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Six things to look forward to in Formula One in 2021

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Roar Guru
25th March, 2021
9

Following a short off-season, Formula One is back for 2021, and while on the surface it appears the cars will be the same as last year, there have in fact been significant enough changes.

Tweaks to the floor towards the rear of the car to reduce the demands on the Pirelli tyres and limited mechanical development via a new token system mean that there might be a shake-up to the order in 2021 – and that’s without mentioning the raft of driver changes as well as changes to sporting regulations.

From a record season in terms of the number of races and the trialling of qualifying sprint races to what could possibly be a titanic battle between heavyweights for the championship, here are six things to look forward to in 2021.

A record-breaking 23-race season
From someone who preaches quality over quantity, this may seem a confusing element to be looking forward to. Though with what is shaping up to be an exciting season looming, with a possible Mercedes versus Red Bull Racing title fight on the cards and a tightly packed midfield, the more races the merrier.

The season will commence in Bahrain this weekend following the postponement of the Australian Grand Prix until November. The schedule will revisit popular additions to the revised 2020 season, such as Portimão and Imola, and welcome back all the regular favourites.

We’ll finally get to see the return of the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort, which was due to take place last year but was cancelled amidst the global pandemic. The first grand prix in the Netherlands to be held since 1985 will follow the Belgian Grand Prix on the last weekend of August and first weekend of September.

Saudi Arabia will join the calendar for its first race in Formula One around what has been claimed to be the world’s fastest street circuit. Jeddah will host the penultimate round of the championship under lights, with the Red Sea to provide a stunning backdrop.

The curtain will fall as it traditionally does in Abu Dhabi on 12 December, capping off what will be the longest season in Formula One – provided no race is cancelled due to the ongoing impact of COVID-19.

Again caution is stressed, with fatigue set to be a major factor among the travelling personnel. Given that outfits must be run much leaner than in the past due to the new US$145 million (A$190 million) cost cap, there is no chance to hire extra or rotate crews across the 23 races.

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Max Verstappen

Max Verstappen (Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Introduction of the cost cap and sliding aero scale

The aforementioned cost cap has been introduced to Formula One to limit the spending by the bigger teams on performance and create closer racing in future seasons.

With everyone only having only US$145 million to spend, teams like Mercedes, Red Bull Racing and Ferrari will have to deploy their resources more wisely, just as the team now known as Aston Martin has been famed to have operated in recent yearsw.

Its impact may not be felt immediately, though it is part of a longer term objective for Formula One to allow the gap between championship-winning teams at the front to close with the rest of the field.

The 2021 season will also see the introduction of the new sliding scale for aerodynamic development, which will restrict how much wind tunnel and CFD time the more successful teams have. The system works based on the team’s position in the standings in the previous season – the team that finishes first gets the least amount of development time while the lowest-placed team will get the most time in the wind tunnel.

Whether this rule will see teams try to tank to finish lower in the standings and therefore in a better position for the following year remains to be seen. For example, a team like Ferrari, which seems set to remain in the midfield this year, might be better off trying to secure more wind tunnel and CFD time for 2022 to ensure they return to being a title-winning force.

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The return of Fernando Alonso
It feels like a lifetime ago that Fernando Alonso won his two world championships in 2005 and 2006. Will the Spaniard be able to rekindle that same success on returns to Enstone for the third time in his career?

Many will say that it is unlikely. However, the 39-year-old does bring a certain aura with him and can provide some spectacular wheel-to-wheel racing, which since 2015 was wasted at the rear of the grid when McLaren were at their nadir with Honda.

Having spent two years away from Formula One, winning at Le Mans and the World Endurance Championship title, as well as having a crack at the gruelling Dakar Rally and another Indy 500, Alonso claims to be a much better driver upon his return.

Whether he’ll be a much less inflammatory presence remains to be seen, given that Alpine – formerly Renault – is still confined to the midfield and no closer to the likes of Mercedes and Red Bull Racing.

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The odd podium may be on the cards given that Renault claimed three in 2020, but there are other teams that look a lot more polished and faster than Alpine.

Alonso’s teammate, Esteban Ocon, will also have a point to prove in 2021, having had a lacklustre season last year trying to outperform Daniel Ricciardo. The Spaniard is a different operator altogether and has a reputation as a teammate killer.

As exciting as it is to see the name Alonso return to the sport, the fact he has returned to a team that isn’t completely bereft of problems means that this could be another timebomb. That said, if patience is exercised and Alpine nail the 2022 regulations, then we might see a happy Spaniard after all.

Fernando Alonso

(Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

Ricciardo, Sainz, Vettel or Perez?
Before the revised season even started in 2020 the trigger on the driver market was pulled when Ferrari announced they’d not be renewing with Sebastian Vettel for 2021. In turn they announced Carlos Sainz as his replacement, and Daniel Ricciardo then became the Spaniard’s successor at McLaren.

Ahead of Ferrari’s 1000th race celebration at Mugello, Vettel announced he would be joining Aston Martin in 2021, while after his emphatic maiden race win at the Sakhir Grand Prix Sergio Perez was hired by Red Bull Racing to replace the underwhelming Alex Albon.

Such significant changes to the grid for 2021 will no doubt create some exciting battles, chiefly among the midfield. However, given how competitive the midfield was in 2020, with some teams stealing race wins, these four drivers will play starring roles at their new teams.

Perez perhaps has the biggest pressure on his shoulders given that he is tasked with supporting Max Verstappen in attempting to topple the Mercedes juggernaut. Being a more mature racer than he was in 2013 when he was promoted to an undercooked McLaren team, there’s no doubt he’ll be pushing the Dutchman a la Ricciardo up until the end of 2018.

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McLaren, still on an upward trajectory, appear to have been the right move for Ricciardo, the Australian having split with Renault at the end of his lucrative two-year deal. Testing proved faultless for the now Mercedes-powered McLaren, and as jovial a pairing of the Aussie and Lando Norris will be, this is a team that could make it to the top step of the podium in 2021 in the right circumstances.

For Sainz, it is all about embedding himself into the recovery effort at Ferrari in order to bolster the Italians into a championship-challenging force in 2022. While many see two-time race winner Charles Leclerc as the number one at Maranello, Sainz’s leadership and racecraft at McLaren means he could yet rock the status quo.

As for Vettel, Aston Martin will be a refresher from the toxic environment of Ferrari at which he failed to take them to that elusive world championship. There’s no hiding the ambition of team owner Lawrence Stroll in wanting to make this team a winning force, and recruiting a four-time world champion who’s still only 33 years old is a positive step towards realising this objective.

Sebastian Vettel in his new Aston Martin cap

(Photo by Joe Portlock/Getty Images)

Sprint qualifying trial
It has been a topic on Formula One’s agenda for many years and a sore point among debaters across the board, but 2021 is set to see the Saturday sprint race concept trialled.

Rather than highlighting for the umpteenth time that having a qualifying sprint race is unnecessary because (a) it will devalue the grand prix if points and winners are declared on Saturday, (b) it will create headaches for teams if cars are damaged and (c) there’s nothing wrong with the current qualifying format, here instead are some reasons it could be entertaining.

Set to be trialled at Silverstone, Monza and Interlagos, the revised format will see practice on Friday remain the same but for the addition of the traditional qualifying house to set the grid for Saturday’s 100-kilometre sprint race.

There’ll be the usual Saturday practice also, but then instead of the three-pronged qualifying session there will be the sprint race, which will set the grid for the main event on Sunday.

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As a weekend ticket holder, having more Formula One racing to look forward to sounds like an exciting prospect, not to mention broadcasters will have more content to produce for the global audience tuning in.

Ultimately it is best to just wait and see how they pan out and whether they do shake up the results as intended before casting the final judgement. If indeed the concept bombs, there’s enough space between the proposed races to revert to the traditional qualifying format.

Then, if the new 2022 technical regulations shake up the grid enough and create more overtaking during the races, having to use such qualifying sprint races to achieve that will be moot.

Mercedes versus Red Bull Racing
Preseason testing revealed Mercedes to be at their most vulnerable since the start of the turbo-hybrid era of Formula One in 2014, as the seven-time world champions have appeared to struggle to adapt their car to the modified 2021-spec floors.

By contrast to Mercedes’s troubles during testing, Red Bull Racing showed a vastly different demeanour than in 2020. The RB16B was the opposite of skittish, and boosted by an upgraded Honda power unit for the Japanese manufacturer’s final season in Formula One, there’s a lot to be excited about the energy drinks giant this year.

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But will this preseason form be enough to topple the silver juggernauts and Lewis Hamilton? The Briton is of course chasing a record eighth crown to put himself above the great Michael Schumacher. Many are hoping Mercedes will be stopped, but only time will tell whether this will come to fruition.

Verstappen is as ready as he’ll ever be to fulfil the expectations that were set when he was a teenager to become one of the youngest champions to ever be crown in Formula One. There’s also a feeling of last-chance saloon for Red Bull Racing before the regulations reset next season, the team having failed to recapture their title-winning glory from before the turbo-hybrid era starting in 2014.

It’ll come down to whether Red Bull Racing can consistently have both Verstappen and Perez taking away points from Mercedes, the team having been able to count on only Verstappen to deliver consistent scores in the last two seasons.

Unless Mercedes have somehow corrected their testing shortcomings between preseason running and this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix, Red Bull Racing should be the team to start off on the front foot. But it will be about sustaining that form across the 23 races to stop the reigning world champions, who no doubt will get themselves back in order sooner or later.

While we may have a titanic battle on our hands between Hamilton and Verstappen, it is difficult to go against an eighth title for the Briton – but it is a battle that’ll go down to the wire and give us all the exciting championship fight we’ve been sorely missing.