F1’s Silly Season Is Here, So Let’s Make Sense Of The Chaos
2:00 PM EDT on August 3, 2022
Summer is in full swing in the Northern Hemisphere, which means beach visits, dew points reaching levels of heat previously only seen in Hell, and, most importantly, the start of Formula One's "silly season." After Sunday's Hungarian Grand Prix, the top motorsport league in the world began its month-long break before returning at the end of August, a period that traditionally settles the grid for next season. With a handful of contracts expiring at the end of this campaign, teams hustle to sign their drivers for the upcoming year, and it always gets a bit, well, silly.
This particular silly season started with the shock announcement that Alpine's Fernando Alonso will be making a swap over to Aston Martin for 2023, signing a multi-year deal with the British team. We'll get into the reverberations of that move in due time, but there are other questions to answer. The summer break also gives the top teams—those who have a settled driver pair already—a chance to improve on whatever ailed them in the first half, and boy have there been some ails. Red Bull, Ferrari, and Mercedes are a cut above the rest, but none of those teams have been perfect so far, and these weeks off will allow them to focus on fixing their problems without the imminent threat of a race weekend.
With all that mind, we're here to answer a few of the biggest questions that have arisen during the run-in to the summer break.
Can there still be a title race?
Luis: Short version: No.
Long version: There should be a title race, but Ferrari has done its best to shoot itself in the foot this season. We’ve written plenty about it, to the point where I pitched a blog about the strategy team’s failures at the Hungarian Grand Prix before deciding that, well, we’ve covered this ground plenty so far.
The only shot that Charles Leclerc, and Ferrari as a whole, has to come back from an 80-point lead against Max Verstappen in the Drivers’ Championship is if Verstappen retires from, let me check my notes, three races in a row. That also implies that Leclerc would win a bunch of races in the second half of the season, which clearly is not a given. Ferrari has the best car on the grid, give or take top speed, but the team has dug too big of a hole with its own incompetence to really make this happen. Frankly, they should be more worried about Mercedes than Red Bull, but more on that in a bit.
Kathryn: It’s tragic, but that points deficit with only nine races to go isn’t terribly promising, especially because there are seven points between first and second, and seven multiplied by nine does not get you 80. I was looking at some other point deficits that were surmounted, with 10-ish races to go in the season, and there was Kimi Raikkonen in 2007, against a rookie Lewis Hamilton. Raikkonen won by one point. That gap was in the 50s. Not exactly promising!
I’m going to disagree slightly with your assertion that Ferrari has the best car on the grid—it’s tough to say because we haven’t had a normal match of Red Bull vs. Ferrari without shenanigans for a bit now, but the Red Bull looks fast, period. Obviously it isn’t unbeatable—it was oddly off the pace in Austria, and in qualifying in Hungary—but it makes hopes that Max Verstappen will place second or lower for the rest of the races this season very unlikely. I would love to be proven wrong, but maybe it’d be better to focus on the midfield going forward, where all the fun drama is anyway.
Can Mercedes beat Ferrari in the Constructors’ Championship?
Kathryn: The answer is yes, but honestly, saying that Mercedes can beat Ferrari feels like a lukewarm take at this point. Like saying Max Verstappen can win this year’s championship, or Christian Horner can get in one more pissing contest with Toto Wolff before the end of the season. No sense in cowardice here—I think it’s likely that Mercedes will beat Ferrari in the Constructors’, even if we buy that Ferrari has successfully fixed their reliability issues.
You normally can’t say this about most teams, but I trust that Mercedes is only going to get better after the break, and their pace since Silverstone has been rivaling Ferrari’s, or at least Carlos Sainz’s. The pit stops are a bit wishy-washy, but that’s nothing in the face of Ferrari’s terrible race strategy, which can’t be fixed with new technical parts like an engine can. (See: Ferrari shooting itself in the foot.) Also worth noting that the Mercedes power unit allocation is in a much better state than Ferrari's going into the rest of the season. Those grid penalties add up!
Luis: I have to stand by my previous take and say that Ferrari has the best car, or more relevantly to this question, a better car than Mercedes. You’re right about the Merc catching up in pace, though, and they obviously have both better reliability and strategy by a long shot. So even with the hope that Ferrari gets its shit together during the summer break, I think I will agree with you on Mercedes passing them.
Now that Lewis Hamilton is no longer running experimental set-ups to figure out how to fix the “shit box,” Mercedes seems like a podium car in every race, if not necessarily a race-winning car. That’s probably enough, with what are sure to be DNFs and grid penalties and self-inflicted sixth places from Ferrari. My bigger question is whether my new sweetie George Russell will end up ahead of Sergio Perez at the end of the season. Checo has been faltering while Russell keeps doing his whole “finish every race in the top five except the one where he got out of his car to check on an upside-down Zhou” thing. If he does pass Checo, then Ferrari will likely have no shot, particularly with Hamilton only 10 points behind Sainz at the moment.
Who has been the best "young" driver so far?
Luis: I think, relative to the equipment, it’s probably Mick Schumacher, but I want to give a shoutout here to Zhou Guanyu. The poor guy has had some awful mechanical luck so far, and he had that gnarly crash at Silverstone, but when things that are out of his control haven't been going wrong, he’s had quite a rookie season. His contract is up at Alfa Romeo this coming offseason, but I think they should and probably will re-sign him based on his performance on the track.
Kathryn: I really agree with both of your picks, but I’m gonna stretch the definition of young driver here, like they do in order to include Nyck de Vries and Fernando Alonso, and say Lando Norris, even though this is his fourth season. I was surprised when I found he was seventh in the Drivers’, and then I realized I honestly shouldn’t have been. McLaren has been somewhat disappointing as a team, but Norris is one of the most consistent drivers on the grid, not to mention still very young—younger than Zhou!—and I’d love to see him in a contending car soon.
Whose performance has been most surprising?
Kathryn: Definitely Kevin Magnussen, even though Haas has stagnated. He’s only ever been on shit teams for the years that I’ve been watching, so I was pleasantly surprised by his performance at the start of the season. Also, historically speaking, he gave us this watershed moment. To be fair, I don’t know if this is as much a product of Magnussen exceeding expectations or everyone else just sort of performing as expected: Lando good, Danny Ric bad, etc.
On the other hand, I’d tap Pierre Gasly for the most surprising performance in the other direction. The man has not been having a good season.
Luis: Damn it, Kathryn, you took my answer. Gasly has been awful after a pretty good season last year. I had entered this season thinking that if Daniel Ricciardo didn’t get it together, and he hasn’t, then Gasly would be a good shout for the McLaren seat next year. That has not happened. Sure, the AlphaTauri is surprisingly bad as a whole—our boy Yuki Tsunoda is also struggling with it—but Gasly has had a variety of crashes and poor performances that can’t really be blamed on the car.
As for a nice surprise, I’ll piggyback off your young driver answer and say Lando has been wonderful in a crap car. He’s scored in the points in all but three races, and one of those—the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix—was when McLaren was at its worst as a car. Plus, I’ve discovered that he is a truly awful driver in the F1 video games, which is surprising in the most delightful way. He’s just like me, for real.
What in the world is going to happen with Oscar Piastri?
Luis: Honestly, who knows! A quick recap of what happened this week is in order. First, Alonso bailed on Alpine for Aston Martin without, apparently, telling Alpine his plans. The team found out from the press conference where Aston Martin announced Alonso’s signing. Then, on Tuesday, Alpine announced that Oscar Piastri, their star youth driver, would take Alonso’s seat next to Esteban Ocon. This was news to, uh, Piastri himself, who tweeted a couple of hours later that he did not agree with Alpine and will not be driving for them next year.
This is where McLaren comes in. Reports started to come in this week that Piastri was being eyed for Daniel Ricciardo’s seat at McLaren, with Ricciardo struggling to catch on with the British team. After Piastri’s tweet, that appears to be the move, and that’s what I’m guessing will happen. McLaren will buy Ricciardo’s remaining contract year, Piastri will sign on to race next to Lando Norris, and Alpine will be left without either their veteran driver or their long-brewing youth prospect. Maybe they reunite with Ricciardo?
Kathryn: Something must be in the water at McLaren, because this is the second time this season that they’ve been in a random legal imbroglio. The other situation was with Álex Palou in IndyCar, who said that he was going to race with McLaren next season even as Chip Ganassi Racing said he was going to be extended. Last I heard, Palou’s reps wanted the case to go to federal court, so that’s not yet resolved!
F1-wise, it’s weird that both Ricciardo and McLaren have reiterated that he will stay at McLaren and yet McLaren’s second seat is still up for grabs. Lip service is lip service, especially on the side of the team, but it’s still strange—maybe I’m misremembering but in the whole Vettel-Pérez Racing Point debacle of 2020, I don’t think Racing Point hard-committed to Pérez, or at least Pérez hadn’t felt confident in his seat.
It’s also strange that Alpine can announce that Piastri had signed with them if he just … hadn’t? I get that he’s a part of the youth driver academy, but I’m not sure that means he can be gang pressed into a contract, unless any of the lawyers in the comments section want to weigh in. This might be a “let’s just wait and see” situation. The funniest timeline would be Ricciardo going back to Alpine, though. Hell, let’s bring Cyril Abiteboul back too!
Who fills the rest of the seats?
Kathryn: Williams just confirmed that Alex Albon will be staying on for multiple years! Here's his announcement tweet:
The vibes are good. A quick summary of what seats are still open, ignoring the whole Renault-McLaren debacle: Latifi, Zhou, Tsunoda, and Schumacher’s. I think that Zhou, Tsunoda, and Schumacher are all going to stick around for next year, as they should. Alfa’s really pushing Theo Pourchaire, but there’s no need to rush him into F1. Zhou and Schumacher should stay for all the reasons Luis outlined before, and Red Bull still seems to be committed to Tsunoda. Who knows what Guenther Steiner will say on Schumacher, though—he’s promised a decision soon.
As for Williams, Nicholas Latifi seems to be good as gone, especially since Williams has explicitly stated that they no longer need pay drivers and didn’t announce him along with Albon. And good riddance. Down with pay drivers! Nyck de Vries is the obvious choice, and he’s been waiting forever for the opportunity—I would love to see a younger driver, though. Logan Sargeant? An American? Unlikely, but food for thought!
Luis: I think it’s going to be Sargeant. Williams has American investors now, and we all know how much people love bringing in their countrymen. I don’t watch too much F2, but I’ve seen a bit of Sargeant’s back-to-back wins at Silverstone and Austria. He’s good! Maybe not good enough for Formula One yet, but whatever, let’s get crazy with it. He can’t really be worse than Latifi, right?
As for the other seats, I think you’re right that everyone stands pat with who they have for this year. Even though it is not an open seat, I do think there’s still a chance for your funniest timeline to come to pass. Ricciardo really needs to get out of McLaren, and swapping Australians to Piastri makes some sort of sense if Alpine really pissed off Piastri with their stunt this week. Ricciardo back with a Renault engine? Yes, please. One important note: If they do that and don’t bring back Cyril as well, Alpine will truly become my nemesis team for next season.