We couldn’t wait to see how the technical changes of 2022 would mix up the card game in preparation for this news. The first two Grands Prix of the season gave us several answers, even if the season is still very young and a lot of things will change over the next few months.
Towards a Verstappen-Leclerc fight
We already had a feeling that this was taking shape from the second week of winter testing in Bahrain, and it was confirmed during the first two events of the season. After the Verstappen-Hamilton rivalry last year, it looks like we will be witnessing that of Verstappen and Leclerc.
For the moment, we notice in particular the respect between the two. It clashes with the tense climate at the end of the season just a few months ago. It’s not that there was no respect between Hamilton and Verstappen, but the end of the season, the clashes and controversies have of course increased the tension.
This may well be what could also happen between Leclerc and Verstappen if the title race turns out to be as tight as expected. For now, the battles are spectacular, but clean and we congratulate each other after the races on the radio. Will this still be the case in October? The future will tell.
In fact, at certain points in both races, the respect was maybe even a little too much! You saw those moments when Leclerc and Verstappen braked earlier than usual on the braking approach in order to let the other pass before the DRS detection point. Same as in Jeddah, the two used this ploy at the same time, both locking the wheels before the final corner. Note that I do not blame the drivers for using all the strategies and techniques at their disposal, on the contrary, but I believe that F1 must start thinking about this issue.
When you voluntarily let a rival pass in first place, because you judge that taking advantage of the DRS afterwards is a greater advantage, it is undoubtedly a sign that the effects of the DRS are too great. This system arrived in Formula 1 to prevent a driver from being stuck behind a slower car without being able to overtake it for several laps, and not to become synonymous with assured overtaking.
For me, it shows that this system needs to be reviewed, especially with these new cars which should encourage overtaking. In particular, the distance over which it can be used can be reduced, allowing for example pilots to use it only on the last portion of a straight line.
But for the moment, it seems that Formula 1 does not want to take this path. This weekend in Australia there will be FOUR DRS zones on the circuit. We are therefore likely to see a lot of overtaking again this weekend… but how many without the rear wing open? We’ll see what kind of show it will give.
But back to the Verstappen and Leclerc fight. I think we will be entitled to a high quality title fight between these drivers. They know each other well, those who have raced together in karting in particular. World champion last year, Verstappen proves once again that he can get the best out of his car. Even if Ferrari seems to have a slight advantage at the start of the season, Verstappen is able to put pressure on Leclerc and even go for a victory.
As for the Monegasque, he finally has another opportunity to show his talent after two difficult years for Ferrari. Now he must prove that he can keep up the pace throughout the season, he who has sometimes shot himself in the foot with a few driving errors in recent seasons.
And Mercedes in all this?
What has also caught the eye since the Bahrain Grand Prix are the difficulties of Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton. The seven-time world champion took advantage of the retirements of the two Red Bulls to score an unexpected podium for Sakhir, but he was not a shadow of himself in the following race. Eliminated in Q1 for the first time since 2017, he eventually finished tenth, picking up a point.
There are several problems at Mercedes, but the most important remains porpoising. To reduce this undesirable effect, Mercedes must compensate with a higher car, which causes it to lose grip, making the car uncompetitive against the Red Bull which can be much lower (we could see this clearly by the amount of sparks produced by the Red Bull compared to the Mercedes).
There is also the engine, which strangely is no longer as dominant as it was in recent seasons, and it is all the teams equipped with the Mercedes power unit that are suffering from this at the start of the season. It may be too soon to look at the constructors’ standings, but a quick glance lets you see where McLaren, Aston Martin and Williams are, Mercedes’ three customer teams. A clue? Start at the end.
All is not lost for Mercedes, far from it. There will be developments and improvements on the car throughout the season, and it starts this weekend. Mercedes is also convinced of the potential of its car without pontoons, but is still trying to find how to exploit it fully.
But that won’t be solved in a snap either. Especially since with the cap on expenses, the team can no longer put as many resources and money as before. We will see over the course of the season, starting with this weekend’s Grand Prix in Australia, how well Hamilton and George Russell can catch up.