The fourth and final part of the RaceFans mid-season driver rankings covers those who have been the very best performers so far in 2022.
5 – George Russell – Mercedes
|Beat team mate in qualifying||7/13|
|Beat team mate in race||7/12|
|Laps spent ahead of team mate||436/675|
Ever since George Russell first cast his signature over the documents that would enshrine him as a Mercedes junior driver, he has likely never stopped dreaming about one day stepping into the cockpit of a Mercedes F1 car as a race driver. But whatever ambitions he may have had when taking over perhaps the most coveted seat on the grid, Russell’s first half-season as a Mercedes works driver would not have turned out like he envisioned.
However, despite the lack of pace from the W13 relative to their rivals ahead, Russell made arguably as strong a first impression as he possibly could have done. For the first nine rounds of the year, he secured an unbroken streak of top five race finishes and entered the summer break 12 points ahead of his team mate – the most successful Formula 1 driver of all time. Surely Russell’s performance across the first 13 races ranks among the very best of the field?
Almost. Because while Russell has proven that Mercedes did not make a poor decision in picking him over another season of Valtteri Bottas for 2022, his head-to-head comparison against Hamilton has no doubt been flattered slightly by how Mercedes have been fighting to catch up to Ferrari and Red Bull ahead. Hamilton was revealed to have been running more experimental parts and settings than Russell in the early races, which may have made his pace next to Hamilton look more superior than it probably was in hindsight.
However, Russell is under no obligation to make concessions for his team mate – he is obliged to drive the car he’s been given as fast as he can. And in that task, he has been very successful. Podiums in Melbourne, Barcelona and Baku saw him rise ahead of Carlos Sainz Jnr in the drivers’ standings and he continued to grind away, scoring solid points every weekend without making major errors or getting into unnecessary incidents. He did benefit from fortunate Safety Car timings in Australia and Miami to get ahead of Hamilton, but that’s hardly anything to hold against him.
Once Mercedes got more to grips with their porpoising and extreme bouncing, Hamilton began to out perform Russell more regularly. Crashing out in Q3 in Austria would have looked worse had Hamilton not done the same minutes earlier, but he made up for it by recovering to fourth after serving a contentious penalty for contact with Sergio Perez on the opening lap.
Russell followed his team mate home in Paul Ricard before storming to an out-of-the-blue maiden pole position at the Hungaroring. He ended up holding off the Ferraris for his first stint before Charles Leclerc got past, but finished on the podium behind Hamilton, who had started six places further back on the grid.
Russell has been impressive throughout his first 13 races in the W13, but it will be a tough ask for him to end the season ahead of Hamilton in the points at the current rate.
4 – Fernando Alonso – Alpine
|Beat team mate in qualifying||8/12|
|Beat team mate in race||4/10|
|Laps spent ahead of team mate||376/691|
When Aston Martin stunned the paddock by announcing Fernando Alonso would join them for 2023 just hours into the start of the summer break, many questioned the wisdom of moving from Alpine to a team five places lower than them in the constructors’ championship. But there were also those who wondered why the team would be taking on a 41-year-old who hasn’t tasted victory in F1 for almost ten years.
But based on the performances Alonso has demonstrated over the first phase of the season, it’s easy to see why Aston Martin would want the double world champion in their car. Although if you judge Alonso’s results on face value alone, you’d struggle to recognise just how strong he has been this season.
He may not have been as fast as team mate Esteban Ocon in the opening race in Bahrain, but he was quicker in Jeddah and had to overcome some particularly robust defending from Ocon to get by him in the early laps. Unfortunately, his car overheated, leading to his retirement from seventh.
In Melbourne, Alonso was rapid. He showed exceptional pace from the second practice session on Friday and was on his way towards potentially setting a provisional pole time in Q3 before a hydraulics failure made him crash out and start tenth on the grid. His race was then ruined by two Safety Cars, leaving him bitterly frustrated in 17th.
He never got the chance to make anything of his fifth place start in Imola when he was hit by Mick Schumacher and forced to retire, while Miami was easily his worst weekend of the season, missing out on points after hitting Pierre Gasly at turn one, then deliberately cutting the chicane twice and earning another penalty to demote him to fifth.
But after Miami, Alonso was consistently strong over the rest of the season and took points every race. He overcame qualifying setbacks in Spain to take points, casually blocked literally half the field in Monaco to take seventh and then finished seventh again in Baku. Montreal was Alonso at his best, taking a front row start in the wet before ERS problems limited his race pace. Despite this impediment, he still finished seventh right behind Ocon, before a final lap penalty for obvious weaving cost him two places in the final standings.
He also demonstrated his strong race pace in Silverstone by holding off Lando Norris after a McLaren pit wall error to take his best finish of the season in fifth, showed terrific awareness to avoid a penalty in Austria for an unsafe pitlane release before taking the final point from Bottas on the last lap, then finished best of the rest in sixth in Paul Ricard. Even if Ocon is ahead of him in the standings, his consistent impressive drives make him the stand out of the two Alpine drivers so far.
Fernando Alonso’s dream of finally securing that elusive third world championship almost two decades after claiming his two titles may not feel any closer than before, but he is showing that he is not too far past his prime 21 years after his debut.
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3 – Lando Norris – McLaren
|Beat team mate in qualifying||0/13|
|Beat team mate in race||11/13|
|Laps spent ahead of team mate||569/745|
Before the 2022 season had even begun, McLaren displayed just how much they believe in Lando Norris by signing him to a contract extension that will keep him in Woking until at least the end of the 2025 season. So far in 2022, Norris has given McLaren every reason to be delighted with their decision.
Norris had blown multiple race winning team mate Daniel Ricciardo out of the water in their first year together in 2021 and did much the same throughout the first 13 races of 2022. Norris would regularly progress into Q3 where Ricciardo would sometimes struggle to reach Q2. Once McLaren got on top of their braking woes at the start of the season, Norris scored a podium in Imola while Ricciardo’s race was effectively over by the first corner. At this stage of the season, Norris’s third place in Imola is the only podium appearance by any driver not in a Red Bull, Ferrari or Mercedes.
In the build up to the Spanish Grand Prix, Norris fell horribly sick with tonsillitis. His condition put him at genuine risk of having to step aside for the weekend, but Norris insisted he could drive despite having to miss briefings. He took eighth in the race and then, while still ill, qualified fifth in Monaco and took the fastest lap on his way to sixth in the race – again while miles ahead of Ricciardo.
In Silverstone, Norris was best of the rest in qualifying and should have been in the race, only losing out to Alonso in the end because his team wasted too much time before calling him in to pit under the Safety Car and making him complete an extra lap. Just before the summer break at the Hungaroring, Norris took advantage of Red Bull and Lewis Hamilton’s problems to line up fourth on the grid and then finished seventh after all three eventually moved ahead of him during the race.
Norris has driven as well as McLaren could have hoped so far this season. With no poor performances or major errors to speak of, he earns his place among the very best drivers of the season so far.
2 – Charles Leclerc – Ferrari
|Beat team mate in qualifying||8/13|
|Beat team mate in race||3/7|
|Laps spent ahead of team mate||327/529|
After two frustrating winless seasons with Ferrari, Charles Leclerc immediately established himself as a championship contender in Bahrain by becoming the first driver to take pole position and win in Formula 1’s new ground effect era. For the first few rounds of the season, fans salivated over the prospect of a year-long battle between him and Max Verstappen for the world championship.
But then, from the Spanish Grand Prix onwards, Leclerc’s hopes of a drivers’ championship deteriorated – and it was little to do with the driver himself.
Leclerc showed he had the mettle to go toe-to-toe with Verstappen at the front as the pair battled hard for the victory in Bahrain and then in Jeddah, both scoring one win apiece. Leclerc had the edge at Albert Park and was ahead of Verstappen on Saturday as well as Sunday, with a second Red Bull power unit problem helping to give him a decent early lead to start the season.
But then in Imola, the first of two major mistakes in the year. A spin at the Variante Alta pursuing Sergio Perez dropped him out of the podium and he ultimately finished in sixth, before throwing away a potential race win in Paul Ricard by spinning out into the barriers in perhaps the most excruciating scene of the season.
It would fair to question why Leclerc still ranks so high despite these major faults during the year especially compared to Russell, Alonso and Norris all managing not to crash out of a race so far this season. However, Leclerc’s relentless speed throughout the season has been unquestionable and does not have himself to blame for why he doesn’t have multiple more victories heading into the second leg of the season.
Beating Max Verstappen head-to-head in Bahrain was no mean feat, and he was peerless in Australia to take a dominant victory. He likely would have won in Barcelona had his turbo not failed and he was not responsible for Ferrari’s pit calls in Monaco that dropped him from the lead of his home race to fourth. He lost 25 more points with another car failure in Baku and did the best he could in Montreal to recover to fifth after starting 19th on the grid.
Ferrari did him no favours again in Silverstone where, despite being allowed passed team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr, he was hung out to dry with old tyres under the Safety Car and could not prevent Sainz, Perez and Hamilton from passing him. In Austria, he overtook Verstappen for the lead three separate times to take his first win since Melbourne and at the Hungaroring, another strategy masterclass from Ferrari saw him fall from contention for the win to sixth having had to make an extra pit stop.
His unmatched tally of seven poles demonstrate his raw speed and his record against Sainz make it clear which has been the quicker Ferrari driver so far this season. That he has been able to challenge Verstappen on track when his car and his team’s strategy have enabled him to also show just how he deserves to be fighting his rival for this year’s championship – not be 80 points adrift with under half the season remaining.
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1 – Max Verstappen – Red Bull
|Beat team mate in qualifying||10/13|
|Beat team mate in race||7/10|
|Laps spent ahead of team mate||496/649|
After fulfilling his immense raw potential by winning the world championship, Max Verstappen seems to have ascended to a higher level of driving prowess like the protagonist of an anime series. With the number one on his car, Verstappen has very much felt like the final boss of Formula 1 – the driver all 19 others must defeat to have any chance of obtaining the crown for themselves.
With eight wins from 13 rounds, it’s no surprise that he holds such a commanding lead in the drivers’ championship. While it may be disappointing for fans hoping for some intrigue in the title race over the second part of the season, it’s difficult to see how that lead will not continue to grow over the final nine rounds.
Verstappen certainly had to work hard at the start of the year with Leclerc acting as a very difficult obstacle to overcome in order for him to win. But his Red Bull did him few favours over the opening rounds, a fuel system failure dropping him out of the running in Bahrain before a similar problem dropped him out of second place in Melbourne in a race where Leclerc clearly had the edge on him.
Back-to-back wins in Imola and Miami saw him hold off Leclerc in the former and then chase down and pass his rival in the latter. Despite a bizarre off early in Barcelona, Verstappen recovered despite a faulty DRS and took advantage of Leclerc’s retirement to catch team mate Sergio Perez. He may have benefited from team orders, but few could argue his pace after taking the lead did not show Red Bull were justified to do so,
Monaco was the only weekend where he was outpaced by Perez but he was still always within touch of his team mate. He cruised to an easy victory in Baku after Leclerc suffered another failure, then held off Sainz to win yet again in Montreal. His worst finish of the season in Silverstone was down to him collecting debris from a separate collision that compromised his pace, but he was fortunate not to be brought in front of the stewards to explain his very robust last lap defence from Mick Schumacher.
He just did not have the pace compared to Ferrari at the Red Bull Ring but was still ahead of Sainz in the final phase of the race before Sainz’s power unit erupted in flames, possibly out of sheer intimidation. Verstappen fought hard with Leclerc in Paul Ricard and may well have beaten the Ferrari on track, but Leclerc’s race-ending error means we will never know and he cruised to another comfortable win.
At the Hungaroring, a mistake on his first Q3 lap left him vulnerable, then a power unit problem prevented him from improving on his second run, leaving him tenth on the grid. The fact that Verstappen was then able to pass multiple cars on track at the notoriously tight Hungaroring, spin through 360 degrees retake his lost position and cross the line almost eight seconds ahead of his rivals who had all started ahead of him was the perfect way to punctuate how he is the class of the field at present.
Unless the most remarkable turnaround of form F1 has possibly ever seen takes place in the second leg of the season, Max Verstappen’s second world championship feels like a question of ‘when’, not ‘if’.
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2022 F1 season
- Hamilton sees diversity gains in F1 years on from his ‘traumatising’ experience of racism
- Verstappen returns to Drive to Survive as season five launch date is confirmed
- Why first Alonso and now Williams backed young Argentinian racer Franco Colapinto
- Why a former Williams sponsor was told to pay the team £26 million
- Analysis: Did any F1 driver have worse luck than Alonso last season?