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Six Burning Questions Ahead of the Formula One Summer Break

Can Ferrari pull itself together in the next few weeks? Is Mercedes officially back? And what will happen during driver “silly season”?

Getty Images/Ringer illustration

Sunday’s Hungarian Grand Prix marked the end of the F1 season’s first leg, as the series embarks on its characteristic summer break. The cars go silent, Martin Brundle retires to his country manor, and the drivers yacht to Greece with their partners. How wonderfully European.

But the fans? The fans never rest. As the teams go on vacation, we grasp impatiently for new stories and information, like a brood of baby robins. So here are the questions fans (yes, these are absolutely real fan questions) are burning to ask at the summer break.

Are you sure you meant to say burning “questions” and not burning cars? —Carlos S., Madrid, Spain

The biggest story line of the season so far has been exquisitely plotted: Ferrari showed up in March with the fastest car on the grid and a driver lineup of Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz. F1’s most storied team hadn’t won a race in nearly three years and hadn’t won a title in 14, but early indications pointed toward a return to glory days in Maranello. And the boys in red have been quick; Leclerc leads the series with seven pole positions this season, while Sainz picked up his first career win at Silverstone.

Unfortunately, the rest of the season has not been so kind: Sainz has had first-lap crashes at Melbourne and Imola, where Leclerc also misjudged a corner and ended up in the wall; Leclerc suffered a turbo failure in Spain; strategists wobbled absentmindedly into an appalling pit strategy on a rainy Monaco track that features less passing than the Army-Navy football game; and the team had a double-mechanical DNF in Azerbaijan. In Austria, Sainz’s engine exploded late in the race—seriously, slo-mo video replays showed his engine cover poofing out like an overmicrowaved hot dog—leaving him in the frightening position of rolling backward down a hill toward the track with no brakes and his car on fire. An audibly terrified Leclerc revealed shortly thereafter that his throttle was stuck partially open, though he managed to wobble over the line ahead of Max Verstappen.

In France, Ferrari released Sainz from a pit stop directly into the path of Alex Albon’s oncoming Williams, earning a penalty and nearly maiming a bystander in the McLaren pits. They then inexplicably called the Spaniard back into the pits for new tires after he’d fought back from 19th on the grid into the podium places. In between, Leclerc, leading the race, yeeted his vehicle into the barriers for no discernible reason, and, well, he wasn’t happy about it.

And oh yeah, Sunday’s outing at the Hungaroring brought a new round of torment for Leclerc, who stopped for hard tires—to the puzzlement of basically everyone who’d watched the Haas and Alpine cars struggle on that rubber in the cold conditions—only to stop again for softs 15 laps later after declaring over the radio that “the tires are shit.” Because why should Leclerc mince words at this point?

When everything’s working, Lerclerc and Ferrari are as fast as any package on the grid. Unfortunately, the team’s strange combination of driver error, mechanical failures, and strategic decisions make you wonder if there’s an equivalent Italian idiom for “clown shoes.” Just three years ago, an Oscar-nominated movie contained a monologue about how Ferrari is the greatest car company of all time because of how much they win. Now, that same company is burnishing a reputation for farcicality. Which leads to the second burning question.

My favorite son—I mean, one of my employees—will celebrate a major professional achievement later this summer. I’m getting a jump on party planning now, and I was wondering if you could recommend a good caterer? —Christian H., Milton Keynes, U.K.

So let’s say Ferrari gets its shit together over the break: that Leclerc listens to his GPS, and that the lead driver for the Prancing Horse wins all nine races remaining on the calendar—which would equal an F1 record. Leclerc could score 26 points a race for the win and the fastest lap, plus eight more points for winning the sprint at Interlagos. If he did that, he could still fail to overturn Verstappen’s 80-point championship lead. Verstappen could just not show up for the next three races and be guaranteed to return as championship leader. The title fight is so over I don’t even feel the need to caveat it.

(Silent, menacing, eyebrows-y grin) —Lawrence S., Montreal, Canada

The summer break is usually the big orbital nexus for the F1 hot stove—or as they call it, “silly season.” (Again, how delightfully European.) The top three teams have all had their 2023 lineups set since May, so any reshuffling in the driver landscape will take place in the midfield.

Pierre Gasly notably saw his options and figured it’d be better to try his luck again next year, re-upping with Alpha Tauri for another season. So the primary candidates to move seemed to be Sebastian Vettel and Daniel Ricciardo, both veteran drivers whose championship ambitions have been slipping away from them for years, and Oscar Piastri, the 21-year-old Australian Formula 2 champion and Alpine academy driver who couldn’t find a way onto the grid this year.

For months, most of the speculation centered on Ricciardo, whose move to McLaren did not provide the career revitalization he’d hoped, but rather a year and a half (and counting) of getting his ass beat while learning how to frown for the first time in his life. Ricciardo holds a lucrative driver option for the 2023 McLaren seat, so if he wants to return, he will. But McLaren is looking at younger and potentially more competitive options; CEO Zak Brown gave Ricciardo a vote of confidence in mid-July, but Brown knows as well as anyone that votes of confidence are usually reserved for embattled Big 12 defensive coordinators.

McLaren’s options, should Ricciardo quit or be bought out, include Alex Albon and a bevy of its reserve drivers: Piastri, on loan from Alpine, with IndyCar prospects Colton Herta and Pato O’Ward as more remote options. Almost two months ago, Piastri was on the verge of signing a loan deal with Williams, akin to the highly successful internship George Russell spent there from 2019-21. But he never actually put pen to paper.

Then on Thursday, Vettel posted a black-and-white video to his brand-new Instagram account in which he announced his intention to retire at the end of the season.

(I cried a little, it’s OK if you did too.)

Vettel is almost a decade removed from his last title and in a team that’s been moving in the wrong direction for two years. He’s made no secret of his growing ambivalence about his sport’s environmental impact, and if you count his adopted son Mick Schumacher, he has as many children as the rest of the F1 grid put together. It’s not surprising he’d call it quits, but confirmation of those rumors reopened the driver market.

The lead seat at another F1 team could’ve given Ricciardo an easier exit from McLaren. Vettel himself marked Schumacher as his preferred successor, roping Haas into the driver carousel conversation out of nowhere. Then, four days later, Aston Martin tweeted a photo of a very windswept-looking Fernando Alonso, announcing that they’d replaced one aging former champion with another.

Alonso had been all but set to continue at Alpine, but negotiations bogged down when the 41-year-old insisted on more than a one-year deal, while the French team didn’t want to lock Piastri out of a seat that long. (Esteban Ocon is also under contract through 2024.) Piastri is now all but certain to go into the second Alpine, leaving Williams and (if they’re still interested in replacing Ricciardo) McLaren in a bit of a pickle.

The dwindling number of credible driver options leaves those two teams facing a bit of a seller’s market. McLaren might as well let it ride with Ricciardo, while the second Williams seat should be of interest to American fans. Last winter, Logan Sargeant was on the verge of leaving European single-seaters, having run out of funding before Williams stepped in and added him to the team’s junior driver program. And Sargeant has been white-hot in the past few months, bagging two pole positions, two feature race wins, and climbing all the way up to third in the F2 standings. There’s now a perfectly plausible scenario in which Sargeant inherits Nicholas Latifi’s Williams seat next year, putting an American on the F1 grid full time for the first time since 2007.

Will Mercedes win a race this year? —Lewis H., Brackley, U.K.

It’s looking more and more likely with each race. After eight years of near-total sporting domination and a brutal 2021 title fight, Mercedes showed up in Bahrain having completely whiffed on the new aerodynamic regulations. Their car couldn’t warm up its tires, it bounced all over the place like turn-of-the-century Jay-Z, and above all, it was slow. Only the uncanny consistency of Russell, the occasional heroic peaks of Lewis Hamilton, and the front-running teams’ propensity for ending races in clouds of smoke kept the Silver Arrows in the game.

But months of methodical, incremental improvements have gotten Mercedes back in the game. Through the past six races, Russell’s first-lap crash at Silverstone marks the only time a Mercedes has finished outside the top four. And Hungary was the team’s strongest showing yet: a second consecutive 2-3 finish, with pole for Russell and the fastest lap for Hamilton. Either one of those two could’ve won the race given one or two minor breaks. And given Ferrari’s reliability issues, Mercedes is somehow just 30 points out of second place in the constructors’ standings.

Every season has at least one freaky race when rain or an oddly timed red flag turns the competitive order upside-down, and we haven’t had that yet. I’d say it’s at least an even-money bet that either Hamilton or Russell stands atop the podium before the end of 2022.

But will there be a freaky race that delivers a memorable result? If so, who apart from Mercedes might benefit? —Zak B., Woking, U.K.

Last year was dominated by Hamilton and Verstappen, and previous seasons were dominated by Hamilton alone. But with so little competition at the top of the grid and the midfield tightly packed, plenty of races have seen absolute chaos. In 2020, there were five distinct race winners and 13 podium finishers. In 2021, six drivers won a race and 14 finished on the podium at least once, counting Russell’s rain-shortened second place at Spa. Seven of the 10 teams have won at least one race in the past two and a half seasons.

So far in 2022, we have just four distinct race winners from two teams and only seven podium finishers with just nine races remaining. There are reasons for that unusual stability; first, while both Leclerc and Verstappen have had nightmare weekends, there hasn’t been a race when both were taken out of contention, as Verstappen and Hamilton were in Azerbaijan, Italy, and Hungary last year. Second, the second drivers at the top two teams—Sainz and Sergio Perez—have generally been more consistent than Perez and Valtteri Bottas were last year, or Bottas and Albon the year before. Third, from 2020 to 2021, the third-fastest team varied wildly from weekend to weekend: sometimes it was McLaren, sometimes Ferrari, sometimes Renault/Alpine, sometimes Racing Point, sometimes even AlphaTauri. This year, the third-fastest team basically every weekend has been Mercedes. When one or more of the Red Bulls or Ferraris finishes out of place, there’s a Mercedes to take the last podium spot. Indeed, despite driving the fifth- and sixth-fastest cars out there, Mercedes has 11 podiums in 13 races, the same as Ferrari.

I’ll point out three upcoming races that lend themselves to a chaotic result. One of those is, Singapore, which is a street circuit that’s been off the calendar since the pandemic started, which means 20 percent of the current grid has never raced there in Formula One. The course is so narrow that it’s difficult to pass there. Vettel took his only win of the 2019 season in Singapore; Alonso won there in a fairly uncompetitive Renault in 2008 under, um, controversial circumstances. Hamilton not only put in the best minute and a half of his career in Singapore in 2018, he won there in 2009 while driving the worst car of his F1 career, the McLaren MP4-24. If someone unexpected takes pole or winds up leading thanks to an early safety car, he could hold up the rest of the pack the whole way.

The other candidates combine one or two of the great equalizers in F1: extremely low downforce, and rain. McLaren and Alpine have been wildly inconsistent this year, but both have been fast at times on high-speed tracks, and both have a driver—Lando Norris for McLaren, Alonso for Alpine—capable of delivering a superhuman performance under unusual circumstances.

Monza is on a two-year streak of delivering surprising winners after early crashes took out the usual contenders. It was also the site of Vettel’s rainy win from pole in a Toro Rosso in 2008. Then there’s Belgium’s Spa-Francorchamps, which delivered last year’s famously mixed-up grid amid a downpour; if it rains, car design will matter less than the ability to white-knuckle through limited visibility and even less grip.

But rain is not enough. The tighter Verstappen’s grip on the title gets, the less aggressive he has to be, and the lower the probability he and Leclerc will have a wreck that takes both out. And even if Red Bull and Ferrari both falter, no other midfield team is on Mercedes’s level. So maybe this year’s surprise winner will merely be Hamilton, the winningest driver of all time.

What the @#$%&! is @#$%&!-ing @#$%&!? —Guenther S., Kannapolis, N.C.

Well said. After three seasons of complete hopelessness, Haas bet big on 2022. The competitive (and intangible) upgrade from Nikita Mazepin to Kevin Magnussen—plus a year’s effort spent on refining the 2022 aerodynamics—has paid off. Haas is once again the team it was from 2016 to 2018: a surprisingly quick small-budget outfit capable of pulling off the occasional miracle.

But even though Magnussen has consistently qualified well and challenged for points, and even though Schumacher has snapped out of his early-season funk, Haas has left humongous amounts of meat on the bone. The team’s customer Ferrari power trains have been almost (but not quite) as untrustworthy as the works team’s. The one and only upgrade package scheduled for this season kept getting delayed. And even when Magnussen has delivered astonishing qualifying pace, either he or the team has struggled to convert grid position into points: a bad tire call at the Imola sprint, senseless first-lap collisions with Hamilton at Montreal and Barcelona, a DNF after a storming first lap in France. Haas has taken a huge step forward this year, but it’s hard not to be disappointed in the results.