Tech Draft: An early season Formula 1 driver rundown

Tech Draft: An early season Formula 1 driver rundown

A third of the 2022 Formula 1 season has already elapsed, and it won’t be long now before the “Silly Season” is upon us.

We are starting to develop a real understanding of who the contenders for both Championships are, which drivers deserve to be in Formula 1 in the future, and which ones deserve to be moved on in 2023.

This weekend’s 2022 Formula 1 Monaco Grand Prix provided us with a stark contrast.

At one end of the spectrum Sergio Perez, who seems to have connected fantastically with the RB18, and at the age of 32 had what was probably the best Grand Prix weekend of his career winning the race, and at the other end we had the unfortunate Mick Schumacher who not only failed to score any points for himself and Haas again, but for the second time in 2022, split his VF-22 in half.

So, lets have a look at the teams and more broadly evaluate the driver’s performance, particularly in comparison to that of their teammates.

Red Bull Racing

 Max Verstappen: So long as Red Bull can provide Max with a reliable car it seems highly probable that back to back championships are on the cards for Max. The Monaco Grand Prix was the first time this season that he hasn’t won a race which he had finished but finishing on the podium in third on a “bad” weekend for Max in 2022 surely reflects the way in which his overall race temperament has matured.

Sure, there are murmurs from within his inner circle that the RB18 is not quite behaving to his liking yet but having won four of the seven races so far this season is an ominous enough statement. Max seems to be tempering the aggression well, whilst maintaining the devastating speed he is renown for.

Sergio Perez: It would be easy for a person with a lesser understanding of Perez’s Formula 1 career to label it as a fairytale, but in a way, it would be disrespectful because the real story of his career is about being cut down, getting back up, and sheer hard work.

In a 2022 car that appears to have a balance more rearwards than in 2021, Perez has provided Red Bull with its most complete Constructors’ challenging pairing since the departure of Daniel Ricciardo. It may very well be that Red Bull have no desire for Perez to surpass Verstappen and be its primary championship contender, but Perez has the maturity to put that aside and keep finishing on the podium regularly, rack up Constructors’ points, and is providing his team with far more strategic versatility during races, something that Red Bull has lacked in recent years.

I expected just reward for Perez to not only be re-signed by Red Bull, but for him to finish his career at Red Bull, and deservedly so. For Perez that day when he found out that Sebastian Vettel was replacing him at Racing Point/Aston Martin in 2021 with no immediate backup plan to continue racing in F1 the following year must now seem like nothing but a lifetime ago. In the words of Martin Brundle, “Perez is driving simply beautifully”.

Ferrari

Charles Leclerc: Let’s make no mistake about it. Charles will be a Formula 1 World Champion one day. However, for me it is debatable whether it will be in 2022, or whether it will be with Ferrari at all. Unfortunately, it is starting to look as though not only Ferrari are struggling to cope with the pressure of being a championship contender, but the cracks are starting to show in Charles’s temperament.

So long as Charles can contain his frustrations and continue to perform at the level he has been to date every time his car is on the track, and his team can provide him with the car capable of doing so, he will be right there at the front.

Carlos Sainz: For me Sainz has been slightly disappointing, and whilst that may be a brutal assessment of a driver who has finished in a podium position in half of the races so far this season, the metric is his teammate Leclerc who essentially outpaces Sainz every time the pit lane opens.

I have no doubt that Sainz will eventually be a Grand Prix winner, and probably even a multiple race winner, but in the current F1 environment with its new generation of young outstanding high level talent, which he is a part of, I am not convinced that he is Drivers’ Championship material.

Nevertheless, in Sainz Ferrari has a driver who is capable of scoring in high positions often enough to support a serious Constructors’ Title challenge, so long as the silly mistakes, such as those he has made earlier this season, are kept to a minimum.

Mercedes

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George Russell: Having served an important three-year Formula 1 apprenticeship of sorts at Williams and also performing the way he has in the first seven races of his career at Mercedes, there is little doubt that Russell isn’t just the longer term future of the German marque in F1, but also a future World Champion candidate, and possibly for multiple times.

After an arduous time at Grove in a car never remotely capable on merit of winning races, and even in this year’s currently underperforming Mercedes, Russell would probably feel as though he is driving a rocket ship. There would be no doubt that Russell’s infectious positive attitude would be dragging his crew along with him and that his influence on car development would be ever increasing as time passes.

As Mercedes increase their understanding of the W13’s woes, mitigate them and then start working on outright performance development Russell will become one of the Championship’s greatest threats.

Lewis Hamilton: As the first third of the 2022 season concludes and the new generation of elite talent in F1 matures I can’t help but feel that Hamilton’s chances of ever winning that elusive eighth Title are rapidly diminishing.

Recently – through his on-track performances, body language, and the occasional quote to the media – it is obvious that the 2022 spec cars are not to Hamilton’s liking, and he is indeed quite uncomfortable driving them. As we all know Mercedes are gradually coming to grips with the ground effects-induced “porpoising” that is causing the violent bouncing in the W13 that we have all seen footage of, but there is no cure for the need of the new ground effects F1 cars to be so stiffly sprung.

Unfortunately, it seems to me that due to the inherent behavioral characteristics of the new era F1 car, at the age of 36 years we may have now seen the best of the seven-time Champion.

McLaren

Lando Norris: Another clear star of the new Formula 1 generation. Norris’s ability to drag what has at times early in the 2022 season appeared to be an underperforming MCL36 to points finishes, and even a podium, is indicative that he has been able to adapt to the 2022 specification and with an underperforming teammate, has once again taken the lead with respect to technical development direction.

The one thing lacking in the equation of Norris one day becoming Champion is a teammate who can push him harder, because at the moment there is simply daylight between his performance level and that of Daniel Ricciardo. Although, I sense a change of teammate for Norris is a real possibility for 2023.

Daniel Ricciardo: There is no point in being patient or understanding anymore with Ricciardo. In Formula 1 he is a spent force. In the 27 races that Ricciardo has partnered Norris at McLaren, Norris has finished higher than Ricciardo 75% of the time, and Norris has scored approximately 65% of all points that McLaren has earned.

Over the same period of time, the qualifying head-to-head is an astonishing 21-8 in Norris’s favor. Ricciardo started his McLaren career in 2021 and was automatically out of sorts with the unique braking and other niche chassis characteristics of the 2021 MCL35M, but in 2022 he has fared no better at all.

Of course, many of us are drawn to the likeable big smile and infectious character that Ricciardo is well known for, but F1 is a tough performance-based business with no room for being a nice guy as the primary metric. McLaren find themselves in the same situation as Red Bull did in the 2019-2020 period having a car with an upwards sloping performance trend, an absolute star in one car, and the need for a driver in the other seat who can score good points hauls on a regular basis.

Ricciardo is not providing that, and the cold hard reality for me is that he is now cooked, we have seen the best of Ricciardo already, and that his time at McLaren will conclude at the end of 2022.

Alpine

Esteban Ocon: Only a hard nosed person wouldn’t have been impressed by Ocon’s impressive speed and maturity in 2022. In his teammate, Fernando Alonso, he has a benchmark second to none who he is matching in qualifying head to head and surpassing in points scored.

The question for Ocon is whether Alpine will be capable of giving him a car that can have him challenging the front runners before, hopefully, one of those front running teams make him a deserved offer that he can’t refuse.

Ocon rightfully belongs in that elite group of new generation talent that will dominate Formula 1 for the next decade, along with Verstappen, Russell, Norris, and Leclerc.

Fernando Alonso: Alonso is just as talented, sharp, and wily as he has ever been at any stage in his career. In recent years he has demonstrated an amazing diversity and adaptability in his talent by performing at a high level in not only F1, but Indycar, WEC, and the Dakar rally, and so it is no surprise that he has now adapted to the more stiffly sprung and harder to drive 2022 spec cars, probably the best out of any of the older guard drivers, except for Perez.

Nevertheless, Alonso presents Alpine with a problem though, doesn’t he? For, in Oscar Piastri they have a young man that for all intents and purposes probably will belong in that new guard of elite talent I discussed earlier and must get an opportunity in a race team sooner rather than later. However, it is debatable whether that opportunity should be at the expense of an Alonso who is performing at the level he currently is, despite his age.

Alfa Romeo

Valtteri Bottas: Being removed from the pressure cooker environment associated with being a Mercedes driver and the obvious and continual comparisons to a teammate who is possibly the greatest driver in the history of Formula 1 has Bottas in a career renaissance, and he thoroughly deserves it.

He is obviously enjoying less media scrutiny; and the opportunity to be Alfa Romeo Sauber’s lead driver, influence technical direction, and mentor to a rookie in his teammate Zhou Guanyu. Bottas’s performance in 2022 has been on-point and consistent.

Along with a C42 that is capable of much improved performance in comparison to recent years, he is taking the team to another level.

Zhou Guanyu: Whilst Zhou hasn’t started his F1 career with all guns blazing and stunning us with incredible performances yet, he certainly has impressed with a mature, measured, and methodical approach which will serve him well.

The time when the raw speed that he demonstrated in F2 to be shown in F1 will come all too soon. If that speed that I assume he can repeat in F1 is realized soon, and he can sustain it on a reasonable basis, he will assure himself of an F1 career in the short term. For now, though, he certainly doesn’t seem to be out of his depth.

AlphaTauri

Pierre Gasly: The start of the 2022 season has been a little lackluster in comparison to what we have been used to from Gasly. Whilst he has outqualified his teammate Yuki Tsunoda 5-2 this year, the latter leads Gasly in Championship points, with the Frenchman’s highest finish in 2022 to date being a modest eighth position in Jeddah.

Whether he is having difficulties I am unsure, however with Perez having just signed a two-year contract extension at AlphaTauri’s big sister team Red Bull, 2022 will more than likely be an important juncture in his career.

If he is to gain the attention of a team capable of providing him with the warranted opportunity at the front of the grid in the future, then he really needs to start performing at the level we know he is capable of, right now.

Yuki Tsunoda: 2021 was a year of grace for Tsunoda, he made many silly mistakes and seldom demonstrated his potential, but was given dispensation due to his greenness as a rookie.

Surprisingly in 2022, though, it is obvious that not only has he matured in his behavior and general approach to F1 but has also adapted very well to the 2022 spec cars. I sense that it is only a matter of time before the breakthrough moment for Tsunoda occurs and we see a brilliant qualy performance or points score from him. I just hope that he isn’t muzzled too much and that we continue to hear the hilarious radio chatter from him.

Aston Martin

Lance Stroll: Unfortunately for Stroll, the stigma of nepotism will be associated with him until such time as he can find a drive in a team not owned, or paid for, by his father. It is even more unfortunate for him that this will probably never happen because after five and a half seasons in F1 his record simply doesn’t support it.

The all too infrequent glimpses of anything resembling elite level F1 performance from Stroll through his F1 career just wouldn’t support any team contracting him on pure merit. Of course, Lawrence Stroll is chairman and a major shareholder in both AMR GP Limited, the investment consortium-owned company that owns and operates the Aston Martin team, and Aston Martin Lagonda Global Holdings PLC, but he doesn’t own them outright himself, and so one should rightfully assume that a degree of accountability for Lance’s position in the team based on performance exists somewhere in the pipeline.

The Aston Martin F1 team is not only in dire need of improved performance from their cars, but also from their drivers, and I strongly believe that Lance’s time in F1 is long past its due date.

Sebastian Vettel: There is no questioning that the Aston Martin team has grand plans to climb the ranks in F1 and become a front runner. A comprehensive corporate restructure, an impressively large new factory being built, the poaching of key technical staff from other teams, talk of manufacturing their own power unit, and the signing of a four-time World Champion in Vettel to help lead the on-track direction of the technical development of their designs were all part of that plan.

Alas, after thinking about it for a while, the best description I can come up with to describe Vettel’s (nearly) two seasons with the Aston Martin team is that it has been a disappointing fizzer. Personally, I am convinced that the decline in Vettel’s career has gone hand in hand with heavier, more understeer prone cars. In his prime at Red Bull Vettel excelled in a much lighter car with a balance more forwards that allowed for more aggressive rotation around the front axle, particularly in low speed corners.

As the years have gone by, he has struggled with adapting to the rear brake by wire system and the less intuitive pedal feel and modulation matrix associated with it, and the ever increasing tendency for the heavier F1 cars to balance the rear end with more rear wing. There are plenty of rumors circulating recently that this will be Vettel’s last season in F1, and I hope for the sake of his team, and his own legacy, that it is.

Williams

Alex Albon: Like Gasly and Daniil Kvyat before him, Albon was swallowed and spat out by the Helmut Marko driver development scheme, and I think that it is a shame because in Albon I’m sure there is real performance potential.

After a 2021 Formula 1 season with essentially zero real world mileage, Albon slotted straight back in, has been fast, and has taken over the role of lead driver with ease, and continued the more positive way forward that George Russell had started paving.

Albon has outqualified his teammate 6-1, out raced 5-1, and finished in a point-scoring position twice. With a fast and mature-natured Albon at the wheel, surely it is only a matter of time before Williams finds some pace and bags some good points hauls.

Nicholas Latifi: The 2019 F2 season, in which Latifi finished second on merit, seems like a distant memory because his nearly two and a half seasons in F1 with Williams have been long and mostly unrewarding.

The point is that Latifi isn’t void of talent, but nevertheless we need to remember that F1 is meant to be a competition for the most elite of the elite, and hence the truth is that he simply doesn’t cut it. The metric in coming to that conclusion is the comprehensive slaughtering of him in comparison to his two teammates in all head to heads during his time at Williams: George Russell a future World Champion candidate, and Alex Albon an experienced and very talented driver who has just had a full year of not driving.

I have been mostly impressed with the longer term strategies that Dorilton Capital have taken since taking over ownership of Williams, but for a team with real aspirations of returning to somewhere closer to its heyday of the 1980’s and 1990’s, the short-sighted and antiquated tactic of taking on a pay driver to inject cash into the system to ensure survival is no longer relevant.

Regrettably for Latifi, the 2023 season must be a year in which Williams either has two drivers capable of maximizing the prospect of scoring points at every round, or at least one capable of doing so whilst developing and nurturing an ultra-talented young prospect, such as Oscar Piastri, as the other. Either way, I don’t think Latifi will fit into Williams’ plans beyond 2022.

Haas

Kevin Magnussen: With the downfall of Nikita Mazepin, it was just reward and a wise decision by Haas to consider Magnussen – who to me is a very talented yet under-rated driver – as his replacement.

It is hardly ever constructive to ponder on the ‘ifs and buts’ of the past, because we can’t change it, but I often wonder what might have become of Magnussen if his career hadn’t been so heavily influenced by the decision of Ron Dennis, who disgracefully discarded him from a McLaren race drive at the end of a 2014 season in which the MP-29 he and his teammate that year, Jenson Button, were driving was totally incapable of challenging for wins.

Magnussen has always been very fast, but his return to Haas in 2022 has been complemented by a mature tempering of what was at times overly aggressive race craft. It won’t be long until Magnussen scores some big points hauls, and in the right circumstance, maybe even a podium.

Mick Schumacher: Throughout his career to date, Schumacher has demonstrated a propensity to start slowly, take the time to settle in, and then start performing at a very high level.

Nevertheless, he has surely now had enough time to settle into F1, but the results haven’t been forthwith. I have always felt somewhat sorry for Mick because his father is one of the most, if not the most talented drivers to have ever raced in F1, and whether it is fair or not, he is always going to be measured against that. We only need to look back at Schumacher’s 2020 Championship F2 season, in which he only won two races, to realise that whilst he is indeed a talented young man behind the wheel, he isn’t a prodigy by a long shot.

Due to that it might be reasonable to conclude that Schumacher’s seemingly accelerated path into a race team in F1 was due, at least in part, to his surname and the legend with which it is naturally associated.

Having split two chassis in half already this year through driver error, and considering that he has failed to score any points whatsoever, or at all during his F1 career, whilst his teammate has already scored thrice and looks to be capable of scoring far more, surely the only reason for persevering with Schumacher beyond 2022 would be because he was oozing with the potential to join the new guard of elite talent with Verstappen, Russell, Leclerc, and Norris, but I just don’t think that is the case.

Whilst it makes sense on several levels for the son of a legend to follow in his father’s footsteps, this is after all F1 and therefore the “raison principale” must be that of elite talent in every instance. Sadly, for Mick Schumacher I sense that he simply hasn’t got what it takes.