Formula 1 2021 Season Preview

Twenty drivers from ten teams are ready to throw down the gauntlet and fight for the ultimate prize in motorsport, the Formula 1 World Championship.

With big driver changes, new tracks, potential new race formats and updated regulations aimed at making the racing as close as ever 2021 promises to be a rollercoaster ride.

New tracks:

2021 will see the debut of the world’s fastest street circuit as Saudi Arabia becomes the 33rd country to host a Formula 1 Grand Prix in Jeddah in November. There’ll be sea spray in the air when Zandvoort returns to motorsport’s top echelon, the Dutch Grand Prix is back in the fold for the first time since Niki Lauda won there for McLaren in 1985. On top of that both Imola and Portimão return following their successful substitute appearances last year in what will be a record breaking 23 race calendar.

New technical specifications:

With Formula 1’s next generation cars delayed until 2022 due to the Coronavirus pandemic and stability in the regulations it’s tempting to think nothing has changed over the winter but that couldn’t be further from the truth. New technical specifications will see a reduction in downforce equating to around a second per lap with big changes mandated to the design of the floor, brake duct winglets and the diffuser fences all reducing the amount of suction generated by the underside of the cars. A change in the minimum weight also makes the 2021 challengers around 11kg heavier than in their previous incarnations.

Pirelli have enhanced the integrity of new tyre compounds to more fully withstand the demands of the world’s fastest cars. Tyre choice is gone for this year with teams receiving a standardised allocation of tyres and there’s a new sliding scale for aerodynamic testing, simply put the lower a team finished last year the more time they will get in the wind tunnel to develop their aerodynamics and help them catch up. These rules come in as part of the introduction of a cost cap, an attempt to close the gap between the richest teams and those chasing over the coming years to create more exciting racing.

The teams:

Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team

The turbo-hybrid era’s most dominant team Mercedes are hunting an unprecedented eight successive Constructors’ Championship in 2021. Lewis Hamilton ruled the roost in 2020 and with stability in the regulations logic dictates that nothing can stop the Brackley based juggernaut from repeating the feat this time around but it looks like they won’t have it all their own way.

Stability has been the hallmark of Mercedes’ success with the key trio of Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas and team boss Toto Wolff under new contracts, the latter increasing his ownership share in the team to 33.3%, their solid foundations look set to continue. Engine maestro Andy Cowell has now departed though with Hywel Thomas taking over the reins of development at their powertrain facility at Brixworth.

Resplendent again in their black livery the new W12E performance looks the part and an upgraded power unit will likely again be the class of the field. But mandated changes to the car’s floor may have upset their rhythm. A new low-rake philosophy is in contrast to that of rivals Red Bull and a potential lack of rearward bias downforce may make it so that they can no longer carry such an aggressive setup on the front without it overwhelming the rear of the car on corner entry.

Red Bull have made great strides in the offseason and now have two Grand Prix winners behind the wheel to challenge for victories. Mercedes will need all of Hamilton and Bottas’ vast experience to keep their noses in front but after three days of testing in Bahrain it was still unclear if we had seen their true 2021 performance as both Hamilton as Bottas struggled to maximise handling and performance. They were still ahead in long run pace but slightly behind Red Bull on the short stints. Bottas called the new car snappy and unforgiving and while Toto Wolff says the team have found a hair in the soup whether or not they can turn around the required improvements before the start of the season remains a mystery.

There’s no denying Mercedes look strong again but they may have to contend with not being outright frontrunners for the first time in a while. They undoubtedly have the technical talent to fix their issues before the opening race and more than anything the pedigree and winning mentality following seven successive team titles. It is hard not to imagine Mercedes overcoming these early challenges before recording yet another championship win.

Red Bull Racing 

The Bulls were charging in pre-season and for the first time in the turbo-hybrid era there is a genuine feeling they might be able to match Mercedes for power and performance on a regular basis and potentially mount a challenge for the championship.

Christian Horner remains at the helm with Pierre Waché as technical director but it is the signing of Sergio Perez that marks the biggest change, the first time in a decade that Red Bull have fished outside of their own talent pool for a new driver. Max Verstappen remains one of the most highly rated drivers on the grid and will be targeting a championship challenge, but Perez’s consistency and expertise with tyre management could be just whats been missing over the past couple of seasons and he’ll be chomping at the bit ahead of this first season in a title contending car and will have designs of his own on race wins.

Verstappen was the first driver to spin in pre-season testing but fears of a return to the skittishness of 2020 proved unfounded, the RB16B was stable and very quick. Visually similar to its predecessor it has a slightly refined nose and subtly reshaped side pods but beneath the engine cover Red Bull are hiding something special. The 2022 spec Honda power unit was fast tracked for debut this year due to the manufacturer’s planned exit from F1 at the end of the season. They now seem to have the speed and reliability of a potentially championship winning formula.

If Red Bull’s car is as good as commentators think managing the relationship between the drivers will be a challenge. Verstappen’s talents are worthy of a World Championship but Perez is no slouch and should be expected to push the Dutchman hard. If they’re both in a position to win we could see some fireworks not seen since the days of Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber.

Although testing has lead to false dawns in the past there’s no doubt Red Bull’s three days were very impressive with Verstappen stating it was his best pre-season yet. They were certainly quickest on short run pace and only slightly behind Mercedes on the longer stints. So good did the Bulls look in Bahrain that the seven time and defending World Champion Lewis Hamilton had to concede that the Silver Arrows will have a real fight on their hands this season. If they do then it promises to be an exciting watch.

McLaren F1 Team

Everything’s working well in Woking. Third in the Constructors’ Championship last season, McLaren’s new MCL35M doesn’t just look good, it’s fast, furious and was faultless in pre-season testing.

Losing Carlos Sainz to Ferrari could have been a stumbling block but they’ve filled the Spaniard’s seat with a proven Grand Prix winner in Daniel Ricciardo. The former Red Bull and Renault man brings experience and flair while young superstar Lando Norris begins his third season with the team. Leadership remains largely unchanged with team principal Andreas Seidl reporting to CEO Zak Brown and James Key now in his third season as technical lead.

The biggest change since 2020 is that Mercedes power is driving the McLarens this year and their reliability in pre-season testing was all the more impressive as a result. Spotting a loophole in the technical regulations they’ve come up with a unique diffuser design increasing the size of the end fences around the gearbox casing. It caused a lot of discussion in Bahrain with some questioning its legality but McLaren believe their solution is sound and have expressed surprise that they were the only team to realise and exploit the opportunity.

McLaren will need a good start to the season as others are likely to copy their diffuser and catch up. Famed for his bold and confident overtaking moves Riccardo admits he’s not totally comfortable with the braking limits of the new car which will add to the pressure of maximising their early potential especially in qualifying trim.

Both drivers spent time at the top of the leaderboard in pre-season and while we don’t know their ultimate pace we can be confident that the package is strong. On short run pace they were up there with the Mercedes works team and so we should see them fighting to consolidate their status as third best on the grid at least with their sights set on a return to the top step of the podium.

Aston Martin Cognizant F1 Team 

Rebranded and revitalised Aston Martin return to Formula 1 with four time World Champion Sebastian Vettel taking a leap of faith and joining the outfit formerly known as Racing Point, a team that have always punched above their weight but now have the resources to make a major impact.

Vettel’s expertise and skill should push his ever improving teammate Lance Stroll to greater heights and the driver lineup should mean there are no issues building on last year’s success which saw Stroll on pole in Turkey and a victory for Sergio Perez in Sakhir. The Silverstone based team are investing heavily in new facilities as they build a new HQ and will continue with largely the same backroom staff, Otmar Szafnauer remains CEO and team principal working alongside technical director Andrew Green.

According to F1 technical expert Sam Collins the AMR21 is the only really new car on the grid for 2021. With a brand new chassis and crash structure they’ve spent the winter working to recover the downforce loss created by the technical regulation changes with the main focus on aerodynamics with completely new side pods and an upgrade on the rear suspension to the 2020 spec Mercedes design and new break ducts trialed at the pre-season test in Bahrain.

Despite the high points of 2020 inconsistency was their downfall last season as McLaren overhauled them for third place in the Constructors’ Championship. Their 2021 focus will be on maximising reliability and though they struggled during pre-season the team are confident they’ve got to the bottom of their issues already and they’ll need to be straight on it in round one if they want to keep ahead of Alpine and a resurgent Ferrari.

Data showed they were around third quickest on long run pace in Bahrain and flashes of rapid short run speed too suggesting their testing woes may not herald disaster. Vettel says he found his first forays in the AMR21 really productive and with the budget to develop the car they’ll have their sights set on returning to the podium on a regular basis.

Alpine F1 Team

There’s a new look and feel to the team formally known as Renault. Yellow and black gives way to red, white and electric blue as the Enstone outfit relaunches as Apline. But there’s more to their 2021 challenge than just a fresh paint job – they’ve been ringing in the changes all over.

Having had his greatest success with Renault two time World Champion Fernando Alonso returns partnering Esteban Ocon and the team’s new reserve driver adds huge Grand Prix experience in the form of Daniil Kvyat. Cyril Abiteboul has departed but the team have elected not to replace him with a new team principal. New racing director Davide Brivio joins from the MotoGP championship winning Suzuki team overseeing the F1 operation with executive director Marcin Budkowski.

The A521 will be the only Renault powered car on the grid. According to the team every part of the power unit that has not been homologated has been improved or redesigned, most strikingly there’s been a reduction in the size of the side pods and a consequent enlarging of the air box. With engine development focused on 2022 we’re unlikely to witness a huge increase in pace and power but with one of F1’s greatest racers back in the monocoque we should see Alpine challenge again for podium places and hopefully more as they continue their upward trajectory.

Fifth in the Constructors’ Championship last season, Renault were always in the fight for third but just missed out. They’ll be looking to improve this year but they’ll be hard pressed by the Mercedes powered Aston Martins and Mclarens and a Ferrari works team looking to bounce back after their worst season in 40 years. Even staying still will be a huge achievement but Alpine want more. With Alonso’s experience leading the line alongside one of F1’s brightest young stars in Ocon there’s every chance they can get the job done.

Alpine’s three days testing in Bahrain was solid, reliable and trouble free and early data suggests on short run pace they’re only a fraction behind Mercedes and McLaren. With the battle so tight it will be tiny margins of performance that decide the fortunes of this revamped and revitalised team in 2021.

Scuderia Ferrari Mission Winnow

After Ferrari’s worst season since 1980 finishing just sixth in the Championship no other team received such anticipation for their 2021 car reveal. With two of the fastest young drivers on the grid in Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz and a restructured technical department Ferrari hope to turn their fortunes and challenge the top teams once again in 2021.

Sainz’s outstanding performances in this two year stint with McLaren convinced team principal Mattia Binotto the Spaniard was the perfect man to accompany Leclerc who will start his third year at the team making it their youngest driver lineup since 1968. A huge technical shakeup means the heads of chassis, power unit, racing and supply chain departments will now all report directly to Binotto with an aim to create more effective and efficient communications in the pursuit of maximum performance.

After fundamentally lacking straight line speed last season the SF21 has an all new power unit which the team say has delivered very promising dyno figures so their speed trap struggles should be a thing of the past. The car has also had a total aerodynamic overhaul with a redesigned front nose section and changes made to the rear to improve stability among hundreds of small changes the Scuderia hope will translate into gains in lap time.

Restoring pride to Maranello will be Ferrari’s biggest challenge in 2021. After scoring only 131 point last year compared to 504 in 2019 Binotto is confident that the SF21 has improved in all areas, the drivers’ feedback on handling has been positive but the boss remains cautious about their fortunes: “I think overall the car has improved but again it’s always relative to the others and I think it’s too early to be making assessments. Only over the next couple of weeks will we fully understand.”

Ferrari’s changes behind the scenes cannot be underestimated, their restructure will need time to bed in and aero changes need more running to be optimised but they had a successful pre-season test with Sainz being third fastest overall and have shown glimpses already that they might reap the rewards from addressing hard-hitting lessons from 2020. Formula 1’s most famous team is ready to fight back.

Scuderia AlphaTauri Honda Racing

After the strong season in 2020 and that sensational Pierre Gasly win in Monza AlphaTauri is on a positive trajectory and aiming to race to the top of the midfield rankings.

The Italian team welcomes F2’s rookie of the year Yuki Tsunoda to partner Gasly who has the strongest season of his F1 career under his belt. Franz Tost who remains the team principal for an incredible 15th season is excited by the lineup and with his vast experience in blooding young talent he’ll be expecting big things of both drivers. There are also no changes in the technical department that’s going to continue to be lea by the highly respected Jody Egginton.

The AT02 has retained its 2019 spec Red Bull rear suspension and the team have opted to use their two development tokens to rebuild their nose and front suspension as well as adding a brand new Honda power unit. The team have worked hard on widening the car’s aerodynamic operating window over the winter in order to optimise performance on a wider range of circuits. These developments showed exciting results in pre-season testing as Tsuonda recorded the second fastest time of all and was only outperformed by Max Verstappen’s Red Bull. While that result might not be fully representative the team completed the most laps of anyone alongside Alfa Romeo to show their new car has good handling, strong speed and crucially a reliable base to build from.

AlphaTauri’s performance last year was strong but they still missed out on their pre-2020 target of finishing fifth in the constructors’ standings. Tost remains ambitious and wants his squad to be mixing it at the sharper end of the midfield with regular Q3 appearances and challenging for podiums. They have all the elements in place to push themselves higher up the grid but will need to be relentlessly consistent to regularly outperform the likes of Alpine, Aston Martin and Ferrari.

Gasly is now one of the top drivers in Formula 1 and Tsunoda has already shown that he is worthy of a place among the best drivers in the world. If those two can gel and the team can make the most of what looks to be a quality new car, AlphaTauri could be a force to be reckoned with in 2021.

Alfa Romero Racing ORLEN

Alfa Romeo had many high points during 2020, regularly fighting for points and making it into Q3, but they were left wanting more after finishing eight in the championship. However, with a consistent driver lineup, an upgraded Ferrari engine and some interesting design tweaks we might see a more positive turn of events for the Swiss based team.

F1’s most experienced racer Kimi Raikkonen and the ever improving Antonio Giovinazzi begin their third season together while former F1 winner Robert Kubica rejoins the squad as their reserve driver. The remaining key players are unchanged with Frédéric Vasseur returning as team principal and Jan Monchaux continuing as technical director.

Besides following the 2021 regulations and adapting the car’s floor and diffuser areas the team has introduced an altered nose on the new C41 that appears slimmer and more streamlined. Aesthetically the car looks similar to the C39, but under the skin much hope rests on the performance of an upgraded Ferrari power unit. The early signs are good though and their pre-season test performance was strong with the car completing a mammoth 422 laps – the joint most of all teams along with AlphaTauri.

In terms of targets Vasseur has his sights set on the top of the midfield but remains a realist committed to the long term goal and marginal gains that have stabilised the team since he took over. “The philosophy is always the same that we have to do a better job tomorrow than today, meaning that we are p8 this season we have to target to achieve a better result for next year’ said Vasseur ahead of testing. Alfa Romeo have one of the smallest budgets in F1 but if the power unit delivers they can be genuinely optimistic of reaching new heights at the hands of two talented and reliable drivers.

Testing has given Alfa Romeo real hope and Raikkonen’s completion of nearly three full grand prix distances on the final day and positive comments about the car’s handling should not be ignored. Their slow and steady development approach might just be what can take the Swiss team back towards the front of the Formula 1 grid.

Uralkali Haas F1 Team 

Haas are back with a complete rebrand and a brand new driver lineup. After a difficult 2020 season where they finished just ahead of Williams and with one eye on 2022 and two rookies at the wheel Haas enter the 2021 season with cautious expectations.

A new partnership has been struck by Gene Haas with the company part-owned by Nikita Mazepin’s father Dmitry. Mazepin joins the team for his first season in F1 after finishing fifth in Formula 2 last year and is partnered by reigning F2 champion Mick Schumacher, son of seven time World Champion Michael. Pietro Fitapaldi who stood in for Romain Grosjean in the last two races of 2020 will again be the team’s reserve driver.

On the technical front the team have recruited Ferrari’s former head of chassis engineering Simone Resta as technical director while Guenther Steiner resumes his role as the team principal.

Haas have been explicit that the team’s focus is solely on the new regulation incoming in 2022 meaning the FV21 hasn’t been developed too much for the 2021 season beyond the mandatory changes to the floor and break duct wiglets. The car features a fully overhauled colour scheme and a new Ferrari 066 power unit is in place that should be much stronger than last year giving Haas hope that they can once again challenge other teams for points in the midfield scrap.

With only three points earned last year the pressure is really on to do better but with two rookie drivers at the wheel, in part signed in order to insure the financial future of the team remains strong, their focus must be on getting them up to speed as quickly as possible. Both are experienced in the junior categories but there will be no room for error in Formula 1. The team has acknowledged their decision not to develop the 2021 car will likely affect their challenges of competing but don’t rule out this team of racers springing a surprise.

Haas weren’t the strongest in pre-season testing and may face a difficult year ahead, but with two bright young stars at the wheel and a long term plan to get them back towards the front of the grid the future looks bright for F1’s one and only American outfit.

Williams Racing 

2020 wasn’t the year Williams had hoped for. For the first time in their history they ended the season without a single point but the team’s future looks bright following Dorilton Capital’s take over from the Williams family.

Although the team’s driver lineup hasn’t changed with George Russell and Nicolas Latifi going into their second season as teammates there’s a lot of fresh blood behind the scenes. The new owners have brought in Jost Capito as CEO and have made Simon Roberts appointment as team principal permanent and have appointed former Williams driver Jenson Button as a senior advisor.

Roberts says their car is a big change under the skin with the livery also having a big makeover to create the FW43B. The striped blue and yellow design pays homage to the Williams family and Sir Frank who founded the team in 1977, with a hint of yellow reminiscent of their glory days in the 80s and 90s.

Underneath the bonnet Williams have a new gearbox, supplied by Mercedes, as well as continuing to use their power unit. The transfer of parts from the German outfit marks a new era for the team who have previously been fiercely independent. Although the full impact of the partnership might not break new ground this season it will certainly give the grove based team a boost when they start working on their 2022 car.

Scoring a point has to be the main objective. Despite Russell’s brilliance in qualifying the team agonisingly finished eleventh four times across the season, just one position shy of where they needed to be. Simon Roberts has acknowledged the team won’t make a huge jump up the grid but they’ll have their sights set on brining themselves back permanently into the midfield scrap where anything can happen.

With new leadership, financial support and technical setup things are slowly starting to look up. 2021 may not be a return to the glory days for Williams but a new philosophy might give these thoroughbred racers a chance to build themselves back one step closer to where they belong.

New race format:

Formula 1, the FIA and the ten teams have offered ‘broad support’ to proposals to introduce a new qualifying format – in the form of a Saturday sprint race – at selected Grands Prix this season.

Under the proposal for three chosen weekends, qualifying would take place a day earlier, replacing Practice Two on Friday, and that would set the grid for Saturday’s sprint race.

As well as offering reduced championship points for the top eight finishers, the outcome of that shorter race would determine the starting grid for the usual Sunday Grand Prix.

The Canadian, Italian and Brazilian GPs – venues known for fast and exciting racing – have been targeted as the 2021 events where the ‘sprint’ format could be trialled, with a view to using it more widely next year.

These sprint races have yet to be officially confirmed so watch this space.

Race Calendar:

The ongoing Coronavirus pandemic has impacted the race calendar with the traditional season opening race in Australia being moved until later in the year. Here is the calendar for the recording breaking 23 race season as things stand.

  • Round 1: Bahrain Grand Prix, March 26-28
  • Round 2: Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, Imola, April 16-18
  • Round 3: Portuguese Grand Prix, April/May 30-02
  • Round 4: Spanish Grand Prix, May 07-09
  • Round 5: Monaco Grand Prix, May 20-23
  • Round 6: Azerbaijan Grand Prix, June 04-06
  • Round 7: Canadian Grand Prix, June 11-13
  • Round 8: French Grand Prix, June 25-27
  • Round 9: Austrian Grand Prix, July 02-04
  • Round 10: British Grand Prix, July 16-18
  • Round 11: Hungarian Grand Prix, July/August 30-01
  • Round 12: Belgian Grand Prix, August 27-29
  • Round 13: Dutch Grand Prix, September 03-05
  • Round 14: Italian Grand Prix, September 10-12
  • Round 15: Russian Grand Prix, September 24-26
  • Round 16: Singapore Grand Prix, October 01-03
  • Round 17: Japanese Grand Prix, October 08-10
  • Round 18: United States Grand Prix, October 22-24
  • Round 19: Mexican Grand Prix, October 29-31
  • Round 20: Brazilian Grand Prix, November 05-07
  • Round 21: Australian Grand Prix, November 19-21
  • Round 22: Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, December 03-05
  • Round 23: Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, December 10-12

Last season’s standings:

 

Marking The Spot will be here brining you full qualifying results, race reports and all the latest news as it happens.

There’ll be fights, tears, drama and excitement. We’ve got rebranded teams, young drivers with something to prove and a few others with plenty more to give.

Drivers rested, cars tested, the lights go out for race one this Sunday in Bahrain.

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