Although the 2021 Formula 1 season will see teams put out largely the same cars that they did in 2020, there are still multiple storylines to follow as the sport says goodbye to this era of regulations.
With Lewis Hamilton going for number eight, McLaren, Alpine and Aston Martin aiming high and Ferrari hoping to bounce back, the landscape could look very different in a year’s time.
Here are the top 10 things to look out for.
1. Alpine F1 and Fernando Alonso
Despite years of constant scepticism surrounding Cyril Abiteboul’s competence as managing director of Renault F1, he leaves behind a stable and progressing team that found both solid results and harmony in 2020. Renault heads into 2021 newly rebranded as Alpine F1 and has seen the exit of Daniel Ricciardo and Abiteboul, and the arrival of the two-time world champion Fernando Alonso and highly decorated long-time MotoGP guru Davide Brivio, for what has been deemed the biggest shake-up of any team on the grid, it’s borderline chaos. The Brivio/Alonso pairing is highly potent as both are championship calibre personnel looking to sink their teeth into the competition, and for good measure, the 2022 new regulations will result in another significant shakeup in the current order, bring it on.
2. Lando Norris vs Daniel Ricciardo
I won’t be missing any ‘McLaren Unboxed’ episodes on YouTube this year that’s for sure! Ricciardo who once danced to the YMCA in his race suit, Norris once caught headbanging to EDM while strapped into his Grand Prix car, and both being responsible for the funniest press conference to date during the 2019 British GP weekend; the talent/personality ratio at McLaren this year is at epic levels. Norris always spoke highly of his teammate Carlos Sainz and has already done so of Ricciardo. He has matured into a driver full of confidence, and despite a turbulent second half of 2020, he showed praise towards Sainz in his late-season surge. While McLaren enjoyed their best season since 2012, Ricciardo marched his lesser Renault challenger ahead of both McLaren’s in 2020 through exceptional consistency, stomping his authority in style on the midfield. McLaren have made all the right moves to advance their current position and have 2 drivers looking to deliver, look for a season-long straight dogfight with Aston Martin.
3. Charles Leclerc vs Carlos Sainz
It’s out with the old and in with the new at Ferrari. Having the oldest pairing of drivers only a handful of years ago, the Scuderia have moved to the youngest driver pairing in their illustrious F1 history. Sainz must make the best of his two-year contract and quickly exert position on team leader Charles Leclerc if he is to mitigate the vulnerability of a squeeze from Ferrari junior academy driver Mick Schumacher; a driver known for exceptional sophomore year performance’s who is embarking on his rookie season this year in the growingly Scuderia supported Haas challenger. The Leclerc/Sainz pairing is widely regarded as the strongest driver pairing heading into the 2021 season but ultimately it’s contingent on having a capable car under them to execute as another season of lacklustre results only having themselves to fight amongst is a likely reality in 2021 as Ferrari look to begin reversing the damage their performance loss of 2020. In an already unbalanced environment coupled by the pressure that one of the two current drivers will lose in Mick Schumacher’s anticipated promotion, it must be questioned, was the move from McLaren to Ferrari wise and properly thought out in the Sainz camp? as it already looks as though he’ll be the one without a seat when the music stops.
Racing Point had a better car than McLaren in 2020 and by a considerable sum as well, despite the points saying otherwise. Since the beginning of 2018; #NowWeCanFight, McLaren have been making impressive progress through to today, seeing year on year progress so bright that at times the numbers require sunglasses to analyze. While excitement surrounds their all-new MCL35M car powered by Mercedes, suggestions have been made that McLaren will fight Red Bull and challenge for wins but that is nothing more than pre-season hysteria. What is willfully being ignored in all of the excitement is how good the Renault power unit was in 2020 as it would be foolish to discount the merit of its participation in McLaren’s current success. The lukewarm performance of the 2014 McLaren challenger then powered by a Mercedes power unit that had a significant advantage over its rivals is direct evidence that it will take more than a Mercedes power unit to compete for wins. The reality is this, the McLaren MCL35M must be a proper evolution of last year’s MCL35 chassis, and any benefit of the Mercedes power unit will simply be the icing on the cake because direct rival Racing Point, now rebranded Aston Martin aren’t going to be standing still either. McLaren head into 2021 on schedule per Zak Brown’s five-year plan maybe not necessarily as a prospective winner but as a team looking to break the violence of today’s midfield warzone.
5. Aston Martin
Aston Martin move into 2021 with Mercedes hand-me-downs parts and get to so without the use of tokens. The potential strength of Aston Martin this year has been overlooked, perhaps even looked down the nose at by many for the wrong reasons. Lance Stroll and Sebastian Vettel are widely regarded as the worst driver pairing who famously came together in Malaysia 2017 and Monza 2019, and have the best opportunity to take advantage of what was clearly the 3rd strongest car in 2020. Both drivers are capable of delivering but Otmar Szafnauer & Co. need to clean it up as they get awarded the four worst calls of the season admittedly through the benefit of hindsight. The first took place during the Belgian Grand Prix when the entire field minus Pierre Gasly and Sergio Perez pit for the Antonio Giovinazzi crash was subsequently swallowed up by his rivals eventually finishing 10, which Perez would go on to openly question. In Mugello, Stroll fans watched in dismay as Racing Point appeared to sit back and spectate as Ricciardo undercut the third-placed Racing Point of Stroll. To Ricciardo’s credit he set the fastest combined in lap and out lap total time of any driver on the successful undercut, and 2.402 seconds faster than Stroll over the combined in lap and out lap total. In Imola, Perez inherited third position upon Max Verstappen’s tyre failure nearing the end of the race and immediately pit for tires. In what was a complete reversal of Spa, his rivals did not stop and Perez did not waste any time putting his team on blast in a post-race team radio exchange stating “another podium that we gave away”. During the Turkish Grand Prix, a decision to pit Stroll for new intermediate tires from the lead of the race ultimately disarmed Stroll of a good finishing position. It is very easy to rub salt in wounds but the reality is Aston Martin will not rival Red Bull or Mercedes making the level of mistakes we saw in 2020, and there is no reason why it shouldn’t be expected that Aston Martin ascend to the clear third-best team in 2021 ahead of McLaren.
6. Valtteri Bottas and ‘The Delta’
The disparity of results, in any scalable unit of measure between Lewis Hamilton and Valterri Bottas was so blatantly obvious in 2020 that it never really got the attention it deserved, not until the Sakhir Grand Prix anyways. It was his least comparable season to Lewis despite one stand out performance in Russia, punishing Lewis for a pre-race infraction, Bottas not only dominated the race but took the opportunity to openly express himself in what has become a somewhat routine post-race team radio exchange directed at his critics. While Russia was his best race of the year, there were several other opportunities for Bottas stand out against Hamilton but squandered every opportunity to do so. The wet Styria qualifying, the Italian Grand Prix, the Turkish Grand Prix and Sakhir are four standout instances like Russia where Bottas had genuine opportunities to showcase himself against Hamilton and of the five chances he not only failed but failed miserably to show substance. During the wet Styrian qualifying he was outclassed not only by Hamilton but by Verstappen and Sainz as well. During the opening lap of the Italian Grand Prix, he misdiagnosed a puncture as he plummeted through the order, and translated a good opportunity to significantly outscore Hamilton due to his mid-race time penalty, to only finish fifth ahead of Hamilton in seventh. Every driver struggled during the Turkish Grand Prix, and instead of putting in a solid performance, he put in easily the worst of his career against arguably the best of Hamilton’s career. The delta in performance alone at the Turkish GP is arguably the largest recorded between teammates in Formula One this century. Finally, during the Sakhir Grand Prix, George Russell was promoted to take the place of Hamilton who was absent due to testing positive for COVID-19. Pre-race attempts were made by both Bottas and Mercedes to defuse any potential comparison between Bottas and Russell, but when the lights went out, Russell thoroughly outclassed the Finn even going as far to pressure Bottas into a late-race mistake for a position. in 2017 Bottas vowed to take the title fight to Hamilton after replacing Nico Rosberg at Mercedes for 2017, in 2018 he vowed to raise his game after a year of mixed results. In 2019 Bottas vowed to come back fighting and ahead of 2020 vowed to come back even stronger, yet despite his own motivation the performance discrepancy; ‘the delta’, to Lewis is the greatest it’s ever been and needs a hard reset heading into 2021.
7. Red Bull, Honda, Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez
‘Cursed’, it was how Ricciardo described his seat at Red Bull in 2018, two drivers since have failed to reverse its crooked tale. The non-cursed version of the car by comparison currently piloted by Verstappen suffered multiple engine issues and a tire failure ruining any potential title fight all while Verstappen delivered at a championship calibre. New for 2021, Perez joins as Verstappen’s teammate, his strongest teammate since Ricciardo as Red Bull look set to have a driver pairing capable of pressuring their rivals Mercedes with a greater intensity of race day strategic chess. Also new is building eight, the location at Red Bull’s Milton Keynes facility where Red Bull Powertrains Limited will come to life. In the meantime, Honda have continued development of their 2020 package with the ambitions set out by technical director Toyoharu Tanabe to give the Red Bull and AlphaTauri one last final push. It’s going to require a fistful of more power and double that in reliability if Honda is to return to the ultimate goal of winning the constructors’ championship alongside Red Bull, not done since their partnership with McLaren in 1991.
8. Lewis Hamilton
Sir Lewis Hamilton and the odds of winning an eighth championship is so far slanted in his favour that there’s little to no value available betting on him. Another record-setting season dawns upon us as Hamilton looks to solidify his place in history as the best. Newly signed to an “unusual” one-year contract as described by Martin Brundle, the 36-year-old comes out of the 2020 season with a particularly strong showing, but penalties in the Italian Grand Prix, the Russian Grand Prix and multiple penalties during the Austrian Grand Prix dulled what could have very well been his strongest performance to date. The reality is that with the delay of the new regulations, and 2021 representing an evolution of 2020 for the majority of teams, it’s going to take an unprecedented shift of performance to stop Hamilton from an unprecedented eighth world drivers championship.
Despite general global COVID-19 hysteria consuming the globe last year, F1 managed to compete a commendable and unlikely 17 times without feeling unauthentic or deserving of an asterisk. As races became postponed and outright cancelled, new circuits were added that had not been visited in some time, or never at all. Being forced to push forward, a level of unpredictability and unfamiliarity of circuits helped instil some excitement that has been missing for some time. The thought of the virus being a one-year problem is reflective in F1’s 23-race provisionally set calendar ahead of the 2021 season. Unfortunately, F1 didn’t get to winter testing before changes began to take place in the schedule with more changes inevitable. COVID-19 continues to keep the world in disarray and the dizzying travel restrictions in place, there’s no promise that last years playbook will be of any beneficial use in 2021. There’s work ahead to fit F1’s eventual international schedule together as the pandemic rages on, 2020 proves it can and will happen, not just for F1, but for all sport on the international stage.
10. Stefano Domenicali
Stefano Domenicali meets the exact profile of Liberty Media but may lack the ruthlessness required for his position. Credit due, his work at Ferrari is admirable, one would hope this is the man that will reverse the depreciating essence of F1 racing and mend it with Liberty Media’s vision of closer, fairer racing and financial sustainability. In his one and only sizable controversy during the 2012 Indian Grand Prix weekend when Ferrari decided to use the Italian Navy flag on their car, Domenicali when called upon refused to get involved. Domenicali is a positive person who demonstrates positive behaviour but he will be called upon to answer on non-positive circumstances. Domenicali’s call for drivers to be more like role models in the wake of Nikita Mazepin’s controversy is the creation of a wall between him and the drivers as a way to deflect any poor decision making of drivers in the future. Drivers are already role models, that’s why Mazepin’s actions are so devastating and harmful to the sport and is already a foreshadowing of Domenicali’s hesitance to get involved in controversy. He’ll be front and centre when it comes to the Saudi Arabia Grand Prix dealings as that controversy is coming and won’t simply be deflected. Ultimately Domenicali’s leadership of Ferrari’s F1 program symbolizes good faith and passion for motorsport in general and should resonate positively within the F1 community. But when his first push for change parallels the poor decision making that the teams spent 2020 fighting against it must be questioned, is he simply a corporate veil to soften the blow and push for Liberty Media’s already established agenda? A man of his stature must have a better idea than a Saturday Sprint race as his first offering for change. In any case, it is his first year, and with that, he surely deserves the elbow room required to do his best work. There should be no reason why this man cannot lead F1 into a successful sustainable future.
Oh and PS: Grosjean and Ericsson in Indycar, who writes this stuff?