There are a lot of dynamics setting the 2022 season up to be a classic, even if the early championship standings don’t quite suggest as much.
Charles Leclerc’s lead is an imposing one, with 34 points over George Russell in second place but perhaps more importantly 46 over Max Verstappen – the only other driver to have won a race so far this season and the clear main challenger to Leclerc at this early stage.
That sort of gap could take a long time to close even if Red Bull gets its act together when it comes to reliability, but time is on Verstappen’s side given the 20 races that still remain, along with the untapped development potential of all the cars in 2022. Plus, this weekend’s Sprint event at Imola offers a maximum of 34 points to a driver if they win the Sprint, the grand prix and take the fastest lap.
It’s very likely that Red Bull will get its reliability sorted, and when it does it is already in a position to be a threat to Leclerc and Ferrari on most tracks. But the sustained challenge from Verstappen is not the main thing that is missing at the moment. What’s missing is the lack of any form of realistic assault from Mercedes.
History dictates that Mercedes is always competitive in the V6 era, and that it rapidly addresses problems with its cars both at the start of the season and when it needs to respond to a rival’s pace. Many skeptics liked to explain such gains as being set-up by sandbagging, but in reality one of the team’s biggest strengths has been its ability to identify and rectify problems quickly.
But so far 2022 hasn’t followed that trend, and the team has been unable to run the car anywhere near where it wants to in order to extract performance dragging on since the second test.
Melbourne did not offer any real cause for optimism, despite the third place for Russell that moved him up to second in the overall standings, or the fourth for Lewis Hamilton that also puts Mercedes ahead of Red Bull in the constructors’ championship.
The gap to Ferrari remains significant, and only Red Bull’s struggles with the tires brought the likes of Sergio Perez slightly into range for a battle, but one the Mexican was unlikely win – Russell was even told not to really fight him for position.
We were spoiled in 2021 in terms of how closely matched Mercedes and Red Bull – or more often than not, Hamilton and Verstappen – were at many venues. The amount of times the two main title protagonists went wheel-to-wheel was incredible, and helped ensure a blockbuster season before the unsavory ending.
But that storyline isn’t being developed into the next season because Mercedes just can’t get itself in the fight at the front at the moment. Imagine the tension if Hamilton and Verstappen were fighting it out for a race win in relatively equal machinery, but with the added threat of Leclerc and Ferrari to raise the stakes even more.
Throw in Russell’s potential too, and it would be a mouthwatering prospect. Instead, both Hamilton and Russell are hamstrung by their machinery and unable to muscle in on the action. That in turn leads to weekends like Melbourne where one of the leading teams faltering just makes life that much easier for the other, rather than Ferrari still having a challenge from Mercedes to deal with.
I’m speaking in hypotheticals, but I’m also speaking about one of the greatest teams Formula 1 has seen, such has been the dominance of Mercedes in recent years. It’s not unrealistic to expect Toto Wolff’s outfit to be right up there once more.
Wolff says the team spent Easter pushing hard in search of improvements that it can bring to the car, and there could be some relatively significant upgrades introduced in Imola. In many ways, that just shows the scale of Mercedes’ problems as it has to bring developments to a weekend where others have the luxury of focusing solely on the package in place – such as Ferrari – due to the pressures of having just one practice session before qualifying on Friday.
But those are the risks Mercedes must take in order to try and claw back the deficit to the top two. It’s worth a poor weekend results-wise in Imola if the additional track time with an updated car provides the team with important data that positively impacts its future direction.
It already had to give up some performance – however slight – in Melbourne by running sensors on Hamilton’s car that it had previously taken off in the opening two races due to weight concerns. The sensors would have told the team a lot about how the car was performing but such was its struggles with the car being heavy it opted to remove them in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia, before deciding the data was more important than ultimate performance at this stage of the year.
Of course, change can be a good thing as it stops F1 being predictable and repetitive, but despite many neutrals being bored of Mercedes’ dominance in recent seasons, the situation now means they will likely be rooting for the Silver Arrows to make rapid progress. Two different teams fighting it out for wins and titles last year was thrilling, but three would be another level once again and it feels within reach.
And even more bizarrely, right now Mercedes will be wanting Red Bull to hit the front while it is trying to sort out its own problems. The longer Mercedes can’t fight for wins, the more chance Ferrari and Leclerc have of being too far out of reach by the time it finally does get the W13 working as it wants. But if Red Bull can start reeling Leclerc back in, then the gap to the championship leader might be that little bit more recoverable if and when Mercedes has a race-winning car at its disposal.
I really hope it’s ‘when’ rather than ‘if’, because this season is going to be even more spectacular in that case. For all of the positive aspects of 2022, Hamilton and Russell being properly in the fight at the front is the biggest missing ingredient right now.