There’s a change happening in the air of Formula 1 as of late. For the past five years, Lewis Hamilton has had a relatively unchallenged race to the top of the Formula 1 leaderboard. Sure, Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari were pretty formidable for a few races a couple seasons ago, but the might of Mercedes has come out on top for every season in the turbo-hybrid era. So far.
But this year, Hamilton’s hands are losing grip on the F1 throne as Red Bull continues its charge toward the top. And this weekend, his claim to the championship will take another beating as he is forced into a five-place grid drop due to an engine change for Sunday’s race.
Hamilton will serve the penalty as his car has been fitted with a new internal combustion engine. The penalty follows a 10-place drop he was handed in Turkey for similar engine changes.
The raft of new parts for Hamilton and his Mercedes team mate Valtteri Bottas have thrown the traditionally reliable Mercedes engine into doubt.
But, as we reach the closing stages of the 2022 F1 season, Hamilton’s latest penalty could prove even more costly.
That’s because F1 is running its third and final Sprint trial during the São Paulo Grand Prix in Brazil. The format adds an additional, shorter, race into the F1 schedule that decides the starting grid for the grand prix on Sunday.
During this weekend’s grand prix, F1 will run its traditional qualifying format on Friday. This session will set the starting order for the Sprint on Saturday, which is a shorter, 100km (62 miles) race that determines the starting order for Sunday’s 300km (186 miles) grand prix. Still with me?
Now, when it comes to engine penalties, these are enforced in Sunday’s grand prix, rather than Saturday’s Sprint event. This means any driver hit with a penalty doesn’t have an opportunity to make make up lost positions ahead of the race.
But, given the reigning champion’s past form during these Sprint events, this five-place drop on Sunday could prove even more costly for Hamilton.
While the British racer is exemplary when it comes to traditional qualifying, he has lost positions during both previous Sprint trials.
If a repeat performance occurs tomorrow, that five-place penalty could force Hamilton into a double-figure starting spot.
With Hamilton’s fight against Verstappen for the 2022 championship entering its final stages, the Mercedes driver definitely doesn’t want to be starting any race further back than fifth.
Hamilton now sits just 19 points behind Verstappen in the standings. And as F1's points drop off quite dramatically if you finish lower than fifth, the reigning champ will be hoping to push his new power unit to the max in order to limit any further losses.
But here, again, is where the Sprint trial throws up further drama to watch out for.
Points are awarded to the top three in the Sprint, as well as the usual grand prix points and an additional mark for whoever sets the fastest lap of the race. This means that one driver could potentially take home 29 points this weekend. So if Hamilton doesn’t manage to make his way back to the front, Verstappen will have the chance to greatly extend his championship lead.
As these stories of additional points and penalties for his closest rival continue to do the rounds, Verstappen and Red Bull must be feeling confident. With just one point separating the constructor’s championship and things remaining close in the driver’s contest, it’s a good time to be an F1 fan.
We’ve waited years for a fight like this, and everyone is hoping that the drama can continue right to the checkered flag in Abu Dhabi.