For the second straight Grand Prix, the Formula 1 flying circus came to the closing stages of a race on the Persian Gulf with results more or less already decided. But then a late single-car incident brought out the safety car and allowed Red Bull’s Max Verstappen, riding in second place, to close the gap to the leader.
To paraphrase The Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Bonaparte, all great Formula 1 races occur, as it were, twice. The first time as an era-defining controversy, the second as total pandemonium. Here are the top takeaways from the 2022 Bahrain Grand Prix, the start of what could be a fascinating and unpredictable season for F1.
1. So far, so good for the 2022 rules changes.
This winter, Formula 1 introduced a new set of aerodynamic regulations aimed at making the cars easier to race. Those, along with the existing cost cap (designed to close the gap between rich and poor teams) and new leadership in the race director’s office, were a collective attempt to knock out many of the competitive issues that have dogged the sport for a decade or more.
And after one race, I’d give those regulations a 10/10, no notes.
The new ground effect cars shook up the competitive order, with minnows who nailed the regulations off the bat (Haas and Alfa Romeo) finishing in the top 10 and bigger teams (like Aston Martin and McLaren) struggling mightily to make the whole package work. The racing was close—by the end of lap 1, the field had divided into two clouds of cars driving nose-to-tail like the Daytona 500—and featured plenty of wheel-to-wheel action and passing. Plus, that action was mostly clean; the only penalty the stewards gave out was a five-second demerit to Alpine’s Esteban Ocon for a first-lap incident with Mick Schumacher of Haas. No debates about rules, no lobbying about track limits, just fun, clean racing.
Who knows whether that’s sustainable; Bahrain is a pretty entertaining track, and with teams still figuring out the new cars and tires, this was always bound to be a chaotic race. (Mercedes went into battle with a tire strategy best described as “I dunno, let’s try this I guess.”) But overall, no complaints.
2. This year’s Ferrari is a spicy meatball.
Charles Leclerc was a bit of a forgotten man in 2020 and 2021, as Ferrari worked its way out of the wilderness. The occasional ludicrous qualifying performance or podium finish in an uncompetitive car was not enough to keep him front of mind while Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton were engaged in an all-time championship slugfest.
But Bahrain showed that the performance Ferrari put up in testing was no mirage. Leclerc took pole, won the race, and drove the fastest lap. Along the way he traded blows with Verstappen in a yo-yoing battle the likes of which would not have been possible in last year’s Ferrari, and baited the defending champion into overplaying his hand on the race’s decisive restart.
This vintage of Leclerc—can we get the nickname “Ground Effect Chuck” to stick in honor of the new cars? No? Well it was worth a shot—looks like a world champion in the making. And Carlos Sainz, who came within 1/100th of a second of outqualifying Verstappen on Saturday, locked up Ferrari’s first 1-2 finish in almost three years with a drive that was nearly as quick and composed as his teammate’s.
There are still 21 races to go, more than enough for Ferrari to throw all this good work right in the dumpster. But right now this is the team to beat.
The less said about the past three years for Haas, the better. Ditto their recently-departed Russian benefactors. But this team looks like it’s had an exorcism. Kevin Magnussen qualified seventh at Bahrain and finished fifth, while Mick Schumacher was in the top 10 at the final restart and came home a career-best 11th. The team’s Twitter account is making memes and posting in all caps. Joy to the world!
The wild thing is: Haas didn’t even have that clean of a race. Sure, the Red Bull debacle helped, but Magnussen lost a couple wheel-to-wheel battles early and Schumacher, racing on older tires, got absolutely bum-rushed on the restart to fall out of the top 10. Still, Magnussen’s fifth place is not only tied for the team’s second-best finish ever, his 10 points are as many as the team has had in its previous 50 races put together. Haas now sits in third place in the constructor’s championship standings, a spot they’ve never occupied before, not even for one race.
4. Red Bull is either unlucky or in huge trouble.
Ten laps from the end of the race, Red Bull looked to be in good shape. Sure, Verstappen was mad at his race engineer after he was told not to overdrive his tires following a pitstop and lost a chance to pass Leclerc—the Dutchman vowed to “never, ever” do that again, with all the foot-pounding resolve of a child returning from a particularly unpleasant trip to the dentist. But second- and fourth-place finishes in the first race of the season would’ve been a good result, particularly with Mercedes a few places further back and well off the pace.
Then Pierre Gasly’s Red Bull-powered AlphaTauri unexpectedly caught fire; Verstappen diagnosed a power-steering problem that turned into a contagious vehicle-wide malaise; and that contagion spread to Sergio Pérez’s car, which also developed a terminal fuel pump issue. Shortly after Verstappen nursed his stricken car into the pits, Pérez lost power, spun, and retired just one lap from a podium place. In Red Bull’s first race after its split with Honda, three of the four cars running its power unit crapped out in the few laps. That’s the worst-case scenario for a team that topped the leaderboard in preseason testing.
“If we’ve got a season of that, it’s going to be a hell of a season,” said team principal Christian Horner after the race. What an understatement.
5. Mercedes grabs some much-needed points thanks to Red Bulls’ DNFs.
What must really grind Horner’s gears—not that he wants to hear about gears or grinding at the moment—is that his team’s double-DNF opened the door for Mercedes to claim third and fourth place. That’s better than expected after Mercedes spent preseason testing with a car that was an upsetting combination of slow, unstable, and hard to drive. Hamilton and George Russell were barely competitive most of the race, as Mercedes’ struggles with porpoising continued. And even during the race, Hamilton’s head was shaking around like the object of that one Metro Station single. But he and Russell just hung around and ended up in the right place at the right time.
6. The Cardio King steps up.
With Verstappen, Pérez, and Gasly all out of the race, the Red Bull stable’s top driver at this moment is none other than Yuki Tsunoda.
The guy who hates working out finished in the points while the three tryhards didn’t? Seems like there’s a lesson here.
7. I hate Lewis Hamilton’s new car.
Speaking of trying too hard: Mercedes switched back to its traditional silver livery this year after two years of running mostly black cars—only it’s not just silver, because the Merc has a black floor, plus green and maroon accents for its Petronas and Ineos sponsorships. And Hamilton not only switched back to a yellow helmet for 2022, he requested a neon camera mount and matching car numbers.
Lewis in P4 able to stick with Carlos’ Ferrari in these early stages.— Mercedes-AMG PETRONAS F1 Team (@MercedesAMGF1) March 20, 2022
Checo closing in on both cars after losing positions off the start. pic.twitter.com/pxsBmPAQKz
Any two of those colors would work in combination, but together the package looks like a total mess. No wonder Mercedes is struggling to keep pace after running afoul of the look good-play good doctrine.
8. Zhou Guanyu in the points!
Expectations were fairly low for the reigning Formula 2 runner-up—most thought he’d probably tool around the back half of the pack, out of trouble but also off the radar screen, like a Chinese Nicholas Latifi. Instead, China’s first F1 driver pulled off a couple brave passing moves en route to 10th place and one point in his debut race. Teammate Valtteri Bottas, meanwhile, got to sixth place the hard way, negating a hair-on-fire qualifying lap with a balky start. But all in all, this was the best weekend for Alfa since Brazil 2019.
9. McLaren, Aston Martin, Williams are all in serious trouble.
Once the dust settled, and the Red Bulls stopped smoking, the last six cars to actually finish the race were the six British-flagged vehicles: the McLarens, the Aston Martins, and the Williamses. Each has an excuse: McLaren missed a big chunk of testing with a brake cooling problem; Aston Martin driver Sebastian Vettel was out with COVID; and Williams is in year five of a Houston Astros-type tear-it-down rebuild. But McLaren and Aston Martin at least want to challenge for race wins this season. And both cars were so slow it’d be fair to wonder whether they were carrying a piano in the trunk. That’s not what Vettel, Lando Norris, and Daniel Ricciardo—all of whom want to be in the championship picture in the near- to medium-term future—want to see.
10. Not sure we need the helmet cam.
A year ago, Fernando Alonso debuted a helmet camera during practice for the Belgian Grand Prix, and it was awesome. You could see the dashboard and steering wheel, understand what it’s like to drive under the halo, and really feel the jolts and bumps of an F1 car driven at speed.
But Sky Sports cut to a live helmet cam a few times during the race, and it seems better off as a novelty than a useful broadcast tool. The picture was never clear, and one downside to feeling the bumps is it makes it harder to see what’s going on in front. As a way to kill time during free practice? Sure. But for the race, why not use the purpose-built onboard camera already on the car?