By John Cartin
Pre-season testing has wrapped up and helmets, liveries and logos have been revealed: the only thing left to wait for is the 2021 season opener in Bahrain on March 28. Coming off the back of a standout season (both for the dominance of certain teams, unexpected wins for others and the feat of achieving a season at all in a global pandemic), we head into a 23-race year that could prove to be one of Formula 1’s most memorable seasons to date. So, what exactly is it that we should be keeping an eye on?
Another masked season – or back to normal?
After the global shockwave of coronavirus stopping any possibility of racing in early 2020, Formula 1 was able to deliver a full season of racing from July with astonishing safety and success. Bar the occasional driver testing positive mid-season with exciting shuffles to the tune of Hulkenberg and Russell, the paddock was a secure unit. However, with a much more ambitious 23-race schedule for this year and several drivers getting infected during the offseason due to, er, holidaying in Dubai against all advice, questions must be asked about if the same success can be achieved this season. On the more hopeful side, questions can also be asked about potential returns for fans as nations vaccinate and continue to drop. This author hasn’t yet stumped up for Silverstone tickets, but as the days go by, the assurance of a full refund in case of COVID-19 cancellation looks less and less necessary.
New colours, new faces
Some of the most obvious changes involve the rebranding of two outfits, and the arrival of three new faces (alongside one old familiar). Alpine and Aston Martin enter the world of Grand Prix racing as close adversaries, with two-time world drivers champion Fernando Alonso returning to the French outfit under its stunning new colours. Further down the grid three entirely fresh faces break into F1: Yuki Tsunoda joins AlphaTauri, a rising star having spent just one season in F2 before being promoted, and both Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin join Haas. Questions remain about all these changes; can Mick live up to his father’s legacy as one of the greats? Is Nikita Mazepin ready to be an F1 driver, in the face of previous immaturity and misconduct? Was Tsunoda’s selection influenced by the Red Bull relationship with Honda, and can he bring the fight to his standout teammate Pierre Gasly? Can Alonso live up to his previous successes and has he recovered from a cycling accident pre-season? We might not see the answers to this until a few races in, but expect to see intense battles as the new guard scrap to prove their worth.
No such thing as a midfield
Alpine and Aston Martin emerge into a hotly contested field of teams, having finished 5th and 4th respectively last year under their old names. Alpine’s chief technical engineer was quoted by formula1.com as saying “It’s not a midfield anymore, it’s a field”, and you’d be hard-pressed to disagree based on the testing run in Bahrain. Last year, you could reasonably categorise the teams into three rough categories: the backmarkers were Williams, Haas, and Alfa Romeo, with Mercedes and Red Bull at the top and everyone else in a varying midfield. This year be prepared for some major shakeups in the order. Thanks to a much-improved Ferrari engine, Alfa Romeo will aim to improve their standing of 8th in 2021, while AlphaTauri have a beefed-up Honda power unit and potentially one of the strongest line-ups. Ferrari have gained in Carlos Sainz a determined driver, eager for a first win having been denied in Monza last year and will aim to recover from their worst season since 1980. McLaren look to have built a seriously strong car, with an intriguing diffuser neatly swerving some regulation downforce losses and will be determined to hold onto P3 with two excellent podium-capable drivers. Battles for critical constructors standing (which will influence not only prize money earnings but wind tunnel development) could go to the last races and just maybe the very last corner.
Cash is King
While McLaren may have done well to avoid downforce loss aimed at by the regulations, no team could avoid the other aspect: an almost-all inclusive budget cap of $145 million (£119m) for teams. The dual aim of lessening the financial impact of Covid-19 and equalizing the field will have naturally hit bigger teams such as Mercedes and Ferrari harder, and while the Brackley-based Mercedes may have avoided some impact by starting development on this year’s car early, they won’t be able to do so as effectively going forward. The effects of this change may take longer to filter in, but watch out for early signs of difficulty for teams used to a larger purse, and opportunities for smaller units to snatch any advantage they can get.
The Hamilton effect: breaking barriers on and off track
Despite these financial changes and some testing wobbles, the obvious favourites for WCC and WDC are still Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton – who could have won his team the constructor’s title with his points alone last season (sorry, Bottas). Hamilton is aiming for a record eighth drivers title, which along with other records on most points scored, pole positions achieved, and races won would put him as the unparalleled greatest to ever do it. Not satisfied with that, naturally, he’s also put his mind to eliminating racism within the sport and advocating for pushing the organisational bodies into making their world more accessible and equal. It seems so long ago that Hamilton was one of the few voices to call for the Australian GP to be cancelled as a danger to fans and teams. Don’t expect him to be silent on the issues of racing in countries with abhorrent human rights records and sports-washing for dictatorships. Lewis has been an inspiration since he became the first black driver to win a Grands Prix, and he’s more determined than ever to leave his legacy in not just speaking out, but in leaving his mark on the sport he has made his own.
Image: Jen_Ross83 via Creative Commons