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Which of F1's comeback drivers has the most to prove in 2022?

In a perhaps unusual turn of events, two Formula 1 drivers will make a full-time return to the grid in 2022 following a year on the sidelines. They will be joined - in Bahrain at least - by another face from the past acting as a reserve. Each driver has made their return in unique circumstances, bringing with it different pressures...

There is often the feeling that, once a driver loses their seat in Formula 1, it is very difficult for them to come back again. There are countless names that could be added to a list of those who arrived full of promise, only to disappear from the sport - seemingly for good - soon afterwards. However, there are a chosen few who manage to find their way back onto the grid again. For some, finding this opportunity is simpler than for others; double World Champion Fernando Alonso, for example, probably did not have to work that hard to persuade Alpine to give him his return to the sport in 2021 following a two-year hiatus. For those not bringing the pedigree of titles with them, the comeback can be more challenging to enact. This is perhaps why it is so surprising to see not one but two returning drivers lining up for the 2022 F1 season. Alex Albon has landed a seat with Williams after spending 2021 as a test and reserve driver for Red Bull, whilst Kevin Magnussen has found himself making perhaps the most unexpected comeback in recent times, having been given a last-minute opportunity at Haas following the departure of Nikita Mazepin. And for the opening race of the season in Bahrain, a third face from the past will join them in the form of Nico Hulkenberg. The German will substitute for Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin after the latter tested positive for COVID-19. Each of these scenarios are very unique, and as such the pressures facing each driver are very different.

The pros and cons of Albon's Red Bull experience

In some respects, Albon arguably has the strongest background for a successful comeback to Formula 1. After losing his full-time seat with Red Bull at the end of 2020, the British-Thai driver was retained for test and reserve duties. Whilst some may expect this to involve significantly less work than being on the grid, Albon has said that he was perhaps even busier in 2021 than he has been before. His work last year involved toiling away on the simulator to help with the initial development of Red Bull's 2022 challenger, the RB18. Consequently, this knowledge could serve Albon well – and is something that fellow returning drivers Magnussen and Hulkenberg will not have to the same extent. Yet, in a sense, this probably places more pressure on Albon's shoulders. Unlike new teammate Nicholas Latifi, Albon has knowledge gained from a leading Formula 1 outfit, and so there will be an expectation that he can help Williams to move forwards by utilising his experience. If this does not happen, it could reflect unfavourably on the former Red Bull man. And whilst every driver aims to beat their teammate, Albon will need to ensure that he is ahead of Latifi. Not being able to match Max Verstappen was forgivable, given that this has happened to most of the Dutchman's teammates, whereas - without being disrespectful to Latifi - the Canadian was more often than not outperformed by former teammate George Russell over the past two years, and so it is probably expected that Albon should have the measure of him. All in all, after a year away from the grid, this puts a fair bit of pressure on Albon's shoulders.

Why Magnussen's last-minute comeback could be one to watch

Meanwhile, over at Haas, Magnussen has returned to the fold in very different circumstances to Albon's gradual process of working his way back. The Dane had not expected to be back in the Formula 1 paddock again after his exit from Haas at the end of 2020. In the time since, he has competed in other motorsport categories, such as the American IMSA series and IndyCar. Magnussen was originally set to continue in IMSA in 2022, as well as racing for Peugeot in the World Endurance Championship, until a surprise call from Haas boss Guenther Steiner changed everything. It was announced on the eve of the pre-season test in Bahrain that Magnussen had signed a multi-year deal to return to Haas for 2022 and beyond.

Given his time away, it could be argued that Magnussen might face more pressure than Albon in terms of adjusting back to an F1 car, particularly in light of the drastic new technical regulations in place for 2022. The man himself has already admitted that he had not expected the VF-22 to be so quick when he was given his first taste of the new challenger in testing, as he had not previously given the rule changes much attention – why would he, when he had no expectation of returning to the sport? But, on the other hand, this can work in Magnussen's favour. The unexpected nature of his comeback has provided a visible morale boost to the Haas team, and Magnussen is so thrilled to be back that he has compared the feeling of his surprise return to that of his debut in F1. This - combined with that multi-year contract - definitely lessens the pressure on Magnussen, as does the fact that he has a teammate who is still establishing himself in Formula 1 in Mick Schumacher. Had he been going up against a more experienced name, this might have upped the ante. Throw in the factor of Haas having the most uncompetitive year in their short Formula 1 history in 2021, and it adds to the feeling that there is nothing to lose for Magnussen and the team in 2022 as they look to make progress back to the midfield.

What can 'super sub' Hulkenberg do in Bahrain?

An unexpected addition to this list is Hulkenberg. The man known as a 'super sub' back in 2020 - when he made three reserve appearances for the then-called Racing Point team, after Sergio Perez and Lance Stroll tested positive for COVID-19 respectively - will once again fill in for an absent driver. This is an even later call-up than that received by Magnussen, and the German is not likely to be behind the wheel for more than two race weekends at a push, in the potential circumstance of Vettel also sitting out the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, so this eliminates the pressure of having to perform over the course of a season. Still, though, these opportunities present a chance for a reserve driver to throw their hat in the ring for a potential full-time seat in the future, and so Hulkenberg will want to impress in Bahrain, just as he did during his 2020 stand-in drives. However, of all three returning drivers, it is Hulkenberg who will be the least prepared for the event. Having not yet raced a 2022 car - not even at testing, as Albon and Magnussen did - there will likely be a huge adjustment for the Aston Martin sub in adapting to the new regulations. Verstappen has warned that Hulkenberg faces a "tough" weekend ahead, not only in getting used to the new cars but also in terms of the fitness levels required. The German was on reserve duties for Aston Martin in 2021, so will have obviously continued with a fitness regime, yet competing in a full race weekend again could still be a challenge. It will be fascinating to see how all three comeback drivers fare in Bahrain, as well as over the course of the season for Albon and Magnussen. Pressure is a factor for every F1 driver, but these returning faces might feel it a little more this weekend – though some more than others.

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