F1 is back in 2021!

The 2021 Formula 1 season kicks off this weekend with the Bahrain Grand Prix. It’s been over 3 months since the last race of the 2020 season and fans all around the world can’t wait to see the drivers back in action this weekend.

Let’s look at some of the key talking points ahead of this weekend’s season opener.

Driver changes

A new season almost always brings with it new drivers. In 2021, there are some new faces and one very popular older face.

The rookies are Yuki Tsunoda (Alpha Tauri) and the Haas duo of Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher. Understandably, the arrival of Mick Schumacher in Formula 1 is massive for the sport, as he is the son of the great Michael Schumacher. For Mick, that means he will be under a great deal of scrutiny as he gets to grips with F1 in his rookie year. The pressure is very much on.

Mick Schumacher is making his F1 debut at the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix (Photo by Zak Mauger / LAT Images)

Rejoining the grid for the first time since 2018 is double-World Champion Fernando Alonso. Having spent two years out of F1 and in pursuit of motor racing’s fabled Triple Crown, Alonso is back driving for the team with which he won back-to-back titles in 2005-6, though the team has rebranded from Renault to Alpine.

Among the drivers who remained in F1 from last season, there has been quite a reshuffle. In fact, only 3 out of the 10 teams are fielding unchanged line-ups.

Sebastian Vettel has left Ferrari to join Aston Martin (last season’s Racing Point). His place at Ferrari has been taken by Carlos Sainz, whose McLaren drive has been taken over by last year’s Renault driver Daniel Ricciardo.

Ricciardo’s seat at Renault (now Alpine) has been taken by Fernando Alonso.

At Red Bull, Alex Albon has been shown the door and replaced with Sergio Perez, who looked for a while to be out of a drive at the end of last season when Racing Point (now Aston Martin) announced they had signed Vettel.

Haas is the only team with a completely new driver line-up, having opted not to retain Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen. They have been replaced by Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher.

Mercedes, Alfa Romeo and Williams are the only teams who have retained both of their 2020 drivers for 2021.

In case that was too confusing to follow (it’s an awful lot of changes), you can find the 2021 teams and drivers here.

Team changes

There are no completely new teams in 2021, but two of the existing teams have rebranded.

Fernando Alonso testing the striking new Alpine A521 in Bahrain (Image: Alpine Racing)

Renault have decided to rebrand their F1 team to Alpine, the Renault sports car brand. The Alpine colours have resulted in a striking livery that is already very popular with fans.

The much more high profile change, however, has been the rebranding of Racing Point to Aston Martin and the associated return of British Racing Green to the Formula 1 grid in the Aston Martin livery. It’s been over 60 years since an Aston Martin last raced in Formula 1, and the results then were generally poor. This time, things are looking much more promising, however. Sergio Perez won the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix at the wheel of a Racing Point on his way to 4th in last year’s Drivers’ Championship. Racing point also finished 4th in the Constructors’ Championship, with 3 podiums including the win.

In other team news, McLaren have switched from Renault power to Mercedes, rekindling the McLaren-Mercedes partnership that was so successful from 1995 to 2014.

Record 23-race calendar

Looking at the Formula 1 schedule for 2021, you wouldn’t guess that the world is in the grip of a pandemic. While most of the world is avoiding travel and trying to stay home as much as possible, the Formula 1 circus will be travelling to 22 countries to put on a record 23 races.

F1 will return to Zandvoort in The Netherlands for the first time since 1985. Zandvoort was scheduled to host the Dutch Grand Prix in 2020, but it was cancelled due to the Covid-19 pandemic. Max Verstappen’s army of orange fans will be hoping the pandemic eases sufficiently in their country to be able to attend the race en masse in September.

The only completely new race on the 2021 calendar is the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, scheduled to run through the streets of Jeddah on 5 December. It will be F1’s second all-night race, after the Singapore Grand Prix. Night races have proven very popular with the drivers and fans as the cars look spectacular under artificial lighting.

Since it was announced late last year, the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix has been a contentious presence on the 2021 calendar. Human rights groups including Amnesty International have criticised Formula 1 for planning to race in Saudi Arabia, citing human rights violations in the kingdom. Many such groups have called on Lewis Hamilton to boycott the race. Hamilton has become a rallying point in Formula 1 for social change. It remains to be seen how he will approach the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, if he races in it at all.

Hamilton vs Verstappen – will it happen at last?

Since the start of the hybrid era in 2014, Formula 1 has been thoroughly dominated by Mercedes. With 7 consecutive Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships, it’s been almost as though Mercedes have been racing in a different series to everyone else. It’s easier to count the races Mercedes haven’t won over the past 7 seasons than the ones they have.

Red Bull’s Max Verstappen claimed the first pole position of 2021 in Bahrain (Image Credit: FIA Pool / LAT Images)

It was largely expected to be business as usual in 2021, but so far it seems that may not be the case. Red Bull looked like having the quickest car in testing, though testing times always need to be taken with a pinch of salt. More significantly, Max Verstappen has been fastest throughout the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend thus far. He topped all 3 Free Practice sessions and put his Red Bull on pole by more than a third of a second from second-placed Hamilton.

It really does look like Red Bull have the pace for a title challenge, but of course it’s only the first race of the season. There will be a great deal of development going on at all of the teams through the year, so the order could change as the season progresses.

While Lewis Hamilton has won 6 out of the last 7 Drivers’ Championships (the other one went to Nico Rosberg in 2016), Max Verstappen has for a while been considered Hamilton’s natural successor at the top of F1. Unfortunately Verstappen hasn’t had the car underneath him to challenge Hamilton on a regular basis. If Red Bull really are as quick as Mercedes in 2021, it seems we may be in for a season-long battle between two Formula 1 superstars in Hamilton and Verstappen. We can only hope the battle remains close all year.

Covid-19

The 2020 Formula 1 season was significantly affected by the Covid-19 pandemic. 13 races were cancelled due to the pandemic and the start of the season was delayed until July. Due to the risks of traveling to many countries, races took place at several circuits that were not originally on the calendar, including Imola, Portimao and Mugello.

While Covid-19 protocols were strictly enforced within the Formula 1 “bubble” that travelled to the races, there were nonetheless some infections including among the drivers. Sergio Perez, Lance Stroll and Lewis Hamilton all missed races due to contracting Covid-19, while Lando Norris and Charles Leclerc also contracted the disease but did not have to miss any action.

Nico Hulkenberg made a surprise comeback to F1 to replace Perez and Stroll when they were ill. George Russell subbed in for Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes, which allowed Jack Aitken to make his F1 debut for Williams.

Although Covid-19 vaccines are now available and many countries are vaccinating aggressively, it remains to be seen how the pandemic will affect the 2021 season. In 2020, infections among the drivers did not really affect the outcome of the championship, but there’s no way of knowing if it could affect the 2021 title race.

The pandemic is likely to continue to result in additional waves of infections in various parts of the world. The 2021 calendar has already been affected by regulations in place in Australia that meant the planned season opener in Melbourne had to be rescheduled to 21 November. More changes to the schedule are possible in a season that will doubtless be further affected by Covid-19 in some way or other.

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