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Verstappen vs Hamilton as F1 soap opera returns with an all-new package

MANAMA (AFP) – The 2022 Formula One season is about more than just the renewed battle between reigning champion Max Verstappen and the man he dethroned, Lewis Hamilton.

It will be a heavily-revised version of F1’s high-speed soap opera, featuring new race management, all-new cars designed to create closer racing, and a reshuffled cast that will launch into the unknown at this weekend’s season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

Fourteen weeks after the sour, contrived and controversial last-lap drama in Abu Dhabi that ended Hamilton’s four-year reign as champion and ushered Verstappen to a first title crown, the curtain rises on a ‘revolutionary’ new show featuring the most sweeping technical rule changes in 40 years.

The return of ‘ground effect’ aerodynamics for the first time since 1983 with much bigger wheels and fatter tyres, a freeze on power unit development and a tighter budget cap, down to USD140 million (EUR127.4 million) excluding drivers’ salaries, may throw up arguments and shocks.

But below the surface, away from the gleaming visible alterations and the uncertainties brought by the COVID-19 pandemic, mounting inflation and a European war, following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, the human drama will remain unchanged – at least for now.

Bitterly disillusioned, but now repaired, Hamilton, 37, returns from a hermetic off-season to resume his quest for a record eighth title 750 kilometres up the coast from the Yas Marina Circuit where his hopes of winning last season’s title battle with Vestappen were dashed.

As Hamilton’s Mercedes team and Red Bull swapped heated claims and counter-claims, the architect of F1’s greatest furore, Race Director Michael Masi, was muzzled and later removed from his role by the International Motoring Federation (FIA), which itself underwent an upheaval.

Masi had delivered an improvised interpretation of the rules to avoid the race ending behind a safety car. That handed Verstappen, on new tyres, a clear advantage for the last-lap showdown and not only gifted him the title, but also “tarnished the image of F1”, according to the FIA.

Within days, the FIA had a new president in Mohammed Ben Sulayem, who promised a review that came with a restructuring of race direction under two men, Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas, aided by the return from retirement of the vastly experienced Herbie Blash as a permanent advisor.

Hamilton and Mercedes welcomed the changes but as pre-season testing began Verstappen declared that Masi had been “thrown under a bus” by the FIA.

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