The 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix, happening next Sunday (28), will mark the start of the 72nd running of the FIA Formula One World Championship. Lewis Hamilton enters as the defending champion, hoping to overtake Michael Schumacher’s title record, while his team Mercedes-Benz hopes to carry on their dominance of the sport, to win their eighth consecutive constructors championship and beat their own record obtained last year. If you are here, welcome: this is the Grand Prix Rejects 2021 season preview!
2021: A year of transition
2021 is prepared to be more of a transition year. Originally, before the Covid-19 pandemic affected everyone, motorsport and F1 included, 2021 was going to mark the year of rule changes that had the goal of improving the on-track product that F1 had been delivering since 2017, year of the last major rules shake-up. Covid-19 saw those plans postponed into 2022, and 2021 now presents itself as a stepping stone into the changes that come next year.
To make a smoother transition, the FIA announced, before the first proper race of 2020 had even happened, that a token system would be implemented in the sport that froze the development of some parts in order to keep costs down as part of the newly implemented budget cap, with a baseline value of $145 million – long overdue it was – and the impact of the pandemic in the teams’ finances. Each team, heading into 2021, had available two development tokens to update parts of their 2020 design. When talking about each team, we will look a bit into where each team spends their tokens, even if not all of the squads have released information on where they chose to spend their tokens.
The changes for 2021 also sees some major modifications to the design of the cars, as part of the process to ease into the major rule shake-up coming for 2022. The biggest culprit of that are the changes to the cars’ floors, which has a great impact in the amount of downforce that is generated by a car while cornering. This, combined with the shortening of the rear brake duct winglets and the cutting down of diffuser fences, forced teams into playing around with other components of their designs to recover some of the downforce they have lost – 10%, compared to last year, according to FIA’s Head of Single Seater Technical Matters Nikolas Tombazis.
|1||Bahrain Grand Prix||Bahrain International Circuit||March 28th|
|2||Emilia Romagna Grand Prix||Imola Circuit||April 18th|
|3||Portuguese Grand Prix||Algarve International Circuit||May 2nd|
|4||Spanish Grand Prix||Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya||May 9th|
|5||Monaco Grand Prix||Circuit de Monaco||May 23rd|
|6||Azerbaijan Grand Prix||Baku City Circuit||June 6th|
|7||Canadian Grand Prix||Circuit Gilles Villeneuve||June 13th|
|8||French Grand Prix||Circuit Paul Ricard||June 27th|
|9||Austrian Grand Prix||Red Bull Ring||July 4th|
|10||British Grand Prix||Silverstone Circuit||July 18th|
|11||Hungarian Grand Prix||Hungaroring||August 1st|
|12||Belgian Grand Prix||Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps||August 29th|
|13||Dutch Grand Prix||Circuit Zandvoort||September 5th|
|14||Italian Grand Prix||Monza Circuit||September 12th|
|15||Russian Grand Prix||Sochi Autodrom||September 26th|
|16||Singapore Grand Prix||Marina Bay Street Circuit||October 3rd|
|17||Japanese Grand Prix||Suzuka International Racing Course||October 10th|
|18||United States Grand Prix||Circuit of the Americas||October 24th|
|19||Mexico City Grand Prix||Autódromo Hermanos Rodríguez||October 31st|
|20||São Paulo Grand Prix||Autódromo José Carlos Pace||November 7th|
|21||Australian Grand Prix||Albert Park Circuit||November 21st|
|22||Saudi Arabian Grand Prix||Jeddah Street Circuit||December 5th|
|23||Abu Dhabi Grand Prix||Yas Marina Circuit||December 12th|
As of March 24th, this is the 2021 Formula One World Championship Calendar.
While teams are expected to recover some of that by the time the cars hit the track on Friday for practice – now only 60 minutes in length – the new Pirelli tyres are an incognito variable which value hasn’t been fully determined from pre-season testing. The new compounds, which are now automatically allocated , are heavier than their last year’s counterparts and they seem to provide less grip as well. How will those tyres, combined with the downforce loss, behave on track come Sunday, we will find out after 57 laps of the Bahrain International Circuit, back as the opening round of the championship after the Australian Grand Prix was pushed to November due to the Covid-19 pandemic.
That wasn’t the only change that occurred to the calendar, as a new race in Saudi Arabia, on the newly announced Jeddah Street Circuit, was added, while the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix and Portuguese Grand Prix were last minute additions to the calendar after the Chinese Grand Prix was cancelled and the Vietnam Grand Prix was removed before it ever had the chance to take place – and it may never return. But something that is returning, if the pandemic doesn’t force another change of plans, is the Dutch Grand Prix, at Zandvoort. After getting cancelled due to the major shake-up the 2020 calendar suffered due to the pandemic, the return of the country of tulips should be finally consummated this year – the first time since 1985. And let’s not forget that 2021 might still bring us sprint races, held on Saturday to set the grid for the Sunday race. These plans, however, are not fully confirmed yet.
All of these factors will play a role into the season that is to come. But, to better understand how those factors will interact with the narrative of the season, we must analyse what can be expected from each of the ten teams that compose the 2021 Formula One grid. What has changed for them over the winter? Did pre-season testing, held two weeks ago at Bahrain, reveal to us on what will be the pecking order come Sunday? Not likely, but there are many questions that don’t have a full answer yet, but we can do our best to try to answer them anyway. So, let’s begin, shall we?
The order of the teams is displayed according to the their finishing position on the 2020 Constructors Championship.
Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team
Predicted WCC: 1st
|Team Name||Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team|
|Drivers||Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas|
|Power Unit||Mercedes-AMG F1 M12|
Reading too much into pre-season testing can be a little troublesome, as it can lead to disappointment. But it’s hard to ignore just how many problems the defending champions, Mercedes-Benz, found two weeks ago at Sakhir. While pace hasn’t really been a problem, with Bottas ending one of the days fastest overall, it’s been the lack of stability of the new F1 W12 that has seemed to catch their drivers, especially Lewis Hamilton, off-guard.
The main culprit of that seems to have been the changes performed to the floor of the F1 W12 chassis. It seems that, mid-corner, those changes seem to affect the balance of the rear of the Mercedes to the point where the car seems a bit more handful to drive than its predecessor. Reliability also proved to be a concern across testing, as gearbox woes hit the Mercedes-powered teams
But, perhaps, we are doing exactly what the team wanted – reading too much into it. Perhaps, the stability problems that seem to be affecting the F1 W12 aren’t structural, but only got exaggerated due to the unholy winds that plagued pre-season testing at Bahrain, which affected the feedback and data collected over the three days – the shortest ever pre-season testing. Or, even more likely given how Mercedes operate, with their no-blame culture, they have found the cause for their struggles, and fixed it before the cars once again hit the track on Friday.
And, given how the last few years have developed, is there any reason to believe otherwise? Not really. Despite the struggles shown in pre-season testing, it is really hard to believe that Mercedes won’t win both titles once again. While it is likely that the gap will narrow to its main rival, Red Bull, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas should once again be class of the field. The question posed here is: will Valtteri finally be able to mount a year long, consistent championship challenge? We will find out soon, but the odds are against him – especially if Lewis keeps up the high level he displayed all across 2020 to take his seventh world championship.
Red Bull Racing Honda
Predicted WCC: 2nd
|Team Name||Red Bull Racing Honda|
|Drivers||Max Verstappen and Sergio Pérez|
|Power Unit||Honda RA621H|
If there was one team that seems to have made quite a leap over the winter, it has been Red Bull. While last year’s RB16 was never slow to begin with, it did display some instability on its rear that made the car quite hefty to drive – unless your name is Max Verstappen – and it seems the team has been able to fix most of those problems with its evolution, the RB16B. The modifications applied to the suspension geometry seems to have improved balance, and the narrowing of the whole rear structure seems to have improved how the air flow travels through the chassis, increasing the downforce that is generated, and in turn, increasing corner speed.
The above mentioned instability of the rear end of last year’s car particularly affected Alexander Albon, who found himself replaced by Sergio Pérez after a season where he couldn’t fulfill the promise he displayed in late 2019. With Pérez joining the fray, it is expected that Red Bull’s competitiveness increases, especially on Sunday. While it is going to be hard for the Mexican to beat Verstappen on a Saturday, it is his excellent race-craft and handling of the Pirelli rubber that can be a weapon that Red Bull are eager to use against Mercedes on race day. And, despite Pérez claiming he’ll need five races to fully adapt himself to his new team and car, he showed in pre-season testing that he has the pace to be closer to Max than what Albon was last year – though the improved stability of the car helps to that.
Red Bull seems to have shortened the gap to Mercedes over the winter, but it doesn’t seem to be enough to be faster, overall, than the German manufacturer. But, if one combines Max Verstappen’s raw talent, a car that seems to be a vast improvement over its predecessor and to have a second driver that can be consistently fast enough to also become a factor on Sunday’s through both raw pace and strategy, Red Bull can be a force to be reckoned with in 2021. We hope they are, because we deserve a proper championship fight. One can only hope that will be possible. It would also be a proper farewell to Honda, who are set to leave the championship as an official supplier at the end of the season, leading to the engine freeze that Red Bull so desperately pushed forward over the winter.
McLaren F1 Team
Predicted WCC: 4th
|Team Name||McLaren F1 Team|
|Drivers||Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris|
|Power Unit||Mercedes-AMG F1 M12|
Forced to spend their two development tokens on modifying its chassis to accommodate their return to Mercedes power after the end of their deal with Renault, McLaren enter 2021 with the hope of bridging the gap to the top two teams even further. The team ran a very low-key testing program, but raised enough eyebrows over their clever and innovative diffuser strategy, which seems to help the new MCL35M regain some of the downforce it lost due to the rule changes. The new chassis seems quite a stable machine, and with the added grunt of the Mercedes power, McLaren should be one of the fastest midfield teams, right up there in the fight for 3rd in the constructors championship. Good news for their drivers, bad news for their rivals.
Replacing the departing Carlos Sainz Jr, Daniel Ricciardo joins Lando Norris to form what is arguably one of the strongest – and funniest – lineups on the grid. Ricciardo took great advantage of pre-season testing to clock in plenty of laps – 173, to be more exact – in order to find all the nooks and crannies that the MCL35M possesses. If he succeeds in that, and if the chassis confirms itself to be quick, stable and reliable – a surprise, given how some of the other Mercedes teams struggled during pre-season testing – Ricciardo has all the tools at his disposal to, not only shine, but to help push the Woking squad closer to the front of the field.
But Ricciardo won’t have an easy time to assert himself as McLaren’s de-facto leader, as beating Lando Norris won’t be, at all, an easy task. Going into his third season in the sport, the driver from Bristol grew in stature in 2020, and it’s hard to ignore just how impressive he is. He displays a lot of maturity – when inside a racecar – for a driver of his experience and age, and it’s expected that his performance can only improve once again this year. If he and Ricciardo get along, McLaren have all the ingredients to continue to claw back their way to the front-end of the grid. Time will tell.
Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One Team
Predicted WCC: 3rd
|Team Name||Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One Team|
|Drivers||Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll|
|Power Unit||Mercedes-AMG F1 M12|
2021 marks a new era for the team once called Jordan Grand Prix, Midland F1 Racing, Spyker F1, Force India and Racing Point. Now under the guise of Aston Martin, virtue of team owner Lawrence Stroll buying shares in the British car manufacturer, the team has just come out of a year where, controversy aside, has been the best for them in Formula One since 1999. Sergio Pérez took the team’s first win since the 2003 Brazilian Grand Prix, and if it wasn’t for the points penalty applied due to the (il)legality of their RP20, they would have matched the 3rd place in the constructors from that year as well.
But, despite Pérez putting together arguably his strongest F1 season to date, the Mexican driver found himself in the trenches of the silly season before getting picked up by Red Bull. His replacement? Four time world champion, Sebastian Vettel. Vettel endured his hardest season in F1 last year with Ferrari, but one cannot judge why Lawrence Stroll chose Vettel to partner Lance Stroll. At his best, a fully charged up Vettel is one of the few drivers that can match and beat Hamilton on a consistent basis. But to have a fully charged up Vettel, there are multiple factors that need to be checked.
Aston Martin might be able to check those factors. Compared to Ferrari, and even Red Bull, Vettel now find himself in a low-pressure environment to succeed – or, as much low-pressure as one can get in the sport – and he is, on paper, the squad leader. But does the car check the required boxes for Vettel’s talent to shine? Despite pre-season testing not having revealed the whole picture about the AMR21, due to reliability problems mostly connected to the Mercedes gearbox and electronics, it does seem to adapt Vettel’s driving style quite well.
Being an evolution of last year’s RP20, the AMR21, which marks Aston Martin’s return to F1 for the first time since 1960, does take advantage of the partnership of the squad with Mercedes, but now hopefully without all the protests and controversy that marked last year’s season. Despite the troublesome pre-season testing, the car did show some glimpses of pace. The pawns are in place, and if you combine a (possibly) rejuvenated Vettel with the ever improving Stroll, Aston Martin have the potential to break clear of the midfield pack to a class of their own. On the other hand, if their move does not pay off, they might well fall to the clenches of an incredibly close midfield pack. At least, whatever the outcome, it will be exciting to watch.
Alpine F1 Team
Predicted WCC: 7th
|Team Name||Alpine F1 Team|
|Drivers||Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon|
|Power Unit||Renault E-Tech 20B|
2020 was Renault’s strongest year since their comeback to the sport as a factory team in 2016. The team scored 3 podiums and finished 5th in the WCC, their best result since 2011, only 21 points behind their customer team, McLaren, in 3rd place. The R.S.20 was a sleek machine, especially on low downforce tracks. It seems that most of that design philosophy has been kept for the 2021 chassis.
Now under the guise of Alpine, the team has managed to bring back Fernando Alonso from hiatus to partner Esteban Ocon. But Alonso’s comeback was, perhaps, not the biggest change for Alpine in the off-season. That came in the management side of things. Outgoing is Cyril Abiteboul. Incoming, straight from leading Suzuki to their first MotoGP title in 20 years, Davide Brivio. It will be quite interesting to see how much Brivio can impact Alpine’s philosophy, as he has shown preference for younger riders in order to build a team going forward. With this data in question, on paper at least, Brivio can be the key factor to unlock one side of the garage’s true potential, as 2021 prepares to be a key year for Esteban Ocon’s future F1 hopes – Pierre Gasly has been strongly rumoured to be on Alpine’s shortlist for 2022. And as Alonso is under contract already…
After being a year out of the sport, Ocon returned to Renault last season, but he was beaten by Ricciardo across the season. Despite stepping up his performance later in the season, it wasn’t the comeback Ocon expected, despite taking his debut podium in the championship. Now put up against a returning Alonso – always hungry and motivated for more – Ocon needs to perform to his level. The A521 seems like a consistent and reliable package, though it doesn’t seem to be much of an improvement on last year’s R.S.20, from what was possible to observe during pre-season testing. It is expected that Alpine are once again in the midfield squabble, though they seem to be lacking that extra pace required to match Aston Martin and McLaren. But a hungry Alonso, with still plenty of speed to showcase, combined with Ocon’s finally unlocking his full potential. things can change very quickly on track.
Scuderia Ferrari Mission Winnow
Predicted WCC: 5th
|Team Name||Scuderia Ferrari Mission Winnow|
|Drivers||Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz Jr|
|Power Unit||Ferrari 065/6|
Calling 2020’s Ferrari year anything but a disaster would be an euphemism. 2020 was the historical Italian team’s worst year in F1 since 1981, when Gilles Villeneuve and Didier Pironi found themselves driving the overweight and cumbersome 126CK to 5th in the WCC. But even then, Villeneuve worked some magic to win two races. 2020 Ferrari couldn’t even do that, despite Charles Leclerc’s best efforts to push the draggy SF1000 to positions it had no right to be in.
On paper, 2021 should be a better year for Ferrari, but it’s hard to tell how much better. The SF21 does seem to be, overall, a better package than the SF1000. Firstly, some of the power unit woes from last year – whatever woes mean, in this very particular case – seem to have been fixed. Secondly, the chassis does seem to behave better. From the onboards of both Leclerc and new recruit Carlos Sainz Jr observed during pre-season testing, the car seems to be much more planted and stable on corner exit than last year’s, while also being able to carry more speed in the medium and high speed corners.
How much is true of those improvements, we will only find out when the Ferrari‘s hit the track in Bahrain again. But, unless something truly shocking has happened, Mattia Binotto’s Ferrari performance will improve in 2021. Even if it doesn’t, well, at least it seems both Leclerc and Sainz are commited to be able to extract the maximum out of the car on any given weekend.
Scuderia AlphaTauri Honda
Predicted WCC: 6th
|Team Name||Scuderia AlphaTauri Honda|
|Drivers||Pierre Gasly and Yuki Tsunoda|
|Power Unit||Honda RA621H|
2020 marked the year when the team formerly known as Minardi – bless them – and Toro Rosso took their second Grand Prix win, courtesy of Pierre Gasly at the Italian Grand Prix. It was also the year when the team scored their highest points tally yet in the WCC, despite only finishing 7th in the standings. In the highly contested midfield battle of 2020, the AT01 proved to be quite a competitive package. The 2021 AT02 presents itself as an evolution of that package and is, perhaps, the most competitive car the team from Faenza have built thus far.
And there are plenty of reasons to be excited about AlphaTauri’s season. On one hand, you have Pierre Gasly building on his strongest season yet in the sport. On the other side of the garage, you have the most exciting Japanese F1 prospect right now, Yuki Tsunoda, trying to showcase all of his raw talent and speed. And for any one who followed F2 last year, Tsunoda seems like a special, one of a kind talent, and it didn’t take him much time to show that – he impressed enough in pre-season testing, finishing second fastest overall. The AT02 seems to have improved in all areas compared to its predecessor, but its biggest gains seems to have been in handling the airflow, with visible changes done to the front of the chassis, allowing for better performance in corners due to increased downforce. The car also seems to be an extremely reliable package. The team clocked more miles than anyone across the three days of pre-season testing – matched in that value by Alfa Romeo. There are reasons to smile at Faenza, and it’s expected that AlphaTauri find themselves even more present in the midfield squabble across 2021.
Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen
Predicted WCC: 8th
|Team Name||Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen|
|Drivers||Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi|
|Power Unit||Ferrari 065/6|
Trying to understand how 2021 will go for Alfa Romeo seems quite simple. The improved Ferrari package coupled to the rear of the C41 should help bring the team forward. The C41, an evolution of last year’s C39, presents a revised front-end compared to its predecessor, in order to magnify the generation of downforce. So, on paper, Alfa Romeo should be more or less where they were last year. Faster than Haas and Williams, but still not as fast as the other midfield teams to challenge for anything more than small points. They seem to have made gains during the off-season but, sadly for them, all the others ahead of them seem to have done the same thing.
The Swiss squad have also opted to keep both their drivers from last year, and while this should aid in bringing some form of consistency to the Italian squad, it also means that we know pretty much what to expect from Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi. The 2007 Formula One World Champion and now the driver with the most races ever in the sport, should be expected to have the occasional race where he puts a drive that leaves everyone questioning “how did he pull that one off?”, while Antonio hopes to finally pull together a season worthy of his talent. Giovinazzi didn’t have a particularly healthy 2020, with inconsistency being the word that could perhaps be better used to describe it. Sometimes, he did show a glimpse of the pace that most people in the paddock believes he has, but too often he found himself being beaten by Kimi. If Giovinazzi wants to stay on the grid again for 2022, he needs to up his game this season. Although, being stuck in a car that will be, most likely than not, between the backmarkers and the midfield, that will be hard to do.
Uralkali Haas F1 Team
Predicted WCC: 10th
|Team Name||Uralkali Haas F1 Team|
|Drivers||Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher|
|Power Unit||Ferrari 065/6|
Remember when, in their first two races in Formula One, back in 2016, Haas scored a grand total of 18 points? Well, just four years later, across an entirety of a season, Haas scored a grand total of three points. Much can be said about how the downfall of Haas began or, to put it better, how the potential that Haas once displayed, via their very close relationship to Ferrari, has not come to fruition at all. To cap it all off, 2021 does not seem to be shaping up to be an improvement on the fortunes of 2020.
The team have brought on two rookies onboard for their 2021 campaign: 2020 F2 World Champion Mick Schumacher, and Nikita Mazepin, whose Uralkali money has led to the Russian – oops, forbidden word during the 2021 season – potash fertilizer producer and exporter to become the main sponsor of the American squad. The season hadn’t even started, and Haas found themselves in the backfoot, “dealing” with the consequences of Mazepin’s off-season shenanigans, who found himself in the headlines for all the wrong reasons. But if the inexperience of Schumacher and Mazepin can prove to be a barrier for the American squad to overcome, once we look the team’s chassis for the season – the VF-21 – it becomes even more apparent that Haas are already thinking solely of 2022. The VF-21 is essentially the same as its predecessor, the VF-20, as the team didn’t even spend their two development tokens, relying heavily on the gains that will come from the improved Ferrari power unit.
So, in conclusion, what can be expected of Haas in 2021? Well, not a whole lot really, sadly. The VF-20 wasn’t exactly the brightest chassis. It lacked downforce even when compared to its rivals, and the rule changes have certainly not helped the team to close those problems. And the VF-21, being essentially the same car updated to the rule changes, seems to suffer from all the same flaws as its predecessor did. But, instead of being driven by two fairly experienced drivers, it’s now being driven by two rookies who are still learning their ropes in F1. At least, on the bright side, Schumacher and Mazepin have a relatively low pressure environment to showcase their skills. Although, how much the VF-21 will allow them to do that, will be quite interesting to observe across the year.
Predicted WCC: 9th
|Team Name||Williams Racing|
|Drivers||Nicholas Latifi and George Russell|
|Power Unit||Mercedes-AMG F1 M12/6|
2020 marked the end of the Williams family in Formula One. The team was acquired by the US investment group Dorilton Capital last August, and the Italian Grand Prix marked the last time the Williams family, for now at least, was in the pit box for the Grove squad. Perhaps, although, the purchase was necessary. It injected new blood into the team, and it opened a fresh new chapter for them.
To make things look even better, the new CEO is none other than the former director of motorsport at Volkswagen (and also a former McLaren employee, but Woking fans don’t want to remember that loss) Jost Capito. So, not only are Williams under fresh management, but the new management are people who not only have capital, but also a hefty load of motorsport experience. There is hope at Grove, and the signs are encouraging. The team was able to keep George Russell – even after he almost won a race on his debut for Mercedes last year – and Nicholas Latifi, who despite having had a mostly quiet rookie year, impressed enough aboard the FW43 to stay on for another season.
The 2021 Williams chassis – the FW43B – is a car that is pretty much undeveloped from last year’s FW43, as Williams had already used one of its development tokens during the 2020 season. But despite that, it seems that the car has improved over the winter, picking up from the gains from last year. At the end of the 2020 season, the FW43 was pretty much on pace with the Haas‘ on race day, and courtesy of Russell’s impressive Saturday performances, was able to beat the American squad fairly regularly on Saturdays.
Williams’ 2020 was an improvement on 2019 and, from everything observed during pre-season testing, it seems 2021 will be another year of gains for the Grove squad. They seem to be more or less where they were last year – ahead of Haas on pure pace and the FW43B seems more consistent in the long runs compared to the VF-21. With the newly obtained knowledge that Russell gathered at Mercedes – the team and himself have mentioned this multiple times already – Williams have a rather interesting pot of ingredients to play around with in 2021, while preparing for a fresh restart in 2022.