’s fifth place

LAT via Haas

Feel-good stories from last weekend? If, last autumn, you’d told Valtteri Bottas that he would split the Mercs on the grid on the occasion of his Alfa Romeo debut…

Ditto Kevin Magnussen, who just 10 days earlier had been on a beach in Miami with his mates when he got the call from Guenther Steiner to resume his Haas career in place of Nikita Mazepin. It seems Netflix’s portrayal of him shattering Guenther’s glass door in a fit of pique, had not precluded career advancement!

“It’s crazy. I’m super-happy,” Kevin beamed. “It’s been a massive roller-coaster. I was really surprised by the call from Guenther. I feel so unbelievably happy to be in F1 with a good car.” Apart from fortune smiling on a decent guy, it provides a decent yardstick for Mick Schumacher, who had a much more impressive debut season than he was able to demonstrate. You’ve got to love this sport!

Race Results - 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix