Motorsport, as has been previously established by the Gravel Trap, takes a lot of its challenge from the fact that its “playing surface” is the essential challenge to master for the competitor. Each driver has circuits that they favour and circuits they are great at. Sometimes these two overlap, but that being the case is not a given. To use an individual example, the author’s favourite circuit (at the Formula 1 level) is the Shanghai International Circuit, but his performance in Formula 1 video games clearly points towards the Bahrain International Circuit being the venue he performs best at.
Ahead of the proper beginning of the 2022 Formula 1 season, in a variation of a classic season preview, the Gravel Trap will look at the drivers competing in the upcoming season and determine at which circuits they deliver their absolute best.
This list will be sorted by driver number, going from number 1 to 77.
Max Verstappen (#1) – Red Bull Ring
The reigning world champion has stated that he wishes to spend the remainder of his career in the premier motorsport series with Red Bull Racing. At least as far as his best track is concerned, that may be the best choice. The company running his team owns the track where he delivers his best racing.
Despite the fact he did not even get to compete at the venue in his very short junior series career, the Dutchman made Q3 in his first outing. In fact, he almost was a second quicker in Q2 than then-teammate Carlos Sainz, Jr. and scored four points.
After his switch to the Red Bull team, every finish at the Austrian venue by Verstappen was on the podium. Even in years where Red Bull had inferior power units, Verstappen was a threat for the victory and scored his first grand chelem at the 2021 Austrian Grand Prix.
Honourable mention: Yas Marina, great results including sealing his first world title, and building momentum for 2021 by winning the 2020 season finale.
Daniel Ricciardo (#3) – Circuit de Monaco
Nothing demonstrates the down year Ricciardo had in 2021 more than the fact that one of his worst performances of the season came at the track he most excels at. Normally, Monaco is Ricciardo’s highlight of the year, but not in 2021.
Winning both of his outings at Monaco in the Formula Renault 3.5 series, he followed it up by taking a podium finish the first time he finished at the track’s Formula 1 race in 2014 after retiring through no fault of his own in the two races before. 2015 saw him take his second career fastest lap before coming very close to beating the superior Mercedes in 2016.
In 2018, Ricciardo had his finest outing, blocking wisely on the tight circuit to keep Sebastian Vettel in the Ferrari behind despite major technical issues, finally taking the victory which eluded him two years previously. In his sole Monaco Grand Prix with Renault, he demonstrated impressive superiority over teammate Nico Hülkenberg to take ninth.
Honourable mention: Spa-Francorchamps, three podiums including fighting off Nico Rosberg’s quicker Mercedes in 2014 for the victory and his sole fastest lap with Renault.
Lando Norris (#4) – Bahrain International Circuit
When you believe that the start of a season is most important to how the year is going to go, then Lando Norris fans should rejoice at the current Formula One calendar: starting the season with a test and a race in Bahrain is the best possible situation for the young McLaren star.
In his first outing at the venue, he took pole position and his only win in Formula 2, controlling the race and finishing seven seconds ahead of his own teammate in second despite saving his car. In the following Sprint, he came home in an impressive fourth.
Taking his first Formula One points at the venue in 2019, he added a fourth place in 2020. While he struggled on the shorter layout, he then added a great start into the 2021 season by finishing fourth in his third Bahrain Grand Prix.
Honourable mention: Red Bull Ring, podiums in F3, F2 and F1 speak for themselves in addition to a furious final sprint to get the aforementioned F1 podium finish.
Sebastian Vettel (#5) – Marina Bay Street Circuit
Having to choose from 53 victories in Formula 1 alone makes picking out Sebastian Vettel’s finest venue a hard task. Still, looking at his achievements and the lows and highs of his career points towards his supreme mastery of the streets of Singapore.
Coming off his premier victory at Monza in 2008, he demolished his teammate by 1.347 seconds in Q1 of the first Singapore GP and that would set the precedent for four pole positions and five victories. Statistically, his greatest win came there as well, finishing 32.627 seconds ahead of Fernando Alonso in 2013.
Vettel won at Singapore in his prime Red Bull years, he was victorious in the 2015 Ferrari, and he even won there in 2019, a season generally considered the start of his decline. As Covid-19 has denied fans the Singapore race, it will be exciting to see whether #5 can still perform there in the final stage of his career.
Honourable mention: Buddh, Vettel has never failed to win here, and only the short-lived nature of the Indian Grand Prix prevented it from being his track of choice.
Nicholas Latifi (#6) – Hungaroring
The first GP Reject on the grid and thus the first one where any reader would actually be offended if the author picks the wrong venue. There are a few options, but in the end Lafiti’s track of choice is the tricky Hungaroring.
After making his first real impact in the world of post-karting motorsport with a fourth place in Italian Formula 3, he scored two points finishes in FIA European Formula 3 and then excelled there in his three Formula 2 seasons: one victory and one pole position speak for themselves.
However, the main argument for the Hungaroring is the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix. By excelling in the wacky early stages of the Grand Prix, he managed to finish ahead of his gifted teammate and earn a positive reputation in Formula 1 fandom and the GPR community in particular.
Honourable mention: Imola, Latifi achieved his first Formula 3 podium there, his joint-best finish in his rookie season and had a good qualifying outing in 2021 before an unfortunate accident.
Nikita Mazepin (#9) – Yas Marina Circuit
Nikita Mazepin will not compete in Formula 1 this year but this paragraph was complete by the time of the announcement and if the author wanted to do pointless work for no benefit, he would learn to code in assembler language.
In his first outing at the circuit in 2018’s GP3 season, he scored his first pole position at the international level. While he could not translate it to a feature race victory, he then added a sprint victory to close out the season.
In the 2019-20 Asian Formula 3 season, he added another victory on his way to finishing third in the championship. With him missing the final Grand Prix of last year due to a coronavirus diagnosis, his career may have ended without him ever driving a Formula 1 car at his best venue.
Honourable mention: Spa-Francorchamps, podiums in Formula 3, GP3, and Formula 2, including a great victory despite pre-race fog.
Pierre Gasly (#10) – Hungaroring
Now, the easy narrative choice would have been picking the Autodromo Nazionale di Monza. After all, Pierre Gasly became the second driver to win a Grand Prix for the Minardi/Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri outfit at that very venue. However, the actual choice for the knowing fan is the Hungaroring.
His first major impact at the Hungarian venue was his win in Eurocup Formula Renault 2.0, followed by a Formula Renault 3.5 double-podium finish. In his first Formula 2 outing, the Frenchman threatened to take his first victory in the series, only losing out to Alex Lynn.
After winning the 2016 feature race in Formula 2. In his first Formula 1 outing at the circuit, he outqualified not only his Toro Rosso teammate but also the two cars of the mother team. After another sixth place in 2019, he added his third career FLAP in 2021 with a fifth place.
Honourable mention: Monza, his Formula 1 victory has been mentioned, but he also scored two pole positions in GP2 and a podium in his Formula Renault 3.5 debut.
Sergio Pérez (#11) – Baku City Circuit
Yet another man with a lot of Formula 1 experiences and a lot of great memories to pick from. This makes limiting it to one venue a very difficult task. However, in the end, the author chose the speedy streets of the Baku City Circuit.
Having the second-fastest time in qualifying and earning a podium finish would prove an early highlight at this new and exciting street track and a preview of things to come: after a challenging 2017 hurt by intra-team conflict at Force India, he came back to add a second podium in 2018.
Demolishing his teammate in 2019, he added another highlight in 2021 by achieving the second victory of his Formula 1 career with some good driving, even if he was aided by the misfortune of his teammate and Lewis Hamilton, he came through when it mattered.
Honourable mention: Sepang, many would expect this to be the actual choice: nearly winning his first race in 2012, a fastest lap in 2013 and a couple of good outings in later years.
Fernando Alonso (#14) – Hungaroring
The soon-to-be most experienced driver in Formula 1 history certainly has a good number of tracks to pick from. Certainly, there are many good options, but the author will pick a track he already has twice: once more, the Hungaroring is the track of choice.
Alonso made a statement on his Hungaroring debut in Formula 1, qualifying 1.5 seconds ahead of his teammate and beating both Arrows. His second outing at the Hungarian track saw him pick up his first win. Despite two embarrassing outings in 2005 and 2007, his achievements in Budapest say it all.
His pole position in the Renault R29, his fastest lap of the race in the McLaren MCL32, his blocking against Hamilton in 2021… this stat demonstrates it well: Alonso, Vettel and Hamilton are the only drivers left on the grid from the last time Alonso did not score points in Hungary (2009).
Honourable mention: Shanghai, just as many amazing achievements there as in Hungary (his first lap in 2006, second in qualifying in 2009, two career victories etc.); just lacking the consistency.
Charles Leclerc (#16) – Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps
The Monégasque Ferrari star is seen as one of the best young drivers in the sport. It is therefore only fitting to inform the Formula 1 fan community that he is at his finest at one of the more challenging tracks of the Formula 1 calendar.
Since 2015, Charles Leclerc has raced at Spa in four different series. In none of these series did he fail to see the flag first at some point. If not for a floor irregularity in Formula 2, Leclerc would have entered Formula 1 with wins at Spa in every direct feeder series.
Upon his arrival in the pinnacle of European motorsport, Leclerc took no time to establish his mastery of the Spa circuit. In only his second outing, his first in the Ardennes with Ferrari, he overcame the grief of losing one of his best friends in Anthoine Hubert, and earned his first career victory in the premier racing series.
Honourable mention: Red Bull Ring, he won there in GP3 as well as Formula 2 and came close to getting his first career win there in 2019.
Lance Stroll (#18) – Hockenheimring
Cynics claim Lawrence Stroll’s investment into Aston Martin serves to establish a team solely focussing on running cars for his son to play with. If that were to be Stroll’s motive, he should also throw some sponsorship money towards Germany, as his son’s best track is the Hockenheimring.
Lance Stroll’s first outing in Hockenheim came in the 2015 FIA Formula 3 European Championship. After scoring points in two out of the first three races, he returned in autumn to put in a good drive to claim his first and only win of the year.
After winning all three of the Hockenheim races in his second year in the series, it was time to move on to the big leagues. His first outing at Hockenheim in a Formula 1 car was nothing spectacular. In the second one, he mastered tricky conditions to come within 0.6 seconds of his second Formula 1 podium.
Honourable mention: Istanbul, his first career pole position did not result in much, but he has outqualified his teammates in each visit to Asia Minor.
Kevin Magnussen (#20) – Sochi Autodrom
A tragic irony of Kevin Magnussen’s surprising comeback to the premier racing series in the world is that the very events that led to his return will prevent him from racing at the Russian track that saw his best performances in Formula 1.
He was on the grid for the very first Russian Grand Prix in 2014 and had one of the few performances where he could hang with experienced teammate Jenson Button. In 2016, he somehow forced a seventh place out of the R.S.16, the one that ensured Renault finished ahead of Sauber in the WCC.
He then outqualified Romain Grosjean by over a second in 2017 and added multiple points finishes in 2018 and 2019, the latter of which were the only points scored by the Haas team in the final ten races of that season.
Honourable mention: Barcelona, securing the 2013 Formula Renault 3.5 championship with a nearly perfect weekend in the season finale before adding some great results in F1.
Yuki Tsunoda (#22) – Fuji Speedway
To say that Tsunoda, with his unimpressive career so far, has a track he stands out at would be a questionable premise. The mission statement of this Gravel Trap, however, is what it is, so we have the first choice that is not on the Formula 1 calendar and most likely will not be soon: Fuji.
Of curse, given that it and Suzuka are the only venues Tsunoda has experienced victory more than once, they were the only real standouts to choose from and Fuji won on account of having the larger sample size.
In his eight Formula 4 races at Fuji, Tsunoda had an average finish position of 3.5, taking three victories, two pole positions and one fastest lap of the race. In 2018, his back-to-back wins in the first Fuji races of the year opened a sizable gap over title rival Teppei Natori.
Honourable mention: Spa-Francorchamps, a podium to turn his Formula 3 season around before adding pole position and victory in the feature race in Formula 2.
Alex Albon (#23) – Hockenheimring
Returning to active Formula 1 competition is what Albon wanted since he was let go from after the 2020 season, and it certainly beats recreating accidents between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen in the simulator, but it means his DTM career and his time of driving at his best track is over.
Despite an anonymous first outing in Formula 3, he closed out his season with a good second-place finish at the very same venue. In GP3, his experience at the track paid off with his second pole position at the circuit.
While overshadowed by the redeeming performance of Daniil Kvyat, Alexander Albon’s Formula 1 debut saw him finish sixth and played a part in earning the Red Bull drive. When he returned to the Hockenheimring in 2021’s DTM season, he scored a second place, another points finish and two FLAPs.
Honourable mention: Silverstone, wins in GP3 and GP2 and a good showing at the “70th Anniversary Grand Prix” in 2020.
Guanyu Zhou (#24) – Autodromo Nazionale Monza
The first Chinese driver in the history of the sport will drive for the Italian team Alfa Romeo Racing. That is indeed the best situation as it gives them a driver that can deliver great performances at their home race.
By taking three victories at Monza in Italian Formula 4, Zhou first made himself known and wrestled the championship lead from Prema teammate Ralf Aron. It took two years for him to return to the circuit however, this time in the 2017 FIA Formula 3 European Championship season where he scored three top-ten finishes.
Zhou’s Formula 2 career took a bit of time to get going, while he had a few podiums, his Monza round was impressive. He outqualified his teammate, local star Luca Ghiotto, by 1.6 seconds, and climbed back to fourth from last in the sprint. Two podiums in 2021 only enhance his story at the track.
Honourable mention: Abu Dhabi, a fastest lap and podium on his debut, wins in 2021 at the track in Asian Fomula 3 and Formula 2.
Nico Hülkenberg (#27) – Autódromo José Carlos Pace
Covidmania running wild opened the closed door of Formula 1 once more for a short while for Nico Hülkenberg. Barring a major twist or a second infection at the Aston Martin drivers, he will not race at the Autódromo José Carlos Pace, the track he performs the best at.
Understandably, the first thought goes to Hülkenberg’s finest moments in Formula One: his only career pole position at the 2010 Brazilian Grand Prix in wet conditions (after Rubens Barrichello came up with the idea to switch to Inters) and challenging for the victory in the 2012 Brazilian Grand Prix.
Even beyond that, he performed extremely strongly in Brazil. Outside of his final season, he was never outqualified in São Paulo. Other impressive performances include his sixth place in 2015, where he completely outperformed his teammate Sergio Pérez.
Honourable mention: Spa-Francorchamps, many great runs that often went under the radar including a chance at that elusive podium position.
Esteban Ocon (#31) – Hungaroring
While the actual events of the 2021 Hungarian Grand Prix were hard, if not impossible, to predict, the eventual winner should not have been quite as much of a surprise. After all, the Hungaroring is Esteban Ocon’s track of choice.
His first outing at the venue in 2012 was underwhelming, but one season later, he would take a podium there. In his year in Formula 3, he used the experience at the track to take a second place finish followed by two dominant victories.
Adding two second-place finishes on his way to the weirdest runner-up streak in motorsport history, he debuted at the Formula 1 Hungarian Grand Prix in 2017. He impressed a few times before winning his first Formula 1 Grand Prix with a breathtaking drive in 2021.
Honourable mention: Spa-Francorchamps, many second places in the feeder series, impressive in Formula 1 pretty much from day one.
Sir Lewis Hamilton (#44) – Circuit of the Americas
If picking from 53 victories for Sebastian Vettel was hard, imagine doing that for 103 victories. Yet, after careful consideration, the author has chosen the Circuit of the Americas as the track Lewis Hamilton delivers his best performances.
Winning the inaugural event was the highlight of a weak second half of 2012. This victory was one of the five wins Hamilton had in the first six outings of the CotA. In the one year he failed to win, Vettel was unstoppable but Hamilton was in fact miles ahead of teammate Nico Rosberg.
Hamilton’s victory in 2015 secured his third world championship. After winning again in 2016 and 2017, Hamilton went into Austin either with the goal of setting up a world-title clincher or clinching the world title, the latter he successfully did in 2019, which meant less victories than would have been possible.
Honourable mention: Hungaroring, eight victories, some of which were strategic masterpieces, including a win in the struggling MP4-24
Mick Schumacher (#47) – Nürburgring
Nature can be a cruel thing. Mick Schumacher had a chance to at least test in a Formula 1 car at his finest venue in 2020, but the harsh environment of the Eifel put a stop to that when fog prevented the first free practice session of that year’s Grand Prix from happening.
In his first outing at the Green Hell, Schumacher scored points twice, breaking a seven-race pointless streak. One year later, he scored an important pole and victory to keep himself in the ADAC Formula 4 title hunt.
In Formula 3, he dominated the Nürburgring round in his second season. Three victories for a clean sweep of the venue were part of a late-season rise that had championship rival Dan Ticktum rather ticked off.
Honourable mention: Misano, two victories on his very first race in Italian Formula 4, adding another one during the Formula 3 late season charge mentioned above.
Carlos Sainz, Jr. (#55) – Circuit de Monaco
Carlos Sainz, Jr.’s first success on the European racing stage was victory in the Junior Monaco Kart Cup in 2009; this success proved prophetic as his best track is in fact the hometrack of his teammate, the Circuit de Monaco.
He scored his first points in Formula Renault 3.5 at the 2013 Monaco round before getting another fourth place in 2014. He then moved on to Formula 1, where the Spaniard first proved his skill on the streets by outqualifying future world champion Max Verstappen.
Since then, Sainz has never failed to score points at Monaco, with his sixth place in 2017’s qualifying and race deserving special mention, and was never outqualified on the streets either until 2021. Even then, unlike his teammate, he actually managed to turn his great qualifying into championship points.
Honourable mention: Interlagos, Sainz had some nice drives in Brazil, including his best drive in the second half of 2016, his first podium in 2019 and a point with a third place in the #F1Sprint.
George William Russell (#63) – Silverstone
With Lewis Hamilton’s career slowly approaching its end, the famously jingoistic Sky UK coverage needs a new vessel to pull their force behind. Russell is a good choice for multiple reasons: his talent, his personality and that he performs best at the Silverstone, the home of British motorsport.
He opened his first campaign in open-wheel racing with a fifth and two victories at Silverstone in British Formula 4. Next year, he scored another win at Silverstone in a series debut, this time in European Formula 3, the only victory for him and the Carlin team that season.
Before his F1 debut, he scored a victory at Silverstone in GP3 and added a pole, fastest lap and two second places in Formula 2. In Formula 1, he excelled at the track from the word go, peaking with an amazing eight place in qualifying for the #F1Sprint.
Honourable mention: Spa-Francorchamps, wins in Formula 3, GP3, Formula 2 and a masterpiece of wet qualifying in 2021 that basically gifted him his first podium “finish”.
Valtteri Bottas (#77) – Sochi Autodrom
Given that Finland has no Formula 1 Grand Prix, its drivers tended to have the Hungarian Grand Prix as their “home race”. For Bottas, on the other hand, his “home” and best track is in the neighbouring country: the Sochi Autodrom in Russia.
The numbers speak in loud volume: Bottas has seen the flag in all but one of the eight Russian Grands Prix. He never finished outside of the top five at Sochi. Understandably, given that he had the best car for five of the races in Sochi, the reader may not be impressed yet.
However, he impressed in various ways: almost beating Nico Rosberg to second in the inaugural Sochi race; beating Sebastian Vettel to the flag in 2017 for his maiden victory; being quicker than Hamilton the year afterwards before surrendering the lead to him, as well as his second-to-last Mercedes win in 2020.
Honourable mention: Albert Park, outqualified race winner Pastor Maldonado in his debut, looked strong in his Mercedes debut in 2017 and told the haters to go love themselves after winning in 2019.
With the list complete, the author acknowledges the fact that this article will inspire some debate. This, in turn, creates a question worth asking: can there be any knowledge extracted from these selections? Well, in a way there is: by looking at the sample sizes, the discussion gravitates to circuits the younger drivers in particular competed at in the development series. With that in mind, there is a clear pattern of a handful of European circuits standing out. These tracks tend to be on the extreme end of either spectrum as far as speed is concerned. With those data points, it is clear that evidently the path to Formula 1 has become Eurocentric and normalised, as is the goal of the FIA.
However, with the fact that most of the circuits mentioned in the list above gravitate to the extreme, it points out that standardisation both in tracks and career paths are a very undesirable path for motorsport and could end up hurting both the ability of young drivers as well as their chances to compete at the ultimate level. Experienced veterans like Hamilton and Vettel have advanced knowledge of circuits most rookies never set a foot on until their first Formula 1 weekend at those tracks. It is going to be interesting to find out whether the new FIA regime finds a way to expand the track knowledge of young talents.
With all 20 drivers sorted out, this Gravel Trap should provide a helpful guide for the fan of each driver to look forward to the upcoming 2022 Formula One season. With 23 races (assuming the Russian Grand Prix is replaced, which is a reasonable assumption), it will be very helpful for any fan to have events to look forward to beyond the “mere” interest in Formula 1 itself.
By the time this article goes online, the world will only be a few hours away from the first important Formula 1 action, qualifying for the XVIII Gulf Air Bahrain Grand Prix.
As the legendary Darrell Waltrip used to say: “Boogity, boogity, boogity, let’s go racing in the desert!”
Sources: Autosport, motor1.com, motorsport-total.com, StatsF1, Wikipedia
Image sources: Alpine F1 Team, Mercedes GP, Wastrick (licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, resized)