F1 health check for 2022: Which stars are waning, who is on the rise and what is the looming crisis?

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Which stars are on the wane?

Daniel Ricciardo. His win at Monza was a highlight of a difficult first year for McLaren but it is hard to look at his lack of progress throughout 2021 and not be a little worried for the Australian. 

Settling in at a new team and with a new car always takes time, but the gap to team-mate Lando Norris never really closed in qualifying or races, even by the season’s end. Yes, Ricciardo won and Norris did not, but Norris was ahead 15-7 in qualifying (including one pole), finished 45 points ahead and took four podiums to the Australian’s one. It was comprehensive, but he has the ability to return to the top if he finds next year’s McLaren more to his liking.  

Young Japanese AlphaTauri driver Yuki Tsunoda can also consider himself fortunate to have retained his seat after an error-prone and crash-strewn debut season. His promise and raw speed is there but, without significant improvement, he could be out of a drive before the year is out. 

Which stars are on the rise?

Aside from the obvious case of George Russell (more on him below), there is a batch of young F1 drivers who have enhanced their reputations to sky-high levels in the past two seasons. Charles Leclerc, Lando Norris and Pierre Gasly have all proved themselves in differing circumstances. 

The one driver whose standing has risen the most, though, is Carlos Sainz. The Spaniard arrived at Ferrari in 2021 with a reputation that was solid, but not in the highest category of drivers. Yet he ended the season as the best driver outside of Red Bull and Mercedes and ahead of his highly-rated Monegasque team-mate Leclerc. 

His total of four podiums was an excellent return but his performances got better and closer to Leclerc as the season went on. By the end of the year, the two were very finely matched, especially over one lap, a category where Leclerc normally excels. 

It’s easy to forget that Sainz was team-mates with Max Verstappen when they both made their debut in 2015. As time goes on he edges ever closer to that stratospheric mark set by the Dutchman and could be racing him at the front in 2022 if Ferrari give him a competitive car. 

Hottest ticket of 2022

There is no doubt that George Russell holds it, with his seat to drive alongside Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes. The young Briton has fully earned his place at the eight-time constructors’ champions after impressing at Williams in the last three seasons. 

We had a brief glimpse of his talents when he deputised for Hamilton at the Sakhir Grand Prix in 2020 – a race he so nearly won – and his feats in the Williams FW43B last season were, at times, staggering. In the wet in Belgium and Russia he put in laps which are so rarely seen in F1, qualifying second and third respectively in a car that was, on average, the eighth quickest. 

He has had to sit by whilst his contemporaries Alexander Albon and Lando Norris – both of whom he beat in Formula 2 – secured drives at top teams. But beneath his friendly and personable demeanour is a tough, steely competitor and – most importantly – a supremely quick racing driver. 

After a year battling Red Bull’s Max Verstappen in a gruelling and feisty battle throughout 2021, Hamilton could well face a battle within his team in 2022. Russell should provide a far stiffer challenge than Valtteri Bottas did for the last five years. The success may not be instant and there are likely to be ups and downs, but Russell’s time could finally be here. 

A looming crisis in the sport is…

Aside from concerns over how the FIA and race director Michael Masi are managing (or not) races these days, the biggest worry is that the new regulations return F1 back to the bad old days of the big-team domination. Before Pierre Gasly’s win in Monza in September 2020, no driver outside of Mercedes, Ferrari or Red Bull won a race since Kimi Raikkonen’s win at the 2013 Australian Grand Prix. 

Last season was F1’s most competitive season since 2009, with six different drivers winning and 13 of the 21 who took part finishing on the podium – the first time that has happened since 2009. The new regulations – originally scheduled in 2021 but delayed due to the financial effects of the pandemic – are hoped to make the racing better and level the playing field. But will they?

After one of the greatest seasons in living memory, there is a decent chance that Mercedes – who started work on their 2022 car early and have won the last eight constructors’ championships for a reason –  edge ahead of Red Bull again. The midfield may become more detached, too, as it was for a long time. That would be bad news. 

The new regulations’ success must be judged after a few years, not just one, but it would be tough if the lop-sided F1 returned, just as it had started to generate wider and more intense interest.  

One prediction

Ferrari to make a comeback as a race-winning force for the first time since 2019. The last time the Scuderia went without a win for this many races was their barren run from 1990-1994. After three wins in 2019 they finished 2020 down in a distant sixth. 

2021 was a marked improvement, with a late charge to beat McLaren to third in the standings as well as a total of five podiums and two pole positions. 

The development from 2020 to 2021 and throughout last season was stark, a late engine upgrade being a decisive factor. Given their resources and their approach over the past two years, team principal Mattia Binotto should feel confident about 2022. 

Another big asset is their driver line-up. Charles Leclerc has been Ferrari’s future for a while now, ever since his demolition of Sebastian Vettel in 2019 and 2020. His 2021 season had some high moments where he out-drove his car but his form was a little patchy, too. Team-mate Carlos Sainz, though, started well and got better as the season went on. If both continue their progress, it’s another tick in Ferrari’s box. Both men are likely to get better from an already high level. 

Nothing is guaranteed and Ferrari have promised much and delivered little in the recent past, too, but everything seems to be pointing in the right direction.

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