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Formula 1

26th Mar 2021

F1 2021: A Season Look Ahead

Danny Jones

McLaren MCL35M

The F1 2021 season is underway. Here’s our preview of what to expect this year

Formula 1 has only been off our screens for a few months, but with how stop-start and drawn out the 2020 season was, it didn’t always feel like the itch had been fully scratched. The F1 2021 calendar kicks off at Bahrain this weekend and the world of motor racing waits with bated breath.

The sport is and has always been about fast, ferocious, high-octane action from week to week, right up until the final race day. That being said, we’re looking forward to a year with (touch wood) as few interruptions to that flow as possible.

In honour of the late, great F1 commentator, Murray Walker OBE, here’s hoping we’re right.

Pre-season testing

This year’s pre-season testing has just passed, with the three days at Bahrain taking place on the weekend of the 12th-14th. Teams usually get two three-day testing windows, but this year the tweaking of those fine margins is even more last minute.

While much of the same was to be expected, there were some particularly noteworthy moments. As always, some camps had more productive sessions than others but, more importantly, several performances suggest we’re in for a tighter season than in recent years.

You can find all the key standings and statistics here, but we thought we’d give you a quick round-up:

Red Bull were the quickest

Red Bull have been more like the nearly-men over the past few seasons. With Mercedes and Hamilton, in particular, asserting their dominance following the Vettel years, Christian Horner’s team have been searching for a way to get their hands on another championship.

Max Verstappen Red Bull

Behind the wheel of that Renault, they enjoyed four back-to-back years of supremacy, but haven’t lifted a trophy in seven years. Could this be their year? Pre-season isn’t always an accurate barometer, as we know, but they’re certainly looking in better shape this time round.

After what was a bit of a bucking bronco last year, the latest iteration of the Red Bull car was much easier to tame and only needed minor set-up changes throughout the three days. Verstappen was in his usual groove and closed out the final session with a fastest lap time of 1:28.960, though he is still quick to downplay Red Bull’s chances of challenging Mercedes.

McLaren closing in on the top 2?

Another ‘winner’ of pre-season testing was McLaren. A promising young prospect in his own right, Lando Norris has now been joined by former Red Bull and Renault driver, Daniel Ricciardo. A combination full of personality and potential just waiting to be fully unlocked.

The Verstappen-Ricciardo partnership was a fan favourite last season, and this highly anticipated duo is set to just as exciting. Lando is entering his third season in F1, but Ricciardo has been around for nearly a decade now. However, both still look to be drivers who simply haven’t been equipped with the right machinery to show the full extent of their skills.

McLaren have made some key adjustments this year, both in the paddock and in the cockpit. Again, it’s early days, but they finished in the top five in the first two days, before pacing themselves in the third. Whilst their engineering trickery has been questioned, it’s all looking legal – will it count over the course of a season?

Mercedes have work to do

Panning over to Petronas and looking at how team principal, Toto Wolff’s, pack leaders performed in pre-season: there was plenty of promise but things weren’t quite perfect.

No one is suggesting that the Mercedes had catastrophic sessions – they actually set the best long-run pace across the three days – but they certainly hit some snafus. As well as Bottas only managing six laps on the first morning due to a gearbox problem, Hamilton spun out on the final corner, on the final day, to close out a test to forget.

Lewis Hamilton spins out at Bahrain pre-season testing

They didn’t manage to nail the short runs or compile as much data as some other teams, but we’re sure they’ll have no problem putting in quick laps come race day. After all, could be sandbagging? This is the year that Lewis can overtake Schumacher’s record – the narrative is there for the telling.

F1 2021 Teams: New & Old

There’s always some chopping and changing ahead of any Formula 1 calendar; the regular mainstays are all here, as well as some newly branded teams, but there are both new and old faces among the list of F1 2021 drivers.

  1. Mercedes – Lewis Hamilton & Valtteri Bottas
  2. McLaren – Lando Norris & Daniel Ricciardo
  3. Red Bull – Max Verstappen & Sergio Perez
  4. Ferrari – Charles Leclerc & Carlos Sainz
  5. Williams – George Russell & Nicholas Latifi
  6. AlphaTauri – Pierre Gasley & Yuki Tsunoda
  7. Haas – Mick Schumacher & Nick Mazepin
  8. Aston Martin – Lance Stroll & Sebastian Vettel
  9. Alfa Romeo – Kimi Räikkönen & Antonio Giovanazzi
  10. Alpine – Fernando Alonso & Esteban Ocon

There is a fair bit to unpack here, with a number of key transfers between teams and some names that will be unfamiliar. Here’s a quick summary:

The re-brands

  • Renault has become Alpine Racing, going for the French tricolour scheme for their livery, in honour of the team’s history and origins.

Alpine Racing livery 2021

The transfers

  • As mentioned, Ricciardo has moved from the former Renault racing team to join his new teammate, Lando Norris, at McLaren.
  • Carlos Sainz has replaced Vettel, who had been angling for a move away from Ferrari for some time now. The German has moved on to the new Aston Martin team.
  • Sergio Perez has replaced Alex Albon at Red Bull, who has dipped out of Formula 1 to join their DTM team. The Thai-British driver vows to return soon.
  • Joining Pierre Gasly at AlphaTauri – formerly Torro Rosso (Red Bull’s feeder team) until last year – will be new kid, Yuki Tsunoda. He is the youngest on the grid this year and has had a remarkable rise to F1. He also finished second overall in pre-season.
  • Following Ricciardo’s departure, Esteban Ocon will head up the new Alpine outfit alongside a returning veteran: Fernando Alonso. In his two-year hiatus, the Spaniard won back-to-back Le Mans races – some achievement. It’s great to see him back and we don’t expect he’ll have any trouble getting back in the swing of things.
  • Lastly, Haas have an entirely new roster, with two new ‘rookies’ in Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher. Either of those names ring a bell? While Mazepin finished 5th in F2, the F1 legend’s son was crowned champion and the pair look to settle in quickly.

How are the F1 2021 cars shaping up?

Every year, R&D teams have to figure out ways to not only improve their cars, but meet the FIAs regulations – it’s a game of fine margins and it can be the difference between getting through a season and actually winning something.

After the Racing Point scandal last year – where they pushed ‘taking inspiration from’ excuse to the very limit, ultimately being fined and socked 15 points – you’d think everyone would be on their best behaviour. However, some constructors have already caught the attention of the paddock.

Zak Brown and Andreas Seidl’s team looked to have ruffled feathers right away when they rolled the MCL35M out of the garage in pre-season. McLaren has stated that the car “is an evolution of the 2020 contender”, with a new Mercedes engine bolted in a refined aerodynamic design of the existing chassis.

The most notable adjustment has been their somewhat controversial diffuser strategy. The diffuser in an F1 car, essentially, helps port out air from underneath the car and increases downforce (up to 50% total). The engineers have found a loophole that essentially extends the strakes: it’s pretty ingenious and they maintain it still meets regulations.

McLaren MCL35M

As for Red Bull, they have always loved the fanfare surrounding their cars. That iconic showroom within the factory at Milton Keynes is almost like an art gallery, and they could add another masterpiece to it his year.

Early impressions of the RB16B are that not only is it quick, but the team have managed to add some of the stability they lacked early doors last season. They managed two wins and nine podiums last year, ‘Mad Max’ doing most of the heavy lifting – with Mercedes having ground to make up, they already look in better shape to compete.

Best of the rest

Further down the power rankings, Haas’ VF21 doesn’t look to be much different at all and although they have young prospects behind the wheel, it’s what’s under the hood that holds them back. No one is expecting miracles here but they could be in for another slog.

In contrast, the AlphaTauri look to have improved both personnel-wise and mechanically, as the AT02 showed some really promising short pace and certainly looks to have enough to push further up through the middle of the pack.

An area of concern is Ferrari, who just simply didn’t get the laps in during pre-season or the first practice session of the season. The Prancing Horse hasn’t been at a canter, let alone a gallop for far too long now and even Leclerc is predicting another tough season.

In truth, the SF21 still looks dated and chunky in comparison to its contemporaries, as does the second iteration of the resurrected Williams team. They have some decent talent but the cars just don’t seem as aerodynamic as even the Alpine or Alfa cars, let alone the Aston, which will likely be in similar positions in the table.

Speaking of which: the Aston Martin team returns after more than 60 years away from the sport – on British racing green to boot. Nevertheless, the AMR21 is very much still an unknown quantity, especially as Racing Point have had to go back to square one more than most.

In glimpses, it looked promising in long runs but we’re still yet to see what it can really do. Given the close technical relationship with Mercedes (almost too close, apparently), they’re certainly expected to have the power in a straight line. Only time will tell.

It might sound obvious but in F1 the car is everything. Ricciardo has often maintained that racing is “70 [%] car, 30 driver”: a very honest estimation of his own profession, but one that goes to show just how high the level of driver is in Formula 1 – even the best drivers can fall short if they’re not in the right car.

Lights out this Sunday

With practice almost in the bag  – Verstappen and Red Bull, once again, looking the most race-ready – and qualifying underway tomorrow, the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix in Sakhir is only a day away.

While it’s likely there could still be some disruptions to the F1 2021 calendar as Covid-19 continues to factor into global sporting events, fingers crossed we’ll get to see people races run swiftly and safely this year.

How everyone fairs in the first qualifying session remains to be seen, but it can all be for not come race day. Will it be this year that Hamilton becomes ‘the greatest of all time’? Will Verstappen take the next step towards a first championship? Or will a dark horse upset the balance?