Written by Apostolos Papageorgiou, Edited by Simran Kanthi
With the 2022 Formula One season at a close, some of the DIVEBOMB team will be selecting some of their favourite races of 2022 in the coming weeks, as we start to reflect on yet another thrilling Formula One season.
My name is Apostolos Papageorgiou, I am a journalist for DIVEBOMB and my pick for the best Race of the Year is Saudi Arabia.
With the way the championship panned out, it's easy to forget there was actually a title fight going on in the early part of the season. On top of that, while the opening round in Bahrain had given us an idea of what the field looked like pace-wise, it left a lot of things unanswered.
Was this finally Ferrari's year, after a decade and a half of waiting? Could Red Bull and Max Verstappen fight back? Was Charles Leclerc ready for a championship push? Were Haas and Alfa Romeo truly competitive or was it a one-off? Were Mercedes, McLaren, and the other German-powered cars really that far off the pace of the frontrunners? What is porpoising and how can the teams fix it? It seemed then that even days before the cars took to the remodelled Corniche circuit, it had a lot to answer and even more to live up to.
But all of that became conceptual when 50 minutes into Free Practice One, an enormous cloud of smoke became visible from the TV cameras. As it turned out, the smoke was from a missile aimed at an oil depot relatively close to the circuit. Despite an emergency meeting, FP2 took place as normal, all being delayed by 15 minutes. A further and significantly longer meeting with the officials, the organisers, and all 20 drivers (bar Sebastian Vettel, who was still recovering from Covid and Nico Hülkenberg taking his place) was held on Friday night. After four and a half hours, the drivers agreed to race, only after they were made sure the local authorities could guarantee their security, as well as learning they wouldn't be granted an exit visa in the event of a boycott, effectively not being able to leave the country.
When the dust finally settled, figuratively and literally, normal service resumed in the F1 paddock and once the final practice had been dealt with, it was time for Qualifying. Mercedes hadn't looked like they were on the pace the entire weekend but even so, it was a big shock when seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton failed to make it out of Q1, dropping to 16th when the flag fell. This was a big blow for the Briton, especially since his teammate George Russell made his way into the top 10 rather effortlessly. Mick Schumacher also drew headlines after his enormous crash in Q2, turning his car into a wreck in the process. Thankfully, he escaped unharmed. As the clock ticked down, pole position looked like a shootout between Charles Leclerc and Max Verstappen. But Sergio Perez begged to differ, setting a blistering final sector and securing his first pole after 215 attempts. Leclerc had to settle for second, while Verstappen was only fourth, behind the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz.
There was more drama before the race began, as Haas announced Mick Schumacher wouldn't be starting the Grand Prix, as the German's car was too badly damaged to be repaired overnight. Yuki Tsunoda also didn't make the start, the AlphaTauri grinding to a halt just like it did in Qualifying. The remaining 18 cars took to the grid for a rather uneventful start, with the top four positions remaining the same, except for Verstappen and Sainz switching places. Russell was the man on the move, slotting into fifth place early on, where he would stay until the end of the race. Teammate and compatriot Hamilton was finding it slightly difficult to make a comeback, as did the McLaren duo of Lando Norris and Daniel Ricciardo who were lurking just outside the points. The bulk of the action was provided by the Alpine pair of Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon, battling for sixth place. After several attempts and getting dangerously close to the wall, Alonso managed to get past, though this wouldn't be the last time the two teammates would find themselves engaged in close quarters.
Just when the race was settling into a rhythm, Nicholas Latifi felt a sense of Déjà vu, crashing at the exit of the final corner, his second shunt in as many days. Predictably, the Safety Car came out, giving everyone a free pit stop. This meant Perez, who pitted a lap before, now found himself out of the podium places, having to let Sainz through after illegally overtaking him during the Safety Car. That left Bahrain winner Leclerc in the lead, with a feisty Verstappen right behind. Nothing materialised of it, for the time being, as the Monegasque led the pack away. The race went quiet for the next 15 laps but picked up steam again, much like Fernando Alonso's Alpine, which meant he had to retire, establishing an all too familiar theme for the rest of the season. Just a lap later, Valtteri Bottas pulled to the pits to withdraw his Alfa Romeo. While that happened, Daniel Ricciardo's McLaren ground to a halt right in front of the pit entry, meaning no one could go in the pits while the car was cleared. This took away any advantage the second Safety Car could have given Lewis Hamilton, while also undoing all his hard work to get up to sixth until that point.
With the field bunching up again, Hamilton wasn't the only one with his hands full, as Leclerc now had to defend against the Red Bull of Max Verstappen once more. The pair fought relentlessly for several laps, both tactically trying to avoid giving DRS to each other. While Leclerc defended valiantly, the straight-line speed superiority of the Red Bull meant the Dutchman sailed into the lead. But Leclerc wasn't going down without a fight, keeping the gap under a second until the final lap. However, no matter how hard he tried, nothing was stopping Verstappen from taking his first win as a world champion and his first points of the season, not even a late yellow flag caused by a coming together between Lance Stroll and Alex Albon. Leclerc settled for second, while teammate Sainz came home in third and the polesitter Perez finished in fourth. The aforementioned Russell saw the flag untroubled in fifth, but behind him, the battle for sixth came down to the wire, Ocon out dragging Norris to the line, who still made a solid recovery from 11th. Pierre Gasly came home in eighth in what would turn out to be one of his best results of the season. Ninth place was a nice consolation for Kevin Magnussen, who didn't have any Friday running, while an unlucky Hamilton managed to salvage a point by finishing tenth.
As a stand-alone race, there were, objectively, better ones to choose from than Saudi Arabia. But the race itself is only one two-hour session of a three-day event. As a whole, the storylines, controversies, drama, and sheer action the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix offered were second to none. From Friday afternoon right through to Sunday night (and beyond), something was going on for the viewers to pay attention to and follow. It managed to live up to the sky-high expectations from pre-season testing and the race that preceded it, the Bahrain GP, while it simultaneously forged a lot of storylines that became or led to some of the major talking points of the year, all the while providing, for the most part, a very entertaining race. And that is why it gets my vote for the 2022 Race of the Year.