A Preview of the 2021 Formula One Season
"It's lights out, and away we go!" The waiting has finally come to an end.
"It's lights out, and away we go!" The waiting has finally come to an end. With the Covid-19 pandemic, the 2020 Formula One (F1) season was cut short due to travel difficulties and a rise in positive cases among drivers and F1 staff members. Nonetheless, F1’s highly anticipated 23-race season began this weekend, with the first Grand Prix taking place in Bahrain. The F1 season is expected to be more exciting than ever before with the addition of more races, regulation changes, and the usual excitement of driver and team debuts.
Red Bull's Year to Shine?
Will 2021 finally be the year we see a proper battle between Mercedes and Red Bull? Rightfully so, the duel between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen––two racers who have been the fastest and most consistent since 2018––is once again one of the season’s most hyped rivalries. Red Bull has strengthened its driver line-up by replacing Alex Albon with former Racing Point driver Sergio Perez. The Bulls hope that Perez will back-up Verstappen's strong performance and place additional pressure on rivals Mercedes. Moreover, Red Bull upgraded its power unit by fast-tracking a plan with engine provider Honda that was meant to take place in 2022. Honda's superb hybrid technology will be vital in keeping Red Bull competitive against other teams with high-quality engines.
Fans already got to see Hamilton and Verstappen go head-to-head during the nail-biting Bahrain Grand Prix. While Mercedes struggled with a lack of pace and frequent lock-ups throughout the preseason, Mercedes’ Hamilton triumphed over the Dutchman in an intense race that went down to the wire. Verstappen’s pole position lead from a successful qualifying session did not last long, as Hamilton led the race after the first round of pit stops. With three laps remaining, Verstappen tried one last overtake on Hamilton but ran off the track and had to give first place back to the Englishman. The season opener was a disappointment for Red Bull and a relief for Mercedes; yet, with Hamilton winning by just 0.7 seconds, there will be a close battle for supremacy in the upcoming races.
New Season, New Rules
Without a doubt, the biggest change in 2021 is the introduction of F1's first-ever cost cap––a new policy that will set the spending limit at $145 million (with the budget cap expected to reduce to $140 million in 2022 and $135 million in 2023). The set of financial regulations will prevent teams’ monetary investments from solely impacting performance and will greatly contribute to bringing back the game's competitive spirit by promoting a level playing field.
Rule changes have also led to a standardized tweak of the floor shape. In past years, the floors were rectangular with various longitudinal and lateral slots, a deliberate structure to increase downforce generated around floor edges, which created stronger suction underneath the car and improved overall ground effect. Yet, this year, F1's new aero rules require all cars to implement a floor with triangular cutaways near the rear to reduce downforce and generate surface area.
Moreover, the Fédération Internationale de l'Automobile (FIA) has made a rule change that will only affect one team: the dominant Mercedes Silver Arrows. Under 2021 F1 rules, Mercedes will be banned from using their typical Dual-Axis Steering (DAS) system. In 2020, we saw World Champion Hamilton and teammate Valterri Bottas regularly push and pull their steering wheels to change the front tires' camber levels––an advantage of the DAS system that allowed Hamilton and Bottas to control tire temperatures easily on circuits with long straights. To ensure fair play, the FIA outlawed the DAS model; better luck next time, Mercedes.
Redemption for Daniel Ricciardo
Surprisingly, the seven-time race winner Daniel Ricciardo hasn't taken the chequered flag since the 2018 Monaco Grand Prix. Following a move to Renault after a fallout with Red Bull, the 31-year-old has changed teams again: this time to McLaren. Though some may find his career pivot questionable, McLaren is a team on the rise to the top, finishing third in the Constructors' Championship last year. They’ve also switched from using an uncompetitive Renault engine to the exceptional Mercedes-AMG unit—an encouraging sign for future success. The two-time World Champion possesses enough talent and skill to win races and score points; Ricciardo's overtaking maneuvers and ability to perform under pressure are second to none. Yet, the Australian needs a team capable of successfully supporting his ambitions, and McLaren could bring back the old Ricciardo.
While race schedules are still in flux, the 2021 F1 season will welcome fans to the stands, and this year in particular, the fans are in for a treat. With newcomers Yuki Tsunoda, Mick Schumacher, Nikita Mazepin, and teams Alpine and Aston Martin entering the grid, the midfield battle and the fight for third place in the Constructors' Championship will be extremely intense and close. For Red Bull, the ingredients are there to win multiple races, and there could be some serious questions to answer if the team fails to do so. As for who will be crowned champion, we'll just have to wait and see.