2020 was the "Year of the Pandemic". The entire world went into a state of lockdown, and the Formula 1 season, which was due to kick off in Australia in March, got pushed back to July. The pandemic intensified, and more races got postponed or cancelled altogether. The FOM worked tirelessly, and new tracks got added to the revised calendar. The majority of the season got held in Europe with many double-headers and triple headers. Eventually, the 2020 season featured 17 races over six months.
Come 2021, and the pandemic still threatens the world, but the world is fighting back! Vaccination programmes have gotten underway, and even though certain regions have gone back into lockdown, humanity is pushing on to bring normalcy back again.
The FIA and FOM have left no stone unturned in ensuring that nothing hampers the start of the 2021 season.
The calendar for the 2021 season would feature a record-breaking 23 races, with the season kicking off at Bahrain and ending in Abu Dhabi and the Australian GP getting rescheduled to November. Imola ( Emilia Romagna GP ) and Portimao ( Portuguese GP ) are retained from the previous season, while Zandvoort ( Dutch GP ) and Jeddah ( Saudi Arabian GP ) make their debuts in 2021. The technical regulations overhaul got pushed back by another year, and teams had a small window to ready their 2021 challengers.
Two teams went through a rechristening - Renault F1 changing to Alpine Racing F1 and Racing Point becoming Aston Martin Racing F1, switching from pink to green livery! Aston Martin has joined Mercedes in sharing Safety Car duties at races.
There were personnel changes up and down the grid - Ferrari hired the services of Sainz to partner Leclerc, Ricciardo took the Spaniard's seat at McLaren. Alonso returned to F1 with Alpine Racing while Perez made the jump to Red Bull Racing, relegating Albon to a reserve driver role. Vettel joined Stroll in the newly inducted Aston Martin Racing F1 Team. Kvyat lost his Alpha Tauri seat to Honda protegee Yuki Tsunoda.
Haas F1 introduced an all-new lineup in Nikita Mazepin and current F2 Champion and son of the legendary Michael Schumacher, Mick Schumacher!
There have been changes in the regulations, and here are some of them :
1) The maximum spending limit for teams is reduced to $145 million.
2) Teams will be limited in the modification of the components in the season. McLaren gets special dispensation to accommodate the switch from Renault to Mercedes power. Teams get a series of tokens that allow them to introduce specific component upgrades.
3) The DAS System designed by Mercedes is banned for 2021.
4) The race time limit ( with the inclusion of Red Flags, if any ) reduced to three hours from four.
5) Reduction in the duration of a race weekend from four to three days with media events and interview formalities from Thursday getting shifted to Friday morning. FP1 and FP2 will be 60 minutes long ( instead of 90 ), and FIA will enforce parc-ferme conditions at the end of FP3 instead of after Qualifying.
The pre-season test got held in Bahrain instead of Catalunya, with only three days of running for the teams. How did the teams fare, and how do they stack up going into the season?
Time for an assessment before the bout begins!
Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team :
Mercedes, the most successful team in the Turbo Era, has been setting new records each year. Mercedes has also been the pioneer of innovation, as seen in the DAS system, which unfortunately got banned for 2021. They are known to mask their pace at the pre-season tests, but this year they have had one of the most disappointing and underwhelming displays. Mercedes managed only 304 laps over three days as they tackled reliability issues and a problematic rear end on the W12. Bottas wasn't pleased with the overall balance and quipped that "they had work to do". Mercedes, by their admission, believe they can't match Red Bull in terms of race pace, but only an amateur would write off their chances before the season has even commenced. They might not be "sandbagging" like the earlier seasons, but the divide is not as big as it used to be.
Mercedes have persisted with their lineup of Hamilton and Bottas. Hamilton took his time in renewing his contract, albeit only for another year. Bottas, on the other hand, knows that his chances of winning a title are dwindling with each passing year. Hamilton has been flawless in his title defence, Bottas has been inconsistent with his results but done enough in helping Mercedes retain the Constructors' Championship every year. Mercedes protegee Russell is waiting for his chance at Williams, so Bottas can't afford any slip-ups. Lewis Hamilton will become the most successful driver of all time if he wins the title in 2021. Will Bottas be able to dethrone the reigning Champion? Highly doubtful!
Red Bull Racing F1 Team :
Red Bull Racing F1, the best of the rest, lost their title sponsor in Aston Martin ( for 2021 ). They are also going to lose the company of Honda at the end of 2021. However, this hasn't dampened their resolve to win. Verstappen led the charge in 2020 and was left fighting both Mercedes cars more often than not. Albon's performances came up short, and Red Bull announced their decision to assign him a Reserve Driver role for 2021. Sergio Perez, whose contract didn't get renewed at Racing Point ( now Aston Martin ), landed the drive.
Verstappen will look to get even closer to Hamilton and Bottas, hopefully having fewer reliability issues. Perez's performances in 2020 justify him a seat at Red Bull, and he will be more than a handful once he gets up to speed. Will he able to challenge Verstappen for number one at Red Bull? Time will tell, but the team will have both their cars sparring for wins regularly.
The RB16B has been a revelation at the pre-season tests. Red Bull seem to be in the class of their own, with no reliability issues whatsoever. Perez is also progressing well with his new ride. Mercedes is known to mask their pace until the appropriate time, but the battle looks closer than ever at the top. Red Bull is serious about winning titles again, and Verstappen and Perez might bring their hard work to fruition.
McLaren F1 Team :
McLaren won the midfield battle in 2020 but was 117 points adrift of Red Bull, who finished 2nd. The Woking-based outfit decided to switch back to Mercedes power from Renault from 2021. The iconic partnership of "McLaren Mercedes" is back!
Lando Norris gets a new partner in Daniel Ricciardo, making this one of the strongest pairings in F1. Ricciardo is an accomplished racer with race wins to his name and is the right man to help get McLaren back to winning ways. The Australian himself yearns to be a World Champion, and McLaren might be the answer to his prayers.
Norris is a talented racer and has been improving since his debut in 2019. The Briton bagged his first podium at the season-opener in 2020 and will be hoping to repeat this feat more often with a more potent engine at the back of his car. The intra-team battle will be a close affair.
The MCL25M, McLaren's challenger for the 2021 title, had a decent outing at the pre-season tests. While Ricciardo used testing to familiarize himself with his new car, Norris carried on with the job of providing feedback to the team, highlighting the strengths and flaws. Reliability has been McLaren's forte, and it will prove pivotal in close battles. McLaren might not be able to dethrone the top two teams but have the knowledge and resources to cement 3rd place in the Constructors' again.
Aston Martin Cognizant F1 Team :
Racing Point F1 changed its name to Aston Martin Cognizant F1 and its livery from pink to green for 2021. Team owner Lawrence Stroll acquired the brand, ensuring its return to "the pinnacle of motorsport" after a gap of 51 years. The team roped in the services of Sebastian Vettel, who would partner Lance Stroll. The brand further increased its presence in F1 by introducing the New Vantage as the safety car for many races.
The team had a fantastic 2020 with one victory and three podium finishes. They came up short in the final race, which robbed them of the chance of finishing third in the Constructors'.
However, their 2021 campaign seemed to have made a stuttering start. The pre-season test got hampered by problems ( gearbox and loss of boost pressure ) with the drivers stuck in the garage for extended periods. The limited running means that there will be a lot of learning happening going into the early rounds of the season. Vettel would need to settle in quickly since the team can't afford slip-ups in a hotly contested midfield. Stroll has a great mentor in Vettel, and the Canadian is building a reputation for himself with his consistent drivers. Aston Martin should be able to replicate the form of 2020, if not better it.
Alpine Racing F1 Team :
Alpine Racing, formerly known as Renault Sport F1, begin their challenge in 2021, with Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon taking the wheel of the A521. They will sport a striking blue livery with dashes of red and white. The performance division of the French marquee, Alpine Racing, had a decent showing in 2020, finishing 5th in the Constructors' Standings.
Ricciardo left Alpine for McLaren in 2021 and got replaced by Fernando Alonso, the former Double World Champion. Alonso is well-versed with how the team operates and spent his most successful days in F1 here, so it is a win-win for both. Alonso's racecraft is hard to match, and the Spaniard can bring home unlikely results.
Ocon continues with Alpine for the second year and will only become better. The Frenchman is an exciting prospect and will capitalize when an opportunity comes. Team chemistry will be pivotal if Alpine desires to come out on top in the midfield battle. The A521 didn't have a great outing at the pre-season tests, with the team trying multiple things over the three days. They are yet to find the perfect setup and balance, and this will continue going into Practice for the Bahrain GP. Nevertheless, as a works team, they have the resources to fund their quest to make it back to the top.
Scuderia Ferrari F1 Team :
Ferrari had a torrid 2020, the team failing to win a race for the first time since 2014. The ban of their fuel flow sensor meant the engine was down on power. The team's focus was on improving downforce, and that added to their troubles. Vettel, who got replaced by Sainz, had a forgettable final year, a year mired with controversies and friction with the Team Principal.
2021 is a new beginning for the Maranello-based outfit as they try to make amends for the disappointments of 2020. They looked like the third-best team at the end of testing, the upgraded power unit reducing the straight-line speed deficit. The amount of mileage clocked by the drivers was also commendable.
Sainz joins forces with Leclerc in 2021. The Spaniard is one of the top drivers of the sport and will play a pivotal role in getting Ferrari back up. Leclerc, Ferrari's protegee, has already proved his worth and will enjoy preference at the start of the season. The Monegasque produced some unbelievable results in 2020 and will continue to build on those this year. Both Leclerc and Sainz are ambitious, and how the team manages the duo remains to be seen. Qualifying is one area that Ferrari will hope to address this year.
Victories might still be a challenge, but Ferrari should be a lot closer to those at the sharp end of the grid.
Scuderia Alpha Tauri F1 Team :
Alpha Tauri, Red Bull's sister team, had an exciting 2020 with a win for Pierre Gasly in Italy. Daniil Kvyat hadn't done enough to warrant him a drive, and the Russian got replaced by Honda protegee and F2 runner-up Yuki Tsunoda. The team's 2021 challenger AT02 clocked the same amount of mileage as the Alfa Romeo, and Gasly was ecstatic with the progress made. The Frenchman, who is now the team leader, had a trouble-free pre-season test. His younger team-mate Tsunoda suffered from multiple issues. The height differential between the two drivers led to problems with the pedals too. Nevertheless, the rookie was able to get up to speed quickly and was setting competitive lap times. Tsunoda has shown his calibre, rising rapidly from F4 to F1 in just four years.
Alpha Tauri has been going from strength to strength, and the data collected from the tests suggests that they could feature in the upper half of the field more often than not. The intra-team battle will also be a close affair, although I believe that Gasly will prevail, eventually.
Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen F1 Team :
Alfa Romeo had a disappointing 2020, the turned-down Ferrari power unit being the primary cause of their lack of performance. Fredric Vasseur, the team principal, tested positive for COVID-19 before the pre-season test, but that did not hamper the team's programs. They racked up a tally of 422 laps over three days, a sign of encouragement for them going into the opening round. The midfield was a tightly contested affair in 2020, and it seems like Alfa Romeo will be a part of that mix this year.
The team persisted with its lineup of Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi. The latter won the intra-team qualifying battle and scored the same number of points as Raikkonen. Raikkonen was more consistent at finishing races, and Giovinazzi would aim to do the same in 2021. The duo enjoys a healthy relationship, and this augurs well for the team. The team needs its drivers to qualify higher to better their chances on race day. The upgraded Ferrari power unit should add more substance to Alfa Romeo's challenge in 2021.
Haas F1 Team :
Haas F1 has been going backwards since the past few seasons and had a forgettable 2020. Haas bid goodbye to Magnussen and Grosjean, opting for an all-young lineup in Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher.
Mick Schumacher, the son of the legendary Michael Schumacher, won the F2 Championship last season. Mazepin, who was brilliant in parts in F2, brings in the financial influx that the team so desperately needs. His inclusion attracted a lot of criticism from the fans, especially after a controversial incident that happened over the winter. Nevertheless, the Russian would be hoping to correct the wrongs on track and help the team get further up the grid. Schumacher takes a couple of races to find his feet, but once he settles in, he is unstoppable, just as his father.
Haas' 2021 challenger faced a few gremlins on Friday but racked up some mileage on Saturday. However, based on the data collected from the tests, Haas was the slowest team and will remain a backmarker in 2021. Gaining experience is paramount for Haas' rookies. They need clean races, and slowly but surely, the team will make gains in 2021.
Williams Racing F1 Team :
Williams F1, under its new owners Dorilton Capital, will be looking to offload the tag of "backmarker" in 2021. The lack of sponsorships for the team means that the new owners need to be wise with their investments and set realistic targets.
The team has developed their 2021 challenger, the FW43B, with improved downforce, but its sensitivity to the wind can make or break their plans. George Russell and Nicolas Latifi renew their partnership for 2021, and Williams would be hoping to see them finish in the points more often, thanks to the improvements made in the car over the winter. Russell had an eventful 2020 and would hope to iron out the errors that cost him some valuable points. Latifi will aim for more consistency in 2021. The Bahrain GP would be a good indicator of their fortunes for 2021.
An exciting season awaits us in F1. The divide between Mercedes and Red Bull has reduced, and we could see a new champion at the end of 23 races. Iconic names like Aston Martin and Alpine will feature on the grid, and the midfield will feature a close contest again. It will be hard to predict who will win the "B" Championship.
Who can forget the return of a "Schumacher" to the grid! All eyes will be on young Mick to see how he matures and what he can accomplish in a Haas.
The pecking order will be clear after three or four races, but whatever that may be, we are just glad to have F1 return and return with a bang!
The battlegrounds change, the contenders change, but the goal remains the same - to Win and Lift the Crown!
Bring on 2021!