Team-mates. It’s easier all round if the term is accurate and you get along, but delicious tension has to exist between two naturally selfish racing drivers working out of the same garage. The other guy is the incontrovertible yardstick by which you’ll always be judged.
Seven of the 10 Formula 1 teams have new line-ups heading into the new season this week in Bahrain – and as ever, each duo will exist under a shared unblinking glare for the next nine months. Here’s a reminder of what each has to lose and gain in 2021, plus we stick our neck out and predict which will have the upper hand.
Lewis Hamilton vs Valtteri Bottas
This doesn’t necessarily have to be the end of the line for Bottas at Mercedes-AMG. It could turn out to be the final fling for Hamilton instead, if he chooses to retire. But if Lewis sticks around for the new car regulations in 2022 – and right now we just don’t know what he will do, and neither (probably) does he – Valtteri knows what’s coming. He’s even hinted as much. In their fourth season together, there’s no reason to expect anything other than the usual pattern. In his quiet and intelligent way, Bottas will steel himself for the onslaught and inflict damage on Hamilton when the stars align. But has he really got it in him to ‘do a Nico Rosberg’ and beat Lewis over a season? Nothing we’ve seen suggests so, especially as Hamilton has pushed his own levels ever higher since that 2016 glitch in the matrix. Unless something unforeseen occurs, Bottas would be a great asset to Mercedes-affiliated Aston Martin in 2022 if the Vettel phoenix act fails to rise.
Team-mate on top: Hamilton. Neck probably safe on this one.
Max Verstappen vs Sergio Perez
Talk about walking into the lion’s den. Perez is long in the tooth to know beating Max in a Red Bull team constructed around the Dutchman is near-impossible – probably more than Bottas beating Hamilton at Mercedes. But that’s not really why Christian Horner and Helmut Marko have hired him. He’s there to do what he’s fantastic at: hoover up points and give Red Bull the strong second car they’ve lacked since Daniel Ricciardo left. ‘Checo’ has his mitts on a proper frontrunning car for the first time and intends to make the most of it. If pre-season testing proves an accurate taster, he’ll win races (yep, possibly more than one) when opportunity comes a-knocking. Getting the boot from Lawrence Stroll might well have been the best thing that’s ever happened to him (aside from that sweet win in Bahrain).
Team-mate on top: Verstappen, surely.
Daniel Ricciardo vs Lando Norris
Big season for 21-year-old Norris. ‘Make or break’, the cheeky cliché we pulled out for our recent interview with McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl, is too binary and too glib. But Lando does need to compare well to the incoming Ricciardo if his promising start to F1 life is to be maintained. Confidence and utter, unflinching self-belief might well be key here. Norris needs the mind-set that if he lets it all flow he will slay a genuine top-liner, rather than considering it a challenge he must screw himself up to meet. Get his head right and it could be the making of him (damn, there’s that cliché again). As for Ricciardo, 10 years Norris’s senior, McLaren might be his last chance to land somewhere that can give him a sniff of a title – not this year, but perhaps by the middle of the decade. He’ll surely be playing the long game and will impose himself on the team in his usual charming but unmistakably forthright manner. It’ll be an education for Norris, whatever plays out.
Team-mate on top: Close, we suspect – but Ricciardo should edge it.
Sebastian Vettel vs Lance Stroll
Before he worries about the ‘manager’s son’, Vettel needs first to dig deep and discover what’s left inside after the painful tailspin years at Ferrari. The old irrepressible force from the Red Bull glory days is hard to align with the wounded, sombre racing driver we’ve seen these months past. If Seb can win a race for Aston Martin and on merit, it would be among the greatest comebacks in sport, never mind in F1. He could have done without the gearbox and turbo boost pressure gremlins in testing, but a long season stretches out ahead. He should have the time and opportunity to turn it all around – if he has the stomach. As for Stroll, putting away a four-time world champion, past his best or otherwise, is surely all the motivation a young man might need.
Team-mate on top: Vettel. Maybe. C’mon, let’s have faith!
Fernando Alonso vs Esteban Ocon
We caught a glimpse of the incessant force of nature Ocon is up against at the Bahrain tests. On his official return to F1 in Alpine blue, Alonso quickly dropped into character, achieving metronomic consistency over two runs on Pirelli’s red- and yellow-walled tyres. Yes, he’s 39 and two years is a long stretch to be away, but everything we’ve seen so far suggests the matador has lost nothing while winning Le Mans and throwing up sand on the Dakar. God help Ocon – although just like Norris and Stroll, squaring up to a ‘big beast’ is a golden chance, not a challenge. He didn’t do enough against Ricciardo last season, so in that context this one really counts.
Team-mate on top: Alonso – but for Ocon’s sake it better be close.
Charles Leclerc vs Carlos Sainz
The priority here is definitely Ferrari form over how this tasty duo rub along. After its worst season in 40 years, Maranello needs its mojo back, but Bahrain testing was inconclusive on that front. If the SF21 is not significantly better than the SF1000 it would be a waste of a line-up that could be the strongest on the grid, if allowed to fly. Sainz’s rise has been something of a slow burn, but two accomplished years at McLaren sets him up well for the inevitable Ferrari maelstrom. He’s mature and well-rounded – and in Leclerc facing a Hamilton-Verstappen level of talent. This one should be good.
Team-mate on top: Leclerc, based on his ability to produce magic out of not very much.
Pierre Gasly vs Yuki Tsunoda
Gasly’s resurrection at AlphaTauri last year, after the Red Bull nightmare of 2019, was one of the happiest stories of the season. His recent outspoken criticism of how he was treated at the senior team carries a heavy whiff of burning bridges, so he better keep up the momentum this year if he wants a career beyond the squad that has now inherited the ‘best bang for buck’ tag from what used to be Racing Point. As for Tsunoda, that was a spirited pre-season display in Bahrain, but still he has it all to learn. Beating a more experienced team-mate puts a rookie on the map, but it’s not necessarily the priority – at least at first.
Team-mate on top: Gasly. Then what, we wonder?
Kimi Räikkönen vs Antonio Giovinazzi
The 2007 world champion is suited to life out of the limelight, while remaining an F1 fixture. Will he still be at Sauber/Alfa Romeo when he’s 45, we wonder…? The pressure here is all on the Italian, who in year three really must assert some authority over Kimi if he’s not to become yet another F1 footnote. There’s little to suggest anything at the Swiss team is about to change (does it ever?), but Giovinazzi might have 23 races to prove us wrong.
Team-mate on top: Räikkönen. Arrivederci, Antonio.
Mick Schumacher vs Nikita Mazepin
Mazepin’s junior career was solid, nothing more – so the young man with the oh-so-famous name has to put the Russian away. There’s little more Schumacher can do in a Haas, anyway. Hiding to nothing? Possibly. But Mick has a chance to settle into F1 without any expectation (except beating his team-mate), so it might be just the start he needs. Forget comparisons to the old man – that’s blatantly unfair and irrelevant. The first and only question he needs to answer in 2021 is does he deserve a chance to stick around at the pinnacle? As for Mazepin, he just needs to keep his mouth shut and drive after the embarrassment of his social media gaffe. Not sure he can come back from that.
Team-mate on top: Schumacher should edge it
George Russell vs Nicholas Latifi
A team-mate duel is not really a factor at Williams. Russell’s admirable patience must be stretched one more year and he’ll surely make the best of whatever the team has mustered with the FW43B. Expect more Saturday qualifying heroics and if the opportunity presents itself, the odd point he missed out on last term – until Hamilton’s bout of Covid handed him that unforgettable platform at the Sakhir GP. Latifi? He’ll work from his own baseline and will hope to keep on improving.
Team-mate on top: Nothing to see here. Russell, every time.