Last Sunday, the tenth race of the long 2022 Formula 1 season took place at the vintage Silverstone Circuit. The race ended with Carlos Sainz, Jr. earning his first career victory in the premier racing series on the planet. On the other hand, someone who had a bad time in Northamptonshire was championship leader Max Verstappen. After contact with a large piece of debris coming from an AlphaTauri, Verstappen struggled with his handling all afternoon. He made an unnecessary pitstop because he feared having a slow puncture, only to struggle even more when his planned stop put him on the hardest tyres. After the safety car period, he had to fight off Mick Schumacher in a very aggressive way to take seventh place – not a particularly inspiring finish for a championship contender.
Despite that, Max Verstappen left the United Kingdom with a championship lead of 34 points, more than the equivalent of a victory in both a race and a #F1Sprint. Given his strong showing in the races before, some fans feel anxiety about this title fight spiralling into a one-sided season after starting in such an exciting way. Of course, the idea to call a 22-race championship over after 10 races is ridiculous. Red Bull’s dominance has not been sufficient enough to justify such a claim. This is not a 2019 or 2020 season where after less than the halfway point it was clear that Mercedes GP and Sir Lewis Hamilton would take yet another world championship.
The author has no interest in declaring Verstappen the champion yet. Red Bull had reliability issues, especially in the first races. Max Verstappen is a great driver, but definitely not perfect either. With these facts in mind, it is easy to imagine a scenario in which that 34-point lead could easily come into peril. However, the key question is whether Verstappen’s title rivals are able to take advantage of those moments of weakness. To understand the feasibility of this idea, this Gravel Trap will look at the potential title competitors to find out why they can or cannot beat Max Verstappen for the championship.
As the common Formula 1 wisdom goes, the first rival a driver has to beat is their own teammate. At Red Bull, we are therefore looking at Sergio Pérez, the second-placed driver in the championship standings. Unlike in 2021, Pérez had a number of races where he either was the star or could have been the star. His victory at the Monaco Grand Prix shone the brightest, but in Saudi Arabia he could have won the Grand Prix as well if not for an ill-timed safety car period. Some would argue he should have been the winner of the Spanish Grand Prix as well, given the use of team orders in that Grand Prix. Still, there is little reason to assume Pérez can win this championship.
Contrary to what the reader might be inclined to think, the author does not make this assumption on the idea that Red Bull “would not let him”. It is true that Dr. Helmut Marko did just recently say that he liked having Pérez as teammate because he did not fight against Verstappen. However, even in a clear #1/#2 scenario, Red Bull Racing has never shown any inclination to truly stop their number two from taking the gold. In 2010, Red Bull would not have had any (public) complaints if Webber had seized the title and were trying to do their best to make it happen. While cynics could point towards Red Bull not using team orders at the Brazilian Grand Prix to help Webber, it should be noted that such a team order would have functionally taken Vettel out of championship contention. It is one thing to take a Grand Prix win away from your driver, but to remove him out of a somewhat realistic title chase would be a whole different level of team order.
The issue for Pérez is much simpler: Max Verstappen is simply a better driver than him. Unlike 2010’s version of Sebastian Vettel, the Dutchman has sufficient experience to avoid incidents like Vettel’s at Spa that helped his competitively weaker teammate to take the Red Bull-internal lead in the title hunt. Therefore, over a total of 22 races, Verstappen will simply demonstrate his superior pace to stay ahead of Pérez in the championship. Without wanting to disrespect Pérez, it stands to reason that races like the Formula 1 Rolex Gran Premio del Made in Italy e dell’Emilia-Romagna and the Azerbaijan Grand Prix actually reflect their talent levels.
Of course, this season is not a one-team affair like most seasons of the 2010s. The main competition of the Red Bull Racing team is Formula 1’s most prestigious outfit: the Scuderia Ferrari. After three seasons of not competing for the championship, the Ferrari F1-75 is a car with enough pace to secure the world championships. Its drivers Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, Jr. have tremendous ability, however both of them have created some question marks this season. Leclerc has had a number of poles, but has not been able to translate those into wins since early April. Sainz hurt his chances early in the season with a number of avoidable driver errors and is even now, after his first victory, over 50 points away from the championship leader.
However, even if both drivers deliver their metaphorical A-game for the rest of the season, they still have the issue that you win championships in spite of Ferrari, not because of Ferrari. For all the pace the F1-75 has had, it is certainly not the most reliable car in modern motorsport history. A double retirement in Baku and a turbo failure in Spain has completely wiped away the reliability advantage Ferrari seemed to enjoy after the first three races. By now Ferrari has had one additional retirement in comparison to Red Bull Racing. Yet, even with everything going right in terms of reliability, there is still one problem: the ladies and gentlemen responsible for race strategy. The blunder that cost Charles Leclerc a chance to take a further thirteen points out of Verstappen’s championship lead was described earlier and there is absolutely no reason to assume such errors will not happen again. Ferrari has a long-standing culture of strategy mistakes in recent years. The most ridiculous example from their last season in championship contention was qualifying for the 2018 Italian Grand Prix, where Ferrari decided to aid their number two to a pointless pole position at the expense of the championship-contending number one driver. The question is not whether Ferrari will make a race-losing error on the pitwall again, but only when those mistakes will happen and how much they will cost the Scuderia.
While it may appear so, Ferrari are not the only competition in the game. After they won eight consecutive constructor’s titles, it would be foolish to discount the Mercedes F1 Team until they are mathematically eliminated from contention. One thing that can be safely said after seeing ten races with this pairing is that Mercedes do have the strongest driver pairing in the field right now. George Russell has taken like a fish to water in his new ride, even if he himself has hoped for more. Despite expecting to be a race winner by now, he had the longest-running streak of points finishes in Formula 1 until his accident at the British Grand Prix. Sir Lewis Hamilton struggled out of the gate, getting emphatically beaten by his teammate and having a miserable day at Imola in particular. The Mercedes-AMG F1 W13 E Performance is getting better by the race, being fast enough to win the British Grand Prix if not for the safety car period (and, according to Christian Horner, Mercedes is also a contender to win the upcoming Austrian and French Grands Prix). The Mercedes-Benz power unit is the most reliable one in the sport and in terms of strategy, while not unassailable, the Brackley-based team is top tier.
With all that said, it must be noted that the simple fact of the matter is that Mercedes are a very long shot to win it all. Even if everything goes absolutely perfectly for the team, the hole they are in is most likely too big. George Russell would need a comeback the likes of which Formula 1 has never seen before to win the title in his first year with the Mercedes-Benz works team and the author does not consider it an overstatement to say that if Sir Lewis Hamilton were to win his eighth world title after the season he had so far (and his crash in Friday’s qualifying at Austria), it would be the greatest comeback in the history of modern professional sports. If either Mercedes driver were to win the title, it would be the first title since the anarchic 1982 season to have the champion win their first race so late in the year. It probably would require major car failures for both Ferrari and Red Bull Racing in addition to a couple of further blunders. The only way they could do it under their own power is if the designers at Brackley find a loophole in the rules to create an audacious upgrade in the way the Mercedes power unit engineers found massive additional power in late 2021.
As the Austrian Grand Prix and with it the half-way point of the season approaches, the excitement is still palatable for this first championship under the new aero regulations. Nobody, not even the author, can tell you who will be the 2022 world champion. However, looking at the competition, it simply is very difficult to imagine a way for Max Verstappen to lose the lead he currently enjoys in the WDC. The statements in praise of his competitions are all conditional and describing their way to the top of the mountain involves using the word “if” quite a lot. With that said, though…
“’If’ is a very long word in Formula One; in fact ‘If’ is F1 spelled backwards.” – Murray Walker
You tell them, Murray. You tell them.
Sources: motorsport-total.com, racefans.net, statsf1.com
Image sources: Dcmaradiaga (licensed under CC BY-SA 4.0, resized), Jiri Krenek for Mercedes-Benz