Bahrain GP: Will Ferrari Steal the Show Again?
Much on offer amongst the younger drivers
By the end of the epic Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on the historic night of 12th of December, 2021, heartbeats refused to settle down and the prospect of an enticing rematch having to wait over 100 days seemed unfathomable. Yet as the Formula 1 2022 season gets underway, it promises passion, excitement, suspense and some drama and not just between Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton as evidenced in the lung opening Bahrain Grand Prix as Ferrari stole the show from pole to finish.
Bahrain Grand Prix: The Getaway
A somewhat non traditional start to the Formula 1 yet again, with the coronavirus pandemic pushing the Australian Grand Prix behind on the calendar, the Bahrain Grand Prix became the first hunting ground with Ferrari proving the surprise winners on the night, challenging Max Verstappen and Red Bull before the latter suffered from mysterious technical failures three laps towards the end to have both cars out of contention tantalizingly close to the finish.
The much anticipated resumption of rivalry between the first time F1 world drivers championship winner, Verstappen, and deposed seven time champion, Hamilton, did not materialize as for much the race, barring the final five laps, Mercedes seemed a distant shadow of themselves.
Instead it was Charles LeClerc and his battle with Verstappen after the first pit stop that provided wheel-to-wheel action that thrilled the fans thoroughly as the Monegasque traded places with the Dutch-Belgian driver for the top spot over the course of the next couple of laps.
A relatively sedate Bahrain Grand Prix seemed to be going according to plan as far as the Ferrari were concerned – dominating in both the qualifying and for much of the 57 lap race. It was an altogether different story in the Red Bull garage as Verstappen seemed distinctly uncomfortable in his car, complaining several times about not being able to handle the car.
Even as Verstappen was heard exasperated because he felt the car was falling apart under him with battery or engine giving up, his engineers mysteriously seemed not to pick anything back in the garage. However, the reigning world champion’s worst fears were confirmed when once the safety car brought on after Pierre Gasly’s car caught fire with barely ten laps remaining in the race, instead of challenging LeClerc, Verstappen was not only not able to close the gap on the frontrunner but found himself getting lapped until he finally retired his car at the pitlane with three laps to go.
More horror followed for Red Bull as Sergio Perez’s car too suffered at the very end, coming to a complete stop as the engine locked up, knocking Red Bull out of the potential first points on the table and more crucially given the Mercedes a psychological door opening.
While Verstappen called the loss of points “painful”, a beaming Hamilton said it all. Although he was lucky himself to have finished third on the podium after the Red Bull jolt, his alluding to being happy for Ferrari might have been a deliberate snub to Red Bull and Verstappen. But unless Mercedes find a new gear, his delight might only turn to more exasperation because even with a struggling chassis under him, Carlos Sainz managed to make it a 1-2 for Ferrari on a relatively uneventful night in at the Sakhir circuit.
A childhood dream that pushed Max under his father Jos’ tutelage into the Red Bull arena under Toro Rosso at the age of seventeen in 2015 and then inducted into Red Bull in 2016, marked the crescendo of his ambitions in 2021. There were concerns as well as warning that the realization of that long held dream might see a more relaxed but also, equally aggressive and motivated Verstappen in 2022, that hunger nowhere satiated as was seen for much of the racing weekend.
For Lewis Hamilton, despite rumours in the immediate aftermath of what happened in Abu Dhabi of his contemplating retirement, 2022 will be about unfinished business. Chasing a record 8th world drivers championship title that would see him eclipse Michael Schumacher’s dominant seven titles, the thirty-seven year old Brit was given a glimpse of the next generation kicking at his heels in 2021, making him not only earn every point but also, push the barriers as far as aggression and performing under duress goes, something he was not accustomed to in his seasons of relative solitary domination that at times made Formula 1 racing “boring” for fans worldwide.
While words like revenge and avenge have been thrown around, the truth of the matter is that there is a lot more on offer amongst the younger drivers this season – Lando Norris showed what he can do with a competitive car in McLaren last year as did Charles LeClerc in the year before that in Ferrari, the new F1 regulations might actually help crowd the top of the field, if cars and drivers match up.
The Abu Dhabi hangover
It has to be pointed out that even before the 2022 season could get underway in Bahrain, there were several talking points including the fallout from the final race of last season that kept the three month off season busy in the headlines.
F1 might have replaced Michael Masi, the race director at the heart of the Abu Dhabi grand prix’s final moments at the Yas Marina, with two race directors. But Neils Wittich and Eduardo Freitas are likely to have their hands full if last season is anything to go by.
Amongst the many controversial points from last season included track limits, tyre change rules to 18 inch tyres as well as choice of tyres during Q3 qualifying session, safety car and the overlapped cars rules amidst a host of regulations that are likely to impact the season given the uncertainty as drivers and teams come to terms with the changes.
After the ‘any’ cars lapped situation between the first two cars on the front row fiasco in Abu Dhabi, F1 has now changed it to ‘all’ overlapped cars unlapping themselves post safety car in a significant development to do away with ambiguity and controversy.
For Mercedes, the decision to replace Masi was bittersweet given that they had lodged a slew of appeals to the FIA that oversees F1 in a bid to overturn the results in Abu Dhabi. While the report into the Abu Dhabi race from the FIA was expected in the same weekend as the Bahrain Grand Prix, it seemed to interest Verstappen less than it did Hamilton for obvious reasons.
Some have called what happened at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix a degradation of F1’s ethics, which has led to some changes including a central command for race control as opposed to teams talking directly to the race director in the course of the race – which were made public in real time last year. However, the insatiable appetite for the start of the 2022 season suggests that no matter how the controversy might have played out, it has worked to F1’s advantage.
Verstappen: Not Hamilton’s only problem
For Mercedes, irrespective of the Bahrain Grand Prix results, it is a different challenge, one that many race experts believe will force even the seven time champion and 37 year old Hamilton to change his own driving style to some extent and force him to take more initiative given how self-assured and aggressive Verstappen was getting out of the gate in 2021 and also, towards the end.
It will not only be a different car – which has drawn some controversies already over its aerodynamics design, potential mirror positioning advantages amongst others – but also, a team garage where a disgruntled Valterri Bottas was replaced at the end of last year by the rising Brit star, George Russell, who moves up from Williams.
Russell did get a taste for real time Formula 1 Mercedes challenge when Hamilton was down with covid and nearly won Mercedes a first race in his own right. But this is likely to be a bigger challenge for Hamilton because Russell showed prowess and promise in that one contest and in expected to be amongst the lead pack of the current generation which means he might not want to play the role of tow, something Mercedes will have considered when taking the Finn off their pay roll.
Bottas, not always comfortable having to play second fiddle to Hamilton, will be in the past as the team will need to drive a balance between being competitive against other teams and too aggressive within their own garage for the team’s own good. Toto Wolff, the team principal, at Mercedes will have a tough task at hand if Russell gets within Hamilton’s slipstream from the get-go.
A packed field
Verstappen though did lead the field when in an interview he talked about the need for more drivers at the front of the race, which also means more competitively advantaged teams and cars.
One of the reasons last season was a humdinger in a decade as far as Formula 1 was concerned was because not since Michael Schumacher had the motorsport seen such aggression or action, previously letting Hamilton to largely lead the field alone as he quickly lapped up season after season until Verstappen began to inch his way in measured fashion.
Last season was quite conspicuous in the fact that there have been a few greenhorns as well as old hands on the rise as Hamilton’s invincibility was put to the test. It led to some interesting exchanges between Hamilton’s radio and the pit garage and also, a rattled Hamilton looking for consensus in a garage that did not always agree with him, the latter acknowledged by Toto Wolff.
McLaren’s Lando Norris promises to be a greater nuisance after being a pugnacious competitor at the heels of the battle at the top last year. Russell should provide some interesting propositions for Mercedes and Sergio Perez played a very prominent hand, holding up the faster Hamilton behind him in that Abu Dhabi encounter that allowed Verstappen to make up time which should make for more interesting, stimulating possibilities.
If Ferrari can find another gear, it will be more to tango with Carlos Sainz and Charles LeClerc who seemed to miss that extra spike in his heel after four time world champion Sebastian Vettel was shunted out of the Ferrari garage rather unceremoniously at the restart of last year’s season, perhaps taking some of the heat off the Monegasque driver in terms of the need to outdo his more illustrious predecessor. This first win will have gone some way towards rejuvenating those ambitions in a big way.
Hamilton himself contended he would be “a more aggressive driver” in the 2022 season, which means potentially more elbows out and more possible collisions and not just between Red Bull and Mercedes but also, possibly from their counterparts if the regulations keep their promise to level the field. While Hamilton might be cheering for Ferrari, he was largely a quiet spectator in Bahrain and might have some trouble clearing the field with the prancing horse keep up their newfound tempo and Red Bull can figure and sort out whatever has ailed them in their own garage.