Will F1’s longest season be Lewis Hamilton’s last? Why Max Verstappen could have major say in 2021
The 2021 Formula One season gets underway with the Bahrain Grand Prix this weekend, and ahead of the race on March 28, the results from testing point towards Max Verstappen and Red Bull posing the greatest danger to Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes reclaiming their respective drivers and constructors’ titles. There’s also a familiar face returning to F1, and a new Schumacher on the grid.
Lewis Hamilton is chasing title number eight - Max Verstappen is after his first
Get set for a marathon Formula One campaign. With 23 Grand Prixs scheduled, F1 is looking to forget a 2020 of delayed starts, cancelled races and double-headers, and bring fans a season of uninterrupted drama across five continents.
There is no telling what impact the Covid pandemic could have on the 2021 season, but having delivered 17 races last year organisers will be hoping for a smooth operation away from the track and a thrilling spectacle on it.
For that to be the case, someone needs to challenge Lewis Hamilton, and for that to happen, a team needs to dethrone Mercedes.
Step forward Red Bull and Max Verstappen. Though Valtteri Bottas has been the runner-up the past two years, it is Verstappen - after two consecutive third-place finishes – who stands as the greatest threat in Hamilton’s bid for an outright record eighth drivers’ title.
Pre-season testing in Bahrain has helped talk up the prospect of Verstappen ending Mercedes’ dominance, with the Red Bull driver topping the timesheets on the final day earlier this month.
However, the 23-year-old said it would be “stupid” not to expect Mercedes to come roaring back despite Hamilton struggling and spinning his W12 car during testing.
“For sure the test was a positive start for us and you can always be happy when you get that number of laps in and get a good understanding of the car,” said Verstappen.
“But it doesn’t say anything about pure performance. I know people are excited and think we are just saying this, but Mercedes are still the favourites – how can they not be when they have won seven world championships in a row?
I’m sure Mercedes also want people to think we are the favourites and put the pressure on us. But we are just focussed on ourselves. You can be sure that everyone in this team and at Honda is pushing to beat them and anyone else who may be quick this year. I see every season as a new opportunity to beat them, but we would be stupid to expect that fight to be easy and look at testing and think we are ahead.
2021 Formula One schedule
1. March 28 - Bahrain GP
2. April 18 - Emilia-Romagna GP
3. May 2 - Portuguese GP
4. May 9 - Spanish GP
5. May 23 - Monaco GP
6. June 6 - Azerbaijan GP
7. June 13 - Canadian GP
8. June 27 - French GP
9. July 4 - Austrian GP
10. July 18 - British GP
11. August 1 - Hungarian GP
12. August 29 - Belgian GP
13. September 5 - Dutch GP
14. September 12 - Italian GP
15. September 26 - Russian GP
16. October 3 - Singapore GP
17. October 10 - Japanese GP
18. October 24 - United States GP
19. October 31 - Mexico City GP
20. November 7 - Sao Paulo GP
21. November 21 - Australian GP
22. December 5 - Saudi Arabian GP
23. December 12 - Abu Dhabi GP
As Verstappen looks to challenge Hamilton, questions regarding the latter’s future in the sport will likely increase as the season goes on, having belatedly signed a one-year contract to race with Mercedes for the 2021 campaign.
Hamilton only signed in February, and the 36-year-old – who is the third-oldest driver on the grid this year – is not planning too far ahead given what he has achieved already.
“Firstly, I’m in a fortunate position where I’ve achieved most of the stuff I’ve wanted to achieve up to this point, so there’s no real need to necessarily plan too far ahead in the future,” he said at the Mercedes car launch earlier this month.
'The car won't be as fast this year' - Hamilton on Mercedes launch
“I think we live in quite an unusual period of time, I just wanted one year. Then we can talk about if we do more, and keep adding one, if we have to.”
In his pursuit for No.8, a stronger challenge from Verstappen could certainly test Hamilton and give the Briton a new lease of life having waltzed to the title in the past few years.
Hamilton won by 124 points last year, 87 in 2019, 88 in 2018 and then 46 in 2017, and with those four straight titles coming without a serious and sustained challenge from Bottas, it could be Verstappen who ends this period of dominance.
The Mercedes car could also play a part, having looked off the pace in testing.
"There are a lot of unknowns," said Mercedes strategy director James Vowles. "No-one up and down the paddock can pinpoint exactly where they are. But there are a few trends that have come out. I'd say Red Bull are ahead on performance. They are the class act.
Remarkable Hamilton equals Schumacher's tally of seven world titles
"Are we going to have a close season? I would say so. Red Bull are a fierce adversary, they've got a strong package and clearly came out of the box very, very quick.
"The result of that is across the season and across different types of track layouts, I am sure you will see us move forwards and backwards relative to them, but I don't believe we are going into this particularly finding all the performance that is missing or being ahead of them."
What else to look out for
Fernando Alonso’s return – A new season means a new name with Renault now dubbed Alpine, but there is a familiar face in the re-branded paddock after two years away from F1. Two-time champion Fernando Alonso is back, fit after the cycling injury sustained last month, and on the final day of testing the 39-year-old Spaniard finished ninth, four places ahead of new team-mate Esteban Ocon.
Fernando Alonso (Alpine) y Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes)
Image credit: Getty Images
The prospects of Alonso making the podium appear slim, but though a midfield battle is on the cards he could look to replicate Daniel Ricciardo’s results last year with Renault – the Australian came third twice to finish fifth overall.
New names - The headline name among the rookies this year is MickSchumacher, the 2020 F2 champion who is following in the footsteps of his father, Michael.
Mick missed out on a practice debut in F1 at the Nurburgring with Alfa Romeo last year, but he eventually got a taste at Abu Dhabi with Haas, for whom he will be racing with in 2021 alongside fellow rookie NikitaMazepin.
Mick Schumacher (vorne) und Nikita Mazepin - Haas
Image credit: Getty Images
Schumacher and Mazepin are old karting rivals, with the latter suggesting this could be a duel to watch after admitting he is “not friends” with his new team-mate.
Elsewhere, Pierre Gasly has a new team-mate in 20-year-old rookie Yuki Tsunoda, who has been propelled from Japanese Formula 4 in 2018 to F1 just three years later. Tsunoda finished third in F2 last year and impressed in testing when finishing second on the final day.