The 2021 season is upon us so it’s time to explore what awaits when the lights go out in Bahrain. Will Hamilton drive off into the desert night and immediately stamp his authority on the championship, or is Max about to make this season one for the ages? If the recent three day test in Bahrain is anything to go by, 2021 could be amazing. Like any of the previous 40 years in which I’ve been a genuine card carrying hard core F1 fan, intrigue abounds up and down the grid. Other than a proposed 10% reduction in downforce to the floor area in an attempt to slow the cars from achieving what seems like Mach 1 at corner entry, the ‘21 machines will be mostly updated versions of their 2020 designs. Historically during times of stability in the rulebook often comes closer competition. Yes, I recognize that we have a Mercedes problem, but I always approach March full of optimism. Here then is a look at each team on the grid based on their 2020 finishing order.
Mercedes: Nothing in life is certain except death, taxes and Mercedes hybrid powered cars winning F1 world titles, so I feel pretty certain that Lewis Hamilton will become the first 8-time champion in the illustrious history of the sport that began crowning a drivers champion in 1950. It may not be the easy Sunday cruise that we’ve become accustomed to, but Lewis has been lobbying for more competition over the years, so his wishes may just come true. Mercedes are just one of three teams bringing back the same driver lineup, so I’m not expecting any change in the pecking order. Bottas is quick, but Lewis is slightly quicker and is superior when it comes to tire management and dealing with adverse conditions. I see no reason why this duo won’t do the business of winning an 8th straight constructors title, but the elephant in the room will be the subject of drivers for ‘22. George Russell is clearly lurking in the background after his stellar stand in performance for a Covid stricken Hamilton, so could this be the final hurrah for Lewis after prolonged off season contract negotiations only resulted in a one year deal? Or will this be the last chance for Bottas to drive for arguably the greatest team ever assembled? As the season progresses, if either driver is struggling, the calls for Russell will escalate which may just prove to be the undoing of this seemingly unbreakable juggernaut. One can only hope! For my money, I say cast them both aside and start ‘22 fresh with Max and Russell.
(Quiz #1 – True or False: Mercedes has more F1 wins than Williams.)
Red Bull: Will this be the year that RBR produces a car that gives Max a fighting chance right out of the box? Max was clearly the ‘21 “Battle In The Sand” testing champion, so we’ll see if it translates to early wins. It’s become standard practice for the Mercedes factory to outclass the RBR factory over the winter, causing RBR to spend the year playing catch up. Credit to RBR, they do a nice job of clawing back a few tenths over the course of a season, but it’s not a recipe to defeat Lewis Hamilton. It must be so frustrating for Max, who I still firmly believe is in the all-time great class. That said, I would love to see how Max would cope with the pressure that comes with fighting for a title. Pressure can do funny things to people and Max seems like the fiery type, so it would make for a great human psychological study. On the other side of the garage, a very interesting experiment is about to take place. In the hope of bolstering Max’s chances to fight Mercedes, RBR have brought in Sergio Perez, a true master of the art of tire management, to essentially run a close 4th place and keep the undercut/overcut game in play for an entire race. Perez is an excellent driver, but having only three days total in the car and then being told to stay within a few seconds of Max and the Mercs is a tall order. I’m predicting that Checo adapts better than the previous two RBR academy drivers who were thrown into the fire and couldn’t take the heat, but I’m thinking his Sundays will be spent trying to keep the likes of Leclerc, Danny Ric, Alonso and Vettel at bay rather than finding a way past Bottas. I hope he proves me wrong.
(Quiz #2 – Who has more wins, Max or Gerhard Berger?)
McLaren: I’m not sure why this iconic team seemed to hit rock bottom after their Honda engine fiasco, but credit to Zak Brown for righting the ship and bringing them back to the front of the grid. Flush with an injection of cash from American based MSP Sports Capital, McLaren are the only team undergoing an engine manufacture change heading into the season as they reunite with Mercedes, so it will be fascinating to see how the McLaren-Mercedes-Ricciardo partnership comes together. On paper it sounds like a podium threat. For Ricciardo, it’s likely his final chance to show the world that he’s a title contender. The move from Red Bull to Renault didn’t pan out, so it will be interesting to see if the move to McLaren is a step up or a lateral move. I’ll be rooting for more McLaren-Mercedes magic, such as we witnessed in ‘98 & ‘99 when Mika Hakkinen won back to back titles. Paired with Danny Ric will be Lando Norris entering year three, all with McLaren. I feel like this is the year that Lando needs to show he’s a primetime player. He definitely improved last year in comparison to then teammate Carlos Sainz, winning the qualifying battle 9-8 and scoring 97pts vs 105pts for Sainz. But if Lando is to be considered a big contract guy in the coming years, he needs to assert himself and make life miserable for Danny Ric. I’m seeing both cars making it to Q3 on a regular basis and fighting for the F1.5 title.
(Quiz #3 – Who has the most starts in a McLaren F1 car?)
Aston Martin: Talk about an amazing transformation. Just a few months ago this very team had a pink car, a terrible name and a lead driver named Checo. Now as they roll up their garage doors and reveal a car in a lovely shade of British racing green, they are known as Aston Martin Racing and are led by a driver with 53 wins and 4 world titles. Does it get more Posh? Poor Otmar Szafnauer was replaced by James Bond and Tom Brady in launching the AMR21 that Lawrence Stroll hopes will make him a legitimate player in the exclusive F1 owners club. Whatever the name, this is an excellent racing team and this is their first opportunity in years to show what they are capable of. The question mark I have surrounds the strength of their driver pairing. A happy Vettel is a quick Vettel, but he loses interest quickly when things don’t go his way and the unforced mistakes start piling up quickly. Lance has proven that he’s a legitimate professional racing driver, but my guess is if the team principals were to hold a driver draft like you see in other professional sports, he would be picked in the bottom 6 of the 20 driver field. I think a best case scenario is they find a setup that allows Vettel to chase 4th place finishes in the loaded midfield while Lance consistently comes home in the top ten and they retain 4th in the constructors championship.
(Quiz #4 – Who had more podiums in 2020, Vettel or Stroll?)
Alpine: Similar to Racing Point, the Renault team have gone through a rebranding and are now calling themselves Alpine, bringing to mind some incredibly cool rally cars and Le Mans prototypes from the ‘60’s and 70’s. Also returning to the team is the living legend, the only man to win a title for Renault, the one and only Ferando Alonso Diaz! Will the 40 year old Alonso, two years removed from driving F1 cars, still be able to deliver the goods? My dream is for a mid-pack battle royal featuring Alonso, Leclerc, Danny Ric, Vettel and Sainz. For Esteban Ocon, this will be the defining season of his young career. Matched with Perez at Force India, he looked like a potential future world champion. However, racing alongside Danny Ric last year at Renault after 1 season out of the cockpit, he looked very ordinary. We know that Alonso historically has destroyed his teammates, so this will be Ocon’s big chance. Succeed and he can be a national hero driving for the national team, fail and the calls for Pierre Gasly will be coming. Overseeing this Gallic affair is none other than Davide Brivio, the man who oversaw Suzuki’s shock run to the MotoGP world title this past season. It’s a very interesting personnel move that will be worth watching, as I imagine it takes a strong personality to keep that crew in line. Flavio must be chuckling in a haze of cigarette smoke in his yacht somewhere off the coast of Portofino.
(Quiz #5 – Name Alan Prost’s Renault teammate for the 1983 season)
Ferrari: For the sake of sport, let’s hope Ferrari doesn’t have a repeat of last season’s abhorrent 6th in the constructors championship. Not only did they look like they were towing a parachute down the straights, the car also looked like a handful to drive. It took all of Leclerc’s brilliance just to finish 8th in the points. So what can we expect with the predecessor to the SF1000? I think anything less than 3rd in the constructors championship has to be considered a failure considering the budget and strength of drivers. On the subject of drivers, it will be fascinating to see if Sainz will be asked to play the Irvine, Rubens, Massa role in support of Leclerc. It’s a formula that has worked well for the Scuderia in the past so Carlos may only have a handful of races to prove he’s a contender before being asked to take one for the team. If this package doesn’t work, wow, I would love to be a fly on the wall in the offices of Maranello. In the name of Gilles Villeneuve, risolvere immediatamente il problema!
(Quiz #6 – Who has more wins for Ferrari: Massa or Rubens?)
Alpha Tauri: It was pretty cool to see Helmut Marko’s infamous F1 driver finishing school win a race and legitimately join the midfield in ‘20. Keep in mind, this is the same team that was once Minardi. With Pierre Gasly returning they now find themselves in a bit of a conundrum. It’s been well chronicled how he performed poorly alongside Max at the big brother Red Bull team, but he’s been amazing since returning to the junior squad. So good that this small Italian based team won the Italian GP and finished just 24 points shy of Ferrari! So what to do with Gasly? I guess the answer will come from how well Perez performs and how well their juniors fare in F2 this year. In keeping with tradition though, Marko fired Daniel Kvyat for about the 3rd time and is bringing in Honda protég Yuki Tsunoda. Anyone who has been a follower of this blog dating back to the early days should have an idea of the reverence bestowed upon the Japanese F1 driver. If you are just stumbling upon this site due to a Google search gone awry, welcome. Nakajima, Katayama, Sato, Takagi, Kobayashi are names that occupy a special place in my pantheon of motorsports heroes. I would like nothing more than to witness a Japanese driver win the world title. For Tsunoda in his rookie campaign, my goals are simply to keep it on the black stuff and beat the Williams, Alfa and Haas cars. He only has four seasons of single seat racing under his belt, yet Trevor Carlin called him an expert at managing his rubber and a mega overtaker. One final odd note is how full of praise Franz Tost has been about his new driver. I was thinking this may have something to do with Red Bull negotiating to purchase the Honda powerplant IP, but maybe Tsunoda is The Chosen One?
(Quiz #7 – Who was Vettel’s Toro Rosso teammate in 2008)
Alfa Romeo: On paper I love the idea of Kimi driving a Ferrari powered Alfa Romeo for eternity, but this team barely made a ripple on the championship last year, and I don’t see things changing much this year. Alfa, as well as Haas, are basically Ferrari satellite teams so it’s odd that Kimi and Giovanazzi are back for a third year together, especially as Ferrari has F2 winners Callum Iliott and Robert Schwartzman on their payroll. But like the other teams at the bottom of the grid, ‘21 is all about survival and starting fresh in ‘22 with a new car and budget cap.
(Quiz #8 – Name the Alfa Romeo drivers in the 1981 Long Beach GP)
Haas: I have to admit, seeing Team USA, the pride of Kannapolis, North Carolina, unveil their car in the colors of the Russian flag felt like some sort of prank. Somewhere Ronald Reagan is rolling over in his grave. But in the name of survival, it appears that owner Gene Haas has essentially handed over the team to Dmitry Mazepin, father of rookie driver Nikita, for the near term. If anything, it will be exciting to watch Gunther Steiner try to manage two rookie drivers with a shit car. I personally think that it would have made more sense to pair Schumacher with Kimi at Alfa and Giovanazzi with Mazepin at Haas (or should we just start calling the team Mazepin?), but this is Ferrari management at work after all. I’m looking forward to seeing how Mick fares. Unlike Russell and Leclerc, who won the F3 and F2 titles in succession, Mick achieved his two crowns over a 4 year period. What does this mean? In my opinion it shows that Mick may not possess his fathers brilliant car control and ability to whip anything into shape, but he does possess the Schumacher work ethic and determination that should lead to a successful career.
(Quiz #9 – Name the two drivers not named Magnussen or Grosjean to start a race for Haas?)
Williams: At the bottom of the list is Williams, an iconic team with a great young driver, looking to find their way back to respectability. Similar to McLaren, Williams found a US based investor in Dorilton Capital to purchase a majority stake in the team, setting the Grove based squad up for survival in the short term. What this means remains to be seen, but it’s sort of sad to think that this day finally arrived for Sir Frank, who founded the team in 1977 with Patrick Head and went on to win 9 constructors and 7 drivers titles. My hope is that Dorilton are a bunch of cocky Wall Street guys who really want to win, or they are just holding this investment with the goal of flipping to a VW or Porsche down the road for a nice profit. Williams went 1-2 at my first ever GP, the ‘81 Long Beach Grand Prix, and I hope to see more wins in the future.
(Interesting Fact: No driver has won 2 world titles in a Williams. Quiz #10: Can you name the 7 previous champions?)
Covid Watch: It wouldn’t be 2021 without a Covid watch. By my account, the following drivers have publicly stated that they have tested positive for Covid- Hamilton, Leclerc, Perez, Norris, Stroll and Gasly. If my understanding of the virus is correct, they should be good to go. Who will be next? Does anyone remember back to the beginning of this mess when Helmut Marko was advocating for all Red Bull drivers to hold a camp to become infected? Camp Covid! It seemed insane but maybe he was on to something. Nico Hulkenberg better keep his cell close and the jet fueled up.
Liberty Media keep talking about their desire to add more races in America, but while that seems like far-fetched talk, they are adding races in the racing crazed Middle East. Less government red tape perhaps? I was reminded today that the penultimate round of the championship is a night street race in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. It looks to be another Tilke special with the claim that it will be the fastest street track in the world. I can see the title being decided when Max tries a lunge up the dusty inside of Hamilton and takes them both off. At least we have Portimao back as a Covid filler!
Will we get close to the 23 races scheduled on the calendar? I’d be happy with a euro-centric repeat of last season’s schedule. My hope is that we do see Zandvoort, Canada, Suzuka, Austin, and Sao Paulo back. Please keep the Silverstone double header!
I mentioned the idea of a driver draft above, so I’m going to hold a quick draft. I saw the ESPN F1 guys do this last year so it’s not a novel concept, but it’s just fun. Here’s the story: I’m a bitcoin billionaire many times over, I’m starting an F1 team with unlimited resources and I can hire any driver on the grid to drive my cars for this season. Here are my picks:
So, there you have it. It’s going to be a great year even if we are still in the middle of a global pandemic and Mercedes are simply too good. This is F1 after all. Where else do you get sport, soap opera, and an engineering arms race all thrown together on a global scale? F1 is a never ending saga and ‘21 will be another chapter in this fascinating story. Go Yuki!
Here are the answers to the quiz:
#1 -True (Merc 115, Williams 114)
#2 -Tie (10 each)
#3 -DCoulthard (150)
#4 -Stroll (2-1)
#5 -E. Cheever
#6 -Massa (11-9)
#7 -S. Bourdais
#8 -Andretti, Giacomelli
#9 -Guiterrez, P. Fittipaldi
#10 -JV, Hill, Prost, Nige, Piquet, Keke, Jones