No team has dominated Formula 1 like Mercedes have over the last seven years. Not even Ferrari in the Michael Schumacher age had as tight a grip on the sport as the Silver Arrows have since 2014. Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas could make it eight constructor championships in a row in 2021.
And yet despite this, there are ever-increasing signs of change. The sight of Lando Norris in pole position for Sunday’s Russian Grand Prix will be proof of this, as will be the presence of George Russell in third - alongside Lewis Hamilton, who he will join at Mercedes next season, on the second row.
Hamilton might well end 2021 with a record eighth drivers’ championship in-hand, but F1’s next generation is here. This can be seen in the consistent performances of Norris in a McLaren car with the straight line speed to compete with Mercedes and Red Bull and in the rise of Russell, who continues to get the most out of a Williams car that shouldn’t be anywhere near the front of the pack.
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Between Norris and Russell on the grid at the Sochi Autodrome this Sunday will be Carlos Sainz while his Ferrari teammate, Charles Leclerc, is enjoying another positive season, with the 23-year-old in sixth place in the standings. If the Scuderia can develop a competitive car, they will be set for the future.
At 25, Esteban Ocon is also seen as a member of F1’s next generation, with the French driver claiming his first race victory at the Hungarian Grand Prix before the summer break. Pierre Gasly, also 25 and French, took the chequered flag for the first time at Monza last year and has backed that up with an impressive 2021 campaign that has him currently sitting ninth in the standings.
Then, of course, there’s Max Verstappen. The Dutch driver might have been seen as one of F1’s best from the first moment he sat in a Red Bull, but he is still only 23. He will almost certainly enjoy at least another decade at the top of the sport and could even be F1’s next great in-waiting after Schumacher, Sebastian Vettel and Hamilton.
Of course, F1 will shake the snow globe for 2022 by ending the much-maligned hybrid era and bringing in a series of new regulations designed to level the playing field for all 10 teams. The irony of this is that the reshaping of the sport, designed to make F1 less predictable, comes at a time when Mercedes are no longer so untouchable.
Regardless of the impact these changes make, the generational shift at the top of F1 cannot be ignored. Every major team has a stake in the future through the employment of at least one promising young driver. Red Bull have Verstappen. McLaren have Norris. Ferrari have Leclerc. Alpine have Ocon. AlphaTauri have Gasly.
This is likely why Mercedes made the bold call to dump Valtteri Bottas in favour of Russell. With Bottas and Hamilton occupying the Silver Arrows’ two seats, they didn’t have a stake in the future like all of their rivals have. Russell, widely seen as a future world champion, will change this.
2021’s biggest story has been the title duel between Hamilton and Verstappen, the likes of which F1 hasn’t witnessed since Nico Rosberg’s championship victory over Hamilton in 2016, but the sport’s future plot lines are bubbling to the surface. The next generation won’t be kept quiet for any longer.
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