Lewis Hamilton, despite the fears he could retire from Formula One, is widely expected to line up on the grid for Mercedes in 2022. It will be his 10th season with the team and only the third time, after 2013 and 2017, he will start a season without being the reigning world champion. With a host of new technical regulations introduced, there is a greater sense of unpredictability around how next year will unfold. And as Hamilton bids for a record-breaking eighth Drivers’ Championship, Express Sport looks at several new threats he may face in addition to 2021 title-winning rival Max Verstappen.
Getting the obvious out of the way, Red Bull’s defending champion Verstappen will surely be the biggest contender for the 2022 driver’s title not named Lewis Hamilton.
The Dutchman doubled his number of race wins in 2021 and now stands on 20, also boasting 60 podiums (a single-season record 18 of which came in the year just gone), 13 pole positions and 16 fastest laps.
Since Sebastian Vettel won his first title in 2010, Nico Rosberg in 2016 is the only driver to win a single championship and not retain it. That’s only because the German retired immediately after.
Verstappen has scintillating pace and obviously brilliant ability at the wheel so provided Red Bull provide him with another strong package has all the tools to deny Hamilton yet again.
He also had several moments of misfortune in the season just gone – such as in Budapest. If he can avoid similar instances, he can produce a very strong – and perhaps title-winning – points haul.
An unknown quantity in a championship-challenging car, George Russell replaces the inconsistent-yet-team-orientated Valtteri Bottas at Mercedes.
That will change up a dynamic that has worked so brilliantly well for the Silver Arrows the past five years. There’s a reason Hamilton labelled Bottas “the best team-mate there has ever been in this sport”.
It remains to be seen how fellow Briton Russell will fit in, at least off track, given his form on it for backmarkers Williams. Certainly Hamilton will command enormous respect from the 23-year-old, but Russell is the future of the team and will be hungry to make his mark from the off.
Having impressed for Williams and in his one-off race when he stood in for a Covid-stricken Hamilton at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix, the King’s Lynn native has shown he has the talents that suggest he can be at the front of the pack for Mercedes.
But with two drivers competing for the ultimate prize, can Mercedes maintain some equilibrium? Or will it all go Hamilton vs Rosberg? Harmony in the team will be as important as anything to Hamilton’s hopes of an eighth title as he seeks to get the better of another team-mate.
“I look forward to taking another gear for next year, now that I am fully adapted with Red Bull,” were Sergio Perez’s words after a challenging yet promising debut season with the Milton Keynes-based team.
If the richly-experienced Mexican can more consistently produce some of the sublime moments of skill he showed, including his defence against Hamilton in Abu Dhabi, then he can be a threat to the Mercedes for poles, podiums and race wins.
Perhaps Perez won’t ever be a championship-winning driver – given he was outscored 20-2 in qualifying by Verstappen and 19-3 in races – but he can serve as a high-class No 2 for Red Bull and Verstappen.
That opens up a world of tactical possibilities if Red Bull have two drivers consistently in the top three or four positions in particular.
A brilliant team player, Mercedes and Hamilton will not be ones to underestimate Perez given his talents. If he can produce greater consistency, he will be a major asset to Verstappen and his team.
The 2022 changes are designed to try and throw up some extra contenders at the front of the grid, and if Ferrari can maintain their upwards trend in the factory having improved significantly in 2021 from 2020, Charles Leclerc is as likely as any driver not in a Mercedes or a Red Bull to be competing for poles, podiums and race wins.
The Monegasque suffered from misfortune this year with team boss Mattia Binotto estimating his driver lost 40 points through bad luck in Monaco and Budapest.
That tally would have seen him finish fourth and ahead of Perez and there is good reason Ferrari are putting all their faith in Leclerc to be their first championship winner since Kimi Raikkonen in 2007.
Leclerc has two wins and 13 podiums, as well as nine poles, and he is a sublime driver with great racecraft. He’s also still only 24 like Verstappen, so there is plenty for him still to learn despite having entered 81 races.
Mercedes’ Toto Wolff admitted: “They have all the resource that is needed, and therefore, we absolutely have them on the radar.” Ferrari will hope to prove the Austrian right – and they must beware Leclerc.