The titles have been decided and the pressure’s off — or so you might think.
Max Verstappen and Red Bull Racing have dominated the 2022 season to wrap up both championships, but in the final three races of the season there are still some crucial questions still without answers.
Some of the questions are being freshly asked.
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One of the first to be posed this weekend will come 5am (AEDT) on Saturday, when Jack Doohan gets his first spin on an F1 race weekend with Alpine.
Doohan’s rise through the junior ranks has been quiet and understated, but he’s now on the path towards F1, teasing the glimpse of a future in which Australia could have up to three drivers on the grid.
That would of course depend on Daniel Ricciardo making a comeback, but with every poor race, that goal gets slightly further away. He’ll need to put last weekend’s shocker behind him and regroup for Mexico to get even his backup plans back on track.
And on track is where this weekend’s biggest questions are. If Red Bull Racing has the dominant car, which driver will wield it — or be allowed to wield it — best? Will it be Max Verstappen in pursuit of a new record or Sergio Perez shooting for a first-ever Mexican home win?
That’s assuming the RB18 has things all its own way. After a close — well, close-ish — call in Austin, Mercedes will have its full upgrade package on tap in Mexico and be fully equipped with hope that its best chance to win a race this season isn’t behind it.
The titles may have been decided, but there’s plenty still to watch for.
WHAT WILL DOOHAN MAKE OF HIS FIRST CHANCE?
The weekend will open with a potentially crucial day for Australians in Formula 1, with Jack Doohan getting his first crack at modern-day F1 machinery on an F1 weekend.
Doohan, son of five-time motorcycling champion Mick, will get behind the wheel of an Alpine for the first hour of practice for the Mexico City Grand Prix, and he’ll do so again at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The 19-year-old is effectively Oscar Piastri’s replacement in the Alpine program since the Melburnian defected to McLaren for next season. Doohan is following in Piastri’s footsteps, albeit Alpine will hope without the controversial promotion to Formula 1.
Max claims US Grand Prix, RB win CC | 03:10
Doohan’s three wins in his first full-time Formula 2 season, in which he’s currently fourth in the standings, are a big part of why he’s received the call-up, as have been his three private tests in a year-old Alpine, giving the team the confidence to put him into the pressure cooker of a grand prix weekend.
“To be actually driving this year’s current Formula 1 car but also on the same track and at the same time as the current Formula 1 drivers on a Formula 1 weekend is going to be unbelievable,” Doohan said. “It’s something that I’ve dreamt of since I was a kid.
“We had some good time in the sim in which I was able to work the engineers to kind of get my head around it. It’s quite an extraordinary circuit and place, so it’s going to be an experience and not only for a new track but to experience [high-altitude, high-speed] conditions like these, but nevertheless I’m super excited.”
A big part Doohan’s experience in Mexico will be the chance to sit in with the team over the course of the weekend rather than jumping in and out between Formula 2 sessions, as he’ll have to do in Abu Dhabi, when the junior series is also on track.
The Aussie intends to make the most of the chance to try to embed himself into Alpine.
“I’ve been overlooking the Formula 1 weekend from afar over my Formula 2 season so far, being able to come up into the paddock at certain points, but actually being able to be full-time in the Formula 1 paddock and be with the engineers through every moment of the weekend will enable me to really understand the step-by-step moments that are required to fully be ready for these sessions and for participation in the session,” he said.
“Ultimately the aim is to be doing this every week, and this experience is another step closer to achieving that goal.
“I’ll work hard on the day, do everything the team sets out and at the same time enjoy the moment, as I know it’s going to be a unique opportunity.”
It’s always hard to judge success in rookie FP1 outings given they must balance acclimatisation while also contributing something to the team’s weekend run plan. It’s also completely up to the team whether to give a driver a glory run on low fuel — perhaps unlikely given this is Doohan’s first F1 weekend appearance.
But continuing on his trajectory for now is enough to tick the boxes.
“We have all been impressed with Jack’s progression across many areas this season and he’s deserving of this chance as we continue to nurture his high potential,” principal Otmar Szafnauer said. “We expect Jack to work hard during the session and take as much as he can from the experience of being involved in a Formula 1 grand prix weekend.”
Also in action this weekend in FP1 will be Nyck de Vries for Mercedes, Kiwi Liam Lawson for AlphaTauri and Pietro Fittipaldi for Haas.
VERSTAPPEN’S RECORD OF PEREZ’S PRIDE?
With both championships decided, Red Bull Racing is out to have fun in the final thee races, and with the fastest car on the grid, it’s sure to enjoy itself.
That’s not to say there’s nothing on the line between now and mid-November.
Max Verstappen stands on the precipice of history. The United States Grand Prix was his 13th victory of the season, tying him Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel for the most wins in a single campaign.
No driver has ever won 14 in a single year, but Verstappen now has three shots at setting a new benchmark.
Obviously Verstappen has the advantage of the equal longest season in F1 history, with three more races than Vettel had in 2013 and 14 more than Schumacher in 2004.
But Verstappen also has a chance to put himself near the top of the order in percentage terms too.
He’s guaranteed to be top 10 in terms of percentage victories in a season, but winning all three remaining races would put him a clear second behind only Alberto Ascari, who won six of the eight races in 1952. There’d be no denying such an achievement.
But targeting 16 wins puts him in direct competition with what ought to be Red Bull Racing’s other great aim for the season: getting Sergio Perez a home victory this weekend.
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It might sound unduly sentimental, but with Perez having been called to play the team game — in particular early in the season, when he was still very much a contender and had days on which he was quicker than Verstappen — facilitating him to a victory before the always enthusiastic Mexican crowd would not only keep him sweet but earn the team some very good publicity at a time it could really use it.
Perez of course has to go out and get it — the team isn’t going to go out of its way to hand it to him — but the Mexican is showing signs of improved form since his mid-season slump, with a win and a second place in his last three grands prix and a fourth place despite an engine penalty last time out in Texas.
The team may well not be forced into a decision, but if circumstance were to create such a scenario, which way the team falls would be fascinating.
WILL ANYONE PROTEST MERCEDES?
Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez is one of the calendar’s most extreme circuits. The layout itself is relatively uneventful, but what makes it such a challenge is the elevation.
Mexico City is 2.2 kilometres above sea level, where the air is around 22 per cent less dense — a problematic amount.
While turbochargers mean there’s no real power loss, there is a significant cooling deficit which can force teams to reduce power just to survive the race distance. The same goes for cooling, with brakes always running hot.
There’s a commensurate effect on aerodynamics. Typically teams bring their highest downforce bodywork to Mexico City to try to scavenge as much performance as possible, but the thinness of the atmosphere means they still generate only as much downforce as they do in Monza.
Which is where we come to the interesting question of Mercedes.
This year the car has tended to be run in a higher downforce configuration just to try to make the overall concept work, which in turn has left it massively down on straight-line speed owing to drag. But if drag isn’t a problem in Mexico, will the W13 still be so disadvantaged?
The other potential strong point for Mercedes will be the smoothness of this track, being still a relatively new construction. That will allow the car to run lower to the ground, closer to its optimum ride height.
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And that brings us to the team’s final major upgrade of the year, which was partially bolted on in the United States but which will be finalised this weekend with a front wing that carries some legality concerns.
The potential problem surrounds the slot gap separators — the bits that keep the front wing elements apart at high speed — and whether they’re primarily designed for an aerodynamic benefit rather than for structural reasons.
Mercedes has had it ticked off by the FIA already, but it’s ultimately up to the stewards to decide if a protest is lodged.
The team says it’s worth a relatively small amount in terms of lap time, but with the W13 sporadically on the pace, a small difference might be enough to put Mercedes back within striking distance of victory in the right circumstances.
CAN RICCIARDO TURN IT AROUND?
Three races left for Daniel Ricciardo to end his McLaren career on a positive note. It’ll sure take some climbing after his United States Grand Prix performance.
His 16th-place finish in Texas, last of all but Nicholas Latifi, was the comfortably his worst result of the year. While he finished 18th in Imola and 17th in the Netherlands, the former was marred by his first-lap crash and the latter was down to a poor qualifying result at a track where overtaking is tough.
In Austin he slid backwards from the grid, and it was all he could do to get past the severely hamstrung Latifi in the slowest car on the grid. Teammate Lando Norris, meanwhile, scored points with sixth.
“I’m choosing to laugh because I don’t really want to cry,” Ricciardo said on Sunday night.
“It’s one of those ones where — it’s happened all too often this year — early in the race, by lap eight, lap 10, I know how the rest of the day is going to go.
“You can just feel and also see what the other cars around can do — and simply what I’m not able to. If I knew [how to], the year would be going better.”
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We all know by now that Ricciardo’s struggles aren’t going to suddenly resolve themselves, but he might at least take a little bit of hope from the fact that he’s a podium-getter and pole-sitter in Mexico, albeit in different machinery.
“I still am going to do what I can in the last three [races],” he said, though he added, “I’m at a point where I’m not going to hope or think or expect it’s going to be an amazing last three races.
“Days like [Austin] leave you feeling a bit helpless.”
The rumour is that Ricciardo is close to, or perhaps has already done, a deal for next season, probably in a reserve driver role and likely with Mercedes — a good thing, if that’s what he wants, given the effect a few more performances like that in Texas could have on his already bruised reputation.