The first part of the 2022 season will end with a double-header that begins with a trip to the south of France, so here are some of the topics that have got us excited ahead of the French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard.
1. Ferrari building some momentum
Red Bull’s run of six straight victories had led some to claim the fight for both championships was already over even before we had reached the halfway stage of the season. But that view discounted Ferrari, and overlooked the threat they had posed at most of those six races.
It’s true that Ferrari hadn’t managed to take their chances in that time, but that changed over the past two race weekends as Carlos Sainz won at Silverstone and Charles Leclerc took another victory in Austria to remind Red Bull that the Scuderia haven’t gone anywhere.
The two teams have been closely matched for much of the season so far, and there’s no obvious reason to expect the situation to be any different heading to France, where Ferrari struggled with tyre wear a year ago but learned valuable lessons that helped them improve.
Leclerc is now up to second in the drivers’ championship and has closed the gap to Max Verstappen by 11 points – to 38 – over the past two races. While you’d still rather be the championship leader, if Leclerc can claw back some more points this weekend then the pressure might start to build a little on the defending champion.
2. Mercedes likely to be strong again
I’m sure you don’t need reminding, but at Silverstone we had an absolutely epic race as Mercedes managed to provide a threat to the top two teams, while Lewis Hamilton looked to be in the mix for victory.
Ultimately Hamilton had to settle for third place, but the British driver’s move on both Leclerc and Sergio Perez at the final corner as the three scrapped it out in front of a partisan home crowd will live long in the memory.
Fortunately, we don’t have to wait long for the chance to potentially see something similar, as Paul Ricard is a track that has some similarities to Silverstone, with high-speed cornering and a smooth track surface that should play into Mercedes’ hands a little more than Austria did.
The top two teams will be worried, because Mercedes being in the mix and potentially taking points off them adds an unpredictability to the title fight. There’s a chance that Hamilton or George Russell could take points off one of Red Bull or Ferrari, benefitting the other team and either closing up the standings or opening up gaps even wider.
3. French backing for Alpine
A very strong double-points finish for Alpine in Austria resulted in the team drawing level with McLaren in the battle for fourth in the constructors’ championship, with McLaren holding the advantage courtesy of Lando Norris’s podium in Imola.
But it feels like the momentum is with the French team, and heading to their home race, they’ll be looking to move clear of McLaren into fourth.
The result in Austria was led by Esteban Ocon’s excellent fifth place, which continued his very strong season so far, but it was backed up by 10th place from the back of the grid from Fernando Alonso. And it was Alonso who helped ensure Alpine picked up more points than McLaren at Silverstone a week earlier, pipping Norris to fifth on that occasion on a track that is comparable to Paul Ricard.
The proud French support will be backing their team at Le Castellet, and the performances of both Ocon and Alonso so far this season provide plenty of reasons for optimism heading into Alpine’s home race.
4. Schumacher hitting his stride
Momentum seems to be the buzzword of the feature this week, and another driver who has plenty of that is Mick Schumacher. The young German has really found form in recent weeks, and while he had to wait 31 Grands Prix for his first points to finally arrive – courtesy of an eighth place at Silverstone that also included a thrilling fight with Verstappen – he backed that up in spectacular style in Austria.
A first top-six finish for Schumacher at the Red Bull Ring also formed part of a consecutive Haas double-points score, moving the team back up to seventh place in the constructors’ championship, having been down in ninth prior to the British Grand Prix. And rather than a pair of lucky results, they feel like just reward for the potential Haas have shown so far this season.
And don’t forget, Paul Ricard was the scene of Schumacher’s first Q2 “appearance” last year. Okay, he crashed in Q1 when inside the top 15 and the subsequent red flag saw him advance but unable to take part – but it was a more competitive showing despite the relative lack of pace of the 2021 Haas, so there’s every chance of the run continuing for a 2020 Formula 2 champion who is clearly growing in confidence.
5. Driver silly season developments
In the time between the Formula 1 paddock packing up to leave Austria and getting set up in France, there has been a lot going on at McLaren. IndyCar star Colton Herta tested a 2021 car for the team at Portimao last week, and then just after that test finished, they announced the signing of defending IndyCar champion Alex Palou to their wider racing programme.
While there are contractual issues still to sort with Palou and no clarity over where he will race, the announcement did state he would also test a 2021 car at some point, all of which only serves to increase speculation over Daniel Ricciardo’s future.
Ricciardo has come out and stated he is going nowhere, as he has a watertight contract until the end of 2023. But it’s no secret both he and the team are not satisfied with the way this season has panned out so far.
Such speculation only leads to scrutiny over other seats and potential movements, with multiple world champions Alonso and Sebastian Vettel two who are yet to confirm their future plans – and seats still technically available at six of the teams on the grid.