After an incredibly dramatic end to 2021, Formula One (F1) has officially started the 2022 season. The Bahrain Grand Prix (GP), held at the Bahrain International Circuit in Bahrain from Friday, March 18 to Sunday, March 20, saw the ten teams kick off the first of the 23 races scheduled for this season. Though some predicted this year would be another championship fight between new world champion Max Verstappen and seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton, who is seeking a record-breaking eighth world title, the weekend in Bahrain demonstrated that both the drivers’ and constructors’ standings may be in for some dramatic changes.
In an impressive demonstration of their engine power, Ferrari earned their first race win and 1–2 finish since 2019, with Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz both putting in strong weekends for the Scuderia. Red Bull, on the other hand, saw a shocking power failure for both cars, with Verstappen and teammate Sergio Pérez failing to finish the race. The first race weekend of the year also showed that Mercedes seems to be on their back foot for at least the start of the season and will need to do some work to get back in shape if the team hopes to win a record-extending ninth Constructors’ Championship.
Ahead of the first free practice (FP) session of the year, driver changes shook the grid, with Aston Martin announcing that four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel had tested positive for COVID-19 and would not be able to participate in the first race weekend. The team’s reserve driver, Nico Hülkenberg, who lost his F1 seat at the end of 2019, replaced Vettel for the Bahrain GP.
Another familiar face making a return to the track in Bahrain was Kevin Magnussen, who left F1 at the end of 2020 after being unable to secure a seat for 2021. Magnussen made his return to both F1 and Haas, the team he drove for from 2017 to 2020, in Bahrain following the announcement that Magnussen would be coming back to the team after Haas terminated its contract with former driver Nikita Mazepin following Russia’s ongoing invasion of Ukraine.
The first practice session, FP1, started off with a brief red flag as Esteban Ocon’s Alpine saw parts of the sidepod falling off the car, littering debris onto the track. When the track was finally cleared for teams to be able to run their cars, Pierre Gasly set the fastest time of the session for Alpha Tauri, with Leclerc and Sainz lining up behind him in second place (P2) and P3 in a very strong showing for Ferrari. George Russell, in his new seat at Mercedes, set the fourth fastest time, while Hamilton was in P7 as FP1 came to a close. Verstappen ended the session in P5, with teammate Pérez rounding out the top ten.
At the start of FP2, the only night session, drivers took to the track under the bright lights of the circuit on Friday evening. Verstappen set the fastest time of the night, with Leclerc and Sainz again behind him in P2 and P3 for Ferrari. Russell’s Mercedes was once again in P4, with Hamilton further down the timesheets in P9. The Ferrari engine seemed to be having a very strong night, with Alfa Romeo and Haas seeing their drivers set quick times. Bottas ended FP2 in P6, ahead of the two Haas cars of Mick Schumacher in P8 and Magnussen in P10.
The final FP session on Saturday morning before qualifying saw Verstappen go quickest again, with Leclerc just behind him in P2. Pérez took the third fastest time, while Russell was once again in P4 ahead of Sainz in P5 and Hamilton in P6. Magnussen again showed off the capabilities of the Haas, setting a time worthy of P7 on the timesheets, while Bottas and rookie teammate Zhou Guanyu in the two Alfa Romeos claimed P8 and P9.
Both McLaren cars finished outside of the top ten during all three FP sessions, raising concerns about the team’s ability to maintain or better their performance of fourth in the 2021 Constructors’ Championship. Especially for Daniel Ricciardo, who was unable to participate in the pre-season tests in Bahrain after testing positive for COVID-19, the timesheet results from the FP sessions would have raised concerns about how he would be able to adjust to the car for qualifying and the race.
The first portion of qualifying saw McLaren and Aston Martin struggle greatly in a very disappointing showing for both teams. Though McLaren had been much closer to the front of the midfield than Aston Martin last year, the two teams were shockingly off the pace of Red Bull and Ferrari in Qualifier 1 (Q1). While the weekend’s front runners saw both their drivers easily make it through to Q2, both Hülkenberg and Stroll were knocked out in Q1 in P17 and P19 respectively, making Aston Martin the only team to lose both their drivers in the first part of qualifying.
Ricciardo was also knocked out with a shocking P18 finish ahead of Stroll and Nicholas Latifi for Williams in P20, with Tsunoda going out with them in P16. In his first race weekend since his return to F1 with Williams this season, Alex Albon just managed to make it through to Q2. In an impressive showing from the American team, both Haas cars also made it through to Q2.
As the drivers prepared for Q2, the new rule change that drivers would no longer be required to start the race with the tires they had used to set their fastest times in Q2 meant that teams’ tire strategies would be changing. All drivers were on soft tires for their final runs in Q2, with Verstappen setting the fastest time during the second portion of qualifying. As the clock ran out, Esteban Ocon was unable to make it to Q3 and ended his night in P11. Lando Norris was knocked out in P13, bringing a very disappointing qualifying session for McLaren to a close. Behind him, both Albon and Zhou could not make it out of Q2, finishing in P14 and P15 respectively.
Particularly impressive drivers in Q2 were Bottas, who just managed to get his Alfa Romeo into Q3 in P10, and Magnussen, who finished the second part of qualifying with a very strong P7. Despite Schumacher being knocked out in P12, the Haas looked to be a surprisingly fast car in Magnussen’s experienced hands.
As the final ten drivers entered the final portion of qualifying, all eyes were on Red Bull and Ferrari to see who would come out on top in the fight for pole position. As drivers set their first timed laps, it looked as though the final shootout for pole would come down to Leclerc, Sainz, and Verstappen.
Ultimately, Leclerc managed to hold onto his provisional pole time to secure his spot at the front of the grid for the race, with Verstappen a tenth of a second behind him in P2. Ferrari and Red Bull would line up on the first two rows of the grid, with Verstappen in P2, Sainz in P3, and Pérez in P4 behind Leclerc on pole. The strong showing from both teams in the first qualifying session of the year reflected the results from pre-season testing, which had hinted at Ferrari and Red Bull being championship contenders.
Mercedes were unable to challenge for pole, with the team continuing to face issues with the car bouncing on track due to the new design regulations implemented this year. Hamilton ended Q3 with a P5 finish, while former teammate Bottas put in a great performance in qualifying that set him up for a P6 start next to Hamilton. Remarkably, Bottas’ Alfa Romeo qualified higher than the other Mercedes of Russell in P9. Magnussen also put in an incredible lap in Q3 to settle into P7 on the grid for the race, with Fernando Alonso behind him in P8 as Gasly rounded out the top 10 with his Alpha Tauri.
As the lights went out and the drivers got underway for the 57-lap race on Sunday evening, Leclerc made a great start, staying on the inside of Turn 1 to keep the lead from Verstappen. Hamilton also had a particularly good start into the first corner, making it past Pérez and taking P4 as the Mexican driver was also passed by Magnussen’s Haas. However, Pérez fought back against Magnussen, overtaking the Haas on Lap 3 and chasing after Hamilton until he finally made it past the Mercedes on Lap 10.
On the other hand, both McLarens had terrible starts, with Norris down to P17 and Ricciardo in P20 at the very back of the pack by the time the cars made it through the second lap. By the start of Lap 11, Norris had fallen to P18, while Ricciardo was still last.
Every driver except the two McLarens on mediums had started the race on the soft tires, and as the teams began to ready the first round of pit stops, differing tire strategies were revealed. Hamilton was the first to pit at the end of Lap 11, coming in to put on a set of hard tires. As he left the pit lane, though, the new hard tires left him vulnerable in P12 to those behind him.
Verstappen and Sainz both pitted for softs at the end of Lap 14, with their respective teammates coming in on the next lap. Leclerc came out of the pit lane on soft tires with Verstappen just behind him after a very effective undercut, setting up a very close fight throughout Lap 16 that eventually saw Verstappen overtaking the Ferrari into Turn 1 on Lap 17. The first DRS zone, however, allowed Leclerc to pass the Red Bull and take back the lead of the race into Turn 4. The two repeated this switch on the very next lap, with Verstappen again making an overtake into the first corner that Leclerc then reversed into Turn 4.
On Lap 19, Verstappen attempted the same pass again into Turn 1, but locked up, allowing Leclerc to keep the lead and begin pulling away from the Red Bull. The Ferrari led the race in a dominant fashion, with the top six drivers of Leclerc, Verstappen, Sainz, Pérez, Hamilton, and Russell not shifting until the next round of pit stops.
The second round of stops soon arrived, with Verstappen again pitting before Leclerc on Lap 30 for mediums. The Ferrari came into the pits at the end of Lap 31, coming out of the Red Bull and continuing to keep him out of DRS range.
As the race progressed, the drivers voiced concerns about the quick tire degradation, with Verstappen coming into the pits for another stop on Lap 43 and re-joining the track behind both Ferraris in P3 before Sainz pitted on Lap 44, leaving Leclerc in the lead and Verstappen trying to chase the Ferrari down.
However, the first race of the season could not end without a dramatic finish, which came on Lap 46 when Gasly’s Alpha Tauri pulled over to the side of the track after catching fire with a power unit failure. Under the safety car, Leclerc pitted without losing track position and kept the lead as Verstappen began voicing problems with the power steering on his car over the radio. Amid Verstappen’s complaints, all lapped cars were allowed to unlap themselves behind the safety car.
When the safety car ended on Lap 50, coming into the pits to allow Leclerc to control the restart, the Ferrari got away well, peeling away from Verstappen behind him. The Red Bull driver found himself under pressure instead, with Sainz almost managing to get past Verstappen into Turn 1. However, while Verstappen managed to keep Sainz behind, he suddenly found himself with a lack of power on Lap 54 as Sainz passed him, followed by Pérez and Hamilton, and the Dutch driver was forced to crawl into the pits to retire from the race.
The focus of the race then fell on Hamilton, who was chasing after Pérez for P3. Pérez also reported that he felt like he was losing power heading into the final stages of the race. As the drivers began the last lap and Hamilton continued to close in on Pérez, the Red Bull suddenly found himself spinning through Turn 1 with a similar failure to Verstappen, allowing Hamilton past into the final podium position. Pérez retired from the race, leaving Red Bull with zero points.
Leclerc crossed the line to take his first win since Monza in 2019 and brought Ferrari their first win since the 2019 Singapore GP. Teammate Sainz took the checkered flag five seconds behind him to seal a one-two finish for Ferrari, the Scuderia’s first since Singapore, when Vettel and Leclerc finished in P1 and P2.
Behind the two Ferraris, Hamilton came home in P3 to round out the podium positions in an unexpectedly strong finish for Mercedes given the team’s performance leading up to the race. On the other hand, Red Bull ended up at the bottom of the Constructors’ Championship by the end of the race weekend after Verstappen and Pérez’s double retirement. This is far from the result the team would have wanted heading into the first race of the season, and given that the three DNFs of the race were all cars using Red Bull Powertrains engines, the team exits Bahrain facing more questions about their engine than expected.
Perhaps the most incredible race result outside of the podium was Magnussen’s P5 finish for Haas. While Schumacher was just outside of the points in P11 at the end of the race, it looks likely that the speed of the Haas this season will allow the team to see some double points finishes this year. Though there are still 22 races to come, Haas now sits in third in the Constructors’ Championship as F1 heads to the next race in Saudi Arabia.
Further back, the weekend was certainly encouraging for many of the midfield teams, particularly Alfa Romeo, seeing as Bottas finished in P6 while teammate Zhou finished in P10, scoring his first point in F1 on his debut. Bottas had a great first race at his new team, finishing much closer to his former teammate Hamilton than some may have expected. The strong performances from all the teams using a Ferrari engine was proof that the Italian team has most definitely managed to improve over the past two years.
Alpine also had a decent first race of the season with a double points finish from Ocon in P7 and Alonso in P9. Though the unfortunate end to Gasly’s race was disappointing for Alpha Tauri, Tsunoda in the other Alpha Tauri managed to end the race in P8. Albon and Latifi crossed the line in P13 and P16 respectively for Williams, showing that the team is still far from challenging the front of the midfield.
The race will surely have been disappointing for Aston Martin, who saw the weekend come to an end with Stroll in P12 and Hülkenberg in P17. Though Vettel will return for the Saudi Arabia GP if he tests negative in time for the race, the German driver may not be particularly looking forward to getting back on track given the performance of the car in Bahrain. In another unfortunate set of results, Ricciardo finishing the race in P14 ahead of his teammate Norris in P15 for McLaren was surely the most shocking result of the weekend, given that the team had seemed to be only getting faster last season. Both teams are Mercedes engine customers, sparking doubts of how much of a challenge the Mercedes engine can pose to Red Bull and Ferrari this season.
As the grid now heads to the Saudi Arabia GP, to be held from Friday, March 25 to Sunday, March 27, the next race weekend is sure to keep the spotlight on Ferrari as the Italian team aims to maintain its strong opening performance. Red Bull and Mercedes will need to sort out their respective car issues if they hope to pose a challenge to Ferrari over the rest of the year. While this is just the start of the season, the Bahrain GP was a marker of the drama that is sure to come from what looks to be another competitive championship battle.
Jiyu Shin can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.