Formula One and American audiences are made for this moment

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  • Ryan McGeeESPN Senior Writer

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    • Senior writer for ESPN The Magazine and ESPN.com
    • 2-time Sports Emmy winner
    • 2010, 2014 NMPA Writer of the Year

You wanna be Americano, Americano, Americano... listen here: Who asked you to?
You want to be all trendy, but if you drink "whisky and soda" you can only end up sick.
You dance the "rock'n'roll" and play the "baseball." But where'd you get the cash for the Camel cigarettes?
Mummy's handbag!

You acting all Americano, Americano, Americano...
But you were born in Italy!!!

"Tu vuò fà l'americano" -- Renato Carosone


Formula One is having a moment. 2021 was a whole season of moments. Because of that, plus a lot of other pluses (See: that reality show all the cool kids are streaming), F1 isn't just having a moment, it's having an American moment (See: a sudden gaggle of North American race dates). Never in the 73-year history of Earth's most prestigious motorsports series have so many stateside eyeballs watched with such piqued interest (See: ESPN's crazy-good 2021 TV ratings).

When the green lights are illuminated for Sunday's Bahrain GP (11 a.m. ET, ESPN/Watch ESPN), it is without even an iota of hyperbole one can say the expectations for F1 have never been higher, certainly not here in the United States of Americano.

That's what happens when a series is coming off a soap opera/action film of a season that produced what is already being widely considered the most insane title bout the sport has ever experienced. Plus, the greatest racer in the sport's unparalleled history is still on the track, winning and, for the first time in his career, racing while super angry. Plus, an influx of youngsters is invading the paddock. Plus, have you seen the new circuit next to the football stadium in Miami? Plus... well... we told you there were a lot of pluses.

What will all those pluses add up to in 2022? What storylines do you need to know? What will we be talking about when the season's final checkered flag is shown in Abu Dhabi eight months from now? My friends from across the pond at ESPN.com have all you true Formula One-iacs covered from nuts to bolts to flexi wings.

This preview is for you Netflix "Drive to Survive," watch-ESPN-while-still-in-bed easy-like-Sunday-morning crowd. So, grab a Red Bull, an espresso, hit play on some jazz tunes, put on your Mattia Binotto "Minions" glasses and read ahead, as we get you up to speed, literally, with our Americano version of a 2022 F1 preview. Stuff you need to know, along with some stuff you should have already known but is so out there you probably didn't think it was real.


Can F1 possibly conjure up another 2021?

They certainly hope so. But not all of it. The Max Verstappen vs. Lewis Hamilton/Red Bull vs. Mercedes/Christian Horner vs. Toto Wolff drama was very good for business. The series averaged nearly a million viewers per week on ESPN, up a whopping 54 percent over 2020. Audience numbers increased throughout the globe, thanks to what was arguably the most memorable finish to a season in F1 history. But that finish -- a very NASCAR-ish, one-lap-to-win-it-all shootout -- was overshadowed by a pair of rulings from Race Control that ultimately cost race director Michael Masi his job.


Yes, Christian Horner is married to Ginger Spice.

The Red Bull team principal has been married to Geri Halliwell since 2015.


Lewis Hamilton is going for his eighth world title. Again.

Despite his controversial title loss to Verstappen, Hamilton still added to the most ridiculously impressive racing résumé ever written. His eight victories brought his career total to 103, now a full dozen trophies ahead of Michael Schumacher on the all-time wins list. He also extended his career marks for podium finishes (182), pole positions (103), laps led (5,396), consecutive starts (265), as well as a whole bunch of other records that are far too many to list here. This season, he should break his tie with Schumacher for consecutive seasons with a win (15).

But the big one is still that eighth title, once believed to be unapproachable. Every racer, no matter how great, one day stops winning, almost always unexpectedly. While no one expects Lewis Hamilton to stop winning races in 2022, is he done winning championships?


Yes, Lewis Hamilton was hanging out with Zendaya last week.

It was at Paris Fashion Week, at the Valentino show, when Hamilton sat on the front row with MJ from "Spider-Man: No Way Home" to achieve a Beyonce-Jay Z level kind of cool. He even jokingly (at least, I think it was a joke) lobbied for a role on her TV show. But no, they aren't dating. She's dating Spider-Man, aka Tom Holland.


Red Bull finally caught Mercedes, now can they become Mercedes?

When I was a kid, I had a beagle who started every single day by waking up and blowing out the door to chase the school bus as it drove by. For years he couldn't catch up to it, despite many mornings of coming agonizingly close. Then, one morning, he caught it at a stop sign. When he got there, he stopped and turned back to glow at me with pride. But when he was done gloating and turned back around, the bus had driven away, so he went under the porch, totally lost.

That's a really long and roundabout way of explaining that when a David-ish team becomes so obsessed with finally knocking off Goliath and they finally do it, they often don't know how to keep that going and they lose that ground again.

On paper, Red Bull appears to be standing at the doorstep of a dynasty. Verstappen is only 24 and just inked a big contract extension through 2028. The team wowed the paddock when its new RB18 car rolled out for testing, having not been revealed before that, and then made tweaks to that ride throughout March, finally topping the speed charts as testing ended, you know, just to remind everyone who the champs are.

"The history of Formula One is written in streaks of success and you can look no further than Red Bull's history to learn that," Horner explained over the winter, alluding to a team that struggled at its start, won four consecutive titles from 2010 to 2013 and then had to wait eight years before the next one. "The key is to remain hungry. There is no lack of hunger here."


Ferrari looks like they might be back!

I swore I wasn't going to CTL+C/CTL+V "Ferrari looks like they might be back!" into this preview like I do every year. But I did because this time, for real, Ferrari looks like they might be back! The cars look good (OK, they always have), they were quick in testing (they certainly haven't always been) and after years of chipping away and racing McLaren for third, the Prancing Horses of Maranello feel not only poised to earn their first win since 2019, but might even -- dare we say it? -- leapfrog Mercedes to make a run at Red Bull.

Says team principal Binotto, who looks like he spends his offseason Ghostbusting: "We are not the favorites, I think if we are outsiders. It's true that we had a good start to testing and a good start of season, but to become favorites we need to have good races and prove that we are capable of winning, because we already know (Red Bull and Mercedes) are. They are still the favorites."

Perhaps, but like the New York Yankees or L.A. Lakers, love them or hate them, the sport is better off when they are relevant.


Am I always a little too heavy-handed with the Mattia Binotto glasses jokes?

Look at this, and tell me I'm lying.

My favorite #F1 personality isn't a driver. It's Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto and it's not even close. pic.twitter.com/vohOOhi7nA

— Ryan McGee (@ESPNMcGee) March 17, 2022

The cars are different. Like, way different.

Helping Ferrari's F1-75 to close the gap up front is the all-new 2022 rules package. To casual fans, F1 cars are still an open-cockpit dart with big open wheels, a needle nose and wings. But almost nothing from the 2021 machines has made the transition into this season.

Those big wheels are way bigger, with the long-standard 13-inch rims replaced by 18-inchers and a lower profile tire. Most of the funky aerodynamic bodywork doohickies that were being attached all over the car are gone. Those wings have also been simplified, especially the front wing. These noses have gone from Nicole Kidman to Cyrano de Bergerac. They're huge. The cars are also much heavier, from 1,658 pounds to 1,753, and ground effects, essentially tunnels under the chassis that use air to suck the cars closer the ground, have returned.

To us, that might not sound like much weight added, and we can't see under the cars, but for the drivers literally throwing their weight and air around, it has been a challenge. During preseason testing, four-time world champ Sebastian Vettel joked that when they get to Monaco this summer, it'll be like driving a city bus through the streets of Monte Carlo. F1's goal is to cut costs while also putting more control into the hands of the drivers. In theory that would favor the veterans, which brings us to...


If you think these guys look like kids, it's because they are.

Last season's F1 grid featured 11 drivers 25 and younger, and all but one has returned this season. An increasing number of those made their first F1 starts before the age of 20, including defending world champion Verstappen. Call it the Lewis Hamilton Effect. He made his debut at 22, winning four races in his rookie season and winning the title one year later. Now, at 37, he is a grizzled veteran and is being joined at Mercedes by the youngster many are already pointing to as the breakout star of 2022, 24-year-old George Russell.

The only racer in this year's lineup over 40 is another former world champ, Alpine F1's Fernando Alonso, who has admittedly been salivating over those simplified car rules that are finally coming this season.


But none of those youngsters is Sir Anything. Now Hamilton is.

It's true. Back on Dec. 15, Lewis Hamilton was knighted by Prince Charles, becoming just the fourth F1 driver to become a Sir Racer, following Sir Jack Brabham in 1979, Sir Stirling Moss in 2000 and Sir Jackie Stewart one year later.

— The Royal Family (@RoyalFamily) December 15, 2021

How much more impact will the war in Ukraine have?

No one knows. It has already cost Haas F1 driver Nikita Mazepin his massive sponsorship dollars from Urialkali, a fertilizer company owned by his father, Dmitry Mazepin. Mazepin is a close ally of Russian president Vladimir Putin and was among the small group of business leaders who met with Putin as Russia's invasion of Ukraine started. F1 also canceled the Russian Grand Prix contract, which ran through 2025.

Gene Haas, owner of Haas F1, spoke for the entire paddock during a phone call from the NASCAR event in Phoenix last weekend. "I really was looking forward to going to St. Petersburg next year and going to Russia, because I think it's a great country with a lot of great history. But their leadership just destroyed all that in one week," bristled the billionaire Haas. "I have Russian people that work for me in my company (Haas Automation), and they're the nicest people you can meet. I mean, the common Russian persons, probably just like you or me, are great people. So, why does their leadership want to destroy 30 years of getting along with the West? I think it's just a human tragedy."


Can F1's current American moment keep rolling?

Russia might be out, but America is so in on F1, and this might simply be the beginning. You already know about the TV success of live events on ESPN and streaming docs on Netflix. But the series' actual physical U.S. presence is increasing as well.

Since 1959, six American venues have hosted 42 editions of the U.S. Grand Prix, but for the first time in series history, there will be two American dates on the season schedule. The Circuit of the Americas in Austin is back with a contract that runs through at least 2026 and the Miami Grand Prix debuts May 8 on a sparkling new course being built adjacent to Hard Rock Stadium, the venue we old people still call Joe Robbie Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins and The U.

Meanwhile, McLaren is owned by Californian Zak Brown, Haas F1 is still plugging away, Michael Andretti is inquiring about a future in F1 team ownership and, oh yeah, the entire series is owned by Liberty Media, the Colorado-based group that also owns the Atlanta Braves. Liberty execs have openly talked of adding more U.S.-based events, with their eyes on Las Vegas and New York.

Now, if they could just find an American driver...

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