The wait is finally over: Formula One’s 2021 season blasts-off this weekend in Bahrain, with the Middle Eastern nation the first stop on the sport’s record-23 round World Championship. One that’s expected to see the hugely anticipated return of the Canadian Grand Prix on June 13.
And we’re expecting a close-fought, thrilling competition, with Red Bull Racing set to finally take the fight to Mercedes, which has so far dominated F1’s turbo-hybrid era with seven-straight title doubles. But, it’s just one of the big stories we’re expecting from this far more COVID-normal campaign.
RED BULL v MERCEDES
Red Bull was the undeniable star of F1’s hectic, three-day pre-season test, with Max Verstappen setting the fastest time overall. His RB16B looks the business, stable and quick, he has a strong new teammate in veteran racer Sergio Pérez, and Honda has brought forward updates originally scheduled for 2022, with this its last year as the squad’s power unit partner.
It’s a world away from Mercedes, whose drivers struggled in pre-season testing with the W12’s nervous rear-end. An issue that could hamper former Sharp cover star Lewis Hamilton in his quest for a record-breaking eighth crown, which would put him one ahead of the great Michael Schumacher’s stratospheric total.
“It’s probably the only year that I would have asked for more days [of pre-season testing] because we’ve got lots of work to do,” said Hamilton. “We’ve never felt in the past that we were quicker than everyone else after testing because you never know what people are doing with the fuel and set-ups.”
A NEW-LOOK GRID
There’s no shortage of changes in 2021. Renault has transformed into its sportier marque Alpine, and brought back its favourite son; two-time F1 World Champion Fernando Alonso, after two years racing other categories. The Spaniard is paired with French gun Esteban Ocon, both aggressive racers.
British supercar manufacturer Aston Martin has also returns after more than 60 years, rebranding what was Racing Point, and has installed four-time F1 World Champion Sebastian Vettel – fresh from Ferrari – along top Canuck Lance Stroll, who’s the son of billionaire team and brand co-owner Lawrence.
Other changes include Spaniard Carlos Sainz’s arrival at Ferrari, where he will join the Scuderia’s sweetheart Charles Leclerc to help push the Prancing Horse back where it belongs – at the front. McLaren is also a dark horse, with a fresh Mercedes power unit and a formidable line-up in new recruit Australian Daniel Ricciardo, and promising Brit Lando Norris.
There’s also some exciting rookies in Mick Schumacher, son of F1 icon Michael, who makes his debut 30 years after his father’s at the 1991 Belgian Grand Prix. The German will be at US-team Haas.
Yuki Tsunoda, the first F1 driver to be born in the new millennium, and Japan’s first man on the grid since Kamui Kobayashi in 2014, also joins the sport, with the highly rated 20-year-old taking on race winner Pierre Gasly at AlphaTauri. That match-up could prove to be one of the year’s biggest battles.
NEW RACES, NEW PLACES
Fans will rejoice for the sport’s return to Imola (Italy), and Portimão (Portugal), both of which were eleventh hour additions to the calendar last year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Not to mention the trips back to F1’s classic tracks, including Montreal – where we’ll again proudly have two Canadians racing, in Stroll (for Aston Martin) and Nicholas Latifi at Williams.
But, we’ll also see the Dutch Grand Prix return for the first time since 1985 on the back of unbridled interest in Red Bull’s Max Verstappen; and the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, which is set to take place under lights along the Red Seafront in Jeddah. The 6.175km track will not only be F1’s longest street track, but also the fastest at an average speed of 250km/h.