Driver of the year
After controversy over his first Formula One world championship in 2021, Max Verstappen left no question as to his deserved ascendancy this time. The Dutchman has been metronomic in his delivery, barely putting a foot wrong in claiming 15 wins from 22 races. Mechanical failures notwithstanding it could have been more. Moreover he did it with some panache. There were straightforward victories but also some supreme, authoritative demonstrations of man and machine in perfect harmony. Ferrari knew the game was up when Verstappen won three times from lowly grid slots, coming back from 10th in Hungary, 14th in Belgium and 7th in Italy. They were imperious and flawless drives that can only be admired. A shame then that his refusal to obey team orders at the season’s close cast something of a petulant pall over his success, not least in his unreasonable demands that the issue ceased to be discussed because the facts were not known but at the same time refusing to divulge said facts.
Race of the year
The championship battle may not have been gripping but there was some high-quality racing, much of it of course often in Verstappen’s wake. The British Grand Prix at Silverstone was one such humdinger. After a terrifying opening when Alfa Romeo’s Zhou Guanyu suffered a major crash and ended up inverted in the catch fencing, a thriller ensued. There was nothing to call as the lead changed hands repeatedly bet ween Verstappen, Lewis Hamilton, Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz. The fast, sweeping circuit suited the new aero configurations of the cars and their improved ability to pass one another. Verstappen took damage, ruling him out of contention as Hamilton went up against the Ferraris. A late safety-car intervention then reset the fight. Sainz took the lead, as Sergio Pérez, Hamilton and Leclerc went wheel to wheel for the podium places. It was enthralling, Silverstone delivering the cut-and-thrust racing the sport has long desired.
As part of that electric confrontation at the British Grand Prix, one sequence of racing really stood out. With Sainz comfortable in front of Pérez, Hamilton and Leclerc’s battle raged on. After a season of struggling with an underperforming car, Hamilton was in a feisty mood with his W13 finally giving him a chance to race. As Pérez and Leclerc fought going wide at Club, Hamilton swept past them both, to elicit a roar from the Silverstone grandstands of epic proportions, who cared not that he could not hold the place and was re-passed on the same lap. Pérez made off, leaving Leclerc and Hamilton at it for third and the pass that took the breath away. Hamilton had overtaken Leclerc at Luffield only for the Ferrari driver to come back round the outside of the blisteringly fast Copse corner. It was an absolute balls-out manoeuvre at 185mph that briefly appeared to slow time at a spot where both drivers knew Hamilton and Verstappen had hit one another last year with Verstappen taking a huge high-speed impact with the wall. This time it was clean and a stunning piece of racing.
Controversy of the year
Never a good look for a sport to descend into financial wrangling, F1 made an absolute horlicks of the first year of imposing a budget cap. The process had been interminably slow in reaching a conclusion, the results from 2021’s assessments of spending finally revealed in October. Moreover, before they were released leaks had put Red Bull under the spotlight for overspending and accusations and counter-accusations flew without any evidence. The row rumbled on, overshadowing Verstappen’s title victory in Japan and when Red Bull were deemed to have broken the cap, no one was satisfied. Red Bull branded their punishment draconian, other teams who had stuck to the cap felt they had got off lightly. There was also poor management of the affair, with Red Bull’s team principal Christian Horner having meetings with the FIA president Mohammed ben Sulayem. This was not Horner or Red Bull’s fault, the president should surely have recused himself entirely from the process to avoid the accusations of untoward influence, which inevitably then surfaced. It was an ill-tempered, unedifying affair and F1 must refine the process for next season lest it be repeated.
Team of the year
The overspend overshadowed Red Bull’s achievement in taking their first drivers’ and constructors’ championship double since 2013 but their success should not be downplayed. Under the new regulations no one was quite sure who would come out on top and it was Red Bull without doubt who proved to have the winning combination. Once over the reliability issues that stymied their opening races, the RB18 proved to be a rocket ship. It was quick, stable, well-balanced and blisteringly fast in a straight line. As they developed it, the surplus weight came off and they adjusted the setup to suit Verstappen’s desire for a pointy front-end. When he had it, he was all but unstoppable. The team also delivered operationally, their strategists Hannah Schmitz and Will Courtenay repeatedly making the right calls and their crew working like clockwork on race weekends. There was a calm control at the team that matched Verstappen’s on track and which owed nothing to any overspend.
Disappointment of the year
It was hard to imagine a season that had begun for Ferrari with such promise could come to pieces so dramatically. From testing, their car looked fearsome and in the opening rounds so it proved. Leclerc took two wins from the opening three races and with Red Bull’s reliability problems, led Verstappen by 46 points. So strong did the Scuderia appear the question was whether Verstappen could claw back that many points. A series of errors, poor strategy calls, reliability issues and then a failure to match the developing pace of the Red Bull left their hopes in tatters. There were blown engines, poor tyre tactics and even Leclerc’s costly unforced error in crashing out in France. By Spa any early race-pace advantage Ferrari possessed had disappeared as they were left reeling by Verstappen’s victory. When the Dutchman won the title in Japan, Leclerc was 114 points behind him and any hopes for a mighty championship battle had long since turned to ash.
Biggest step up
George Russell had every right to be hugely optimistic in joining a Mercedes team with eight consecutive constructors’ championships under their belts. What greeted him when he finally took to the track was wholly unexpected. The car was off the pace, a beast to drive, with poor handling and balance and suffering the worst porpoising on the grid. From anticipating to be competing for wins the 24-year-old had to swiftly adapt to problem solving, development and analysis on the fly. Races became learning experiences as the team furiously tried to understand and manage their recalcitrant car. A big ask for even an experienced driver, Russell handled it with impressive calm, grace and determination. He took a fine win in Brazil and outscored Hamilton, albeit given that that for the first half of the season the seven- time champion was given the more experimental set-ups to drive as the team looked to help unlock their car’s performance. Nonetheless this remained a baptism of fire and Russell emerged with distinction.