The 2021 F1 season is upon us, with the season opener at Bahrain taking place this Sunday (March 28). A good indication about what the pecking order for the upcoming season will be like, pre-season testing, albeit a shortened version, has just concluded due to the on-going pandemic. However, this year was all about reliability. Teams chose to do race simulation and long runs instead of glory laps or all-out fast laps.
With that, fans should take pre-season testing lap results with a grain of salt. Nonetheless, excitement is high for 2021 given that there were a lot of big and small changes up and down the field. Now, let's take a look at the grid.
Was there ever any doubt that we’d start the list off with Mercedes? After all, they bagged their seventh-straight title in a row. The team is also responsible for F1’s most successful driver (ever) Sir Lewis Hamilton.
The W12 E Performance retains the now-iconic black color and a smattering of the AMG logo on the engine cover. Drivers remain the same as well, with Valtteri Bottas as Sir Lewis’ teammate. Understandably, Mercedes-AMG chose to keep most of last year's components intact for 2021.
Their pre-season testing hasn’t exactly gone to plan, though. The W12 experienced gearbox issues that the team didn’t anticipate and hampered them severely; it even trickled down to one of their customer teams Aston Martin. Regardless, don't count them out. Mercedes-AMG is still one of the most successful F1 teams, not just recently but in F1's history.
Expect them to still be at the top of the running order, although the next team on the list is chomping at the bit to bring them down.
2. Red Bull Racing
If there was one thing that was clear last season, Red Bull has a firm hold on being the 2nd best team in the sport. Despite the extreme circumstances surrounding the last year, Red Bull still scored a few wins and was a mainstay on the podium throughout the season.
The 2021 RB16B is a slight evolution of last year's car, featuring tweaks to the aerodynamics (mainly the floorboards). The biggest change comes in the form of a new driver. Out goes Alex Albon, who struggled for most of the 2020 season, and in comes the master of consistency. That would be veteran driver Sergio Perez, who’s coming off the back of his most successful F1 season to date.
Red Bull has a reputation for being fast and loose with their driver line-up, much to the chagrin of fans and pundits. The addition of Perez, however, is seen as a heroic but shrewd move by the team. Not only is Perez talented and consistent, but he is also heavily sponsored by numerous Mexican companies.
Another boost to the team is their new deal with Honda, which sees Red Bull retain rights to develop their engine technology when the manufacturer pulls out of the sport at the end of this season. They were also able to benefit from the new mandate known as the “engine freeze” - basically all current specs for engines will remain the same for the foreseeable future. This assures Red Bull of no developmental headaches once Honda turns over all engine works to the team.
Pre-season testing was also another bright spot for the team. They showed not only a strong pace but reliability as well.
Mclaren has been on the rise in the past few seasons. After struggling in the early part of the hybrid era, last year was their best season to date. After finishing 3rd in the constructors' championship, they beat out their toughest and closest competitors: Racing Point and Renault.
Mclaren was also one of the teams hit hard by the pandemic, with the team having to cut down much of their expenses and even employees, making their 3rd place finish even sweeter for the team.
Looking to capitalize on their recent success, the team has hit the ground running. The MCL35M’s pre-season testing pace has been quick. Most people around the paddock already regard Mclaren as a dark horse this year.
Their driver line-up is also one to watch. They have Daniel Ricciardo, one of the most experienced and talented drivers on the grid. McLaren plucked the Australian away from a rival team in the hopes to bag a few podiums and hopefully a win (no, more wins, ideally). He will be racing alongside up-and-coming talent Lando Norris who improved immensely from last season.
Add all of that to the fact that Mclaren has a renewed engine partnership with Mercedes. It seems glory days are on the horizon once more for the storied team.
4. Aston Martin
Aston Martin is back in F1 after a 60-year absence. They’ve taken over what was once the Racing Point team.
Last year, they stirred up some controversy with rival teams claiming their 2020 car was a “Pink Mercedes”, a formal complaint was even lodged by its competitors, which got the team a penalty. Nonetheless, 2020 was a strong showing for them, only losing out by a few points to Mclaren for 3rd place in the constructors' race.
Apart from numerous podiums, they scored a win in the penultimate race of the 2020 season.
Carrying over their momentum to 2021, Aston Martin signed 4-time Drivers World Champion Sebastian Vettel to help lead the team into championship contention. Team owner Lawrence Stroll also hopes that his son Lance learns a valuable lesson or two from the German world champion.
The AMR21 experienced the same gearbox issues that plagued Mercedes-AMG. As a result, the team couldn’t maximize the limited testing time that many reckon could jeopardize their pace for the upcoming season.
However, this team has always thrived on being the underdog. With the support of one of F1’s most aggressive team owners, Aston Martin could be a force to be reckoned with this season.
Another team that changed its identity is Renault. From 2021, onwards, the team will now be known as Alpine. It’s a fitting name, given Alpine is deeply rooted in motorsports.
The A521 has a very striking colorway that pays homage to the British Union Jack and French Tricolore flag. Along with that new look, the team also experienced numerous personnel changes. Gone are outspoken team principal Cyril Abiteboul and Daniel Ricciardo. Laurent Rossi is the new head honcho, and making a return to F1 is double Drivers World Champion, Fernando Alonso.
While the team finished a respectable 5th in the constructors' championship last year, many believe that was a step back. Considering they are a manufacturer team with more budget than customer teams, they lost to Mclaren, Racing Point, Red Bull.
However, their pre-season pace has been decent. The fact that they were able to log in a lot of laps displayed the reliability of their car as well.
It’ll be exciting to see how Alonso’s return to F1 will turn out. He is known as one of the most demanding drivers in the paddocks. Will his influence push Alpine to the top? Only time will tell, but so far, things are looking good.
Of all the teams that struggled last year, it had to be Ferrari. The legendary marque had a dismal season, only finishing 6th overall. They would have probably been lower, had it not been for some brilliant driving by Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel, who were able to score some hard-fought podiums.
The main reason for their lack of performance was due to the FIA ruling they had an illegal power unit during the 2019 season. Thus, their 2020 engine was underpowered at best, and it was evident not just on a few occasions but across the whole 2020 calendar.
Despite all that, their testing pace was decent, and the team claims to have resolved their straight-line speed. Both Leclerc and new teammate Carlos Sainz Jr. had enough seat time between them to thoroughly shakedown the SF-21.
There is no denying that there is a tremendous amount of pressure for the team to perform better this year. For most fans, F1 isn’t the same if Ferrari isn’t competitive.
7. Alpha Tauri
Solid mid-field team Alpha Tauri had a very successful 2020 season that saw them score a win at the Monza Grand Prix. They raked in more points, too, thanks to the consistent driving of Pierre Gasly.
Alpha Tauri was also one of the only teams open about their improvements for the upcoming season. They chose to focus on aerodynamic efficiency for the AW21. They were also quick to point out how they are no longer Red Bull’s junior team, but rather a sister team, alluding to their independence in terms of car development and overall race decisions.
They continue their driver development ways though, by signing rookie Yuki Tsunoda to drive for them this upcoming season. So far, based on his testing performance, it seems the team made the right call. Tsunoda not only ran long stints but also clocked in one of the quickest laps of that session.
8. Alfa Romeo
Alfa Romeo has always been a solid mid-field team. However, the past two seasons have seen them slowly drop near the bottom. This is despite having a heavy involvement of parts from Ferrari and the services of 2007 world champion Kimi Raikkonen.
During the launch of the C41, the team was very realistic in terms of their performance. Team principal Fred Vasseur said they are looking to improve from last year and are very motivated to do so.
One bright spot for the team is their reliability. Alfa Romeo was able to log in a whopping 422 laps in testing, with the rest of the field averaging about 300 plus laps. So while they might not be at the peak of performance, maybe Raikkonen and teammate Antonio Giovinazzi could use that to sneak in decent point finishes.
A team not short on controversy has been Haas, and they did it again with the VF-21.
The main point of contention has been their colorway, which according to most resembles the Russian flag. Some claim the team violates a regulation that disallows the display or usage of the Russian flag in any global sport. This was because Russia was charged with violating anti-doping rules during the last winter Olympics.
To make matters worse, the team admitted that they aren’t looking to develop the VF-21 throughout the season. Instead, Haas opted to focus on 2022’s big regulation changes. It showed during their testing laps, as both rookie drivers Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin struggled to challenge the mid-field teams.
Fielding two rookie drivers are seen by most as a big gamble for the American team. It should be pointed out, though, that Schumacher was the 2020 F2 champion, and his teammate Mazepin also had a pretty successful F2 stint.
Lastly, while Haas has been struggling they were still able to surprise much of the grid and fans during their debut a few years ago. With two new talented drivers and more financial backing (thanks to Mazepin’s father), Haas has nowhere to go but up.
One of F1’s most storied teams has gone through a lot in 2020. After 43 years in control of the Williams team, the Williams family finally conceded control after being bought out by Dorliton Capital.
The U.S based private investment firm is eager to bring back the winning mentality (and results) to the team. While the FW43B retains much of last year's components, the new owners chose to hearken back to William’s glory days in the ’80s and ’90s by adorning the car in a mixture of white, yellow, and blue shades.
The team also chose to retain their driver line-up with George Russell and Nicholas Latifi. One of the main storylines last year was the former’s single stint at Mercedes when Hamilton tested positive for covid-19. Although he didn’t win the race, he led most of it and even upstaged most of the sport's established winners.
It’ll be interesting to see how Williams rises from the bottom. With fresh new management, more money, as well as a talented driver roster, hopefully, it will be the last time we feature them at the bottom of the list.
The 2020 season was one of the more entertaining seasons in recent memory, despite another dominant Mercedes team, there were a lot of surprises that were a delight to watch for any F1 fan.
We wish 2021 will be the same, given that most teams seem to have taken steps forward in terms of development. Not to mention the addition of a new track, the Jeddah (Saudi Arabia) Grand Prix - a city circuit that promises to be one of the fastest in the 2021 calendar.
With all the storylines and intrigue already surrounding the sport before the first red lights go green in Bahrain, fans (and Netflix) are in for a treat of a season.