Formula 1: Is Mercedes outcast set to become Lewis Hamilton’s biggest rival once again?
With Ferrari back on top, Mercedes look set to fight among middle-order teams for 2022 Formula 1 season
It had been just under 100 days since that infamous Abu Dhabi Grand Prix which saw Red Bull’s Max Verstappen crowned as the 2021 World Champion.
While the 2022 Formula 1 season was promised to be a new era of racing, fans had been waiting on tenterhooks to see whether it was likely to live up to expectation, or if the Abu Dhabi GP was the pinnacle of the sports’ dramatics for time being.
If it had, I don’t think anyone can be that disappointed - it was excruciatingly intense
However, th Barcelona and Bahrain pre-season testing events offered breadcrumbs and bite-sized snippets of what was to come and the build up to the 2022 Formula 1 season was reaching boiling point.
Finally, the weekend arrived. The two practice sessions came and went and it was time for qualifying to hit the tracks.
Preceding this weekend, the testing events had revealed that Mercedes were lagging. The team with eight consecutive constructor’s championships were not the sport’s biggest threat, and if they were to compete for another title, a lot of work had to be done.
George Russell had moved into the second spot at Mercedes, pushing out Valtteri Bottas who signed with Alfa Romeo.
Having moved from Williams, Russell was not ready for yet another season of low performances, but surely Mercedes were bluffing?
Saturday’s qualifying positions revealed they most definitely weren’t.
The seven time world champion had qualified fifth while his teammate qualified ninth. To everyone’s immense surprise, Hamilton’s former teammate was starting the race in sixth.
Alfa Romeo had made it into Q3 and just when Hamilton had thought he’d removed the Finnish driver as a threat, back he was, following Hamilton once again.
Not only was an Alfa Romeo in the top 10 starts, but so was Kevin Magnussen in a Haas.
The team that has not scored a point since 2020 was starting the first 2022 GP with a car in seventh and 12th.
So Sunday’s race was miraculously beginning with neither Max Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton on pole, and with a Haas and Alfa Romeo both out qualifying a Mercedes.
It was true - 2022 was set to be even more dramatic than 2021!
With 2021 Champion Verstappen starting in second, everyone expected it could not be long until he took first place but Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc held on, taking his third win over his F1 career while Verstappen was forced to retire just three laps before the end.
If this wasn’t bad enough for Christian Horner’s team, Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez was also forced out of the race after a second engine failure ended Red Bull’s hopes of any points in the first Grand Prix of the season.
With the Red Bulls out, up came Hamilton into third place with Russell just behind, but whereas one may have expected a McLaren or even potentially an Alpine car to take the fifth spot, it was Haas who shocked again and claimed an unimaginable top five finish.
Bottas retained his sixth place starting position to come in only two places behind his former team.
Mercedes had often been accused of sidelining the 32-year-old Fin during his four year stint with the German franchise, with it eventually culminating in his being replaced by younger, fresher and more exciting blood in Russell.
However, if Sunday showed anything, it was that Toto Wolff and the rest of his former team are far from done in Formula 1.
Mercedes better continue to grind away at their engine if they are to compete with the best of the rest this year, otherwise they will soon find themselves losing out on points to a driver they ironically dropped and racing in an objectively worse car.
While Wolff will be hoping for a Championship battle, his current setup will see him in a middle-order fight alongside Alfa Romeo and Haas: the two teams who finished ninth and tenth respectively in the 2021 constructors Championship.
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