2021 Formula One Season Preview
"It's lights out and away we go..."
There are just 19 days remaining until we hear those words for the first time in 2021. Formula One gets underway this year not at its usual curtain-raiser venue of Albert Park in Melbourne, but in the desert of Bahrain, and with the new season so close, speculation about what could be about to unfold is rife.
Will Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes again walk the Drivers' and Constructors' Championships, respectively? Can Sebastian Vettel win in an Aston Martin? Will Ferrari improve on last season's dismal showing? And would a mobility scooter outpace the Haas?
We're about to find out. This week's post is a team-by-team preview of what the new season could hold, and to help provide deeper analysis than I could manage, I've invited my friend and resident F1 aficionado Jack along.
With the seasoned Kimi Raikkonen and the ever-improving Antonio Giovinazzi, Alfa Romeo will be hoping to take strides forward and break into the midfield this season.
Jack says Raikkonen's quality is integral to any chance of success for Alfa Romeo this season, noting that the Finn's abilities are such that he has in the past "taken a break from F1, come back, and Ferrari still wanted him". However, he also stresses that Raikkonen will not have all the responsibility on his shoulders, as Giovinazzi can fulfil his role just as well, and there were times the Italian was able to "score points when Raikkonen didn't last season", underlining his credentials.
The car will remain closer to the back of the grid than to the front this year, but they are very far from giving up hope. The target this season will be to edge into the top ten on a more consistent basis, while ensuring Giovinazzi continues to fulfil his promise.
After Pierre Gasly won a madcap Italian Grand Prix in 2020 to hand AlphaTauri their first victory in 12 years, this season the team will be looking to position themselves firmly in the midfield.
As a result of that win, Jack says "you cannot rule AlphaTauri out," and he believes that new Japanese driver Yuki Tsunoda "looks very good", observing that the senior Red Bull team may be eyeing up the 20-year-old as a potential future replacement for Sergio Perez. He also says that Gasly could well find himself poached by a higher-ranking team if he continues to turn in the performances of 2020, but for now, the team have every reason to be positive heading into 2021.
In a crowded midfield, Jack expects AlphaTauri to be battling for "fifth or sixth", which is certainly not an unrealistic proposition, but much depends on how well Tsunoda does in his debut season.
It's all change at Renault, as they adopt a new name and welcome back the legendary Fernando Alonso in their push into the upper end of the midfield.
Alonso is replacing Australian Daniel Ricciardo, who has moved to McLaren after scoring the lion's share of the team's points last season. Jack believes his absence will be felt, but that his hold over teammate Esteban Ocon owed a little to luck: "Ocon had quite a few retirements when side-by-side with Ricciardo, so I think his points didn't necessarily represent his performances." Meanwhile, few can doubt Alonso's ability, so the blow of Ricciardo's departure should be softened by the Spaniard's return to the sport, and hopefully for the French team, a luckier Ocon.
In their new guise of Alpine, which promotes Renault's sports car brand, the team are in the hunt at the lower end of the midfield, and they can be positive about their line-up this season, which has just the right blend of experience and youth.
Also adopting a new name, Aston Martin will hope their acquisition of four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel can deliver them regular podiums in 2021.
Vettel will be partnered by team owner Lawrence Stroll's son Lance, and Jack believes something key from last season could help them in this campaign: "I think they can leapfrog McLaren into third, because the fact they finished fourth last year will help. Money isn't an issue when you have Lawrence Stroll, so the extra development points they gained by finishing fourth is far better than the extra prize money and lower development points that would have come with finishing third."
"They had the 2019 Mercedes last season, so it's very promising if they can develop that even further," adds Jack. A decent car and a very decent driver line-up in Stroll, who has come on leaps and bounds since his Formula 1 debut, and four-time world champion Vettel, means they will be right in the hunt at the very top of the midfield, often doing battle with Mercedes and Red Bull.
A wretched 2020 saw Ferrari finish sixth in the Constructors' Championship, their worst placing since 1980. They will hope for much better with two talented young drivers this time around.
"I don't think they'll do worse," muses Jack. "I think they'll want a third-place finish, and they will be battling Aston Martin and McLaren for it, but one of those teams has to finish fifth. Whoever it is will be unlucky, but I don't think Ferrari will get third." The Italian giants of Formula One are predominantly putting their hopes on Monegasque Charles Leclerc, but Jack believes "while Leclerc is on the podium, [second driver Carlos] Sainz will still be doing well, maybe finishing fifth or sixth."
Ferrari admitted early on last season that they were focusing on 2021, so it remains to be seen if that strategy, in which they nigh-on sacrificed 2020, will bear fruit.
Haas have already admitted they do not expect to be competitive in 2021, and anything other than a last-placed finish in the Constructors' Championship will be a bonus for the American team.
"It'll be even worse this year!" Jack confidently states, adding: "[Team principal] Guenther Steiner has openly admitted that they're already focusing on next year, and they don't mind if that means they finish last." Although the team have given an F1 debut to Michael Schumacher's son Mick, there is a dark cloud hanging over them regarding a range of issues concerning Schumacher's fellow driver, Nikita Mazepin. "They struggled enough last year, so the fact they're admitting to a downgrade does not bode well," concludes Jack.
A very tough first season in F1 awaits Schumacher and Mazepin, with Haas' only real reason for optimism being that they are both young, so there is no huge pressure to immediately give them a competitive car.
A third place finish in the Constructors' Championship last season suggests that McLaren are very much back after a wretched few years, and they will look for more podiums this time around.
"We saw the Racing Point win last year," notes Jack, "so I think the McLaren, in much the same fashion, might have a chance this year. They're definitely podium contenders, but I think Red Bull will still be a long way clear." The battle at the top of the midfield will be fierce this year, but as the holders of third place, McLaren should be in a very good position to emerge victorious. Their acquisition of Daniel Ricciardo, who is supremely talented, and retention of Briton Lando Norris, who set two fastest laps last season and grabbed a podium in the first race, will do their efforts no harm.
As the second-most successful team in Formula One history, behind only Ferrari, purists will not have enjoyed seeing McLaren at the back a few years ago, with reliability issues. A return to the front is pleasing, and with a likeable driver line-up for 2021, they are once again in a good place.
Remaining the team to beat, Mercedes will be gunning for an eighth Constructors' title in a row, with lead driver Lewis Hamilton going for his eighth title too.
The Silver Arrows' dominance has come to signify much of the last decade in Formula 1, with Hamilton flying clear of the rest of the field, with teammate Valtteri Bottas occasionally needed to fill in the gaps when things didn't quite go to plan for the Briton. Should Hamilton make it to eight this season, he would become the sport's most successful driver ever, and Jack says that "only a major upset would stop them, and I'd be very surprised if they don't manage it."
Anything other than a Mercedes double for the eighth year running looks to be exceptionally unlikely, but given that - brief football segue - Leicester City were able to win the Premier League, Mercedes will know that it isn't over until it's over.
Boy wonder Max Verstappen will shoulder most of Red Bull's hopes this year, but the newly-arrived Sergio Perez is their most talented second driver since Mark Webber.
Perez replaces the demoted Alex Albon, but will remain in Verstappen's shadow, and for good reason. Excluding Hamilton, Dutchman Verstappen is just about the most talented driver on the grid, and Jack believes this season bodes well for him: "He should be able to outscore Bottas, and Red Bull have made significant steps forward this year. He's going to be at the top, and he will get wins, no doubt about it."
Team principal Christian Horner previously expressed a desire on Netflix's Drive to Survive that his team would "push Lewis Hamilton all the way", and that will remain the case for this season. If Jack's confidence in them is well-placed, then Mercedes might just find that they don't have it all their own way this year.
Now under new ownership, one of Formula One's most historic and successful entrants will hope to arrest their recent decline and start on the road back to competitiveness.
In doing so, they will need one final top level performance from Briton George Russell, with Jack agreeing when I suggested that this will be Russell's last season with the team given that he is on the Mercedes pathway, and a spot on the senior team will be available soon. However, for now, given the severely uncompetitive Haas, they might just find themselves off the bottom of the Constructors' Championship for the first time since 2017, although Jack is still pessimistic about their chances: "I think they might get a point or two, but anything higher than ninth will be a struggle."
No-one said the road to redemption was easy, but the new ownership will no doubt have big plans for the team. It would be far more preferable to once again see a competitive Williams on the grid, but that is a few years off yet. The main talking points for the next 12 months are all about Russell.
And so our thoughts and musings end here. As the point when hope and belief is at its highest, the start of the season in any sport is always an exciting time, but all we can do now is wait out the next 19 days in anticipation for the end of this month, and the season-opening Grand Prix.
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