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Max Verstappen v Lewis Hamilton as Formula One soap opera returns

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The 2022 Formula One season is about more than just the renewed battle between reigning champion Max Verstappen and the man he dethroned, Lewis Hamilton.

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It will be a heavily-revised version of F1’s high-speed soap opera, featuring new race management, all-new cars designed to create closer racing, and a reshuffled cast that will launch into the unknown at this weekend’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

Fourteen weeks after the sour, contrived and controversial last-lap drama in Abu Dhabi that ended Hamilton’s four-year reign as champion and ushered Verstappen to a first title crown, the curtain rises on a ‘revolutionary’ new show featuring the most sweeping technical rule changes in 40 years.

The return of ‘ground effect’ aerodynamics for the first time since 1983 with much bigger wheels and fatter tyres, a freeze on power unit development and a tighter budget cap, down to $140 million excluding drivers’ salaries, may throw up arguments and shocks.

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But below the surface, away from the gleaming visible alterations and the uncertainties brought by the Covid-19 pandemic, mounting inflation and a European war, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the human drama will remain unchanged – at least for now.

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Bitterly disillusioned, but now repaired, Hamilton, 37, returns from a hermetic off-season to resume his quest for a record eighth title 750 kilometres up the coast from the Yas Marina Circuit where his hopes of winning last season’s title battle with Vestappen were dashed.

As Hamilton’s Mercedes team and Red Bull swapped heated claims and counter-claims, the architect of F1’s greatest furore, Race Director Michael Masi, was muzzled and later removed from his role by the International Motoring Federation (FIA), which itself underwent an upheaval.

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Masi had delivered an improvised interpretation of the rules to avoid the race ending behind a safety car. That handed Verstappen, on new tyres, a clear advantage for the last-lap showdown and not only gifted him the title, but also “tarnished the image of F1”, according to the FIA.

Within days, the FIA had a new president in Dubai-born Mohammed Ben Sulayem, who promised a review that came with a restructuring of race direction under two men, German Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas from Portugal, aided by the return from retirement of the vastly experienced Briton Herbie Blash as a permanent advisor.

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Hamilton and Mercedes welcomed the changes – without which the Briton might have retired – but as pre-season testing began Verstappen declared that Masi had been “thrown under a bus” by the FIA.

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Maintaining his characteristically pugnacious style, the Dutchman last week mocked claims from his rival that he would be to slow to challenge for race wins in his new Mercedes.

“It’s always like that isn’t it?” he said.

After spending most of the winter in retreat in Colorado, Hamilton re-emerged burning with “righteous fire”, according to his team.

“You can turn these emotions into power and strength and that’s what I am doing,” he explained. 

“If you think what you saw at the end of last year was my best, wait till you see this year.”

At 37, Hamilton remains young and fit enough to compete again if he is motivated, but unlike Verstappen, he will have a new team-mate in fellow-Briton George Russell at Mercedes and, after early testing, a car that is “a handful to drive”.

“There is potential within our car to get us there,” said Hamilton.

“We just have to learn to extract it – there are some hurdles to overcome.”

In typically enigmatic style, Hamilton announced on Monday he will be adopting his mother’s name, probably to race as Lewis Hamilton-Larbalestier.

Like Verstappen, Russell is 24 and will provide a youthful and dynamic rivalry to Hamilton that may help lift Mercedes to exploit their potential with the new cars after five years of comparative serenity with Valtteri Bottas.

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The Finn has joined Alfa Romeo to partner China’s first Formula One driver Guanyu Zhou in an all-new line-up.

Russell, who dazzled as substitute for a Covid-struck Hamilton in Bahrain in 2020, has been replaced at Williams by London-born Thai driver Alex Albon.

Danish driver Kevin Magnussen also returns alongside Mick Schumacher at Haas, succeeding Russian Nikita Mazepin, dismissed along with the title sponsorship from his father’s Uralkali business in reaction to Russia’s actions in Ukraine.

Formula One 2022 season has been trimmed to 22 races

In final testing in Bahrain last week, Verstappen topped the times ahead of Schumacher, but warned it meant little.

“No one gives full beans at testing,” he said. 

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was an impressive third, prompting Hamilton to tip the Italian team, and consistent McLaren, as likely challengers.

Russell was fifth and Hamilton 17th, results that meant little ahead of a revised 22-race calendar, trimmed from 23 events following the cancellation of the Russian Grand Prix.

The second instalment of the Max v Lewis thriller will also include three sprint races at Imola, Spielberg and Sao Paulo before concluding, again, in Abu Dhabi where all concerned, except for the American owners of the sport’s commercial rights, will hope to avoid a repeat of last year’s furious finale.

By Garrin Lambley © Agence France-Presse

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