Charles Leclerc protected his pole position to lead a Ferrari one-two at the Bahrain Grand Prix as late Red Bull woe allowed an uncompetitive Lewis Hamilton to make the podium in the 2022 Formula One season opener.

For Leclerc, besides a three-lap battle with Max Verstappen, this was a relatively straightforward victory after making good use of Ferrari's pace again.

But there was chaos behind him in the closing stages, when Verstappen reported an issue with his handling after pitting a third time.

A late safety car had appeared to give the defending champion the chance to challenge Leclerc, but it vitally also attached the rest of the field to his tail, meaning Carlos Sainz was able to capitalise on a mechanical failure.

Sergio Perez could not cling on to third as his Red Bull also ground to a halt on the final lap, remarkably clearing a path for Hamilton.

Mercedes should not be considered challengers for the Bahrain Grand Prix, so says Charles Leclerc, though reigning world champion Max Verstappen remains wary of their threat.

Ferrari driver Leclerc and Red Bull's Verstappen secured pole and second on the grid respectively for Sunday's Formula One curtain-raiser.

Indeed, Ferrari and Red Bull took all four top spots in Sahkir, where Lewis Hamilton ultimately qualified fifth on Saturday, with his new team-mate George Russell down in ninth.

Mercedes have looked off the pace over practice and Leclerc, who claimed his 10th career pole at the circuit where he clinched his first in 2019, predicted the Silver Arrows will struggle to close the gap.

"I personally, still had the doubt after FP3," Leclerc stated of Mercedes' performance. "It was quite obvious that they were not at ease.

"Considering what happens in the years before, they were hiding their gains quite a lot, This year? Well, actually, they weren't hiding their gains. They were struggling more than other years.

"I still expected them maybe to be fighting for [pole position] with us. Then for the race tomorrow. Considering their pace of today, I don't think so but let's wait and see."

Lewis Hamilton claims Ferrari and Red Bull are "in another league" to Mercedes after the seven-time Formula One world champion qualified in fifth for Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix.

Hamilton, who missed out on a record-breaking eighth drivers' championship title last year in controversial circumstances after an absorbing battle with Max Verstappen, has previously cast doubt upon Mercedes' ability to compete in 2022.

The 37-year-old insisted that his team would not be competing for early wins at the end of pre-season testing, and impressive performances from Ferrari and Red Bull has done nothing to change Hamilton's opinion.

Ferrari pair Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz will begin Sunday's season-opener in Bahrain on the front row, either side of defending champion Max Verstappen.

With Verstappen's team-mate Sergio Perez fourth-fastest, Hamilton claimed that he did not expect to compete with either Ferrari or Red Bull in Bahrain, saying the two teams are "in another league".

"I'm not saying I'm relieved [with fifth place]," Hamilton told Sky Sports. "[But] I'm generally really happy with the day, given where we've been the last few weeks, [with] the struggles that we've had, the problems that we've had with the car.

"It has been a bit of a nightmare to drive, but we've kept our heads down, kept working away and I'm proud of everyone for staying positive.

"The guys ahead of us are in another league. 

"I'm generally happy where we are, it's not the front row, but we will make improvements and we'll do the best we can tomorrow."

 

Hamilton, who won last year's Bahrain Grand Prix after starting second on the grid, said his task for Sunday would be to ward off pressure from those behind him, including his former Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas, who will start his first race for Alfa Romeo in sixth.

"These guys [the Red Bull and Ferrari drivers] will be going ahead," Hamilton added.

"We are not in the fight with them, they were a second ahead of us yesterday. My battle is with the guys behind us.

"Of course, I'll try to be as fast as I can and get ahead, but their performance was quite a bit ahead of us."

Mercedes are looking to win a ninth consecutive constructors title this term, with Red Bull last winning the title back in 2013.

Michael Masi acted in "good faith" in how he handled the controversial end of last season's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, with "human error" leading to the rules surrounding lapped cars not being applied properly, the FIA has said.

Masi was last month removed as Formula One race director following a "detailed analysis" of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, where Max Verstappen dramatically beat Lewis Hamilton to the drivers' championship last season.

Verstappen overtook Hamilton on the final lap of the final race, denying his rival a record-breaking eighth title.

However, the Red Bull star was only able to stage that late recovery after Masi let the cars between the pair – running first and second but separated by a series of lapped rivals – pass a safety car and allow one lap of racing.

Verstappen, on fresher tyres, prevailed, prompting a protest from Hamilton and Mercedes.

While that bid failed, there has remained a great deal of discussion around the decision-making of Masi, who was replaced by two men in Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas.

But, in confirming the result of the race and 2021 F1 world championship as final, the FIA insisted Masi had not acted with any malice.

In a summary of the findings of its report into the race, an FIA statement read in part: "In combination with the objective to finish under green flag racing conditions applied throughout the 2021 season, the report finds that the race director was acting in good faith and to the best of his knowledge given the difficult circumstances, particularly acknowledging the significant time constraints for decisions to be made and the immense pressure being applied by the teams. 

"The results of the 2021 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the FIA Formula One World Championship are valid, final and cannot now be changed. In accordance with the rules, Mercedes made a protest to the stewards after the race, seeking to change the race classification.

"The stewards dismissed the protest and Mercedes then had an opportunity to appeal that decision to the FIA International Court of Appeal, but did not do so. There are no other available mechanisms in the rules for amending the race classification.

"The process of identifying lapped cars has up until now been a manual one and human error lead to the fact that not all cars were allowed to un-lap themselves.

"Due to the fact that manual interventions generally carry a higher risk of human error, software has been developed that will, from now on, automate the communication of the list of cars that must un-lap themselves. In addition, the 2022 Formula One Sporting Regulations have been recently updated to clarify that “all” and not “any” cars must be permitted to un-lap themselves.

"This process of identifying lapped cars has been reviewed as part of the recommendations previously announced by the FIA President in his statement of 17 February 2022, which also includes the creation of FIA Remote Operations Centre, the integration of a new and extended team to run trackside operations as well as a review of the interactions between teams and Race Control during track running."

How does Formula One go about following up the epic 2021 season?

Well, until that stunning campaign stole the show, this year was long seen as the one to look forward to with the introduction of new regulations to encourage competitive racing right down the grid.

Lewis Hamilton might have expected a genuine challenge in 2022; instead, in the form of Max Verstappen, it arrived 12 months early.

Excitement for the coming campaign is therefore at an all-time high, with pre-season testing adding to the theory fans should expect the unexpected.

Forecasting the year ahead is tricky, but Stats Perform seeks to identify the key narratives to follow this season ahead of Sunday's 2022 opener in Bahrain.

Max vs Lewis again

For now at least, Verstappen and Hamilton will expect to be the title frontrunners, which should mean another classic campaign.

Verstappen had never even led the standings until winning last year's Monaco Grand Prix, the first of five consecutive Red Bull wins – including four for the Dutchman.

That sequence ended at Silverstone, where contact with Hamilton sent Verstappen into the wall and set the tone for the rest of a frantic season, in which the pair repeatedly went at one another, crashing at Monza.

A titanic back-and-forth deserved a better ending than to be decided by a contentious call from race director Michael Masi in Abu Dhabi.

Now, defending champion Verstappen can attempt to prove he is better than Hamilton regardless of that decision, while the Mercedes man seeks to show his class once again as he pursues a record eighth title.

The midfield challenge

The game-changing 2022 regulations sought to enforce "closer racing", meaning both Verstappen and Hamilton could come under threat rather than simply blowing away the competition.

Early signs are encouraging on that front, with the two title rivals name-checking Ferrari's superb pre-season showing in the past week.

A resurgent Scuderia represent an obvious danger to those two, but so too do McLaren, Ferrari's midfield neighbours in recent seasons.

Lando Norris had four podiums last season before tailing off to finish sixth in the drivers' championship – still two places ahead of team-mate Daniel Ricciardo, who endured a tough first year with the team despite a famous win at Monza.

Having been aided by changes to the car for 2022, it is up to Ferrari and McLaren to close the gap considerably to Red Bull and Mercedes.

George a genuine threat?

Of course, Verstappen and Hamilton might typically expect their biggest challenges to come from those in the same cars.

However, Sergio Perez played the role of supporting Red Bull team-mate brilliantly in some key moments last year, while Valtteri Bottas continued to do his own thing without worrying Hamilton.

How a change in the Mercedes garage alters things remains to be seen. Bottas has been replaced by George Russell, who will hope to quickly make his mark.

Russell deputised for Hamilton for a single race the year before last and impressed, so it will be interesting to see if he now intends to push his legendary colleague all the way or will initially settle instead for helping his title bid.

Impact of refereeing reform

It is not only the cars that have had a makeover this year, with the officiating structure reorganised in the aftermath of the criticism aimed at Masi.

He is out as race director, with two men, Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas, taking his place, while other changes include the introduction of a "virtual race control room" to "assist the race director in the decision-making process".

Whether these changes suitably appease the team principals, who grew increasingly furious with each controversy last year, remains to be seen.

All parties would agree they would rather see the championship decided on the track – but it is not always as straightforward as that.

Following an eventful, dramatic and – dare we say it – the best Formula One season to date, the 2022 campaign has plenty to live up to.

Lewis Hamilton is going in search of a record eighth world title at the second time of asking after missing out to Max Verstappen on the final lap of the final race in 2021.

Reigning champion Verstappen is himself seeking some personal history this coming campaign, which begins with the Bahrain Grand Prix this weekend.

Ahead of what will hopefully be an equally as gripping season this time around, Stats Perform picks out some of the key numbers.

 

Hamilton narrowly missed out on surpassing Michael Schumacher as F1's most successful driver, though he has not missed out on top spot in successive years since joining Mercedes in 2013.

Should he match his achievement from last year, Red Bull's Verstappen (25 years, two months) would surpass Fernandes Alonso (25y, 2m, 23 days) as the second-youngest multiple world champion, behind only Sebastian Vettel (24y, 3m).

Mercedes may have suffered disappointment last time out, but they still finished top of the constructors' standings for a record-extending eighth time in a row. They are one short of equalling Williams as the second-most successful team, though Ferrari (16) are still well out in front.

In terms of other team milestones, Bahrain will be the 250th GP Mercedes have competed in, while they are six fastest laps away from setting 100. McLaren, meanwhile, are seven podiums from reaching 500 in F1.

Joining Hamilton at Mercedes this season is compatriot George Russell, who along with McLaren's Lando Norris is aiming to become the first Briton other than Hamilton to win a race since Jenson Button in 2012.

Bottas is now at Alfa Romeo and is joined by Guanyu Zhou, who will be China's first ever representative on the grid, making them the 39th country to appear in F1. Indeed, it is the first time three Asian countries will be represented, with Alex Albon (Thailand) and Yuki Tsunoda (Japan) also featuring.

 

Now 14 years on from their most recent constructors' title, Ferrari will equal their worst-such streak – 15 years between 1984 and 1998 – if they again miss out this term.

Carlos Sainz is Ferrari's big hope and he has either matched or bettered his performance from the previous season – both in terms of points and position – over the past six years when racing for just one team.

While his title chances are slim at best, Fernando Alonso has the opportunity to become the driver with the biggest margin between F1 titles of all time, 16 years on from his most recent success. 

Twenty-two events are currently locked in the F1 calendar for this year, with Miami set to become the 77th different circuit used when it hosts its maiden GP in May. It will be the 11th different track used in the United States, which is the most of any country.

McLaren's Lando Norris acknowledges he does not "push the limits" as much as World Champion Max Verstappen does, as he prepares to do battle with the Dutchman in the new Formula One campaign. 

Norris finished sixth in the 2021 Drivers' Championship standings but has been tipped by many to fare better when the 2022 Formula One season begins with Sunday's Bahrain Grand Prix.

Norris watched on as Verstappen beat Mercedes' Lewis Hamilton to the drivers' title in contentious circumstances last year, attracting criticism from some quarters for what has been perceived as an aggressive driving style. 

Speaking ahead of this weekend's curtain-raiser in Bahrain, the 22-year-old said he was not sure how he would deal with a rival as combative as Verstappen.

"It's a different battle, because of how Max races," Norris said. 

"It's a different breed of drivers. You saw how he drove and changed when it came down to those final races, with aggression.

"It's maybe something you don't experience so much in the midfield because you're not going for a world championship, or some of the drivers don't have that mentality of risking everything.

"You would try and play smart as much as you can [when facing a rival like Verstappen].

"But I'm also a fair racer and, I don't know, maybe don't push the limits quite as much in certain areas."

Both Norris and new Mercedes driver George Russell are aiming to become the first British driver other than Lewis Hamilton to win a race for almost a decade, with Jenson Button the last to do so when winning the Brazilian Grand Prix in November 2012.

Meanwhile, McLaren are just seven podium finishes away from reaching a total of 500 in Formula One, with Norris recording four such finishes across the 2021 campaign.

Lewis Hamilton was hurting after the remarkable conclusion to the 2021 season, but he has had time to reset and prepare for another tilt at a record-breaking eighth Formula One drivers' championship.

Hamilton was denied the title in dramatic fashion last year, when a highly contentious decision from then race director Michael Masi gave Max Verstappen the opportunity to pass him on the final lap of the season to be crowned champion for the first time.

Mercedes feared Hamilton would quit the sport as a result, but the man Toto Wolff described as a "lion" in last season's run-in is ready to fight again – starting at this week's Bahrain Grand Prix.

Not that Hamilton is expecting this season to be any more straightforward than the last.

Verstappen has proven he can match Hamilton over the course of a campaign, while George Russell will hope to prove more competitive than Valtteri Bottas in the second Mercedes seat. The new F1 regulations also mean a potential challenge from the midfield, with Ferrari fast in pre-season.

"We're certainly not at the top," a pessimistic Hamilton said last week, but Verstappen dismissed those comments while acknowledging Ferrari's pace.

The Red Bull superstar suggested Hamilton and Mercedes would quickly turn their fortunes around – and that certainly fits with the Briton's career to date.

"He's an exceptional driver," former Ferrari star Felipe Massa told Stats Perform, "one who is undoubtedly the main man in the sport today because of the records he holds in Formula One.

"No one ever imagined that he would even come close to beating [Michael] Schumacher's records. He overtook pretty much everyone else. One more title is missing to go ahead as a record holder."

That eighth title will remain the goal this year, but Hamilton could move ahead of Schumacher in another sense as soon as Sunday; he has won in 15 consecutive F1 seasons since 2007, meaning victory in a 16th would top the German (1992-2006).

 

Hamilton's happy hunting ground

In pursuit of that new benchmark, Hamilton will be happy to be back in Bahrain, where he has such an outstanding history.

Of the 17 editions of the Bahrain GP, Hamilton has won a record five races, including the past three. No other driver has won three in succession at this event – and that sequence could be extended to four this week.

Mercedes have recorded the most pole positions (six) and podiums (15) at the Bahrain Grand Prix, ranking one ahead of Ferrari in each category.

The Silver Arrows and the Scuderia are tied for Bahrain wins (six) and fastest laps (five) heading into the 2022 race.

We are in a special week for Mercedes, too, as this is the team's 250th grand prix. With 124 victories so far, they could mark the occasion by improving their win rate to an outstanding 50 per cent, the best such performance by any one team.

Red Bull set for reality check?

Verstappen's record at this track is not quite so impressive, even if he almost beat Hamilton last season having started from pole, forced to give his place back after exceeding track limits in passing his rival.

That was Verstappen's seventh Bahrain GP without victory – an eighth fruitless appearance would make this the grand prix he has entered most without winning.

He has retired three times at the Bahrain GP and, including the 2020 Sakhir GP, a career-high four times at this circuit.

The Dutchman at least has the benefit of the confidence of his championship triumph – and a "ridiculously fast" Red Bull, according to Hamilton – but first-time champions have not typically fared well in the first race of their title defence.

Only three of the past 14 first-time defending champions have won on the first weekend of the new season: Michael Schumacher in 1995, Fernando Alonso in 2006 and Sebastian Vettel in 2011.

At least securing pole would mean a positive omen, as Red Bull drivers have gone on to win the title on the four previous occasions they have started the season by qualifying fastest (Vettel in 2010, 2011 and 2013, plus Verstappen last year).

Hamilton in 2015 and 2016 was the last driver to achieve back-to-back Bahrain poles, although only seven Bahrain GP winners have started from the front of the grid.

Lewis Hamilton has revealed he is set to change his name as he prepares for the 2022 Formula One season.

The seven-time F1 world champion will include his mother Carmen's maiden name, Larbalestier, in his name.

Hamilton's parents, Anthony and Carmen, separated when he was only two.

The 37-year-old is not sure when his new name will be confirmed, stating it is a work in progress ahead of the first race of the year in Bahrain this weekend.

"It would mean the world to my family [to win a record eighth F1 title]," the British driver said at the 2022 Dubai Expo.

"It would mean a lot to me knowing that, for example, I'm really proud of my family's name: Hamilton. Actually, none of you might know that my mum's [sur]name is Larbalestier.

"And I'm just about to put that in my name. Because I don't really fully understand the whole idea of why, when people get married, the woman loses her name. I really want her name to continue on with the Hamilton name."

Asked if he will have a different name in the first race of the season, he replied: "It will be soon. No, I don't know if it will be this weekend. But we're working on it."

Max Verstappen has responded with scepticism to Lewis Hamilton's claims Mercedes will not be competing for victories in the early stages of the 2022 Formula One season.

Verstappen, who beat Hamilton to the 2021 Drivers' Championship in controversial circumstances at last December's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, posted the fastest time on the final day of pre-season testing in Bahrain on Saturday.

Ahead of Bahrain hosting the first Grand Prix of the season next week, Hamilton suggested Mercedes will likely not be competing for early season wins, due to problems with the team's new W13 car.

His rival Verstappen, however, scoffed at those comments, accusing Mercedes, and other Formula One teams, of playing down their potential before the season begins.

"[It's] always like this," the world champion said in quotes reported by Autosport.

"If someone is doing well or a team that everyone expects to do well, then it's 'oh no, we're definitely not the favourite'.

"And then a week later, when things do go well, all of a sudden it's 'oh no, but we turned it around completely within a week. Not normal, unbelievable work. Thanks to all people in the factory!'"

 

Verstappen also noted Mercedes were "very strong during the first race weekend" in 2021, with Hamilton winning the season opener in Bahrain after making similar comments about the team's issues this time last year.

The 24-year-old also spoke of Ferrari as potential rivals for Red Bull during the coming season, noting they had been "consistently fast" throughout pre-season.

"They [Ferrari] clearly have a stable car at the moment," he added.

"It just looks good for them, they have had very few problems as well. We will see next week who is fastest, but so far, they have had a very good test.

"The last two years weren't great for them, so you automatically start looking at this season a bit earlier than some of the other teams. It's more than normal that they started earlier than us on the 2022 car and that's okay as well.

"In the end, with these new cars, the development rate during the season is the most important thing."

Lewis Hamilton claims he is not expecting to be competing for victories at the start of the new Formula One season after experiencing difficulties during testing.

Neither Hamilton, who has won the drivers' championship a joint-record seven times, nor new Mercedes team-mate George Russell were among the fastest drivers on the final day of pre-season testing in Bahrain, as Max Verstappen topped the timesheets.

With Red Bull's defending champion faring well just a week before the Bahrain Grand Prix opens the campaign, Hamilton suggested he is not holding out much hope of a strong start, with Mercedes experiencing performance issues with their new W13 car.

"I'm sure everyone can figure it out, we're not the quickest at the moment," Hamilton told a news conference on Saturday.

"Ferrari looks to be the quickest and perhaps Red Bull, and then maybe us or McLaren. I don't know, but we're certainly not at the top.

"Obviously it's a little bit too early to get into [hopes of winning the drivers' championship] or have those kinds of thoughts, but at the moment I don't think we'll be competing for wins.

"But there is potential within our car to get us there. We've just got to learn to extract it and fix some of the problems. 

"That's what we are working on and everyone is doing an incredible job back at the factory working as hard as they can, but we have some hurdles to overcome."

Hamilton, who won 2021's season opener in Bahrain, also denied he was deliberately playing down expectations to hide the car's true strength. 

"Obviously next week we'll get a much better showing of our pace, but I think people will be surprised," he explained.

"People keep saying that we keep talking ourselves down, but it's a bit different this year. It feels a lot different. It's not as good, I don't think it's going to look as it did last year with the difficult session we had in testing and then switch over [to win] the race.

"I think we have far bigger challenges this time and they are not one-week turnarounds; they'll take a little bit longer. But, from what I told, we have a considerable amount of pace to find."

"At the moment the performance isn't there," the 24-year-old said.

"We are a step behind our rivals, and we do have a lot of work to do between now and next week to understand, because in every condition the Red Bull and the Ferrari seem a step ahead of us.

"I don't think they're exceptional, I think we're probably not as competitive as we would like.

"[But] I believe the guys are going get to the bottom of it. There is potential there, we just need to figure out a way to unlock that performance."

The 2021 Formula One title race was one for the ages.

Fortunately, the release of season four of Netflix's 'Drive to Survive' series is landing on Friday, giving fans the opportunity to relive the drama and whetting appetites for the forthcoming 2022 campaign.

Few will forget how last season ended, with Max Verstappen pipping Lewis Hamilton in scarcely believable circumstances on the final lap of the final race.

But there had been controversy throughout the year even before that point, making the latest edition of one of sport's great documentaries a must-watch.

Fans will be desperate to learn how 2021 played out behind the scenes, but what should they be looking for? Stats Perform picks out five flashpoints.

Silverstone contact sets the tone

A back-and-forth title tussle between Verstappen and Hamilton was already nine races old by the time the teams arrived at Silverstone – at which point the 'Drive to Survive' producers must have thought they had hit the jackpot.

Hamilton ended a five-race barren run for Mercedes with victory in his home race, but only after sending Verstappen into the barriers at Copse Corner on lap one – a 10-second penalty of little consolation to Red Bull, whose team principal Christian Horner slammed the 2020 champion's "dirty driving".

Seeing the reaction on the pit wall would be of interest to any fan, although this clash merely teed up the drama to come.

Mixed fortunes for furious Lewis in the wet

Two races last year descended into chaos due to the weather, with Verstappen winning in Belgium while Hamilton triumphed in Russia, benefiting from Lando Norris' spin in the rain for his 100th victory. That Sochi result cancelled out events at Spa, where Hamilton had been far from impressed.

Viewers will likely learn more about developments at the 2021 Belgian Grand Prix from 'Drive to Survive' than from live coverage at the time, as the race lasted just two laps under a safety car following Sunday rain.

That was enough to declare a result with half points, with Verstappen rewarded for pipping breakout star George Russell to pole. In public, Hamilton fumed it was "all a money scenario", and it is unlikely he was any calmer in private.

McLaren one-two after halo saves Hamilton

Between Belgium and Russia was the Italian GP at Monza, with perhaps the scariest moment of the season. Verstappen's battle with Hamilton went a little too far as he rode over the Briton's car, with the Mercedes halo required to keep the driver from serious harm.

"I am so grateful I am still here," said Hamilton after being forced to retire, with Verstappen later following him back into the garage.

The documentary cameras surely could not miss this key moment in the title race, but 'Drive to Survive' has been hugely successful in picking out narratives right down the grid – and this was a notable weekend in the midfield, as McLaren profited with a one-two courtesy of Daniel Ricciardo and Norris.

Hamilton heroics at special Sao Paulo GP

Verstappen arrived in Brazil 19 points clear of Hamilton with four races remaining, and the odds were increasingly stacked against his rival over the course of the weekend at the Sao Paulo GP.

Hamilton served a five-place grid penalty when his qualifying time – the fastest on the grid – was struck off for a DRS infringement, meaning he had to start from 10th even after recovering from 20th to fifth in the sprint race. Verstappen escaped punishment when he forced the Mercedes man wide in the main race, too.

Remarkably, Hamilton still won, with Toto Wolff claiming the various setbacks had "woke up the lion". There would have been no final-day spectacle if not for the Briton's late-season charge, which started in Brazil.

Two weeks of epic drama decide title

The final episode of the season will surely focus on the decider in Abu Dhabi, where race director Michael Masi's application of the rules infuriated Mercedes as Hamilton was denied a record-breaking eighth championship in fairly ridiculous fashion.

Footage from that race should entertain even F1 sceptics, with Wolff likely to play a prominent role having pleaded with Masi not to make the contentious call that cost Hamilton and crowned Verstappen.

But the stakes were only such because the pair had entered that race all square in the standings – only the second time this had ever happened – after a similarly eventful Saudi Arabian GP.

Verstappen could have wrapped up the title with time to spare but lost out to Hamilton after a qualifying crash, two red flags and a succession of safety cars, hinting at the level of incident that was to come the following week.

Red Bull team principal Christian Horner disagrees with the decision to remove controversial Formula One race director Michael Masi.

Masi was offered a new role elsewhere in the FIA after being replaced by two men in Niels Wittich and Eduardo Freitas for the 2022 season.

The Australian official was at the forefront of the controversy surrounding Max Verstappen's title triumph last year.

Verstappen pipped Lewis Hamilton in the final lap of the final race, but he was only able to stage that late recovery after Masi let the cars between the pair – running first and second but separated by a series of lapped rivals – pass a safety car and allow one lap of racing.

Verstappen, on fresher tyres, prevailed, prompting a protest from Hamilton and Mercedes that failed – although Masi has now been removed from his role.

"It's going to be interesting to see how that works," Horner told BBC Breakfast on Monday.

"For me, you want consistency. Having one race director, for me, was preferential, rather than splitting that role.

"We have a new president [Mohammed Ben Sulayem] who has come in and inherited this situation, and he's looked to impose change.

"It's great that Herbie Blash, a very experienced race control member, is coming back into the fray as well, so we will see how it pans out.

"But I thought it was harsh on Michael Masi that he was replaced after a lot of pressure being put on him. Everything is back to zero, new season, new regulations."

Wittich and Freitas will have to deal with a similarly tense, tight title race, though, according to Horner.

"It has been so intense," said Horner. "I think you might get a couple of other drivers come into that fray as well.

"It was epic last year, and if that continues I think there's going to be some fantastic races in the season ahead.

"It's great for the sport. The sport has never had so much coverage and so much following. The following in the sport has gone exponential over the last season, and that's great to see."

Max Verstappen has signed a five-year contract extension with Red Bull ahead of the 2022 season.

The Formula One world champion's previous deal was due to expire next year, but his team on Thursday announced that the 24-year-old will stay on until at least the end of the 2028 season.

Verstappen claimed his first F1 title in 2021 by pipping Lewis Hamilton in controversial circumstances in Abu Dhabi.

The Dutchman said: "I really enjoy being part of Red Bull Racing, so choosing to stay to the 2028 season was an easy decision. I love this team and last year was simply incredible.

"Our goal since we came together in 2016 was to win the championship and we have done that, so now it's about keeping the number one on the car long-term."

Hamilton had seemingly won a record-breaking eighth crown last year, but Williams driver Nicholas Latifi crashed with four laps to go in Abu Dhabi, leading to the safety car coming out.

When the race restarted there was only one lap remaining and Verstappen was able to start just behind his rival despite Hamilton previously having a significant lead over him. Verstappen’s car had been fitted with new tyres, enabling him to overtake the Mercedes driver and sensationally dethrone his rival.

Verstappen would have likely been in line for a new deal regardless of that incredible outcome at the Yas Marina Circuit, with Mercedes generally seen as the only team that could compete with Red Bull from a financial perspective.

Tension between the two teams in the 2021 campaign – not to mention Mercedes already paying Hamilton a fortune – made a switch to their rivals in the near future highly unlikely.

According to reports, Verstappen's new deal puts his earnings in a similar bracket to Hamilton, with the world champion apparently set to be paid €40-50million (£33-42m) per year – the seven-time champion is said to earn €48m (£40m).

Red Bull and Verstappen will be relieved to have such formalities out of the way in plenty of time ahead of the new season, which is due to begin with the Bahrain Grand Prix on March 20, the weekend after a second round of pre-season testing.

Max Verstappen has signed a five-year contract extension with Red Bull ahead of the 2022 season.

The Formula One world champion's previous deal was due to expire next year, but his team on Thursday announced that the 24-year-old will stay on until at least the end of the 2028 season.

Verstappen claimed his first F1 title in 2021 by pipping Lewis Hamilton in controversial circumstances in Abu Dhabi.

The Dutchman said: "I really enjoy being part of Red Bull Racing, so choosing to stay to the 2028 season was an easy decision. I love this team and last year was simply incredible.

"Our goal since we came together in 2016 was to win the championship and we have done that, so now it's about keeping the number one on the car long-term."

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