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F1: Ferrari duo eye breakthrough season

Formula 1 enters a new era in 2022 with a litany of rule changes it hopes will shake up the established order at the top of the sport.

Until last year, Mercedes had been peerless in the hybrid era of F1, winning eight out of eight Constructors Championships and seven of the Drivers titles on offer in that period.

Red Bull's Max Verstappen finally broke the Mercedes stranglehold on the individual prize and is 15/8 to repeat his triumph. While the Dutchman's rivalry with Silver Arrows star Lewis Hamilton, 11/8 for an eigth title, was box office, it's hoped this year's title fight won't be just a two-horse race.

The early signs for multiple drivers to contest the title are promising, with Ferrari looking strong in pre-season testing, opening the door to Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz finally getting a real run at the championship.

Leclerc ready to fulfil potential

For far too long, Ferrari have been uncompetitive, restricting fans to only glimpses of the talent possessed by the Monaquese native Leclerc as a result. The 24-year-old arrived in Formula 1 on the back of a wave of excitement after winning back-to-back titles in GP3 and then Formula 2.

Although he didn't score a point in his debut season in F1 as part of the Sauber team, he did enough to persuade Ferrari to hand him a seat for the 2019 campaign. It quickly became apparent that Leclerc was more than a match for his illustrious Scuderia colleague Sebastian Vettel and he would go on to finish the campaign ahead of the German in the standings.

Leclerc won twice in that first season with Ferrari but hasn't been greeted by the chequered flag since, mainly due to being behind the wheel of a car that lacked power. He's been able to deliver reminders of his talent on a handful of occasions, securing three podiums and two pole positions in the last two years but it's been far from a true reflection of his skills.

This year is shaping up to be a far more productive one for Leclerc and Ferrari, with the Italians recording the most miles in testing in Barcelona. Leclerc also didn't finish outside the top six on the timesheets when testing moved to Bahrain - site of the season-opening Grand Prix - and he says this has been the "smoothest" pre-season he's enjoyed in F1.

Sainz a model of consistency

It's dangerous to read too much into testing but the signs are positive for Ferrari with Leclerc 7/1 for the Drivers title and 11/2 to win the opening race in Bahrain. But if Leclerc has a shot at standing atop the podium this year, then so does his teammate Sainz, who is 12/1 for the title off the back of outperforming his colleague last year.

The Spaniard finished fifth in the standings, two places better off than Leclerc after an ultra-consistent first year with the Scuderia. Sainz ended the campaign with the longest active streak of top-10 finishes, chalking up 15 successive points finishes. That run included three podium positions too and Sainz looks to have finally found a home after bouncing around the F1 paddock.

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Arriving in F1 in 2015, the son of a World Rally champion was initially handed his chance in Red Bull's feeder team Toro Rosso. Sainz never received the call up to drive for Red Bull so left in 2017 to join Renault, spending two years with the French manufacturer before moving on again to McLaren.

Sainz performed well for McLaren, finishing sixth each season in a two-year stay and accumulating 105 points in his second campaign - a career-best tally. At 27, Sainz appears to finally be hitting his stride in Formula 1 but will need to prove he's the one to back in the title fight, ahead of Leclerc, if Ferrari make good on their testing promise.

Russell ready for Mercedes

Sainz has been keen to play down the significance of Ferrari's testing results, which have been talked up by both Red Bull and Mercedes. George Russell branded the Scuderi "globally the strongest" in Bahrain testing, while his new Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton believes the Silver Arrows currently have the third slowest car.

Whether Hamilton's description of the state of the Mercedes is accurate or not, it will still offer Russell a far superior platform to show what he can do in Formula 1 compared to his previous vehicle, a Williams. Mercedes finally pulled the trigger on bringing in Russell this year, a move that's been in the pipeline for quite some time.

Mercedes quickly identified Russell's talent as a youngster, signing him to their junior driver programme. He rewarded their faith by winning the GP3 and Formula 2 titles before being picked up by Williams for the 2019 season.

It hasn't always been easy for 'Russell the Rocket' driving around in a back marker and the fact he scored 16 points last year is a testament to his talent. He produced a brilliant qualifying performance at last year's Belgium Grand Prix to secure second on the grid, a position he hung on to on raceday, albeit the race was a farce due to heavy rain.

Although he'll start off in a back up role to Hamilton as he seeks an eighth world title this year, Russell's rare talent will likely see him challenge his British compatriot at times during the season. He already has experience of competing in a Mercedes in Bahrain, having deputised for an ill Hamilton in 2020. He just missed out on pole on that occasion and could start as he means to go on by securing a podium finish at 2/1 to start the campaign.

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