The dominance of Hamilton and Verstappen is under threat this season with new technical regulations having been brought into the sport, designed to make racing more competitive
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So, a new era of F1 is upon us.
It’s a statement that admittedly seems a little contradictory, given that the fallout over the 2021 finale, which saw Max Verstappen dramatically beat Lewis Hamilton to the world title, continues to rage on. Indeed, just hours before qualifying began for the opening race of the new season in Bahrain, the FIA released a report into the events of Abu Dhabi, admitting glaring mistakes were made.
What isn’t up for debate though, is the Yas Marina was the culmination of a season that the two title contenders dominated. Between them, Verstappen and Hamilton won 18 of the 22 Grands Prix on offer, and in the final standings both were more than 160 points clear of third placed finisher Valtteri Bottas.
Things could be different this time around though. Brand new technical regulations have been introduced, designed to make racing more competitive.
For Mercedes, pre-season testing was littered with problems, leading to Hamilton claiming the team would not be competing for wins anytime soon. Few however, will be taking that concession seriously – the seven-time world champion will be in contention for number eight for sure.
Verstappen obviously stands in his way – but in what promises to be an intriguing campaign, he won’t be the only one. Here, Mirror Sport looks at four contenders who could benefit from the new rules by upsetting the apple cart.
Ok, so a qualifying position of 13th for tomorrow’s opening race may seem a somewhat unlikely platform from which to tip Lando Norris for F1 domination. But in reality, the teething problems for all teams as drivers adapt to their new cars will last several weeks – it’s too early to be writing contenders off.
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Norris has proven his potential, having achieved four podiums in the 2021 season itself, and was only denied a maiden F1 win when adverse late weather struck in Russia. Signing a lucrative new deal to tie him to McLaren until the end of 2025 appeared a statement of intent – from both him and the team.
His displays in testing in Barcelona suggest he will be challenging the likes of Verstappen and Hamilton this season, and the 22-year-old is unlikely to have made such a commitment to his team if he didn’t feel that was attainable. Norris has long been viewed as a future star – 2022 could be the year he starts to seriously shine.
Like Norris, Leclerc is a driver perceived to be of great potential. Unlike Norris, the Monaco man has two Grand Prix wins to his name already, and will start the season opener on pole position.
That has come as no surprise. His pace in his Ferrari during pre-season testing in both Spain and Bahrain already had the established order on their guard.
The 24-year-old has already been hailed by team boss Mattia Binotto, who told Planet F1 “we are fully convinced he will be the man to become the next world champion.” Early signs are that the Scuderia have now given him the car – and power upgrade – to help him achieve that.
Carlos Sainz hasn’t been backward in coming forward about his chances in 2022, publicly warning Verstappen and Hamilton he can compete with them when in an equal car. Like with teammate Leclerc, the Spaniard may now have the chance to put his money where his mouth is.
Sainz, 27, hasn’t quite matched the pace of his partner in testing and will start third on the grid on Sunday. But already, there has been enough to suggest he can start turning podium finishes, with six to his name so far, into wins.
Not since Kimi Raikkonen in 2007 have the Italian giants tasted a Drivers’ Championship win. Some 15 years on, and like Leclerc, Sainz will be eyeing his best chance yet to end all that.
An inspired signing or a driver elevated too early? How George Russell performs in a Mercedes this season could prove one of the most fascinating notions of this campaign.
His qualifying performances in a largely uncompetitive Williams car caught the eye in 2021, especially in Belgium when he was only denied pole at the death by Verstappen. However, his race displays remained modest.
Toto Wolff doesn’t sign drivers to be also-rans, and Russell will at the very least be expected to compete with Hamilton for the spot of no 1 driver at the Silver Arrows. We’re about to find out if it was simply the vehicle holding him back before now.
A first qualifying position of ninth, behind Valtteri Bottas, represents a disappointing and somewhat ironic start. But Russell will get better, just to what extent remains to be seen.