A new season and much has changed, yet much also remains the same in Formula One.
No sport does personality, politics and drama quite like F1, which explains the global success of the Netflix docuseries “Drive to Survive,” the fifth season of which premiered last week.
Fresh on our screens is last year’s F1 soap opera, from the anger around Red Bull’s 2021 budget cap breach to Fernando Alonso’s surprise move to Aston Martin.
This year’s racing promises more high-speed incidents, both on and off the track. Even before the season opening race in Bahrain on March 5, there has been plenty to digest, suggesting season six of “Drive to Survive” will be just as enthralling as previous editions.
The latest in a series of controversies over the 13 months of Mohammed Ben Sulayem’s presidency of the sport’s governing body, the FIA, involved a new rule introduced in December.
Last month, a number of drivers, including Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen, spoke openly about their concerns over the rule which banned drivers making “political, religious and personal statements.”
The FIA, however, appeared to backtrack a few weeks later, issuing a “guidance” note which said the rule applied only during pre- and post-race events – and on the track.
Earlier this week, F1 came under the spotlight once again after concerns were raised by a human rights group over what it claims is the sport’s ongoing role in “sportswashing” by holding races in Bahrain and Saudi Arabia.
In a statement to CNN on Monday, the FIA said it “cannot interfere in the internal affairs of a sovereign state,” while an F1 spokesperson told CNN the sport took its responsibilities “very seriously.”
How to watch
The first race weekend begins in Bahrain on March 3, with the Grand Prix itself on Sunday at 10 a.m. ET. Races are live in the US on ESPN and ESPN Deportes. In the UK, fans can watch on Sky Sports or Channel 4.
For full details of how to watch where you are, click here.
Red Bull dominant again?
A record 23 races will be held this season, with Las Vegas hosting its first F1 race since the 1980s to become the third US city on the calendar, alongside Miami and Austin.
Over the course of the year, Verstappen and his Red Bull team will likely be the ones to beat once again.
Though three days of preseason testing don’t reveal all we need to know about competitiveness, both Red Bull cars looked strong on Bahrain’s Sakhir circuit last week, with Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez setting the fastest lap of the week.
“The car is working really well,” Verstappen, the strong favorite to win a third world title, told reporters in Bahrain. “Just going through a lot of things we wanted to try. Just in general enjoying driving the car.”
Interestingly, at the start of last year, Red Bull played down the team’s prospects, but this year, Verstappen is in a more bullish mood.
Asked by reporters of his goal, Verstappen replied: “Our goal is to win – and win the championship – only.”
Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was Verstappen’s closest rival last year but his words had less swagger at Saturday’s news conference, with the Ferrari driver saying the team had “some work to do,” before adding that Red Bull “seems to be very strong in these three days.”
Leclerc and his teammate Carlos Sainz completed 416 laps of the circuit in testing and new team principal Fred Vasseur, whose task is to win a first championship since the constructors’ title in 2008, seemed happy enough with what he had seen.
He told reporters: “The main target was getting as much mileage under our belt as possible and we did that, although it’s also true that you always want to do more and have more time. But it’s the same for everyone.
“Whenever we managed to put everything together, the performance seemed to be there, but we are clearly still in the process of getting to know the car, so it’s too early to say anything.
“The mood in the team is perfect and we are in a good shape to start this long season.”
For Lewis Hamilton and George Russell’s Mercedes team, there was no sign of the bouncing that ruined their last season. Mercedes finished third overall last year, ending a run of eight successive constructors’ titles as Red Bull won 15 of 22 races.
“We’re not quite where we want to be, but it’s a good platform to start from,” said Hamilton, who did not win a race last season.
The best of the rest could be Aston Martin, who have replaced the retired Sebastian Vettel with two-time world champion Alonso.
A decade after his last race victory, could Alonso be competitive enough to claim a 33rd race win this season? He was second fastest to Verstappen on day one of testing, third fastest on day two and ninth on the final day.
Aston Martin finished seventh overall last year, but rivals seem to think they have made a big step during preseason.
“It looks like their concept of car has moved them forward and they look like they’re not too far away. Fernando in particular looks very competitive,” Red Bull team boss Christian Horner told F1 television.
Under new management
Four of the 10 teams have new principals, an indication that managing F1 teams is increasingly becoming more akin to the results-driven nature of soccer management.
Vassuer is Ferrari’s fifth team principal in under a decade. Replacing Vasseur at Sauber is Andreas Seidl, while Andrea Stella is now McLaren’s team principal and James Vowles has taken over at Williams.
Another change is reduced points for shortened races.
Full points were awarded at last year’s rain-hit Japanese GP, where Verstappen secured the title, but there was initial confusion as to whether or not the Dutchman had won the title and it needed the FIA to clarify at the time that the reduced points rule only applied to races that were suspended and could not be resumed.
A cost cap adjustment also allows teams to spend an extra $1.2 million because of the extra race in the calendar.
Improvements, adjustments and changes made in preparation for another year of storytelling in a sport which is unlike any other.