Red Bull advisor Dr Helmut Marko believes that 22-year-old Lando Norris is closest to the level on which Sir Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen perform, as he gives his predictions for 2022.
The Briton ended the 2021 season sixth in the Drivers’ Championship, impressively out-scoring more experienced team-mate Daniel Ricciardo in the Australian’s first year with McLaren.
He achieved four podiums, and claimed his first-ever pole position at the Russian Grand prix – although an incorrect tyre call in changing conditions heart-wrenchingly cost him victory in the dying laps of the race.
McLaren narrowly missed out on third in the Constructors’ Championship to Ferrari last season, but both were comfortably out-scored by Mercedes and Red Bull.
2022 will see a brand new set of regulations introduced, as the cars radically change from last year.
Aerodynamic parts have been significantly reduced and the tyres will now be 18 inches.
Furthermore, an engine freeze means that no manufacturer will be able to develop the specification of their power unit once the season begins.
Red Bull will also be making their own engines having bought the intellectual property of Honda’s power unit following the termination of their contract with the Japanese supplier, who have now left the sport.
Dr Marko believes that his team will be at the front again in 2022, but concedes that the new regulations cloud his prediction.
“The declared goal is the world championship title [but] with such a big rule change you can never be sure,” he said in an interview with Auto Motor und Sport (AMuS).
The 78-year-old maintains that the current top two already have the right framework in place – as well as the best drivers in the world right now – to succeed again next season.
“Mercedes and we have the potential, the people and the continuity. That again speaks for a duel at the highest level. Especially as with Hamilton and Verstappen, no other driver is coming along.”
However, the Austrian pinpoints Norris as the one most likely to challenge last year’s title protagonist, and says that the fanfare over Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc was “debunked” by the arrival of Carlos Sainz.
The Spaniard was out-qualified 13-9 by the Monegasque in 2021, but ended the Drivers’ Championship in fifth – two positions ahead of his younger team-mate.
“The closest to them is [Lando] Norris. Leclerc was, so to speak, debunked by Sainz,” Dr Marko explained.
In another change to the outlook this year, Valtteri Bottas has departed Mercedes and headed to Alfa Romeo.
He was replaced by Williams’ George Russell, and Dr Marko believes that Russell has more talent than his predecessor.
As a result, Dr Marko believes that this – coupled with the fact that the Mercedes pair are now of the same nationality – will give Hamilton a sterner test in 2022.
“Russell will certainly be a bigger challenge for Hamilton. Just rhetorically and politically, because he’s also English,” he theorised.
The Red Bull advisor praised Russell’s qualifying pace – which earned him a podium at the bizarre Belgian Grand Prix last year – but is not as impressed by the race pace of “Mr Saturday.”
“He is an incredibly fast driver in qualifying. In the race, however, the gap to Latifi was no longer so great. Russell has to prove himself first,” he said.
F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali believes that teams will endeavour to find loopholes in the new regulations next year, while Russell has said that there will be “five teams” in the hunt for race wins next season.