- Mercedes and Hamilton look shaky in testing
- Are Verstappen and Red Bull the combo to beat?
- Can McLaren claim third with Mercedes power?
- Alpha Tauri look poised for early shocks
The 2020 Formula One season was a lesson in domination from Mercedes and a record-breaking Lewis Hamilton, but 2021 could be rather different.
The Covid-enforced restrictions have had their knock-on effects around the globe, and Formula One hasn’t escaped them. New rules were due to come into force this year that would drastically alter both the looks and the performance of the fastest cars in the world, but these uncertain times have forced F1’s governing body (the FIA) to delay the introduction of the new era to 2022, meaning last years’ cars have largely been carried over to the new season.
Advantage Mercedes then? Well, not quite. The reigning seven-times double champions struck fear into their opponents when they revealed half way through last season that they had already switched focus to their 2021 car, while all their competitors were still working on their 2020 models. The assumption was that the team would therefore have a massive head start this year, especially with a car based on the W11, perhaps the greatest F1 car of all time, but that doesn’t seem to have manifested itself so far.
Pre-season testing, held last week in Bahrain, suggests that Red Bull Racing may be the team to beat, certainly at the start of the season at least. The team were fastest overall with flying Dutchman Max Verstappen across the three days, but more importantly, the car looked the part on track too.
Bear in mind that pre-season testing is the equivalent of a pre-season friendly in football, so take the results with a pinch of salt. But while the Red Bull looked fast and planted in the hands of Verstappen and new recruit Sergio Perez, the Mercedes looked rather more unwieldy, with a number of spins, and more worryingly, reliability issues too. This left their car stranded in the garage on more than one occasion, with the resultant lack of mileage meaning they completed fewer laps than any other team. Rule changes involving the underfloor of the cars as well as a slight change to the tyres look to have affected Mercedes more than expected, but the team will no doubt find a way to work around their issues.
This therefore suggests that Red Bull will have the upper hand at the start of the season, but it’s also worth considering that Mercedes has flattered to deceive in pre-season testing before, only to dominate once more. But the early signs suggest that an unprecedented eighth title for Hamilton could be rather more difficult this time around. Hamilton’s teammate Valtteri Bottas meanwhile needs to mount a title challenge in 2021, or risks losing his seat for 2022.
Aside from the top two teams, McLaren made a very strong impression in testing and has a very decent chance of defending third place in the championship. This is a team very much on the up after several difficult years; three horrendously tricky seasons with Honda power and then a recovery with Renault over a similar time period. The Woking team look on course for a return to the glory years and while that probably won’t come this year, a return to the mighty Mercedes powerplant can only help them. Daniel Ricciardo, very much an A-class driver joins the team, partnering Britain’s Lando Norris, entering his third season. Norris is a team protégé, scored his first podium last year, and now has a proven race winner as his teammate to test his mettle.
A big story for this year is the arrival of Aston Martin as a fully fledged team, the first time the name has properly graced the grid since 1960. This is the latest incarnation of the team which joined F1 in 1991 as Jordan, and finished fourth in the championship last year under the Racing Point name, and with a car that was an almost exact copy of the 2019 Mercedes model. The team has made big strides since being taken over by Lawrence Stroll in 2018, and four time world champion Sebastian Vettel joins from Ferrari, partnering Stroll’s son Lance. The car is expected to be quick, and the team were race winners in 2020 with Perez, but testing proved inconclusive with reliability issues holding them back.
A potential surprise could come in the form of Red Bull’s sister team Alpha Tauri. The Italian squad, also powered by Honda, won the eventful Italian Grand Prix with Pierre Gasly last year, and welcomes exciting Japanese talent Yuki Tsunoda alongside the Frenchman. The car looked both rapid and drivable in testing, raising expectations of a strong season.
The fact that the ‘little’ Alpha Tauri squad is mentioned before Ferrari in this preview shows just how far the legendary team fell down the order last year. After threatening a title charge in 2019, 2020 was a comparative disaster with no wins and a car that was woefully off the pace by their standards. A recovery is essential this year, and Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc is as talented as they come. Given the right car, he’s a champion in waiting, while Spaniard Carlos Sainz Jr moves from McLaren after two impressive seasons, and is expecting to prove he’s also a title contender. Big improvements are needed from the car and engine package, and while testing wasn’t especially promising, it does at least look like a better year is in prospect. Despite this, anything below fourth in the Constructors’ Championship won’t be viewed especially well, especially by the devoted Italian ‘Tifosi’ fans.
The Renault team have been renamed in favour of sister brand Alpine for 2021, and their bright blue car will be piloted by the returning two-time champion Fernando Alonso and Frenchman Esteban Ocon. Alonso, regarded as one of the most complete drivers ever seen in F1, is back in the sport after two years off competing in sportscars and numerous other categories after a number of frustrating years with McLaren. Refreshed and ready despite a pre-season cycling accident, he’s desperate for more wins and another championship charge, but has a recent F1 history of being in the wrong place at the wrong time. That’ll need to be rectified this time around, while Ocon, another very highly regarded driver, will need to push him hard to maintain his reputation.
Alfa Romeo continue to boast the services of former champion Kimi Raikkonen, paired again with Italian Antonio Giovinazzi. Raikkonen shows no signs of slowing down, despite being the oldest driver on the grid at the age of 41, while Giovinazzi has shown glimpses of promise in his career so far, but needs to do more to convince he’s a long term talent. Maintaining links with Ferrari power, the Swiss-based team will hope for an increase in horsepower to make gains in pace after a season towards the back in 2020.
Another Ferrari powered team, Haas, faces a difficult campaign with a car that’s only seen minor upgrades over the past 12 months, and now have an all-new rookie line-up to go with it. Formula 2 champion Mick Schumacher makes his F1 debut in one of the feel-good stories of the year; the German is the son of the legendary seven time champion Michael Schumacher, who continues to recover from his dreadful skiing accident in 2013. Mick has a history of making a slow start to a new series, but excelling in his second year, so with a car that is expected to be a tail ender this year, the pressure is off somewhat. He will be partnered by Russian Nikita Mazepin who seems to be embroiled in controversy no matter what he does. He’s quick enough, but his heavy financial backing has certainly helped him, and resulted in the car bearing more than a passing resemblance to the Russian flag.
Finally, Williams will hope to continue their recent upwards trend. The multiple former champions failed to score a point for the first time in their history last year, but that doesn’t tell the full story of a much improved car in terms of pace compared to their 2019 effort. They expect to be a more regular points contender in 2021, and with British talent George Russell, they have one of the best drivers on the grid. Russell very nearly won the Sakhir Grand Prix for Mercedes last year after replacing a Covid-struck Hamilton, and is very much considered a Mercedes driver in waiting. Canadian Nicholas Latifi remains at the team, now with new ownership and heavily increased backing.
The new season commences in Bahrain with practice getting underway on Friday 26 March, with qualifying following on Saturday before the first race of the season on Sunday. A total of 23 races are scheduled, but whether they all take place in the current restrictive climate remains to be seen.
Richard Randle is a motorsport PR professional working with the UK’s top racing circuits and the UK’s premier single-seater category, the BRDC British F3 Championship.