It might seem like the infamous Abu Dhabi Grand Prix concluded only yesterday—if Dale Earnhardt had the “pass in the grass,” could we call Max Verstappen’s championship-winning overtake the “pass in the Masi”? No? OK, we’ll work on it.
Anyway, even though everyone’s still breathing heavily after last year’s title decider, the 2022 Formula One season starts this weekend with the Bahrain Grand Prix. And thanks to a new set of technical regulations and the ongoing evolution of the sport’s cost cap, the competitive order could look a little different this time around. Mercedes and Red Bull have won the past 12 drivers’ and constructors’ championships between them, but this new era of F1 has been designed to be more competitive, chaotic, and (ideally) entertaining than any before.
So here are 27 people—drivers, officials, engineers—who stand to exert an outsize influence on this year’s championship, starting with two who had plenty of impact on last year’s.
27. Christian Horner—Team Principal, Red Bull Racing
26. Toto Wolff—Team Principal and CEO, Mercedes
This is more an aspirational ranking than an expectation. The 2021 season was one of the most acrimonious in recent memory, with Red Bull and Mercedes taking it to each other both on and off the track. But because the two drivers involved—Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton—are both too smart to shoot their mouths off about their rivals in the press (well, most of the time), their respective bosses ate up the bulk of that media vacuum.
The funny thing about Horner in DTS is how unlikeable he is despite very obviously trying to be incredibly cool for the cameras. It's all a bit Michael Scott, but for jocks.— Chain Bear (@chainbear) March 12, 2022
That was fun for a while, but after eight months of Horner and Wolff sniping at each other and lobbying the race stewards over the radio—and with Drive to Survive giving the two substantial airtime to rehash those grievances in Season 4—I’m kind of over it. I could use a year off. And, honestly, it seems like they could, too. When Horner was quoted last week as saying Mercedes’s new car design flouted technical regulations, he quickly denied making those comments before a new firestorm could take shape. Maybe he just wanted more time to FaceTime his kids about how much he wants Verstappen to win the title.
25. Michael Andretti—Owner, Andretti Autosport
The last American to get a full-time ride in a competitive F1 car all the way back in 1993, the legendary IndyCar driver and team owner has been trying to buy his way onto the F1 grid since last year. Over the summer, he led a consortium that bid on the Sauber–Alfa Romeo team. And now he’s proposing to become the first owner to pay a new $200 million anti-dilution fee—plus close to $1 billion more in startup cost— to put a second American team on the grid by 2024. The powers that be in F1 currently seem uninterested in printing money, for reasons that pass understanding. But while Andretti might not be on the grid, he wants to be so badly that he’ll probably be one of the sport’s headline players anyway this year.
24. Zhou Guanyou—Driver, Alfa Romeo
Had Alfa Romeo sold last year, Valtteri Bottas’s teammate could have been American IndyCar ace Colton Herta. Instead, Alfa took a swing on Zhou, a longtime Renault/Alpine junior driver who’ll become the first Chinese driver to race an F1 grand prix. Zhou was fine in the junior categories, though he couldn’t best then–Formula Two competitors Mick Schumacher, Nicholas Latifi, and Yuki Tsunoda—hardly a group of world-beaters—or the likes of Oscar Piastri, Callum Ilott, and Nyck de Vries, all of whom probably deserve a shot at an F1 drive at some point.
But Zhou still figures to bring both substantial sponsorship money and commercial interest from a market where F1 is desperate to put down a bigger footprint. The Chinese Grand Prix should return to the calendar in 2023 after a three-year absence, and F1 is hoping to add more races in that country in the future, with Zhou as a prime attraction.
23. Oscar Piastri—Reserve Driver, Alpine
Piastri won Formula Two last year, but because of a variety of factors—pay drivers, Fernando Alonso’s unretirement, unusual stability at the top of the grid—he couldn’t find a seat in the big leagues this time around. Still, Piastri is viewed as a star in the making, much like previous F2 champions Charles Leclerc and George Russell before him. And whenever a veteran starts to struggle and his job security looks in jeopardy, Piastri’s name will come up.
22. Otmar Szafnauer—Team Principal, Alpine
Formula One teams fall into two categories: works teams, which either build their own engines or partner with an external firm to create engines to the team’s specifications; and customer teams, which buy their powertrains off the shelf from a works engine constructor. In addition to the financial and political advantages implied by being a works team, the added design input makes a huge difference on the engineering side. Only two customer teams have won the constructors’ title in the past 26 years.
It’s easy to forget that Alpine, formerly Renault, is one of four works teams on the F1 grid. Or that they were winning races and championships not that much further in the past than McLaren, which is far more frequently thought of as a sleeping giant. Massive managerial turnover has contributed to the team’s lack of success; in just the past 13 months it’s been led by former team principal Cyril Abiteboul, the troika of Laurent Rossi, Marcin Budkowski, and Davide Brivio, and now Szafnauer.
Szafnauer has been a fixture on the F1 grid for 20 years, as both an engineer and team principal, where he helped turn Honda and Force India/Racing Point into race-winning operations. He split with Aston Martin this spring because he couldn’t get along with team owner Lawrence Stroll, and he joined up with Alpine to capitalize on what he saw as the French outfit’s unrealized potential. Maybe he’s the calm, competent hand at the controls Alpine needs, and maybe Alpine is a calm, corporate environment where Szafnauer can spend less time playing politics and more time building competitive cars.
21. Nicholas Latifi—Driver, Williams
20. Alexander Albon—Driver, Williams
Williams is seeking to dig out of its late-2010s competitive nadir, and its rise up the grid will no longer be assisted by British wunderkind George Russell, who’s off to Mercedes as Hamilton’s wingman and heir presumptive. So Williams will undertake this campaign with probably the most polite driver pairing on the grid: Albon and Latifi.
In a sport where even first chances are hard to come by, Albon has a catlike survival ability. He washed out of Red Bull’s junior program back in 2012 only to find himself in an F1 seat when Toro Rosso (now known as AlphaTauri) needed bodies six years later. Then, for a year and a half, he sat alongside Verstappen after Pierre Gasly flamed out at the senior team. Even after failing to impress there, Albon has now managed to land a spot at Williams as the team’s de facto lead driver.
Latifi, meanwhile, has been competent in his two seasons with Williams, even scoring points twice last year with a car that usually finished in the high teens. But he’s there for sponsorship reasons, not performance, and if Williams really wants to be competitive, will it be able to spare a seat for a pay-driver long term?
19. Pierre Gasly—Driver, Scuderia AlphaTauri
Speaking of Gasly. When he got booted from Red Bull in mid-2019, he looked more in need of a hug than perhaps any elite athlete in history. But since returning to Faenza, he’s driven the wheels off the car. The Toro Rosso/AlphaTauri team has been around since 2006, and over the past two and a half years, Gasly has been responsible for one of the team’s two wins and three of its five podiums. He’s primed for a move back up the grid and … well, here’s the problem. There’s no spot available for him.
Red Bull doesn’t seem to want him back; Ferrari is committed to two young drivers long term; Alpine, which would make sense for Gasly as a French driver, has two-time world champion Fernando Alonso in one seat and fellow Frenchman Esteban Ocon locked down in another through 2024. Maybe Sebastian Vettel of Aston Martin will retire, but would that really be a step up?
Maybe, just maybe, Gasly can drive well enough this year to take over for Hamilton at Mercedes if he retires after 2023. Or maybe Daniel Ricciardo’s 2021 struggles will turn out not to be a mirage and his McLaren seat will open sooner rather than later. Otherwise, it looks like Gasly should settle in for a long career of moderately outperforming the sixth-best car on the grid.
18. Mohammed bin Sulayem—President, Fédération Internationale de l’Automobile
17. Stefano Domenicali—CEO, Formula One Group
Modern Formula One is the brainchild of former CEO Bernie Ecclestone and FIA president Max Mosley, an extremely UKIP-y duo who brought the sport into the era of global television. But currently, it’s being run by former Ferrari team principal and Lamborghini CEO Stefano Domenicali, and former rally driver Mohammed bin Sulayem, who’s the head of global motorsport. And those two have a lot on their plate.
First on the to-do list is reestablishing credibility after last year’s race management debacles in Belgium and Abu Dhabi. Then there’s overseeing the most sweeping set of technical regulations changes in 40 years; expanding the sport’s global footprint, particularly in China and the U.S.; navigating its cozy relationship with repressive regimes across the world (a problem brought to the fore by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine); and potentially expanding as new car and engine constructors—not only Andretti but Volkswagen, which could sign works engine deals with McLaren or Red Bull for 2026—join the grid. It’s a new era, which is exciting—but not necessarily in a good way.
16. Yuki Tsunoda—Driver, Scuderia AlphaTauri
Tsunoda came into F1 last year as its youngest, shortest, and sweariest driver—and also possibly the next great Red Bull academy product after Vettel, Ricciardo, and Verstappen. And while he had his peaks in his first season—including points in his debut race, a fourth-place finish in Abu Dhabi, and a memorable wheel-to-wheel battle with Hamilton in Turkey—Tsunoda also frequently ended his races by crashing or shouting. If his strong finish is an omen for 2022, there’s a not-too-unlikely scenario in which a maturing Tsunoda ends up on Verstappen’s wing next season. If there’s more banging and shouting, he could be out of F1 for good. No driver on the grid has a greater range of outcomes this year.
15. Daniel Ricciardo—Driver, McLaren
Formula One’s best hang won McLaren’s first race in nearly a decade last summer, but that result obscured (kind of) a frustrating campaign in which the homesick Australian got his ass kicked by rapidly improving English youngster Lando Norris. It wasn’t too long ago that Ricciardo was seen as a future world champion in the making, but he turns 33 in July and his results are moving backward. His contract is up at the end of 2023, and if he doesn’t return to form, there’ll be no shortage of drivers lining up to replace him: Gasly, McLaren IndyCar ace Pato O’Ward, or maybe even Piastri, whom Alpine has offered to loan to McLaren if Ricciardo misses the first race of the year with COVID. It’s put up or shut up time for the most talkative driver on the grid.
14. Fernando Alonso—Driver, Alpine
Here’s a cautionary tale for Verstappen. Heading into the 2007 season, Alonso was the youngest two-time world champion in F1 history (having just dethroned the Michael Schumacher–Ferrari dynasty), and at just 25 years old, he’d won 15 races and had the best car on the grid. Since then, he’s won 17 races total and has missed out on three more world championships by a combined eight points. Alonso’s podium in Qatar last season was his first in F1 in seven years. And though he’s viewed as an all-time great, with the talent to match Hamilton’s and Schumacher’s achievements, a combination of bad luck and bad timing have kept the 40-year-old from reaching his full potential.
So what the hell is he doing tooling around in the middle of the grid, fighting Aston Martins and AlphaTauris for 10th in the drivers’ championship? Alonso has more than earned the right to leave the sport on his own terms, but he’s made no secret of his desire to make another championship run, rather than slide into graceful back-of-the-grid semiretirement like Kimi Raikkonen. Now he’s running out of time to make that happen, and Alpine’s running out of time to give him a reason to stay.
13. Mattia Binotto—Team Principal, Scuderia Ferrari
The first two and a half seasons of Binotto’s tenure as Ferrari team principal were all but a write-off: Ill-timed engine failures and intra-team drama claimed the 2019 campaign; the team had its worst season in 40 years in 2020; and it got boat raced by archrival McLaren in the first half of 2021. But after clawing back into third place in the constructors’ championship last year, Ferrari showed up to testing this spring with its sexiest car in years: black-accented wings and bodywork to harken back to the team’s iconic cars of the 1990s; wide sidepods with distinctive dorsal cooling vents; and a sleek, swooping nose. Oh yeah, and it’s fucking fast.
The power unit, which ran the gamut from wimpy to outdated to downright illegal in previous years, is back up to snuff. And early indications are that this year’s Ferrari is the best car it’s had since at least 2018. Binotto, with his unruly hair, distinctive round spectacles, and Santa Claus–red team jumpsuit, may sometimes cut a bit of a ludicrous figure. But make no mistake, this team means business.
12. Lando Norris—Driver, McLaren
11. Carlos Sainz—Driver, Scuderia Ferrari
The Meme Brothers, who drove together for McLaren in 2019 and 2020, are two of the sport’s most likable drivers. In the past couple of seasons, both have elevated themselves from well-regarded midfield also-rans to serial podium finishers. And both have the same goal for 2022: win a race. Sainz frequently finds himself on the podium behind memorable race winners, while Norris was two ill-timed thunderstorms from possibly bagging multiple wins in 2021. This year, they have to find ways to finish the job—particularly Sainz, considering how fast the Ferrari looks.
10. Mike Krack—Team Principal, Aston Martin
Szafnauer’s replacement as team principal at Aston Martin is a well-regarded motorsport lifer and perhaps just the kind of no-nonsense performance guru needed to shepherd an inconsistent team through a new era. Krack should be allowed to concentrate on the day-to-day operations—given that the team has installed former McLaren principal Martin Whitmarsh as CEO, presumably to manage up to Stroll. And he also has ties to lead driver Sebastian Vettel, having served as the four-time world champion’s race engineer when the driver was at BMW 15 years ago. Overall a great appointment.
But his name sounds like Bart Simpson covering Khia’s biggest single, and no one in the F1 paddock seems willing to acknowledge that publicly yet. Rest assured, though, the pun dam will break eventually—it’s just a matter of when. These guys find the underpants area too funny to let this opportunity pass them by.
9. Adrian Newey—Chief Technical Officer, Red Bull Racing
8. James Allison—Chief Technical Officer, Mercedes
Newey is one of the greatest race car designers who ever lived, having penned cars from the dominant Williams vehicles of the 1990s to last year’s Red Bull. And the man who can seemingly see airflow appears to have delivered another masterpiece, with Red Bull topping the lap charts at the last round of preseason testing.
It’s common for the previous year’s championship contenders to get a late start on a new technical regime—even Newey’s Red Bulls were slow to adapt to 2014-spec regulations after winning four consecutive titles—but that’s not the case here. Mercedes, however, is another story.
Year after year, the Silver Arrows have tried to slow-play and sandbag in testing before dominating once the first green flag drops. But this time around, Mercedes seems to genuinely have the third-fastest car on the grid, and neither Hamilton nor Russell are happy with how it’s handling. The good news for the eight-time defending constructors’ championship winners is that Allison and his team have a history of rapid development. And they’ll need every bit of that if they’re going to stop Verstappen from winning his second title.
7. Kevin Magnussen—Driver, Haas F1
The phrase “vibe shift” has been in the news a lot recently, but there is no bigger vibe shift than the one that just took place at Haas. The lone American F1 team just got rid of the Mazepins: father Dmitry, whose chemical company was Haas’s title sponsor, and son Nikita, who occupied one of the two race seats. The younger Mazepin spent most of last season snapping at his engineers, bouncing his car off anything that got close enough to make a tempting target, and—most importantly, in the cutthroat world of F1—being by far the worst driver on the grid. He famously finished 21st in a championship that had only 20 full-time drivers.
But now that the Mazepins are on the EU’s sanctions list, Dmitry’s sponsorship money has dried up, and Nikita is out of the car. So Haas brought back K-Mag, who in a stint with the team from 2017 to 2020 was extremely popular and as competitive as his equipment allowed. Plus, the car doesn’t look half-bad, either. Magnussen topped the timing charts on day five of testing (which doesn’t tell the whole story, but isn’t half-bad for morale), and the car has a cheerful new red, white, and black livery with no Uralkali branding. Let’s see how much faster the Haas is now that it doesn’t have to lug around the giant millstone it carried last year.
6. George Russell—Driver, Mercedes
For three years, Russell tooled around the back of the grid, occasionally conjuring magic from an uncompetitive Williams car. The idea was that Russell, a longtime Wolff protégé and Mercedes junior driver, could get some on-the-job experience and eventually take over for Hamilton when Sir Lewis decided to call it a day. Well, Russell could wait no longer, and now he’ll have a shot at the greatest driver of all time in equal machinery.
Russell gets talked about, alongside Verstappen and Leclerc, as a member of the next crop of world championship winners. This is his first chance to live up to the hype.
5. Giovanni Battista Venturi—Historical Polymath
This ranking features not only the quick, but also the dead. Venturi was an Italian physicist of the late 18th and early 19th centuries who revolutionized the study of fluid dynamics. Among his discoveries was the eponymous Venturi effect; basically, as a fluid flows through a conduit, its velocity and pressure change according to the shape of said conduit. You’ll notice that the 2022 Formula One cars have much simpler visible aerodynamic surfaces than last year’s, generating downforce through ground effect—in which so-called Venturi tunnels reduce the pressure of air flowing underneath the car’s body, sucking it into the ground.
Ground effect aerodynamics were banned in F1 on safety grounds in 1983. But now, the sport is going back to these types of cars in the hope that they’ll be less disruptive aerodynamically, which ought to make it easier for cars to follow closely and pass. Even if that doesn’t end up happening, the new regulations have forced every team to design a new car from the ground up instead of simply evolving a concept debuted in 2017. We’re already seeing the effects of this on the competitive order. Haas—which did no development on last year’s car, so as to better focus on the new regulations—looks more competitive than it has in four years, while Mercedes is starting on the back foot.
4. Charles Leclerc—Driver, Scuderia Ferrari
Sure, Ferrari’s wunderkind looks like he’ll get his first legitimate shot at a title this year. But he’s also this high for another reason. Ground effect cars can bounce up and down when bumps in the road surface cause pressure inconsistencies in their Venturi tunnels—a concept called “porpoising.” Or, as Leclerc said it: porpoyzing.
3. Max Verstappen—Driver, Red Bull Racing
Verstappen obviously has to be at or near the top of this list—he’s a current championship favorite. Maybe Mercedes or Ferrari or even McLaren will pull a rabbit out of their hat and emerge with the fastest car by midseason. But right now, the Verstappen–Red Bull package is the fastest thing going.
More than that, Verstappen has spent his entire career as the next big thing, the outsider, the contender. Now, he’s a 24-year-old world champion. How, if at all, will that change him? How will he operate with a target on his back—literally, since he’s chosen to take no. 1 as his car number? He might have seven seasons and 20 race wins under his belt, but he’s still evolving.
2. Herbie Blash—Permanent Adviser to the FIA Race Director
Anyone who followed the 2021 season or watched the latest edition of Drive to Survive became intimately familiar with F1 race director Michael Masi. Over and over last year, Masi had to fend off lobbying by Wolff, Horner, and their deputies while trying to officiate competitions, culminating in the fateful Abu Dhabi restart and, well, you know the rest. Even before the end of last season, it was clear that team principals and sporting directors were running roughshod over a race director who’d been hung out to dry by a governing body that seemed to want no part of, you know, governing. So regardless of who’s to blame for the Abu Dhabi incident, changes had to be made.
In enters Blash, 73, who worked in Formula One for the best part of four decades—including more than 20 years as deputy race director to Charlie Whiting—before leaving the sport in 2016. Blash’s departure opened the door for Masi, who ascended to the top job after Whiting’s unexpected death in 2019.
Blash is serving as “permanent adviser” to new race directors Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas, and hopefully he’ll bring some calm and gravitas to a previously chaotic job. New regulations should help that as well: Team principals are no longer allowed to communicate with officials during the race, which should make the sport feel more legitimate—even if it means losing such gems as “Michael, I just sent you an email.”
1. Lewis Hamilton—Driver, Mercedes
It couldn’t be anyone else. Denied a record-setting eighth title in absurd fashion, Hamilton considered walking away from the sport altogether last winter. And even though he’s back, his current two-year deal will probably be his last. That means he has two chances to win title no. 8—and it won’t be easy. He has to navigate a cost cap that will prevent Mercedes from simply outspending opponents as it has in years past. Verstappen might not be done improving. Ferrari is back. And Russell will be Hamilton’s toughest teammate since Nico Rosberg retired.
But Hamilton isn’t just out to win races. He’s lobbying to change the racial and class composition of the sport (15 years after Hamilton became F1’s first Black driver, the second is nowhere to be seen) and trying to advance LBGT rights and environmental causes, all while navigating a political environment that’s at best patronizing and at worst outright hostile. It’s understandable that he controls his image as tightly as any megastar athlete, but that only makes him more mysterious and compelling as a public figure. What does he have in store for his final act?