A Season of Change
Volume 47 Issue 25
Dec 11, 2022
Bob Varsha Closes out the Formula One season with his expert insight.
Early in my career broadcasting motorsports from demo derbies to Formula One, I developed a rule of thumb that has served me well: the season was a success if the right guy won the championship.
That idea in a nutshell is why the 2021 Formula One season was such a letdown. Max Verstappen won his first world championship in an exciting and bruising duel with Lewis Hamilton.
But while Hamilton’s Mercedes team kept the constructors’ honors, the Red Bull driver’s eventual “triumph” over Hamilton resulted from a bewildering failure of FIA officiating in the Abu Dhabi finale that my old colleague David Hobbs might describe as “a dog’s breakfast.” Fans around the world were left deflated and angry, and Verstappen’s crown was irrevocably tarnished.
What a difference a year makes! After a 2022 season featuring radically different new cars, team intrigue, a shift in the competitive balance and, sadly, more fun and games in Race Control,
Verstappen and Red Bull ended the dominant eight-year run of Mercedes and Hamilton by sweeping the championships for both drivers and constructors. Add the contributions of (emphatic) number two Sergio Pérez, and Red Bull amassed eight poles, seventeen victories and eight fast laps from the twenty-two events, plus wins in two of the three Sprint qualifying races, which offered greater points this year.
Verstappen’s final margin over Hamilton in 2021 was eight points, whereas the gap to Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc this season was a gaping 146.
But wait, you say! How can a season be compelling when one driver, Verstappen, wins fifteen of the twenty-two races, breaking a record for single-season success shared by legends Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel?
In my view the Dutchman’s superiority over his rivals came against a backdrop more interesting, and occasionally infuriating, than even Schumi and Seb’s victory parades.
Begin with the all-new F1 race car, which in testing showed a penchant for shaking the fillings out of the teeth of the drivers due to a vicious aerodynamic oscillation called “porpoising.” Things reached a point after Hungary, round twelve, that the rules-makers stepped in, threatening penalties if the cars bounced more than a specified margin in ride height.
As one might expect in the white-hot crucible of grand prix car development, no penalties were required once the teams got to grips with the issue.
To be sure, Red Bull’s crushing performance was aided by the shortcomings of their rivals. Particularly Ferrari, which produced the quickest car, then managed to fritter away their advantage.
Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz collected a dozen poles, including six of the first eight, but managed a total of only four race victories, finishing second and fifth in driver points. Compare that to Verstappen’s fifteen wins from seven poles by himself.
In a mid-season review in these pages, I wrote of the Scuderia’s many toe-stubbings: engine meltdowns, bizarre tire choices, blown strategy calls, driver crashes and distracting radio arguments.
At the summer break Ferrari had managed to turn a 40-point championship lead for Leclerc into an 80-point deficit to Verstappen in the space of just nine grands prix, from Imola to Hungary.
At that point Ferrari team principal Mattia Binotto stunned everyone by observing that no changes were required internally, and even that “There is no reason we cannot win all ten of the remaining races.
They didn’t win any. Verstappen took eight, Pérez one, and George Russell scored his maiden grand prix victory for Mercedes.
After the season, Binotto revealed that the team had tuned down the performance of its power unit, hoping to minimize costly grid penalties for excessive component replacements while the team solved a fuel injection issue.
Lower power required lowering downforce levels to compensate by minimizing drag, which in turn led to the cars sliding more and generating excessive tire degradation.
After the season Binotto resigned, ending his nearly three decades with the company. A shame, because the final Ferrari produced under his watch, the SF75, was not only beautiful, but capable of winning far more than it did. And so the Scuderia must continue to wait for its first drivers’ championship since Kimi Räikkönen in 2008.
While Ferrari struggled, other teams improved. Red Bull was among the quickest to solve the porpoising problem, doubtless thanks to designer Adrian Newey’s previous experience in his IndyCar days with the March factory and the Truesports team.
Starting in Australia they began ticking off poles and victories, undeterred by neither the $7 million fine and reduced CFD/wind tunnel time imposed for breaking the new cost cap rules, nor the fuss kicked up by Verstappen’s selfish refusal to obey team orders in Brazil and help Pérez into a 1-2 finish in the drivers points the team has yet to achieve.
Perhaps more impressive was the Mercedes recovery from the hole dug with their narrow-body W13 chassis, which rose back up the grid thanks to a new underfloor that allowed George Russell and Lewis Hamilton to go from nowhere (for them) to challenging for poles and wins, Russell producing both while comprehensively outperforming his seven-time champion teammate.
Adding entertainment value were outstanding battles down the grid, where pairs of teams squared off, scrapping for the tens of millions of dollars at stake between adjacent places in the final standings.
The battle for fourth among constructors was waged between Alpine and McLaren, made more remarkable because it was so one-sided: Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso for Alpine against Lando Norris fighting solo while teammate Daniel Ricciardo struggled so badly that he was bought out of his contract.
In the end Norris’s consistent efforts kept his team close, falling just 14 points short. McLaren consoled itself by out litigating Alpine for the services of driver Oscar Piastri for 2023.
Then there was the clash of the underachievers: Alfa Romeo and Aston Martin. Somehow the eye-catching Alfa livery always seemed to slip backwards despite the best efforts of Valtteri Bottas, considered a lock to raise the team’s fortunes but who instead came up short, and Zhou Guanyu, who made headlines with a heart-stopping flip over the catch fence at Silverstone.
The Chinese driver was unhurt, but the collapse of his roll hoop brought new regulations calling for stronger units next season, when the team long known as Sauber will have new interim branding next season, as Alfa departs and Audi takes over.
Meanwhile Aston Martin, in the midst of a hiring binge and the construction of a new $240 million factory, could not leverage their Mercedes power unit into a consistent challenger.
Sebastian Vettel gave it his considerable best, then sailed into retirement with a points finish in his farewell race and a remarkable surge of warmth from both the pitlane and the grandstands.
Teammate Lance Stroll, on the other hand, managed to join Vettel in the points just twice, in Imola and Singapore.
The two teams finished tied on points with 55 each, Alfa Romeo claiming sixth in points with a best of fifth place by Bottas in Imola over sixth for Vettel at Azerbaijan and Japan.
Elsewhere, the pride of Kannapolis, North Carolina, Haas Formula 1, was notable for pulling itself up from tenth to eighth in points, mainly thanks to Kevin Magnussen, part of the team’s original driver pairing with Romain Grosjean, who was called in to replace the discarded Nikita Mazepin following the Russian invasion of Ukraine.
“Kmag” seemed surprised at times by his own competitiveness, topped by pole in Brazil, the first for both team and driver after a series-record 142 fruitless attempts. Yes, luck factored in, such as Magnussen’s early run on a dry track in Q3 as rain loomed while the rest were stymied first by a red flag, and then the rain arrived. But every driver enjoys lucky days.
Not so Mick Schumacher, whose two years of inspiring results and expensive crashes resulted in his replacement for 2023 by journeyman Nico Hulkenberg.
In the end Haas beat Alpha Tauri for eighth in points by just two. The Red Bull junior team plunged from sixth in 2021 to ninth in 2022, with 107 fewer points, despite using the same powertrain as the big bullies from RBR.
Shaky second-year man Yuki Tsunoda will be joined next season by ex-Formula E World Champion Nyck de Vries, as Pierre Gasly said “enough” and jumped to Alpine to replace Fernando Alonso, who in turn left for Vettel’s vacant seat at Aston Martin.
Finally, the bad news for Williams is that they fell to the bottom of the stairs again. Originators of the “less paint, less weight” mantra, Alex Albon and Nick Latifi were often the fastest cars in a straight line, and yet slowest in lap time.
On the upside, the team budget apparently no longer demands a driver with billions in his pocket, yet the team will nonetheless have one as Latifi departs, replaced by Logan Sargeant of Fort Lauderdale, Florida, the first American in F1 since Alexander Rossi back in 2015.
Now that’s a change to look forward to.