In 2021, Max Verstappen and Lewis Hamilton delivered a stunning Formula 1 season. In 2022, their fortunes contrasted markedly.
Last year, there were on-track collisions and acrimony between Verstappen of Red Bull and Hamilton of Mercedes, which ended with Verstappen winning his first title by passing the seven-time champion Hamilton on the last lap of a controversial final Grand Prix in Abu Dhabi.
This year, Verstappen set a record for the number of Grand Prix victories in a season with 15 to comfortably win his second championship. For the first time in his 16-season career, Hamilton did not win a race.
“It’s very different,” Verstappen, reflecting on the disparity between his two titles, said in an interview. “But that’s the same with having your first win compared to others. The emotion is completely different.
“The first one is always more special than the second. I do think this year has been a better year in terms of performance, so definitely this title is a better one. But the first is way more emotional.”
Hamilton said he was relieved that the season was over. “This year is up there in the top three of my worst,” he said. “One win would have been nice, but one win is not really enough, is it?”
Red Bull embraced the changes to the aerodynamic regulations that were introduced for 2022 to allow the cars to follow more closely and aid overtaking, making the races more exciting. Mercedes struggled.
Over the first half, its cars were badly affected by porpoising, a violent up-and-down movement caused by the stalling of airflow underneath. Another concern was bouncing, with the car striking the ground repeatedly.
It took Mercedes months to solve the issues, helping its driver George Russell win the São Paulo Grand Prix, the penultimate race.
“We’ve started seasons at the front and been fighting for championships, and it’s been a different kind of journey because of the consistency,” said Hamilton, who finished outside of the Top 5 in the driver standings for the first time.
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“This year has been far, far deeper of a feeling because people worked so hard to build this car, and, unfortunately, it’s not been the car they had hoped it would be.”
The failure from Mercedes ended its eight-year run as constructors’ champions, with Red Bull winning for the first time since 2013.
“When you look at the season as a whole, we had the biggest regulation change in 40 years, coming off the back of, probably the biggest fight we’ve seen in 40 years between two drivers and two teams,” Christian Horner, the Red Bull team principal, said in an interview.
“And it has been an incredible year when you consider we won 17 races, had two sprint race victories, five one-two finishes, defended the drivers’ championship and reclaimed the constructors’ championship after eight years.”
Verstappen said Red Bull had developed “a better car compared to the competition,” which allowed him to set another record. Michael Schumacher and Sebastian Vettel were the previous record holders for the most number of wins in a season with 13.
“At the end of the day, it’s all about who designs the best car, who comes up with the more clever ideas,” he said. “At the start of the season, it was all a big question mark for everyone as to where were you going to be.
“We had a rough start, but after that, we did very little wrong.”
Verstappen retired from two of the first three races. Over the same period, Charles Leclerc of Ferrari won twice and was second in the other race to suggest he was the driver to beat.
The challenge for Leclerc faded, however, because of a mix of the car’s unreliability, his mistakes and strategic errors from the team.
Leclerc, who finished 146 points behind Verstappen in the drivers’ championship, said: “Considering how far we have come from last year, it’s an amazing step forward.
“But obviously I cannot ignore our middle part of the season was super frustrating. We went from leading the championship by quite a lot of points to being behind by quite a lot of points.” He said that Ferrari had improved its strategy later in the season, but that “it was difficult to show” as the pace of the car was not as good as in the beginning.
Nine days after Leclerc was second in Abu Dhabi to finish runner-up to Verstappen in the standings, Mattia Binotto resigned as team principal of Ferrari, which finished second in the constructors’ championship, 205 points behind Red Bull.
Binotto said it was with “regret” that he would be leaving on Dec. 31 after working for 28 years in a number of roles. “It is right to take this step at this time as hard as this decision has been for me,” he said. “I leave a united and growing team, a strong team, ready, I’m sure, to achieve the highest goals.”
Neither he nor the team said why he was leaving. Ferrari said it would name his replacement next year.
Another executive leaving Formula 1 is Ross Brawn, its managing director of motorsports, who announced on Nov. 28 that he was retiring after almost six years in the position.
On the track, Toto Wolff, the Mercedes team principal, cannot guarantee that Hamilton and Russell will be fighting regularly with Verstappen and Leclerc again next season.
“Layer by layer we uncovered a lack of performance in the car,” Wolff said in an interview. “It wasn’t a single thing; it was many related performance topics. Finally, we had the tools to understand, and slowly but surely we got the physics back together, and we caught up.
“Is it enough? No, it’s not. We are still playing catch up, but at least we looked much more competitive than a while ago. It has been a good recovery, but there are more steps to take, more things to understand in order to fight at the very front for a championship.”
Red Bull’s near-perfect season was marred in late October when it was punished for breaching the cost cap for 2021. Teams were allowed a budget of $145 million that season; Red Bull exceeded it by nearly $2 million. It was fined $7 million by the F.I.A., the sport’s governing body, and hit with a 10 percent reduction in its aerodynamic wind-tunnel testing allowance for 12 months that will affect next year’s car.
“It means we are going to have to think smarter and be more selective in what we test and run,” Horner said. “We just need to adapt.”
Red Bull, Ferrari and Mercedes will all field the same drivers in 2023. Not so for many teams.
Sebastian Vettel, the four-time champion, retired and will be replaced at Aston Martin by Fernando Alonso, a two-time title winner, who leaves Alpine and will be replaced there by Pierre Gasly.
His seat at AlphaTauri will be taken by Nyck de Vries, one of three rookies along with Logan Sargeant of Williams and Oscar Piastri of McLaren, who replaces Daniel Ricciardo, an eight-time Grand Prix winner. Ricciardo has returned to Red Bull as third driver.
After three years as a reserve, Nico Hülkenberg, who has driven for Williams, Sauber, Force India and Renault, joins Haas after the team did not renew the contract of Mick Schumacher.
Vettel, in particular, is ready to enjoy life away from racing.
“I have a wife I am very in love with still after so many years, we have three kids, so I look forward to spending more time at home with them and the dog,” he said.
“So these things that might sound really boring, but I have built next to the racing, I will hopefully be able to enjoy and then I’ll see what happens. I am restless in many ways and interested in a lot of things, so it will give those a little more room.”