New cars. New driver line-ups. And a new title battle. Formula 1 2022 has delivered thrills and drama aplenty, with its championship protagonists Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc rarely far apart on track.
In a gripping follow-up to the controversy of Verstappen vs Lewis Hamilton last year, we take a look at the story of the season so far, the swinging momentum and just how the world champion heads into the Belgian GP with an unexpected mammoth title lead.
The Belgian GP is all live on Sky Sports F1 this weekend, with Sunday’s race at 2pm.
Bahrain: Leclerc lands first blow
Ferrari, off the pace in 2020 and ’21 but full of optimism for the new season after the sweeping rule changes, more than made their mark in the opener – and in Leclerc they looked to have a very credible title contender.
Leclerc claimed pole and engaged in brilliant wheel-to-wheel battles with Verstappen over three straight laps early on, being out-braked by Red Bull into the first corner but then hitting back immediately into Turn 4 via DRS. Leclerc then pulled away from Verstappen, before an utter implosion from Red Bull.
Both Verstappen and Sergio Perez were forced into retirements late on with reliability issues, leaving Red Bull point-less and Ferrari with an opening one-two. Round One, therefore, was very much to Leclerc.
POINTS: VERSTAPPEN 0-26 LECLERC
Saudi Arabia: Verstappen hits back
Another race in the Middle East, another gripping battle between Verstappen and Leclerc, this time won by the defending champion.
Perez started on pole but the race quickly turned into a Verstappen-Leclerc shootout, with the Red Bull much faster on the straights and the Ferrari car speedier through Jeddah’s twisty opening sector.
After being passed by Verstappen but then re-overtaking him immediately, Leclerc looked to have done enough before the Red Bull came charging with three laps remaining, eventually winning by just 0.5seconds.
POINTS: VERSTAPPEN 25-45 LECLERC
Australia: Max defence stutters with another DNF
Leclerc looked very much the title favourite after the third race in Melbourne, having claimed an utterly dominant win while Verstappen suffered another DNF.
Pole-sitter Leclerc kept Verstappen at bay off the line and then after two Safety Car restarts before speeding into the distance, although the Red Bull did still look set to take a consolation second.
But on Lap 39 came an engine fire for Verstappen and another point-less afternoon, with Red Bull’s reliability very much a concern.
POINTS: VERSTAPPEN 25-71 LECLERC
Imola: First chink in Leclerc’s armour
The Emilia-Romagna GP weekend provided wheel-to-wheel battles between the title protagonists on both the Saturday and the Sunday as the Sprint debuted for 2022 – and both races were won by Verstappen.
The Red Bull appeared a faster car in Imola and Verstappen took pole, and while he was overtaken at the start of the Sprint he made his pace count later in the mini race. Verstappen was largely untroubled on Sunday and Leclerc, trying to chase Perez for third place, made his first big mistake of the season by spinning off in damp conditions.
Leclerc would drop back to sixth, while Verstappen enjoyed the perfect weekend.
POINTS: VERSTAPPEN 59-86 LECLERC
Miami: Verstappen victorious on glitzy debut
A pattern for the season seemed to be emerging, with Ferrari seemingly quicker over one lap but the Red Bull excelling in the race. That was indeed the case for Miami’s F1 debut, where Leclerc started on pole and Verstappen only third, but the Dutchman still came out on top.
Verstappen made his move immediately by passing Perez at the start and it only took nine laps for him to pass Leclerc with a late lunge into the first corner. Leclerc put up a fight after the Lando Norris crash-triggered Safety Car, but Verstappen had enough straight-line speed to withstand it.
POINTS: VERSTAPPEN 85-104 LECLERC
Spain: Ferrari suffer first reliability woe
Everything was going swimmingly for Leclerc in Spain. He had pole position and kept it at the start, while Verstappen then dropped back after an uncharacteristic unenforced spin.
But then Lap 27 happened. Looking like he was going to extend his title lead, Leclerc suffered an engine failure in his Ferrari and had his first DNF failure of the season.
Verstappen capitalised after going onto a different tyre strategy than his team-mate, and Red Bull then instructed Perez to let a much faster Max through late on for the win, and the title lead.
POINTS: VERSTAPPEN 110-104 LECLERC
Monaco: Leclerc loses ground after Ferrari blunder
For the first time this season, a driver other than Verstappen or Leclerc won the race. Verstappen though, was still the ultimate winner in this title duel given Leclerc’s missed chance.
Leclerc started on pole before a deluge delayed the race, and the Monegasque home favourite was then undercut by Sergio Perez onto intermediates early on. To worsen his woes and his mood, a slow pit-stop from Ferrari followed and he dropped back to fourth behind Verstappen.
Perez held onto win ahead of Leclerc’s team-mate Carlos Sainz and Verstappen, who unexpectedly extended his title lead.
POINTS: VERSTAPPEN 125-116 LECLERC
Azerbaijan: Another DNF leaves Leclerc quest in tatters
Yet more misery for Leclerc, who again saw a pole position turn into zero points.
Leclerc looked to be in with a victory chance in Baku and, while on a more adventurous tyre strategy to Red Bull, was leading on Lap 21, before his engine went bang and he had to retire from the race. Spain all over again.
Verstappen only started third but passed Perez after an early Safety Car and went on to claim a dominant win, with his championship lead now rather ominous, while Leclerc dropped behind Perez in the standings.
POINTS: VERSTAPPEN 150-116 LECLERC
Canada: Verstappen capitalises on Leclerc’s penalty
Leclerc’s DNFs were not just costly for the Spanish and Azerbaijan GPs, for a new engine was required for the Canadian GP – where he took a heavy penalty and had to start from the back of the grid.
Leclerc fought back admirably to fifth but Verstappen capitalised on his rival’s absence from the front with another win, holding off Sainz in the closing stages.
POINTS: VERSTAPPEN 175-126 LECLERC
Britain: Verstappen struggles, Leclerc misses chance
It was a dramatic weekend at Silverstone and Verstappen and Leclerc both had less-than-ideal weekends.
For Verstappen, he looked the early favourite after overtaking Sainz with DRS but then had huge car issues after getting debris stuck in his car, resulting in an unwanted pit-stop and costing him seconds per lap. That dropped him out of the running and he eventually salvaged seventh.
Leclerc looked set to take advantage of Verstappen’s difficulties and was leading before a Safety Car, and Ferrari bizarrely decided to leave him out on track despite most of the field, including Sainz, pitting for fresh tyres.
Leclerc was ultimately a sitting duck and had to settle for fourth, but it could, and should, have been so much better.
POINTS: VERSTAPPEN 181-136 LECLERC
Austria: Leclerc overtakes Max three times for vital win
After a difficult run, Leclerc hit back at Red Bull’s home race.
While Verstappen took pole and won the Sprint, Leclerc said he was confident about the race – and he proved why on the Sunday. Leclerc, running a more aggressive tyre strategy, overtook Verstappen for the lead not once, not twice, but three times – and even held his nerve amid a late reliability scare.
A much-needed victory, although Verstappen’s Sprint win and second place and the win meant he did not lose too much ground in the title race.
POINTS: VERSTAPPEN 208-170 LECLERC
France: Leclerc throws win away
Another pole for Leclerc and another DNF, although this time he could only blame himself.
Leclerc withstood a Verstappen barrage through the opening stint and a Red Bull pit stop seemed to ease the pressure on Ferrari. But on Lap 18, Leclerc took too much speed into a corner and spun off into the barriers.
“Noooooo,” came the cry on team radio, and Verstappen once again proved the opportunist by taking the maximum points, ahead of the resurgent Mercedes cars.
POINTS: VERSTAPPEN 233-170 LECLERC
Hungary: Makes takes comeback win, Ferrari fluff their lines
It was a weekend very much of two halves in Hungary.
Red Bull had an awful qualifying, with Perez out in Q2 and Verstappen then suffering a reliability issue in Q3, leaving him 10th. Ferrari were second and third behind the pole-sitting Russell.
Leclerc looked to be the favourite after overcutting Sainz and then superbly passing Russell, but Ferrari seemed to get spooked by a charging Verstappen coming through the field, and reacted to the Red Bull’s stop by pitting Leclerc onto the hard tyres, the slowest available.
Leclerc was then a sitting duck to Verstappen who charged through to claim the biggest comeback win of his career, while Leclerc would stop again and finished way down in sixth. Ouch.
POINTS: VERSTAPPEN 258-178 LECLERC