The chequered flag for the 2022 season is within sight. Only nine rounds remain in a campaign conclusion spread over just 11 weeks — only nine rounds to decide whether Max Verstappen gets his second championship or Charles Leclerc can mount an increasingly unlikely title assault to snatch the crown.
The season to date has been dominated by one major storyline: Ferrari’s battle to keep its head above water. Despite a relatively spritely opening stanza, the Italian team has been rag dolled by a confident Red Bull Racing and has struggled to stabilise itself.
The question is: was the mandatory summer shutdown enough of a break to help the team reset and enable it to realise its potential in the quickfire second half of the season?
Watch every practice, qualifying and race of the 2022 FIA Formula One World Championship™ live on Kayo. New to Kayo? Start your free trial now >
The Scuderia is far from the only team with something to prove. After 13 races of promising improvement but usually being left disappointed, Mercedes has a narrowing time from with which to claim a victory. Lewis Hamilton has never suffered a winless season in the entirety of his professional racing career; it would be ironic for the team that’s brought him almost all of his success to also shatter this unlikely achievement.
And then of course there’s Formula 1’s newest grudge match: McLaren versus Alpine. Already a frothy rivalry, the sudden defection of young gun Oscar Piastri from Enstone and into the waiting but apparently still legally constrained arms of Woking and Daniel Ricciardo’s seat has injected some real animus into the relationship.
Normally money is more than enough to motivate a team in a constructors championship battle, but this is all about pride.
THE CHAMPIONSHIP PICTURE
You might’ve forgotten in the haze of the mid-season break just how dire a set of numbers faces Ferrari and Leclerc in the second half of the year.
The Italian team trails Red Bull Racing by 97 points, while Leclerc is down by a whopping 80 points — more than three clear race victories.
That is, Verstappen could sit out the Belgium-Netherlands-Italy triple-header and still turn up in Singapore with his points lead intact.
It’s an incredible state of affairs for a team that wields the sport’s fastest car.
Not only is Ferrari and in particular Leclerc dominating the pole tally — the team’s eight is double Red Bull Racing’s count, and Leclerc can claim seven of them as his own — but on average through the season the SF-75 has been 100.1 per cent quicker than the RB18, a small but decisive margin.
But of course the massive points gaps aren’t down to pace but execution.
Looking at Leclerc’s forlorn points haul, the Monegasque can count 43 points lost to him through strategy mistakes, including leads in Monaco, Britain and Hungary turning into a couple of fourths and a sixth.
He could then point to a massive 58 points lost through engine unreliability, his motor failing in the lead of the Spanish and Azerbaijan grands prix, forcing him to take and engine change penalty and start from the back of the grid in Canada.
And then of course there are the 33 points he lost himself through driver error in Imola and France.
That’s a mammoth 134 points — enough to account for Verstappen’s advantage and even the Dutchman’s lost 36 points through engine drama early in the year.
There are two ways to cut this incredible number.
The first is to admit that Ferrari and Leclerc are throwing away a champion that they have the tools to win.
The second is to simply say that Ferrari and Leclerc had and still have those tools and that there’s just about time enough to wield them to apply some title pressure, no matter how a long a shot it is.
With the fastest car and the more consistent driver line-up — at least considering Sergio Perez’s July form slump — Ferrari can’t be fully discounted from the championship battle. But its first step is to prove it used the mid-season break to reinvent itself into a credible frontrunning operator.
FERRARI DEFENDING AGAINST MERCEDES
The other problem Ferrari has, however, is the prospect of Mercedes finally getting its act together and interfering with the previous exclusive frontrunning battle.
In fact after two successive double podiums, the German marque is only 30 points adrift of its Italian rival, while George Russell and Lewis Hamilton are 20 and 32 points respectively behind Leclerc.
Hamilton, on a five-race podium streak, has even managed to stand on the rostrum more times than the Monegasque.
After months of teasing false dawns, Mercedes finally seems ready to contend for victories again.
Or does it?
Really the bulk of the team’s recent strong results have come largely thanks to Ferrari and occasionally Red Bull Racing underperformances.
In Canada Sergio Perez suffered a technical failure and Leclerc was serving an engine penalty. In Austria Sainz’s engine blew up late in the race and Perez was involved in a crash with George Russell.
In France Leclerc crashed out early and Sainz was serving his power unit penalty, while in Hungary the Italian team made some baffling strategy calls to let both Mercedes drivers through at the flag.
Only in Britain was Hamilton a genuine victory threat — though even then he needed Verstappen out of the picture with bodywork damage — while his ultimate pace in Budapest was debatable given the Dutchman had a comfortable buffer in the lead by the time the Briton really got going.
That’s not to say the team hasn’t improved. On average this year the fastest Mercedes has been 101.09 per cent slower than the pole-getter in qualifying, or around 0.981 second slower around a hypothetical 90-second lap.
However, that gap started up at 101.37 per cent in the first four races (1.233 seconds) but by July had shrunk to just 100.65 per cent (0.585 seconds).
But more than half a second adrift in qualifying, even accounting for the gaps closing in the race, isn’t legitimate striking distance.
“We need to stay humble,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff told Sky Sports after his team’s Hungarian Grand Prix double podium. “Our car is just not good at the moment to fight with the guys in front.
“I‘m always a little bit pessimistic because I think I need to be. We are just lacking six or seven tenths to the leaders.”
But the trajectory is positive, and the team is also confident it learnt a lot form its unexpectedly competitive Hungarian Grand Prix weekend. The question is whether it can continue making ground to genuinely snipe for a victory — and whether it should, with potentially larger gains on offer for focusing on next year’s car after the disappointment of 2022.
THE NEWLY INTENSIFIED BATTLE FOR FOURTH
But while the battle for the championship and for the podium places is good, we all know we’re here for the fight between McLaren and Alpine through to the end of the year and into next season.
The two midfield leaders have spent the campaign to date battling over fourth in the constructors standings, the position captured by Renault in 2018 and won by McLaren last season.
It’s a big-money battle, with the difference between fourth and fifth worth somewhere in the vicinity of $7 million.
But money’s not what this is about. Not really. Not anymore.
A great deal of Alpine’s frustration for having been embarrassed by not one but two of its star drivers in the space of 48 hours at the start of the money flows directly to McLaren, treading the path beat by former reserve driver Oscar Piastri and his manager, Mark Webber, who are negotiating their way into Daniel Ricciardo’s seat.
“I expected more loyalty from Oscar than he is showing,” team boss Otmar Szafnauer told El Confidencial earlier this month. “It’s about integrity as a human being.”
There’s also the prospect of Alpine having to race with Alonso, who forsake the team at his earliest opportunity, and Ricciardo having to race for a team that did a deal behind his back while publicly supporting him in his struggles.
The battle is set up nicely too, with just four points separating the warring teams with nine races to go and arguably neither holding the upper hand.
Alpine has been the more consistent performer through the year, and its almost non-stop stream of upgrades is an impressive testament not just to the design department but also the team’s management of the cost cap.
McLaren, on the other hand, has been hamstrung in its development by budgetary pressures, though its last major update in France moved it handily forward after having drifted back into the pack.
The small gap also can’t be pegged on Daniel Ricciardo’s underperformance and 76-19 gap to teammate Norris as a sign that McLaren should be well up the road. Fernando Alonso’s already addressed that with his fanciful but truthfully anchored claim last month that he’s lost as many as 70 points through bad luck through the year.
Even considering a more realistic 40 or 50 points, however, would rocket him comfortably to the head of the midfield.
After 13 rounds there’s almost nothing between them — except a pure rivalry.
DRIVERS TRYING TO KEEP THEIR SEATS
Finally, the 2023 driver market has a few moves left to make, albeit none is likely to come close to the seismic shift triggered by Sebastian Vettel retiring from the sport.
The best-placed seat still uncommitted other than the vacant Alpine is at Alfa Romeo and currently occupied by Zhou Guanyu.
Zhou has said recently he’s feeling relaxed about his F1 future, and the team certainly seems happy with his rookie season so far.
His only true threat comes from Formula 2, where Sauber-backed Theo Pourchaire is 21 points behind the series leader. If he were to win the championship, he’d be unable to compete again, which would presumably force his promotion. Valtteri Bottas is already signed on a long-term deal.
Williams is suffering a similar dilemma with Nicholas Latifi. The Canadian is close to having played all his cards in Formula 1, but the team is yet to find him a logical successor after plans to accept Piastri on loan fell through.
The team’s development driver, Logan Sargeant, is currently third in the Formula 2 standings but possibly in need of another season in the feeder series, while Williams has been full of praise but so far unwilling to commit to Mercedes reserve Nyck de Vries.
Mick Schumacher is also without a contract at Haas, and the team is preparing to field fellow Ferrari junior Antonio Giovinazzi in two FP1 sessions in the coming months as the Italian searches for a route back into the sport.
MORE MOTORSPORT NEWS
‘KTM’S DONE IT AGAIN’: Gardner a potential shock casualty in MotoGP silly season
F1 PIT TALK: New threat to Schumacher’s seat; reverberations from Piastri saga continue
SVG UNSTOPPABLE: Reigning champ blows out title lead on dominant Sandown Sunday
GAME ON: Crucial Bagnaia victory creates three-way MotoGP title contest
Schumacher has improved markedly since his crash-prone early campaign and is carrying himself with a more relaxed demeanour since scoring his maiden points, but the team is unwilling to commit to a driver before October, and you get the sense it wants to know the German’s improvements are sustainable, not just a fleeting burst of form.
Finally Yuki Tsunoda is also yet to get the nod for a third season, though AlphaTauri boss Franz Tost has heavily hinted that the Japanese sophomore is on the right track to earn another year with the Italian team.
Only Tsunoda’s self-initiated crash in Canada, which proceeded some internal team flashpoints in Britain and Austria, threatened to undermine his campaign for an extension, but a lack of Red Bull junior drivers pushing hard for promotion for Formula 2 will likely keep the heat off all but the most egregious errors for now.