Max Verstappen: Taking the ‘Red Bull’ by the horns | AFP
Max Verstappen: Taking the ‘Red Bull’ by the horns | AFP

Max Verstappen won the Formula 1 season this year and this time it was fair and square. Without triggering the unresolvable debate of how controversial his coronation as champion was in 2021, let’s just admit that he has been indisputably quick this season.

Verstappen and his team, Red Bull, have managed to put a considerable amount of daylight between them and their close competitions from previous years — Mercedes and Ferrari. Remarkably, in the very early stages of the season this year, Verstappen had managed to win just one out of the three races, with two ending with a ‘did not finish’ (DNF) result for him.

Ferrari seemed surprisingly fast in those races with Charles Leclerc winning the remaining two. It seemed like the Ferraris were going to be a real threat to the reigning champion and his team. That turned out to be just a minor wrinkle for Red Bull to straighten out, once Verstappen managed to find his groove in his mighty RB18.

With three races still remaining on the calendar, Verstappen has flashed past everyone who thought the driver won by fluke in 2021. After a shaky start to the season in those first three races, Verstappen managed 14 podium finishes in the next 16 races, winning 12 of them.

A look back at this year’s Formula 1 season, where the winner has already been decided, despite three races still remaining in the calendar, and what’s to come next year

What a season his teammate, Sergio Perez has also had this year — perfectly complimenting the glory of his champion partner. He managed to win himself two of his own Grand Prix.

Meanwhile, it was a rather exasperating season for the Scuderia Ferrari, impacted by a laundry list of technical difficulties and blunders with their race strategies. As with Red Bull, Ferrari’s season can be very distinctly split into two phases, performance-wise. The Scuderia were in contention with their closest rivals, the two Red Bulls, until the French Grand Prix in July.

During the early part of the season in Bahrain, Australia, Spain, Monaco, Azerbaijan and even at Red Bull’s home Grand Prix in Austria, Ferrari was often quicker and it felt like this would be a close battle for the top this year. It eventually turned out quite the opposite. Ferrari had colossal reliability issues, with their gorgeous F1-75 contributing majorly to the ever-so-painful DNFs on race Sundays.

In 19 races this season, Leclerc failed to finish three while Carlos Sainz suffered with a piece of much tougher luck and had six dreaded DNF results. The technical reasons for this interchanging gap between the top two teams this season are perhaps highly complex but the direction of their development efforts can give a hint.

Red Bull struggled initially with a considerably heavier car as compared to Ferrari, who started their season only very slightly over the minimum weight limit. Just the weight advantage they had was sizeable enough. According to F1 technical expert Mark Hughes, weight reduction alone is a super-powerful tool for cutting lap time. Even with no other changes, a 10kg weight reduction will typically be worth 0.3s of lap time.

At Monza, Verstappen explaining the weight and its distribution issues said: “The car was very overweight. [The weight] was in the wrong place of the car as well, so that’s why it was under-steering a lot more and prone to front locking.”

At the French Grand Prix, both Ferrari and Red Bull introduced aerodynamic changes to their car floors. While this turned out in favour of Red Bull, improving their weight distribution and balance; Ferrari suffered with the updates. Ferrari team boss Mattia Binotto admitted to the team’s woes saying: “We know that the car balance wasn’t the right one. The reason for the poor car balance was due to aero developments that brought us there… It was a question mark for us.”

Saad Ali, a motorsport enthusiast and Pakistan’s first licensed professional racing driver, says that Verstappen has once again proved to be one of the most complete drivers; complemented with the best car on the grid makes him nearly unstoppable. Saad believes Verstappen’s driving style, aggression and race craft have matured extremely well over the years and he has done enough to deserve a second F1 Drivers Championship.

Lewis Hamilton, seven-time F1 world champion, has not managed to win a single race this season so far, something he has been able to do rather easily since making his F1 debut with McLaren back in 2007. His new teammate and compatriot, George Russell has been a hit right away at Mercedes. He has settled very well and has been delivering results for the team throughout. The silver arrows have had a fair share of performance issues with their cars this year, but Russell has been able to manage them much better than the veteran Hamilton.

The only McLaren driver to have featured on the podium this year until the 19th race has been Lando Norris. The young star has had a fairly lacklustre season this year, apart from that one wet-dry Sunday in Italy’s Emilia-Romagna, where he managed a podium place after Ferrari had a nerve-wrackingly disappointing home race, with Leclerc spinning late on to finish sixth and Carlos Sainz retired into the gravel trap after a hit by Norris’ teammate Daniel Ricciardo.

For his part, Ricciardo has to feature at the top of the list of drivers who have under-performed this year. He is on his way out from McLaren and has no seat on the grid next year, until now, and is anticipated to feature as a reserve driver for one of the teams.

China’s first full-time F1 driver, Zhou Guanyu has had a decently impressive first season with Alfa Romeo, as the only rookie on the grid this year. He has had his moments of brilliance on the track and has managed to make the best of the circumstances, i.e., the limited technical expertise and budgets available at Alfa Romeo — one of the bottom-table teams at F1.

Some exciting driver moves are expected to properly revamp the grid next year. Oscar Piastri occupying Ricciardo’s seat at McLaren is one of the most talked-about driver moves this year. Two-time former World Champion Fernando Alonso shocked everyone with an unexpected announcement of his move from Alpine to Aston Martin for 2023. Alpine, in an early face-saving effort, announced their reserve driver Piastri as Alonso’s replacement for 2023, only for the driver himself to come out and deny the news, eventually announcing his move to McLaren.

According to Saad Ali, Piastri will be an exciting driver and his performance and experience in Formula 2 will bring him prepared for the customary midfield fight, especially against his teammate Lando Norris and also against the other rookie, Nyck de Vries, who already has had a taste of a Grand Prix this year.

With an exciting season coming to an end, there is so much to look forward to next year in terms of new competitions, regulations, drivers, and even some old race venues like China and Qatar coming back on the calendar. Our neighbour India, which has already hosted three Formula 1 Grand Prix, will make its debut on the MotoGP calendar next year — one of the most watched motorsport events globally.

Pakistan has yet to even work on the level of its intent to host any such global event; we, unfortunately, tend to have some misplaced, rather myopic, priorities when it comes to sports.

The writer is a marketing and communications professional. He tweets @adaffan

Published in Dawn, EOS, November 6th, 2022

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