WORDS BY ADAM DICKINSON | IMAGES BY FERRARI / RED BULL
Despite fiercely competitive teams and well-matched drivers, there’s still something missing to make this an all-time classic championship battle.
There seemed to be a consensus that last year’s title fight was a bit much. From the track limits free-for-all at Brazil to the ‘slowest car wins’ battle in Saudi Arabia, all set to the backdrop of constant sparring soundbites from Christian Horner and Toto Wolff, it pushed Formula 1’s popularity to heights not seen in a decade but without shedding some sporting values along the way.
Come the start of this season, there’s been a refreshing feeling that the boundaries have been reset. Ferrari and Red Bull have kept their battle firmly on track and away from both the headlines and stewards’ office.
There’s not been anything like the flashpoints we saw last year between the leading drivers- notwithstanding Ferrari’s internal team combustion - but has it gone too far the other way?.
There’s nowhere near the same storylines going into race weekends and F1’s relevance is limited to those weekends.
Heading towards the climax of last season, stories were breaking daily for months around every aspect of the scrap but this season the circus has been strictly limited to Thursday-Sunday every fortnight.
Binotto doesn’t have the same presence in the media as Wolff and despite ‘Marmite Man’ Horner being the ultimate competitor, he’s devoted as much of his needle towards the Silver Arrows this season as his main rivals. Maybe he just wants the time off?
Again, last season overstepped the mark. The residue of that is still there between Hamilton and Verstappen fans - the grandstand behaviour last time out at the Red Bull Ring showed that.
But there can be a middle ground, and this campaign has the potential to be that. The last time we saw a Ferrari driver vying for his first title saw a respectful 2008 season culminate in an all-time title decider, that should be on the cards.
Fundamentally there’s just not the same animosity from Red Bull towards the Scuderia as they have for the Brackley bunch.
Mercedes ended Red Bull’s era of dominance and that’s stuck with the Milton Keynes outfit, whilst Horner had remained a constant thorn in Mercedes’ side, even when they were on top, and always let them know it.
And the stakes couldn’t have been higher. 2021 was the closest F1 can get to a final, an end-of-an-era showdown that would mean more to the legacy of Mercedes and Hamilton than any other championship.
A big reason it’s not been the same so far this season is that the jeopardy isn’t the same. F1 has begun a bright new dawn and this won’t be the last time we’ll see these drivers, teams and design philosophies over the next decade.
There’s so much more scope for in-season design too, meaning the first races aren’t setting the status quo for the rest of the season in anywhere like the same way.
Even with Leclerc’s winless streak that ended in Austria, he’s still very much in contention. So far, this season feels a bit like the start of the second series of a sitcom. All the original storylines were resolved in season one and the characters are just treading water waiting for the next drama to explode.
But that can’t last forever, and that’s the biggest reason for optimism. Cars and drivers are very well matched so the action on track will remain close if both teams can maintain better reliability, but every race carries more weight than the last, taking away another opportunity to make up ground or extend a lead.
When Verstappen and Leclerc line up at the Hungaroring, that race represents 10% of the available points on offer, and that number will only go.
Leclerc’s coming from behind and at some point that desperation has to kick in. He’ll need to take a risk, and whether it comes off or not, that’s when we could see this season really come alive.
It’s a rivalry that we should see much more of over the coming years, a rivalry that deserves to start with a bang. Over to you, F1.
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