While the debate rages on surrounding the outcome of the 2021 Formula One world championship, won by Max Verstappen over Lewis Hamilton amid a controversial conclusion to the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, it is easy to forget the rest of drivers and teams.
Bahrain hosts its third grand prix in four months when the curtain is raised on the 2021 Formula One season on Sunday.
Having staged back-to-back events as the penultimate destination in a COVID-compromised 2020 schedule, Sakhir hosts the opening round for the first time since 2010 and third since joining the calendar in 2004.
Those twin races – held on alternating layouts in late November and early December – were memorable for entirely different reasons.
In the first on the traditional layout, Romain Grosjean’s heroic escape from an inferno following his opening-lap crash provided Formula One’s most dramatic moment in recent memory. This came to represent his final race as he recovered from burns to his hands, with the Frenchman moving to IndyCar this season.
The latter – conducted on the outer circuit – was equally dramatic for George Russell’s starring turn. He was deputising for Sir Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes, who contracted COVID following the first race. Only a bungled pit stop, which saw him fitted with multiple tyre compounds, and a later puncture denied the Briton a likely victory.
Sergio Perez was the beneficiary as the Mexican broke through for his and Force India’s first victory. It was extra poignant with his future in the sport then uncertain, having been cast aside for Sebastian Vettel’s impending arrival at the outfit now known as Aston Martin.
The 30-year-old was ultimately handed a lifeline by Red Bull at Alexander Albon’s expense, which could prove fortuitous.
The solitary pre-season test at the start of the month, the close proximity to last year’s races and the regulations overhaul originally intended for this season all means you could be forgiven for assuming that the pecking order is known.
Yet it appears anything but on the basis of the admittedly diminished sample size offered by those three days, with the most realistic potential for the Mercedes juggernaut to be halted since the hybrid era commenced in 2014.
Red Bull appears to have made a considerable leap during the off-season ahead of their final campaign, enjoying the partnership with Honda.
They finally look primed to compete with Mercedes from the outset if not set the pace, in contrast to their tendency in recent years to develop the car into one of the quickest across the course of the season, only to start the following campaign on the back foot.
It’s a pivotal year for the Milton Keynes outfit if they’re to have any chance of retaining Max Verstappen beyond this season. There is considerable speculation that the Dutchman – alongside Williams’ Russell – is in line for a berth with the German manufacturer should Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas move or be moved on.
That Hamilton is committed only for 2021 following lengthy negotiations suggests all parties are considering their long-term options despite the Briton claiming the past four championships.
Another this season – which would see the 36-year-old surpass Michael Schumacher for a record eight titles – coinciding with the incoming regulation changes potentially represents an ideal time to conclude the immensely successful relationship.
It is relevant that there are an unprecedented 23 grands prix to negotiate before any of that, provided COVID doesn’t intervene. But pace-setting form from Red Bull and Verstappen will surely hasten the discussion.
Outside of the battle for supremacy, there are several subplots that will provide sufficient interest in a season that once shaped as a placeholder.
Fernando Alonso’s return to the sport with Alpine (formerly Renault), having recovered from a broken jaw sustained in a cycling accident, and Mick Schumacher’s arrival with Haas – where the naturally and perhaps unfairly high expectations will have to be significantly tempered based on testing – immediately spring to mind.
There’s the aforementioned Aston Martin presence, enjoying Vettel’s input, with the German seeking to rediscover his spark following a fizzling conclusion to the four-time champion’s Ferrari tenure.
Interrupted running in testing was inconclusive, but if they can build on last year’s momentum, they’ll be routinely contending for podiums.
McLaren – armed with Mercedes power for the first time since 2014 and now boasting Daniel Ricciardo – will finally be hoping to contend for victories. The Australian appeared immediately settled into his new surroundings during testing and the team suffered no apparent issues from the new engine or chassis integration.
Alpha Tauri rookie and the sport’s first Japanese driver since 2014, Yuki Tsunoda, demonstrated the hallmarks of a bright future, displaying impressive maturity in testing. He will surely be at the forefront of consideration by Red Bull for promotion if he can deliver.
Ferrari is Ferrari and while they seem to have turned a corner in the immediate post-Vettel era with Carlos Sainz joining Charles Leclerc from McLaren, there’s still a long road for them to climb back to contending for titles as they were just a couple of years ago.
The anticipation for action is reaching fever pitch in the hope that there’s a sorely needed new force in town, and if this is realised come Monday morning, we’re set for a classic season before wholesale change arrives in 2022.