The 2021 Formula 1 season, which begins March 28 in Bahrain, is going to be a little odd.
There were supposed to have been new regulations this year to make the sport more exciting, but the COVID-19 pandemic and the financial impact on the sport led the sport to decide that it was best to keep the same basic rules for an additional season and then bring in the changes in 2022.
At the same time, there are new commercial agreements agreed which caps teams’ budgets at $145 million. Of course, the list of items exempt from the budget caps (including driver salaries, marketing costs, and salaries of the three highest paid personnel) make the cap a soft cap at best. This has meant that the big teams have had to find ways to save money and become more efficient, with some staff being moved to other activities. But was that enough to make a difference? Probably not.
At the same time, there are some changes in the aerodynamic regulations. These are minor in comparison to the normal season-to-season changes, but they may have some effect as they will reduce the downforce at the back of the cars and will impact on the way they use the Pirelli rubber. There will also be some new specification tires, featuring a revised construction. The bold move to 18-inch tires was pushed back to 2022.
The 2021 tires were tested last year at Bahrain and Portugal with each driver being given two sets of the tires in practice in Bahrain after they had tried initial prototypes in Portugal. No one wants to be overly critical of the tire supplier, but seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton admitted that he was not a fan.
“We’ve had the same tire for the last two years,” he said. “At the end of 2019 they brought a new tire, which they normally do, and it was quite a bit worse. So then they just said: ‘OK, well now we just keep the tire that we had from last year’. So they have had two years to develop a better tire. And we’ve arrived with a tire that’s three kilos heavier. And it’s like a second worse per lap. This doesn’t make much difference for the fans but from a driver point of view, it definitely doesn’t feel good out there.”
The other element to add to the mix is that for 2021 engine development has been allowed within some restrictions. There is only new spec this year and if those involved don’t get it right, then they are stuck with the result. However, Ferrari thinks it has made a step forward, which is good because the engines were a disaster last year, Honda has also been pushing hard.
So, can we expect changes in the pecking order? It is difficult to say, but in general terms, car development is a bit of an arms race, with everyone making improvements and little actual change taking place as a result.
There is the added uncertainty of when teams will decide to give up on 2021 development in order to concentrate of the new 2022 cars. Haas F1 Team has already said it’s attentions are on 2022, and not 2021. So, would you bet against another title for Lewis Hamilton and another Constructors’ title for Mercedes-Benz? Perhaps not.
But there is no doubt that Red Bull and Honda, which is leaving the sport after 2021, have been pushing very hard to give the Japanese car company a happy ending after an unhappy time in F1. Red Bull wants the maximum from its engines because the team will take over the engine development in 2022, using Red Bull V6 engines.
One can suggest that Aston Martin might do a better job and could perhaps win a race if Mercedes falls over itself (as happens sometimes). Racing Point (which is what Aston Martin was called) did that in Bahrain last year, against all odds. And let’s not forget that Scuderia AlphaTauri did it as well at Monza, where Pierre Gasly won a most unlikely victory.
McLaren has switched from Renault engines to Mercedes and, in theory, this should produce a better car. Renault has done more than just rebranding itself as Alpine as has fixed some of the weaknesses that it found last year.
The fight at the top of the midfield (which was basically everyone behind the two Mercedes and the two Red Bulls in 2020) was wildly exciting last year and you really had no clue who would emerge ahead. In the end consistency gave the place to McLaren.
Then there’s rookies Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin at Haas, and rookie Yuki Tsunoda at AlphaTauri. Sergio Perez is at Red Bull after a surprising fourth-place finish in the Drivers’ Championship last year for Racing Point. Other faces in new places include Carlos Sainz at Ferrari, Daniel Ricciardo at McLaren, and four-time champion Sebastian Vettel is getting a new start at Aston Martin.
On balance, it will be hard to beat Mercedes. It is such a great team, but one should never underestimate Red Bull. And the rest will be a wild blur of action.
So while some fans might complain about 2021 looking like the same old Formula 1, there’s still plenty to watch.
After all, everyone likes complaining a bit, don’t they?
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