Why Formula 1 2022's midfield battle is so unpredictable
If Formula 1's new rules package has achieved one thing, then it's the fact that its midfield battle seems tighter than ever. While McLaren appears in a prime position to pull away, there are solid reasons why the team remains cautious about its prospects.
At the 2022 season start in Bahrain all attention were on Mercedes' struggles, while Ferrari caught the eye with an impressive all-round package that somehow managed to get around the 2022 cars' trademark porpoising without sacrificing too much performance.
While McLaren managed to solve its brake overheating issues and fought its way back to where the inherent car performance allows it to be, Aston Martin pinned its hopes on a B-spec that was dubbed green Red Bull due to its similarities with the RB18.
Over the first few races, though, all midfield runners seemed to edge ever closer as they overcame some early-stage gremlins and set-up mannerisms inherent to an all-new car concept.
But rather than following a predictable pattern like late 2021, when McLaren was clearly fourth best after losing touch with Ferrari, it still remains to be seen how 2022's midfield battle will play out with performances still swinging wildly weekend to weekend.
"In terms of competitiveness it's difficult to predict at the moment," McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl said. "We made a good step forward over Barcelona. We addressed some weaknesses that the car had.
"At the same time a lot of other cars did as well. Baku and Montreal are kind of different tracks again, so I think it's really difficult to predict. We have seen big swings in the pecking order this year and therefore I'm very cautious with making predictions.
"Our target is clear we want to fight for this P4 in the championship I think we have everything in the team together with Lando and Daniel to do that. We know that the competition will not stand still so we need to make sure we keep developing this car as well."
Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL36, Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR22, Yuki Tsunoda, AlphaTauri AT03
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
McLaren was one of many teams introducing a sizeable upgrade package in Barcelona, as was Alfa Romeo. But while Alfa, one of the surprises packages of 2022, qualified a strong sixth in Spain with Valtteri Bottas, the Finn was confused to have only beaten Kevin Magnussen by less than a tenth, whose Haas car had not received any upgrades at all.
As Steiner explained at the time, for the team it made sense to use the familiar Barcelona track as a test bench to do a deep dive into Haas' current package and truly understand its strengths and weaknesses, rather than slapping on parts without having a good comprehension of what it actually needed.
"You bring upgrades to Barcelona because you know the race track but I was thinking, okay, you know the race track so it's a good time to get the best out of this car.
"If we had put on updates, we wouldn't have understood them and maybe we would have even been slower instead of faster. So we used this to get the best out of this car, so that next race hopefully we can keep that base and then we will bring updates."
It is yet to be seen when Haas introduces its upgrades, as Monaco was such an outlier and so are the upcoming races in Baku and Montreal. July's British Grand Prix at Silverstone will be the next "traditional" circuit with high-speed corners that requires an excellent all-round package.
Steiner also makes a good point that bringing upgrades doesn't guarantee performance as soon as you turn out of the garage. The budget cap means teams are limited in the number of upgrade they can throw at a car, meaning that every piece is carefully considered and expected to yield the most lap time.
Valtteri Bottas, Alfa Romeo C42, Kevin Magnussen, Haas VF-22
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
But it can still take time to extract the very most out of the updates, especially as the current run of street circuits makes it harder to gauge progress.
With teams continuing to maximise their Spanish GP upgrades and others, like Haas, introducing parts later on, the midfield picture could yet again change dramatically in the coming weeks, setting up a frantic, fascinating six-race run towards the summer break.
"It's still so early with these new cars, you have seen how it can swing from one track to the next one," Seidl added. "Most of the teams have updated their cars for Barcelona. Monaco was obviously a very specific track. And what that all means now, the upgrades everyone brought for these upcoming tracks, to be honest, is impossible to predict.
"And also, we shouldn't forget the competition is so tough, one or two tenths up or down means instead of being in a position to fight for a P7 or P8 you're suddenly in P13, P14."
AlphaTauri's tech chief Jody Egginton, whose team has been in the mix at various points over the first seven races, says 2022's steep development curve will continue to throw up surprises, such as Alfa Romeo being nowhere in Monaco despite its much-vaunted low-speed prowess.
"I think there's been some ups and downs in the midfield. In Spain, we were in the midfield ranking in a lower position than normally. But before that, our car we thought was reasonably consistent," he said.
"The order changed again [in Monaco]. A lot of people were suggesting that the Alfa Romeos could be particularly strong, and they had a tough weekend.
"I think some of it is we're learning about the car, still. Our launch spec car was a million miles away from where we are now, so the development rate is quite steep at the moment. And the characteristic of the car back at the first test in Spain was quite different from the race.
"I think it's just the collective learning on where we're going with the car. But yes, within the midfield, there's a lot more change in ranking."
Pierre Gasly, AlphaTauri AT03, Daniel Ricciardo, McLaren MCL36, Lance Stroll, Aston Martin AMR22
Photo by: Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images
Such is the midfield's wickedly capricious nature, that even with all teams having both strong and poor weekends just 19 points separate McLaren, Alfa Romeo and Alpine in the battle for fourth, with AlphaTauri, Haas and Aston Martin playing catch up.
Steiner felt some credit for the midfield's convergence should also go to F1's budget cap, which has come under pressure from the bigger teams lobbying for an increase to cover ballooning expenses in 2022.
"You can see that the midfield has moved a lot closer together," Steiner said. "McLaren was strong in some races and then went nowhere and then all of a sudden the Alpine were strong in one race. It's mixing it up.
"Mid to long term I think it will get even closer together but therefore, we shouldn't now change the budget cap and up it because this is actually good for the racing in the midfield. Now you never know who is best of the rest.
"Alfa Romeo in Barcelona was by far the best one in my opinion. But the Alfa Romeo maybe three races ago was not this good, so it's mixing this up very much.
"And I think if we continue with the budget cap, we will get even closer together to the big guys."
While McLaren has emerged as the favourite to seal fourth again this year, the Woking-based team won't get too comfortable just yet.
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