Formula 1 2022: Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen return to the track…

 

After losing an eighth world drivers’ title in controversial and painful circumstances, Lewis Hamilton and his Mercedes team are trying to move on, at least in public.

The man who beat him, Max Verstappen, probably starts the new season as favourite, but his Red Bull team principal Christian Horner continues to snipe, throwing various accusations at Mercedes. That they “bullied” the sport’s governing body into making changes; they mounted a campaign to discredit Verstappen’s title, and so on.

 

Meanwhile, the ramifications of a day on which the sport’s referee made up the rules as he went along continue to reverberate. The FIA, recognising that errors were made at Yas Marina, has indeed made changes.

A report into the events of the day is expected to be published this weekend. But already race director Michael Masi has been moved into a different role, his freestyling with the rules under extreme pressure at Yas Marina judged to have made his position untenable.

 

In his place, two people will alternate in a role that is not meant to be so high profile. A more robust structure has been put in place around them. And a face from the past has been brought back to try to add a little gravitas and experience.

The new race directors will be advised by Herbie Blash, F1 veteran and long-time associate of the late FIA F1 director Charlie Whiting, whose death on the eve of the 2019 season saw Masi elevated into the role he has now lost.

 

As if that was not enough to be going along with, the sport’s rule book has been ripped up and rewritten from scratch. An all-new set of technical regulations has been introduced in the hope of producing cars that are closer in terms of performance, and can race more effectively, too.

 

McLAren
The cars’ front and rear wings have changed to smooth airflow
The cars
The cars that will be seen on track over the 22 or 23 races between now and mid-November are the product of four years of research by F1 and the FIA, and two years of development work by the teams.

After extensive analysis by a team under F1 managing director Ross Brawn, the cars’ aerodynamics have been fundamentally revised, in an attempt to ensure drivers can follow each other more closely. And the rules have been made deliberately prescriptive to try to reduce the performance gap between the front and back of the field.

 

The fear was that this would create a field of lookalikes. But in fact there is more visual variation between the 10 cars than for some considerable time, much to the relief of both the teams themselves, and the sport’s aficionados.

The three teams expected to lead the way at the start of the season – Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes – have all taken strikingly different approaches to solving the same set of problems.

Mercedes have shrunk their car’s bodywork to such an extreme extent that its sidepods are almost not there. Red Bull have created dramatic cutaways underneath theirs. And Ferrari’s are almost bulbous, but with elegant scallop-type curves cut out of the top of them. Even the cars’ noses are different – Ferrari’s narrow and needle-like against the more conventional, squarer ones of Mercedes and Red Bull.

 

Lewis Hamilton
Hamilton was relaxed and happy during a public appearance on Monday
Who seems to be fastest?
The three big teams ended pre-season testing fastest, with lap times within a few tenths of a second of each other. But Red Bull looked strongest, and not just because Verstappen set the quickest time.

Ferrari showed the most consistent performance, while Mercedes looked on the back foot. McLaren, promising early in testing, hit reliability problems later on that need solving before the car hits the track this weekend.

 

Hamilton has said he “doesn’t think we’ll be competing for wins” at the start of the season. Verstappen is treating that claim with scepticism. He harked back to previous years in which a difficult pre-season for Mercedes was followed by a victory at the first race, when he said of the world champion’s attempts to play down expectations: “It’s always like this.”

 

Out on track, though, the Mercedes did appear to be in trouble. It was clearly a handful for its drivers, Hamilton and highly rated new recruit George Russell. And Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly, who spent a couple of laps following Hamilton on the final day of testing, backed up his claims.

“I could see Lewis was struggling and I think they do have some work to do to be fighting right at the top,” the Frenchman said. “But it’s only testing.”

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