2022 marks the start of Formula One's new era.
The changes are numerous and crafted to promote closer racing. It even marks the return of ground effect in F1; instead of relying on wings and bargeboards to create downforce, they use aerodynamics under the floor to suck the car to the track for extra grip. Needless to say, this is one of the most significant changes in the sport since they switched to V6 turbo hybrids in 2014.
Major technical regulation shake-ups like this tend to change the usual pecking order. And for long-time Formula One fans like me, I make it a point to watch the opening race. It's the first time to see which teams got the rules right, and who got it all wrong. That happened with Brawn in 2009, Red Bull in 2010, Mercedes in 2014, and now Ferrari. And they're hungry (with a vengeance) after two difficult years.
Charles Leclerc scored a hat-trick (pole position, fastest lap, and race win) in the Bahrain Grand Prix. Together with Carlos Sainz, the young duo brought home Ferrari's first 1-2 victory since 2019. On the other hand, Lewis Hamilton benefitted from a late-race trouble from the two Red Bulls to finish 3rd.
We were treated with plenty of on-track battles and surprise performances throughout the race. And after 57 laps of racing action, here's what we've picked up from the Bahrain Grand Prix.
1. Cars can (finally) follow each other closely
F1's 2022 rules are meant to provide closer racing, and that's what we saw. Indeed the FIA has done a great job at that, as cars were able to follow each other around corners a bit more and really battle it out. To be honest, I can't remember the last time I saw a Formula 1 race where cars were (literally) following each other nose to tail, allowing more chances for drivers to successfully attack or defend in the race.
This time, on-track battles have more effect on the outcome of the race instead of relying too much on strategy, as we saw drivers across the grid able to race side by side, and dice for position even on non-DRS zones.
2. Leclerc vs. Verstappen
One classic example of F1's new rules giving better racing action was the battle for the lead between Leclerc and Verstappen. Boy that was a joy to watch.
Both drivers were fighting as if it was the final race of the season and for the title. Max dives on one corner, then Leclerc would get it back right away. What's amazing is both drivers were very aggressive attacking and defending, yet there was no contact between the two. That's how racing should be done really. A proper F1 dogfight. We're also seeing how mature Leclerc's racing mind and racecraft are.
Leclerc and Verstappen both relished their duel for the lead in their post-race interviews, and I believe we're going to see them battle a few more times in the season. The only question now is, will the rivalry remain just as civil once they're both challenging for the title?
3. Haas and K-Mag are back in the mix
The Haas F1 Team had gone through two dismal seasons, and their turbulent pre-season looked as if they are once again bound for disappointment.
Usually, losing sponsors spell trouble as you lose money for development. However, Haas is telling a different story this year. In fact, I look at their performance last night as if they came close to the fairytale story of Brawn GP back in 2009. After replacing Nikita Mazepin, the returning Kevin Magnussen finished a strong 5th place, and Mick Schumacher even came close to scoring his first F1 points by finishing 11th.
It's crazy how Haas went from a backmarker team to becoming the best of the rest. K-Mag was even fighting with the Mercedes on the opening laps. If Mick Schumacher hadn't spun, he could have finished in the top 10 as well. Honestly, I couldn't be happier for them for becoming competitive once again. Guenther Steiner's expletives on the radio are now because of delight instead of disappointment. F1 Drive To Survive season 5 should have plenty of those this year.
5. F1 debuts and returnees
Formula One's first-ever Chinese driver to join the grid, Guanyou Zhou, drove a steady race on his debut to finish 10th, giving Alfa Romeo double points scoring as Valtteri Bottas finished 6th. Things look good for Alfa Romeo in terms of on-track performance so far, and so does Zhou, who kept his nose clean and stayed out of trouble throughout the race.
However, there's not much to write about the super-sub, Nico Hulkenberg, and the returning Alex Albon. Both their cars weren't simply fast enough to reach the top 10 places - which begs us to ask a very important question.
6. What happened to the Mercedes engine?
Mercedes power units were the class of the field ever since the hybrid era began in 2014. But during the first race, it's clear to see that even the formidable works Mercedes engine look pedestrian against the Ferrari, Honda (called Red Bull Powertrains), and even Renault power units. So what has changed?
For 2022, Formula One engines now run on E10 fuel, and it looks as if the Mercedes power units got nerfed because of that. All the teams that used customer Mercedes engines (Aston Martin, Williams, McLaren) finished at the bottom of the standings.
7. McLaren's disappointing outing
I had high hopes that McLaren would be up there fighting for wins against Red Bull and Mercedes this season, and it was rather disappointing to see them at the back of the grid. I believe Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo have top-tier skills for an F1 driver, but they were simply let down by the MCL36.
If they are having anything like Ferrari's 2020 power-unit issue where there are no quick fixes, then they are in for a season to forget, together with other customer Mercedes-engined teams.
8. Mercedes start on the backfoot
Two of Formula One's protagonists last season were overshadowed by Ferrari's strong showing, and they're leaving Bahrain with a lot of homework to do.
It turns out, Mercedes wasn't sandbagging at all with their lack of pace, as Lewis Hamilton could only muster 5th in qualifying. Other than that, the Mercedes doesn't handle well in the corners and seems to suffer greatly with porpoising in the straights. They're lucky to have finished 3rd and 4th despite those issues and their power unit advantage being reduced to nil.
However, one must not count out Mercedes this early. They weren't 8-time constructors' champions for a reason, and I'm sure they could get it figured out.
9. Red Bulls have the pace, but the Honda/RBP is fragile
Red Bull didn't suffer from handling issues unlike their last year's rival, Mercedes. Pace-wise, they could keep up with the Ferraris, and Max Verstappen even dueled with Charles Leclerc for the lead. However, after the late safety car period caused by Pierre Gasly's AlphaTauri, both Red Bulls retired with suspected fuel pump issues.
Flashbacks of Newey-designed early 2000s McLarens remind me of their troubles, and they need to sort that quickly to prevent Ferrari from running away. As long as they sort their issues out, then Red Bull can do a rematch with Ferrari as soon as the next race in Saudi Arabia.
10. We missed the Italian national anthem
After two years of seeing Red Bull and Mercedes on top at almost every Formula One podium ceremony, things are turning out different this season. For the first time in 45 races, the Italian national anthem has played for the race-winning team.
Scuderia Ferrari has done their homework to get a head start for the new season, and I can't help but feel nostalgic hearing the Italian national anthem while the guys in red occupy the top two steps of the podium. It somehow reminds me of the glory days of the Schumacher era and makes me hopeful they get to do that more this year.
With a thrilling season ahead, here's a piece of advice: don't just settle for the Drive To Survive series to feed your dose of drama in Formula One. The real thing is as good as it gets. Just make sure you can come to work after staying up late on a Sunday night.