In an exclusive Q&A, the former F1 driver and current broadcaster reviews the 2022 season and looks ahead to next year.
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How do you feel the season has gone with the new regulations?
On the whole it’s been a season that’s somewhat flattered to deceive. We started off with very high expectations of a Ferrari versus Red Bull battle going all the way to Abu Dhabi. I remember standing in the pit lane after Melbourne and Ferrari had absolutely blitzed that weekend, and we all thought it was going to be quite hard for Red Bull to recover. They were over 40 points behind at that point.
But Ferrari have just underperformed. They’ve not maximised the potential of their car, which is a frustrating thing, because they’ve actually got a very fast car. I have a spreadsheet that I update as the season goes, tracking car performance based on all the dry qualifying sessions, so it’s pure pace. And even as of now, the Ferrari is the faster car, yet they are nearly 200 points behind in the championship. So much of that is down to reliability, operations, engine penalties and driver errors, just a flood of things.
So, a season that flattered to deceive in some ways, with the big story being Mercedes, of course.
What do Ferrari need do to fix their issues for next year?
They’ve got to be honest with themselves. If I think back to the great team bosses of the sport, Ron Dennis, Frank Williams, Jean Todt, Ross Brawn, they didn’t suffer fools. They would not have tolerated multiple errors strategically in the way that they’ve had this year. And some of it’s just basic, like what we saw in Brazil – when there’s water on the ground, you put the wet tires on, if there’s no water, you put the dry ones on.
The drivers aren’t immune to errors either, both of them have made their fair share across the season. So, as a collective, they’ve got to have an honest conversation with themselves and recognise where they should have been better.
You have to say fair play to the design office and the R&D group, because not only did they start the season with a fast car, but they’ve kept up with developments. The car is still fast and competitive. So on that side they’ve done well, and I think on the power unit side they’ve also done well. The car is producing good power, but they just haven’t maximised what they’ve got.
Is that a symptom of a lack of success at Ferrari in recent years? Have they struggled to deal with the pressure of a title fight?
That’s why they’re all in it, isn’t it? They’re in this game to win, that’s why their paid the big bucks. They’re not being paid five-figure salaries to do their jobs. They’re paid six, seven-figure salaries, so you’re paid to deal with the pressure, just like drivers are paid big money to deal with the pressure and the risks and the dangers. That’s part of the territory, it’s what you’ve signed up for.
What was your most memorable race of the year?
I think Silverstone was a brilliant Grand Prix. We had so much action throughout. It was great to see Carlos [Sainz] win, he’s a great character and a friend. But the whole race was so action-packed, there was so much going on. Qualifying was exciting as well with the changeable weather. That was probably my favourite race.
I’d also say Saudi Arabia, as a race to watch. The battle between Charles [Leclerc] and Max [Verstappen] was sensational, two drivers on the absolute limit, and racing in a respectful way, which we didn’t see last year between Lewis [Hamilton] and Max. They finished nose-to-tail across the line, it was a fantastic Grand Prix.
Is there a particular moment from this season that stands out to you?
Seeing Kevin Magnussen get pole for the sprint race in Brazil. That was such a feel-good story. We’d gone to Brazil, and I remember wandering around the paddock on Thursday and Friday morning, talking to friends and saying, it’s just a bit of a dull weekend. There are no stories, the cost cap battle has finished, the championship is over, it was all a bit dull. And then we had a bonkers qualifying, brilliant sprint race, and a superb Grand Prix. The whole weekend just came alive. That was a real highlight.
Which driver has surprised you most this season?
One who has surprised me in a positive way is George Russell. I think we all knew how good he was and that he was absolutely the right replacement for Valtteri [Bottas], but to see him come away from the season in front of Lewis in the World Championship, that’s sensational.
Getting his first win was the cherry on top. He was under great pressure from Lewis, it has to be said, in that final stint. To come in as a young hotshot and take on the challenge at Mercedes straight away, I think that’s been a seriously impressive season.
Was there anyone that you had high expectations for that didn’t quite deliver the season?
You’d have to say Daniel [Ricciardo]. We all know he had a tough season last year, but so much of it was put down to the style of the McLaren not suiting him. This year, a whole new set of rules, a clean slate, new cars, new regs, and he still didn’t have a great season.
If you look at where he was at the end of 2020, his stock was so high, because in the Renault he was delivering at such a high level, getting podiums, qualifying top-fives, and now he’s not even on the grid next year. It’s incredible, the way that it’s fallen apart for him.
What do you think has been behind Mercedes’ recent improvement? Was it just a matter of time?
I’m not a subscriber to the theory that it’s a matter of time, that it’ll fix itself, because Formula 1 is too hard. You have to fix things, things don’t fix themselves. I think they have understood the fundamental flaws of their concept and design, and why it hasn’t worked for them this year. They recognise that with the cost cap, and with the time involved during a season, they couldn’t fix it quick enough to be a contender this year. So, all their attention was on understanding the problem so they can fix it for next season.
When we get to Bahrain for pre-season testing and the first race next year, that will be the No. 1 story: are Mercedes back?
What was your take on the incident between Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez in Brazil?
I think it was short-sighted of Max, to be honest. On one hand, he’s a racing driver, and inherently racing drivers are all selfish. The great ones are even more selfish, the Sennas, the Schumachers. But there come certain moments where you have to think of the long term and the big picture. Next year, more than likely, Max is once again going to be the championship contender in that team, not Checo. But there will be those two or three weekends in a year where he might need a bit of help.
When I watched that situation unfold, considering they were battling for sixth and seventh, my brain immediately went back to Suzuka ‘91 and Suzuka ‘92. In ‘91 with Senna and in ‘92 with Mansell, it was a similar situation. They had both become world champions that year, they both had a bit of help from their teammates at certain key moments, and they both gave up the race lead and the victory for their teammates to say thank you, and also ensure a bit of loyalty for the future.
That’s what Max should have done because what is another sixth place to him? It’s meaningless. If I’m in Checo’s position next year, why would I make the extra effort to help Max?
From Perez’s perspective, how hard is it to navigate the driver dynamic at Red Bull?
I think he knew what he was signing up for. He went into that team knowing that it’s Max’s team and that Max is the No. 1. But look at it from his perspective, he’s now won three Grand Prix for Red Bull. He wouldn’t have done that if he stayed where he was. Frankly, he was out of it at that point anyway.
I think he’s in a sort of Eddie Irvine situation, if we go back to the Ferrari years, where it’s a damn sight better being a No. 2 driver of a top team than being No. 1 of a midfield team, because you’re guaranteed some podiums and, on a day where the wind blows in a certain direction, you get the odd win, and that’s a heck of a career to have in F1.
Do you think that Red Bull dominance is going to continue in 2023? Or do you foresee Mercedes and Ferrari being able to pose a stronger challenge?
Well, I hope we’re going to see a challenge from both of those teams. Mercedes’ competitiveness is the No. 1 question for me going into next season. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that Red Bull are going to be in the hunt. Ferrari need to get the house in order. They underachieved last year if you look at their potential.
I’ve said it before and I still maintain it, I believe that Ferrari have the second-best driver lineup in F1, after Mercedes, as a collective. Charles and Carlos are very talented drivers, very hungry, very good work ethic, and they’re young enough to have a long-term future. So, they’ve got the talent in the cockpit, but they’ve got to work with it, they’ve got to create the team structure around them to make it happen.
What is interesting, for me, is to see what sort of a poaching drive they go on. Because we haven’t seen that. Going back to the Schumacher years, they basically looked at it and thought, who’s winning the championship? Benetton and Schumacher. What we’re going to do is get all those people to move to Italy, and we’ll win. And fundamentally, that’s what happened.
We’re not really seeing that mass exodus of people from Mercedes or Red Bull towards Marinello at the moment, which I find interesting because, to me, if I look at the situation that they’re in today, that’s what I would be doing. Looking at where are they are weak compared to their rivals, and just going and nicking a bunch of people.
What do Mercedes need to do to bridge the gap to Red Bull?
I think they’ve just got to get out the blocks with a car concept that works. They came in with a concept this year that theoretically offered them a huge amount of performance when they looked at the CFD and wind tunnel, but actually on the track, it wasn’t delivering. They’ve just got to understand why they had that gap and shut it down.
Which new driver pairing are you most looking forward to watching next season?
McLaren. I don’t think Oscar Piastri has arrived into F1 in a way that he would necessarily have liked in terms of the headlines and controversy. But beyond all of that, he’s a phenomenal talent. I know some of the engineers that worked with him in F2 and F3, and these are people who worked with the likes of Russell and Leclerc, and they say he’s the best young talent they’ve seen come through. So, there’s a high amount of expectation on him to see what he can deliver.
He’s sort of going into the lion’s den in some ways, because he’s going into a team where Lando [Norris] is very well established. He’s done very well this season and really upheld McLaren’s honour. In some sense, it’s a great move going into that environment. But he doesn’t seem fazed by it. The conversations I’ve had with Oscar, he’s prepared for it. He’s mentally, physically, emotionally prepared for the challenge. I think the fact that he’s finally been able to get released from Alpine and test with McLaren this year is helpful for him. I’m really excited to see how that goes.
Esteban Ocon and Pierre Gasly at Alpine is going to implode at some stage. It’s just a question of when.
How do you view Lewis Hamilton’s future?
I think he will do a couple of years. I think he’ll do two years until he’s 40 and that’ll probably be it. He’s so determined to get his eighth championship, that’s such a big thing for him.
Who’s next in line to win their first Grand Prix?
I think McLaren might be a little bit further away in terms of pure pace, but now Carlos has won one you have to look beyond the top six, so it’s a bit tricky. You could have a freak race, a bit like Ocon’s win in Budapest, or the one in Monza with Gasly, and we could see Lando or Oscar win one. You’d have to say that they’re probably the next in line.
What are your thoughts on the continued expansion into the US with three races there in 2023, and Logan Sergeant set to drive for Williams?
It’s been amazing. The growth and interest in America has been absolutely off the charts. I think we’re all very excited to go to Vegas next year. I’ve never been, so it’s going to be quite a weekend The fact that Austin and Miami were completely sold out, every hospitality seat was sold out, was extraordinary. It’s good for business, it’s good for the sport. I think America is definitely big enough to have three races, if you look at the size of the population, the geographical size of the country.
Having Logan driving will be great, too. It will be good to see if Williams can shuffle themselves up the grid a bit more, start scoring points on a regular basis, because that helps. If I think of drivers transforming the interest in a sport in a country, I think of Alonso, I think of Schumacher. That only happened when they started winning, really. The interest in Alonso when he was at Minardi was not the same as when he was winning in the Renault. So, I think there’s a little bit to go for that.
Who do you think is going to be the biggest breakout star in 2023?
George Russell, if you’d still class him as a breakout star.
If you could change one regulation in the sport, what would it be and why?
I would mandate the use of all three compounds in a Grand Prix, so we get at least two-stop races. Or find another way to ensure that the drivers have to do two stops. If I look at Brazil versus Mexico, as soon as you have a two-stop race, it’s much more exciting.