We are just a couple of days from the start of the 2021 Formula 1 season. Pre-season testing happened just a couple of weeks ago and for a change, it doesn’t seem like business as usual. Mercedes didn’t look at their domineering best as they have for the majority of the turbo-hybrid era of F1 which started in 2014. In fact, teams like Red Bull, McLaren, AlphaTauri are the ones on the ascent, while backfield players like Alfa Romeo and Williams have also seemingly taken a step forward. It is a complex year for the F1 teams as they grapple with the effects of the F1 budget cap which comes into action this year. Complicating things are also the new 2022 cars and the restrictions of developing the 2021 cars because of the COVID induced token system. Let’s take a look at the pecking order and hope for a bit more competitiveness by all teams during the 2021 season.
You just can’t write off the team that has won the last 7 constructors’ championships; one which will go down in history as one of the greatest ever. You can’t write off a team that has the most successful driver in the history of the sport in Lewis Hamilton. But the tests at Bahrain revealed a fast car that wasn’t comfortable in the corners. It also revealed a car that had some gearbox issues alongside some engine reliability question marks over it. It was fast, but not the fastest, and certainly not short of reliability issues. Mercedes will likely come out all guns blazing but from what we saw in pre-season testing, it is likely a Red Bull will be taking the chequered flag first at Bahrain this weekend.
There were hints of improved Red Bull competitiveness at the fag end of the last season when Max Verstappen took a dominating victory at Abu Dhabi. This time around Max also gets the amazing Sergio Perez as his teammate which makes the Red Bull Honda the most devastating driver pairing in F1. Honda has also made strides, massive strides in what will be its last season as an F1 engine supplier so it wants to go out with a bang. Honda acerbated the development of its 2022 power unit to make it in time for 2021 while Red Bull go a handle on the aerodynamics of the car. The new 2021 rules also benefit Red Bull as the removal of the ground floor area reduces 10 per cent aerodynamic downforce, but also plays into the hands of the high-rake concept of the RB16B. This car is looking like a world title winner, but it is never a good idea to write of Mercedes.
McLaren perhaps has the most changed car of all the 10 constructors. Mercedes changed engine suppliers — they went from Renault to Mercedes which is for all intents a massive upgrade because it is the engine that has won the world title crown for the last seven years. Alongside this, it has a new innovation with the rear diffuser. All this combined with the savvy of Daniel Ricciardo joining the team as the lead driver, this car is set to ruffle some feathers. McLaren managed P3 in the constructors but the field has closed and if Mercedes or Red Bull slip up, the McLaren Mercedes will not be far behind.
Red Bull’s sister team AlphaTauri is looking rapid. It gets the same Honda engine as the RB16B which some believe to be the class of the field. Instead of taking the Red Bull rear end and transmission, AlphaTauri focussed on the front suspension and it has created a rapid car. Pierre Gasly is looking good again but now is paired with teen sensation Yuki Tsunoda who was looking blinding fast. This AlphaTauri car will be more than a match for the mid-field thanks to the new regulations.
You don’t expect the iconic Scuderia in P5 on any list. But last year they were P6 and that too mostly through some spectacular driving from Charles Leclerc. They have certainly improved. The car is looking less draggy and that engine has become faster. It isn’t the slowest engine around anymore. In fact, this engine also has prodigious reliability as Ferrari powered cars managed the most testing time without issues. The driving pair is also looking better with Carlos Sainz seemingly fitting in like a glove alongside Leclerc. But the issues of SF1000 have hobbled Ferrari so much that they could only do so much with SF21 thanks to the token system. This car is looking decently quick and reliable but it certainly isn’t a race winner.
Racing Point was the team to beat for P3 last year and McLaren beat them to the punch. But now reinvigorated with the services of 4-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, and new Mercedes parts and more development, this car was expected to be the one to challenge for P3 this year but testing went horrendously wrong. Vettel lost as much as a day in testing time due to transmission issues. The car regardless is looking decently quick but it is too early to tell where it is. Vettel’s limited testing time also will inhibit his ability on mastering the car in the first few races and then there are broader question marks over the ability of Vettel who had such a torrid time at Ferrari in 2019 and 2020. Alongside his, the mercurial nature of Lance Stroll also doesn’t exude confidence.
Alpine is what Renault used to be. It is still owned by Renault because Alpine is the group’s sports car brand. Of all the big teams this car has seen the leats development. It is stuck on a modified chassis from 2019 and Renault hasn’t brought in an engine upgrade which means that it will likely be the slowest car on the straights. There was also a huge management reshuffle at Alpine with longtime boss Cyril Abiteboul leaving, and a new structure being put in with Laurent Rossi on the top as CEO, Davide Brivio as the boss of on-track operations and Marci Budkwoski as the boss of car development. This is a unique structure but it is also a new one. Add into the mix the phenom that is two-time world champion Fernando Alonso who is known to be a destabilising influence if the car is not strong enough. A lot shouldn’t be expected from the Alpine in 2021, though it should be close to Ferrari and Aston Martin.
Alfa Romeo now gets the new Ferrari engine and a new aerodynamic concept which is proving to make the car quite quick. At least this is what we witnessed at pre-season testing with Kimi Raikkonen putting up times that were way out of its league. The presence of Kimi Raikkonen, the 2007 world champion and the most experienced driver in F1 is sure to add stability and experience to the team apart from setting the tone of consistent development. Alongside him, Antonio Giovinazzi is a fast, talented driver who took some strides with consistency in 2020 so one can expect the Alpha Romeo to be closer to the mid-field.
Fuelled by investment from Dorliton Capital, the new Williams team looks solid. It has the services of the superb George Russell who has been tipped to take a seat at Mercedes in the coming year, but also it has the gifted Nicholas Latifi. The development of the car seems good enough that it is likely to usurp the Haas.
The Haas team decided in 2020 that it would focus on 2022, not 2021 to save money. To do that it even got rid of Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen as its drivers and for the first time hired two rookie drivers who are graduating from F2. It must be noted that Mick Schumacher isn’t just the son of Michael Schumacher but the reigning F2 champion and Nikita Mazepin for all the controversies he has been surrounded by, is known to be really fast. But they are rookies at the end of the day and with minimal development done to the Haas for the sake of compliance of the 2021 rules and the new Ferrari power unit, it will likely fall behind the Williams.