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When the Red Bull beat the Prancing Horse

Henry Kay reflects on the Formula 1 race seasons following a consecutive World Drivers Championship win by Max Verstappen.

Amidst pouring rain in Suzuka, some number-crunching after the finish of the Japanese Grand Prix revealed that Red Bull’s Max Verstappen has clinched his second consecutive Driver’s Championship, with four more races to go. Whilst there will be no surprise in the paddock as to which driver is the champion, there was visible confusion and bemusement amongst those present in Japan as to the fact it happened in this race, a messy and incident affected event that featured just over half a race. Yet the Champion for 2022 is crowned, and deservedly so.

Inevitably, there is a desire to draw comparisons between this year and the 2021 season, where Verstappen controversially won his first crown. Both the champion and the season itself are in a good position to be compared year-on-year. Let us first discuss the champion.

Last year’s Max Verstappen was a ferociously quick driver fully aware that 2021 was his first chance to fight for a driver’s title. He pushed himself and his rival Lewis Hamilton to and beyond the limits of racing on numerous occasions, with his aggressive ‘elbows-out’ racing and an efficient Red Bull machine making him a real threat to the previous 6 years of Mercedes dominance and their esteemed and decorated champion. The tension between the teams and the drivers seemed to bubble, then boil and then explode as the season progressed, with results swinging from the one to another and the title being decided on the last lap of the last race in Abu Dhabi. The Max of 2021 had been at times rash, desperate, and reckless in his quest for glory, still the young aggressor fighting hard at the heart of one of the most intense seasons in years.

In 2022, carrying the number 1 on his car, the reigning world champion has retained, and many would argue even improved, his incredible speed and skill around the racetrack. But what has been more noticeable is his different attitude. With the pressure of winning the dream first championship off his shoulders, Max has been a more patient, calmer racer, more calculating about the risks he takes. And yet he has gone on to dominate the season like no one could believe, an unbeatable winning machine, capable of winning any race from seemingly anywhere on the grid, as evidenced by the recent races in Hungary, Spa and Monza. Each win has been undeniably impressive yet met with more subdued reactions. Each win has seemed inevitable. He is on track to break the record for most wins in a season (thirteen), already having won twelve this year. In terms of the battle for the driver’s championship, the Dutch Lion has cruised away from teammate Sergio Pérez and Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc, so markedly different from last year’s scrap with Hamilton, and now holds his second world title.

On the whole, 2022 has been of great importance to F1 due to it being the first season under a new sweeping set of aerodynamic regulations introduced to improve racing. Taking stock of the season’s eighteen races so far, it is fair to say that the regulations have done their job. The reduced ‘dirty air’ being thrown off the back of cars has made it easier to follow meaning battles can take place over extended periods of time round the racetrack. Who can forget the first race of the season, where three laps of incredible battling between Leclerc and Verstappen decided the race, or when the same happened in Saudi between the contenders, as well as lower down the field between the two Alpine drivers. Austria had a five car battle for eighth position, and Silverstone saw Leclerc, Hamilton and Pérez squabbling in a compact space. As such, it is clear that Ros Brawn’s dream has, to a certain extent, come true. There is the ability for closer racing, and as such the racing within races has been more consistently exciting throughout the field.

However, where this season has lacked in comparison to last year has been the blazing intensity. Maybe 2021 will never be matched, but still, it is a marked difference to what has ended up being Max and Red Bull’s calm procession towards the title. Admittedly, and painfully for a Ferrari fan like myself, the tightness of the championship battle has been reduced by an unnervingly consistent string of strategic and technical errors by the Scuderia, which have handed over the advantage of having the fastest car to a better run team, who, once they unlocked the secrets of their car, have never looked back. For so long, the season has already felt like a forgone conclusion. Also of note is that the playing field still has some way to go to being levelled out. This season has been a tale of two teams, and the all-conquering Mercedes of the last seven years are scratching their heads wondering how they fell away so sharply. The Silver Arrows are the only team hopeful fans could look to for another team to take victory, a wish so far without reward. There have been no McLaren Monza’s, or Ocon’s Hungaroring surprise. Instead the season has been a two-horse race, with a clear winner emerging with several furlongs remaining.

The Prancing Horse and the Red Bull have gone to battle. The horse has tripped and faltered, whilst the bull has grown wings and ambled to victory at 200mph with impressive dominance. 2022 has so far been an impressive and enjoyable year in Formula One, but it unfortunately bears more in common with the Hamilton era, rather than 2021’s slugfest.

Image Credit: Emperornie/ CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia commons.

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