It is two weeks later than originally planned, but the 2021 Formula One season gets underway this weekend. Australia is not the season-opening race, it is the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir [Where the drivers line up on the start/finish straight above; feature image from formula1/.com] hosting the curtain-raiser for only the third time and the first time since 2010.
When the Coronavirus pandemic hit, it did not look like we would get an F1 season at all last year. It is a testament to the powers that be in F1, Liberty Media, the teams, the drivers, the media crews and the circuits that came up to the plate that we had an F1 season last year. Starting off in Austria with a double bill in July, we got 17 races to form a championship as Lewis Hamilton surpassed Michael Schumacher’s once thought unsurmountable 91 race wins on his way to matching his 7 world titles. As a spectacle, the races were not always as exciting as what we had become accustomed to in 2019 but under the circumstances, it was just great to have some F1 to watch.
The Mind of Rowan Review of the 2020 F1 season can be found here. If you have Netflix, there is also the third season of F1: Drive to Survive which covers last season. I do not gain any commission from directing you to it.
2021 promises to be a gruelling campaign for the teams and drivers as f1 has at present, a record-breaking 23 race schedule starting this weekend in Bahrain. Imola and Portimao have been granted a race in 2021 after staging events last year. That is followed by a more usual schedule with the Spanish Grand Prix being followed by the Monaco Grand Prix which will hopefully return after not being held in 2020 for the first time since 1955. Baku follows the Principality for the Azerbaijan Grand Prix and followed by the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal before the teams return to Europe. The French Grand Prix at Paul Ricard is followed by the Austrian Grand Prix, the British Grand Prix before the Hungaroring hosts the final race before the traditional summer recess in August.
The teams return for the second half of the season with three successive triple headers as F1 race in 12 out of the 15 weekends to December 12th. It starts with the Belgian Grand Prix at Spa-Francorchamps, then after its first race, since 1985 was cancelled last year, Zandvoort returns before the Italian Grand Prix at Monza. Then after a week break, it is a long haul triple-header of Russia, Singapore and Japan. That will be a logistical challenge for everyone involved and so will the third and final tripleheader. The US, Mexico and Intergalgos (which will change from the Brazilian Grand Prix to the Sau Paulo Grand Prix to reflect the greater financial input from the city) all one week after the other. It is a two-week gap before the Australian Grand Prix which has been rearranged for November.
The season ends in the Middle East. Saudi Arabia makes its F1 debut with what is being dubbed the quickest street circuit on the calendar at Jeddah before the now traditional season finale in Abu Dhabi.
All of this schedule is subject to Coronavirus restrictions and there are some that I personally do not believe will take place depending on the situation. Australia was rearranged due to the quarantine policy of the Australian Government. If that does not change then I cannot see them allowing the teams and drivers to arrive from Brazil. The street circuits in built-up areas I think will be difficult to stage too but we will all have to see though.
What is new in 2021?
Due to the pandemic and the new set of regulations being pushed back to 2022, the cars in 2021 are mostly an evolution of the 2020 cars. The chassis and gearboxes are frozen from last year and there is a two token system in place limiting the number of upgrades teams can make.
The aerodynamic testing regulations (ART) took on a sliding scale will take effect from last season’s standings. The team that finished bottom in the Constructors (Williams) will have the most time available to them to work on the aerodynamics of their car. Every other team would receive slightly less time leading up to the Championship winners (Mercedes) who will receive the least. It is hoped that will help hunch the pack closer together for more competitive action on the track.
There is also the introduction of a cost cap. It is set at $145m for the 2021 season and covers most costs. However, costs linked to marketing, drivers salaries and the three highest salaries of non-driving staff are excluded and teams are granted an additional $45m allowance for what is termed ‘capital expenditure’ for purchasing machinery for their factories. That allowance is only in play until 2024. The cost cap decreases again to $140m for 2022 and $135m for 2023.
A more in-depth view of what is new in 2021 can be found here.
New Team names
Alpine: Renault has undergone a rebranding for the 2021 season changing the name of their F1 entry to Alpine; the sports car brand of Renault. Sporting a largely blue livery, with all colours of the French tricolour represented instead of the yellow of Renault, the team will still be using Renault engines. The Alpine brand has had success in other racing disciplines such as le Mans 24 hours and in rallying so they will be hoping they can use it to push on.
Aston Martin: The Aston Martin name is back in F1 as a Constructor for the first time since 1960. It is the result of Lawrence Stroll buying a controlling stake in the company which made the transition from Racing Point easier. Stroll stated his aim for the rebranded team was to be ‘competitive from the outset’ but trying to be a manufacturer on the same level as Mercedes and Ferrari will be no easy task as acknowledged by Team Principal Otmar Szafneur. They have their marquee signing in Sebastian Vettel but with the change of regulations for 2022, that maybe their big chance to push near the front more consistently.
How did the 2021 Grid form?
In terms of driving personnel, only Mercedes, Alfa Romeo and Williams have an unchanged line-up. Eight of the teams have a Grand Prix winner in their line ups as four drivers changed team, three dropped off the grid (Roman Grosjean, Kevin Magnussen and Alex Albon) and there are three rookies in 2021. They are Yuki Tsunoda at Alpha Tauri and the two new boys at Haas, Nikita Mazepin and the return of that surname…Schumacher. Mick Schumacher, son of seven-time world champion Michael.
With there being no racing between March and July due to the pandemic, F1’s silly season to make the grid for 2021 started early. Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc committed their futures to Red Bull and Ferrari respectively before the teams arrived in Australia.
In May, Sebastian Vettel announced that 2020 would be his final season with Ferrari, bringing an end to a five-year partnership with the Scuderia. In terms of race wins, he is their third most successful driver in F1 but he could not deliver that title. This set the wheels in motion as within days Ferrari had their replacement signed. It was announced that Carlos Sainz would be joining to partner Leclerc in a move that was made possible by McLaren allowing him to leave with a replacement secured. That was Daniel Ricciardo who will be partnering Lando Norris.
All this made Sebastian Vettel a key component in the driver market. Where would the four-time world champion go? Did he even have the desire to remain in F1? Rumours were circulating for months that he could be set to join Racing Point who would be racing as Aston Martin in 2021 even though they already had two drivers contracted for 2021. Three cannot go into two. It was perhaps a badly kept secret but it was eventually announced in September that the world champion would be racing for them in 2021 and after seven seasons with the team as Force India and Racing Point, Sergio Perez would be leaving.
The Mexican then became the big player in the drivers market. Where would he go? Could he go to Williams? Williams had announced the retention of George Russell for the third year of his deal and Nicholas Latfi for 2021 after only two races. That is a big indicator of faith in the Canadian.
Renault was not an option. They had already announced in July that Fernando Alonso would be returning for the Enstone team that would be renamed Alpine for 2021. For the Spaniard, it is an unprecedented third spell with the team whom he won his two world titles in 2005 and 2006. It also comes after a two-year absence from the F1 after leaving McLaren and a couple further attempts at Indy500 as he raced other disciplines. He will partner Esteban Ocon who was retained for 2021.
Could Perez go to Haas or Alfa Romeo?
With Ferrari having three drivers competing for the title in F2 (Mick Schumacher, Callum Illot and Robert Schwartzman) there was speculation of which one or more could make the step up. Ferrari effectively selects a seat at Alfa Romeo. That seat was occupied by Antonio Giovinazzi and still is as the Italian retained his seat for 2021 and he remains alongside Kimi Raikkonen, the oldest and most experienced man on the grid who fairly surprisingly signed on for a further year. It was disappointing not to see Calum Illot not get a chance given he finished 2nd in F2 but if the Italian does not perform then could he get his chance in 2022?
Haas were one of the last teams to announce their lineup. The American outfit announced that they would not be retaining drivers Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean and instead would be going with a very fresh approach by recruiting two rookie drivers. They ended up being Nikita Mazepin who brings sponsorship through UralKali and F2 champion Mick Schumacher
That left the unlikely option of Red Bull. Red Bull usually recruit in house through their driver development programme. However, with Alexander Albon struggling to match his teammate, they did have questions to ask. Pierre Gasly in the Alpha Tauri was having a fantastic season but they decided to keep him where he was. Daniil Kvyat was close to the Frenchman at times but could not deliver consistently. That left him vulnerable to Japanese driver Yuki Tsunoda who finished 3rd in F2. That was enough for him to get his super licence and with Honda their engine suppliers still for this year it was always likely to happen. For Kvyat, it would appear his racing days in F1 are over.
Perez’s form in the second half of the season was phenomenal. It was capped off with his maiden win at the 190th attempt in Bahrain. It was announced after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that the Mexican would join Red Bull, their first external recruit since Mark Webber signed on for the 2006 season. As much as I liked Albon and wanted him to succeed, it was a no brainer form wise. Red Bull gave him until the end of the season and he finished 7th in the standings and 109 points behind Verstappen. The London born Thai driver will instead be serving as a reserve driver to both red Bull and Alpha Tauri in 2021.
The final remaining spot on the grid was at Mercedes. Valtteri Bottas had agreed to a contract extension in August. However, Lewis Hamilton had not. Negotiations had not been opened in earnest until after he had secured that 7th championship but they did not reach a conclusion until after the new year. At that point, Hamilton was technically unemployed and he could well have left the sport then. Mercedes could then have opted for Russell who drove amazingly as he stood in for the covid-stricken Hamilton in the Sakhir Grand Prix. In the end, Hamilton agreed to an eye-catching one-year extension; eye-catching because Hamilton has usually only signed multi-year deals so could this be his final F1 season.
So, the grid now has four World Champions but here is the grid in numbers…
4 World Champions
Lewis Hamilton (7), Sebastian Vettel (4), Fernando Alonso (2), Kimi Raikkonen (1)
10 Race Winners
Lewis Hamilton 95, Sebastian Vettel 53, Fernando Alonso 32, Kimi Raikkonen 21, Max Verstappen 10, Valterri Bottas 9, Daniel Ricciardo 7, Charles Leclerc 2, Pierre Gasly 1 and Sergio Perez 1
14 Drivers with a Podium:
Lewis Hamilton 165, Sebastian Vettel 121, Kimi Raikkonen 103, Fernando Alonso 97, Valtteri Bottas 56, Max Verstappen 42, Daniel Ricciardo 31, Charles Leclerc 12, Sergio Perez 10, Lance Stroll 3, Carlos Sainz 2, Pierre Gasly 2, Lando Norris 1, Esteban Ocon 1
9 Pole sitters:
Lewis Hamilton 98, Sebastian Vettel 57, Fernando Alonso 22, Kimi Raikkonen 18, Valtteri Bottas 16, Charles Leclerc 7, Daniel Ricciardo 3, Max Verstappen 3, Lance Stroll 1
13 Drivers with a Fastest Lap:
Lewis Hamilton 53, Kimi Raikkonen 46, Sebastian Vettel 38, Fernando Alonso 23, Valtteri Bottas 15, Daniel Ricciardo 15, Max Verstappen 10, Sergio Perez 4, Charles Leclerc 4, Pierre Gasly 2, Lando Norris 2, Carlos Sainz 1, George Russell 1
Most starts: Kimi Raikkonen 329
Kimi Raikkonen 329, Fernando Alonso 311, Lewis Hamilton 266, Sebastian Vettel 257, Sergio Perez 191, Daniel Ricciardo 188, Valtteri Bottas 156, Max Verstappen 119, Carlos Sainz 118, Lance Stroll 78, Esteban Ocon 67, Pierre Gasly 64, Charles Leclerc 59, Antonio Giovinazzi 40, Lando Norris 38, George Russell 38, Nicholas Latifi 17, Nikitia Mazepin 0, Mick Schumacher 0, Yuki Tsunoda 0.
2,278 starts across the grid with an average of 113.9.
Oldest Driver: Kimi Raikkonen 41
Youngest Driver: Yuki Tsunoda 20
Average Age of the Grid: 27.25 years
The big-name return for 2021! Fernando Alonso has been away from F1 for two seasons, since leaving McLaren at the end of the 2018 season. Since then, he has been racing in the World Endurance Championship and had two more attempts at completing the triple crown at the Indy500. It may take him some time to get back up to speed in an F1 car but he looked honed in during testing despite having been in a cycling incident in February. He has not had the best of cars in the years before leaving F1 but he showed more often than not his ability to extract every ounce of performance out of a car he is given. It will be exciting to see him back!
Alonso’s F1 Record
22 Pole Positions
23 Fastest Laps
2 World Championships (2005, 2006).
Previous teams: Minardi, Renault (2002-06), Mclaren (2007), Renault (2008-09), Ferrari (2010-14), McLaren (2015-18)
Debut: 2001 Australian Grand Prix
First Podium: 2003 Malaysian Grand Prix
First Win: 2003 Hungarian Grand Prix
Last Win: 2013 Spanish Grand Prix
The Schumacher name is back in F1, more than 8 years after his father last raced in the sport and 30 years after his first debut in 1991. MSC will be back on the timesheets, something he and fans around the world will have a special attachment to. Mick Schumacher will be hoping to at least match some of the success that his father achieved. It is a big name and pressure to have on his shoulders but he has had success at every level he has competed at although he had a quieter first campaign in F2. It may take him time to adapt to the pressures of F1 but he has a solid record and I look forward to seeing him race.
There remains a Russian in F1 as Haas signed Nikita Mazepin. It felt a controversial decision by Haas to opt for Mazepin and that was before his very controversial Instagram post that sparked the #SayNoToMazepin hashtag. Stories of his attitude (starting a fight with Calum Illot in the F3 paddock back in 2016 and almost hitting Tsunoda with the P2 marker board in parc ferme last year) and then just looking at his record in previous categories I do not think he will be cut out for F1.
Yuki Tsunoda becomes the first Japanese driver in F1 since Kamui Kobayashi in 2013. Having been backing by Hinda initially, red Bull gave him the chance by giving him the seat in the Alpha Tauri but having earned his super licence by finishing 3rd in F2 last year with 3 race wins, he could be a good addition to the field. There were issues in pre-season testing with the pedals owing to his height (1.59m) but the question will be how much time will he be afforded in the Red Bull sister team?
What do we have to look forward to in 2021?
• New Races: Saudi Arabia will make its F1 debut in 2021 with what is being dubbed as the quickest street circuit on the calendar. The lap released online does make it look fast but I am not too sure we will see overtaking on it. Zandvoort makes its return to f1 for the first time in 36 years; delayed from making its return last year.
• Will Lewis Hamilton make it Championship title number 8? Mercedes did not look too strong in pre-season testing; experiencing technical gremlins and spins culminating in them doing the least laps of any team
• Red Bull Challenge: Red Bull looked very good in pre-season testing and factor in that Max Verstappen dominated the season finale in Abu Dhabi, they could be in a good position to challenge Mercedes for the wins and even the Championship; something they have not looked like doing from the off in the past few years and how will Sergio Perez fare against Verstappen? Will he be able to push the Dutchman further?
• A Proper title battle? Potentially Lewis Hamilton vs Max Verstappen; Mercedes vs Red Bull. It has been a while since two teams have genuinely gone the distance in a title battle; it would be nice to see.
• Interesting teammate lineups: First off, I think Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris at McLaren will have great chemistry together but it will be interesting to see how Esteban Ocon and Fernando Alonso work together; neither are fans of team orders. It will also be interesting to see how Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc at Ferrari work together and can Pierre Gasly take on a team leader type role at Alpha Tauri? It’s a big year for some of these drivers.
• A very competitive midfield? McLaren, Aston Martin, Alpine, Ferrari and Alpha Tauri; they all looked competitive in pre-season testing and they were all consistent in 2020. Ferrari feel like they have gained much of the power deficit they had last year, McLaren has a fresh Mercedes engine in their car and they looked very good. It will be interesting to see which team has made the biggest step forward and could challenge for the best of the rest.
• As previously mentioned; Fernando Alonso’s return to F1 is exciting and so too is the return of the Schumacher name to F1.
• Alfa Romeo, Haas and Williams struggled greatly for points last season; will they be closer to the rest of the midfield? Could Williams finish ahead of Haas? Haas have openly stated they will not be developing their car much as they seek
It is bound to be an exciting season of hopefully close and entertaining racing through these 23 rounds and I look forward to watching it all!