Three races later, Charles Leclerc and Ferrari are at the top of the drivers’ and constructors’ classifications. Is a pattern emerging from 2022? And can one of Leclerc and Ferrari’s rivals regain the lead? David Tremayne explores the opening of what appears to be a fascinating season.
“It’s a great start to the season but we have to remember that we’ve only had three races so it’s difficult to think about the World Championship. But we have a strong car and it’s also reliable. I hope so [stays] because we can’t relax at any moment and have to keep an overview, especially during development. But if all of that happens, maybe there’s a chance we’ll start thinking about the World Cup afterwards.”
That was Charles Leclerc’s wise take on his second win of the year in Melbourne last weekend, extending his lead in the World Championship while hinting that the Ferrari F1-75 is the car currently best suited for different types of circuits suitable is.
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And he was right too, not least because we still have 20 races to go. Remember how well Emerson Fittipaldi started 1973 with three wins, one second and two thirds in the first six races, only to end up losing to Jackie Stewart later in the season?
I mention this year in particular because Emmo’s campaign was marred by a very quick teammate – super Swede Ronnie Peterson – who also won races for Team Lotus, while Jackie was the undisputed team leader at Tyrrell and teammate Francois Cevert, albeit often just as fast as he Liked to play second fiddle, believing that his own time would come.
This year Sergio Perez is the only rider in the top 3 teams that I see willingly. That’s an advantage Max Verstappen has, as Mercedes will allow Lewis Hamilton and George Russell to compete, as will Ferrari with Charles and Carlos Sainz (at least up to a point, since a title is so important to them).
But here’s something to note. The two drivers, who traveled to Abu Dhabi for the 2021 World Championship finale just four races ago, are currently behind their respective team-mates not only after the first three races of 2022 – Lewis has 28 points over new partner George is 37 and Max has 25 to Sergio’s 30 – but both are well behind runaway frontrunner Charles, who has 71. Lewis is already 43 behind, Max 46…
After the first two races, despite the breakdown in Bahrain, Red Bull could take comfort in the fact that they were well ahead of Mercedes and pretty much on par with Ferrari in terms of pace.
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But around Albert Park, not only did the Ferrari have a better overall speed in qualifying, as might have been expected as Red Bull struggled to find the optimal balance, but also in the race, where Red Bull has traditionally always been strong. That was a real black eye and it was only the second intervention by the safety car that got Max back in contention as he struggled with a medium Pirelli tire on the left front.
Alarm bells are now ringing in Milton Keynes after the RB18’s fuel system appeared to be failing it once again.
If only we all got a dollar when a rider resorted to that politically correct adage, “We win as a team and we lose as a team”…
That’s true, of course, because it’s one of the truisms of racing. No single person is responsible for a team’s success or failure on the track, as the largest teams require more than 1,000 people to design, assemble, prepare, drive and develop the cars.
But while it’s also a truism that a championship is won over an entire season – whether it’s 16 races as it used to be or 23 today – it’s equally true that there will always be that one thing that actually decides the outcome . So that the performance of the man behind the wheel can ultimately decide just as much as what happens to him in a race.
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We tend to expect today’s heroes to be diplomatic saints, which is utterly naïve considering the adrenaline rushing through their veins, especially after a sudden failure spoiled their day. Of course I can understand why you don’t berate all the people who worked so hard to get you to this point, but at the same time I can understand why balancing your mouth with your mind can be difficult in difficult circumstances thinks. I thought it was good that Max didn’t pull any punches on Sunday.
“We’re miles behind and I don’t even want to think about the championship match,” he snapped when asked the inevitable question. “At the moment it is more important to finish races. We didn’t really have the pace so I just checked the tires and tried to finish it.
“It looked like an easy P2 but we didn’t even finish the race. It’s frustrating and unacceptable. We knew there was a problem, there would always be a question mark about finishing the race, but if we want to fight for the title, that can’t happen.”
After all, Christian Horner didn’t exactly dance a dance either. “That’s totally understandable, Max’s frustration,” he said afterwards. “It’s a really disappointing result not to finish the race and frustrating not to score points. I’d rather fix a fast car than try to make a reliable but slow one fast, but we can’t accept DNFs.”
“It has to be said that Max wasn’t happy all weekend and we couldn’t get the car through the window. The front tires broke pretty early in the race, which shows that we don’t have the right balance. When a car is in a happy place, you don’t get these problems. It all highlighted some of the problems Max was having. But we have things in the pipeline that will help. We have to take it on and keep going.”
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So now we have two top teams behind us. Mercedes actually looked a little better during the Albert Park race, but they’re still in trouble. And while the Ferrari also swam terribly on the straights, it at least calmed down to give good grip in the corners. I loved Lewis’ description of the W13 as “wicked” and how it’s like “a viper or a rattlesnake”. I have quite a bit of experience with both vipers and rattlesnakes (don’t ask!) so I see exactly what he means.
I certainly wouldn’t wish ill on anyone, but the struggles between Red Bull and Mercedes and Ferrari’s current dominance have sparked a lot of interest in the Championship.
But does all of this really mean that patterns are already emerging? I don’t necessarily think so. Yes, Ferrari is fast and reliable and has a car that works in most circumstances. The Red Bull is edgier but possibly a bit faster, but also unreliable. The Mercedes is potentially fast, but they still need to tame it to unlock that potential.
But what can we really conclude from this? The Alpine looked encouragingly quick in Melbourne and if luck had been on Fernando Alonso’s side there could have been a much closer fight behind Charles and Max. The McLarens looked like they’d taken a big leap.
And with any luck, the lightweight Alfa looks pretty reasonable, as does the Haas. But it was interesting that Lando Norris said there was nothing new on his MCL36 in Australia. He insisted it was the same as Bahrain and that the newfound pace was “track specific”.
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It was very interesting to me because in the past when teams were so familiar with their cars and the setups required they tended to perform the same everywhere. As well as creating cars that can really follow each other much more closely for the benefit of rolling the dice, the new regulations also seem to have created uncertainty about how individual teams will perform from race to race while still searching for sweet spots.
I really like the idea that as we move from venue to venue, we can’t easily predict who’s going to be strong and who’s going to fight. Will Ferrari still reign supreme at Imola or will it be their turn after a difficult weekend?