Title fight on the cards? 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix - what to watch

F1

The 2021 F1 season kicks off this weekend and there are several key stories to keep an eye on throughout the Bahrain GP

Lewis Hamilton, 2021 F1 testing

Are Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton be under pressure from Red Bull?

DPPI

And just like that the 2021 Formula 1 season is upon us. After the briefest of breaks, F1 returns to Bahrain for the opening round of the new season and there is plenty of change to keep an eye on this weekend.

Mercedes suffered a disappointing start to its season, clocking the least mileage of any team as rivals Red Bull shone to finish top of the pile in Sakhir.

Multiple drivers have been learning new names and remembering new faces with the likes of Daniel Ricciardo, Sebastian Vettel and Carlos Sainz all at new teams in 2021.

Then there’s the return of a certain two-time champion. Fernando Alonso makes his F1 comeback this weekend but isn’t the only return. ‘MSC’ is back on the timing screens as Michael’s son Mick Schumacher hopes to carry his F2 title momentum into F1 with a heap of pressure on his young shoulders.

Following just three days of testing, teams will be getting to grips with their new cars that have undergone slight changes from 2020, with smaller floors and reduced diffuser fins contributing to a loss in downforce.

Pirelli has already suggested that the cars will be just as fast this season after the aerodynamicists have worked their magic throughout the winter, but who has done the best job of adapting their ’20 car for the new season?

Here’s a few things to keep an eye out for throughout the Bahrain Grand Prix weekend.

 

Wolff in sheep’s clothing?

Toto Wolff, Mercedes 2021

A wry smile or eyes on the competition?

Grand Prix Photo

Team personnel have maintained that it was behind Red Bull in testing and there are countless clips of the W12 snapping on both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas but is Mercedes really at risk of being dethroned as F1’s quickest?

It’s a team that has achieved unparalleled success in recent years, taking seven consecutive title doubles and forming a dynasty that statistically eclipses the Ferrari of the early 2000s, but it has never looked so shaky going into a season during the hybrid era.

That doesn’t mean it can’t turn up and beat everyone on race day in Sakhir and there will have been plenty of work going on at Brackley during the two-week break since testing ended to rectify its issues.

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“The W12 wasn’t as stable, predictable or planted as some of our rivals,” team principal Toto Wolff said ahead of round one. “Red Bull looked strong on both the long and the short runs, but as always with testing, it’s difficult to be certain of true performance.

“The only thing we know for sure is that we must prove our ability to react. From the moment the third day of testing finished, we got our heads down and started to figure out how we can return to Bahrain in stronger form in just a few days’ time.”

Wolff has said the team is under pressure though it’s a line we’ve heard a few times before, and the record books certainly don’t lie.

Mercedes won’t be in ruin should it not emerge victorious on Sunday but the incredible heights it has maintained for so long only magnifies every slip in performance, and Red Bull could be the team to make them crack.

 

The real deal?

Max Verstappen, 2021 F1 testing

Max Verstappen has been optimistic ahead of the season but won’t name Red Bull favourites

Grand Prix Photo

With a top seat at Mercedes potentially on the horizon and the admission of a performance clause in Max Verstappen’s Red Bull contract, 2021 is a crucial year for the Milton-Keynes squad.

It looked to be the class of the field during testing, topping the times on the final day and the RB16B looked planted while Mercedes’s challenger looked a handful. Can it finally carry on its promise into the season proper?

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The team said it was confident it had solved its handling issues by the end of last season, and those claims look to be substantiated after the testing performance from Verstappen and new team-mate Sergio Perez.

Perez brings another dimension to the team this year, strengthening its position as challenger to the champions. The Mexican has proved he is a capable pair of hands in underfunded machinery, but this time he has a truly competitive car at his disposal.

Will that be enough to catapult the team from perennial victors to title favourites? It’s far too early to suggest that it can beat Mercedes over a season, but the noises coming out of the team indicate it is quietly confident of its chances against the Silver Arrows across 23 races.

In Bahrain the team will be hoping its testing form carries over into the race weekend but both drivers looked comfortable beginning to push in the RB16B on the third and final day.

 

Aston Martin’s F1 return

Sebastian Vettel, Aston Martin 2021

Vettel hopes to bounce back at Aston Martin

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It is a separate entity to the team that Roy Salvadori and Maurice Trintignant drove for in 1960 but the Aston Martin name is back and has made serious waves in its attempts to crack into the top three.

It achieved a race victory in the penultimate race last year, in Racing Point guise, but now has raised its expectations as well as its budget.

Hiring a four-time world champion was a great move for a team with future title aspirations, but can it live up to owner Lawrence Stroll’s ambitious vision?

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Testing was difficult as it suffered plenty of issues across the three days, so much so that Vettel completed the fewest laps of any driver bar Williams reserve Roy Nissany.

When the team was running, it was hardly setting timing screens ablaze either, and while the point of testing might not be to achieve the outright fastest lap of all, it finished second last in terms of distance covered, only above Mercedes.

While the team was victorious on F1’s last visit to Bahrain for a race, its new driver has tempered expectations ahead of the opening round of the season.

“It’s going to be a bit of a learning curve in these first few races: for me, it’s a new team – I’m still getting to know everyone, still understanding how the AMR21 wants to be driven, and familiarising myself with the team,” Vettel said.

 

Class of 2021

Mick Schumacher, 2021 Testing

Plenty of pressure but Mick Schumacher looks ready for his rookie season

Grand Prix Photo

There will be three rookies on the grid in 2021 and they have all graduated together from Formula 2 but with very different expectations on them.

The headline act is unquestionably Mick Schumacher. The return of the Schumacher name to F1 is one of the major points of the season and many will be wishing Mick the best ahead of his debut year but, along with team-mate and fellow rookie Nikita Mazepin, he might be in for a tough time at Haas.

Mazepin is a little bit more of an unknown quantity in terms of a talent ceiling but in racecraft terms, the Russian was ruthlessly aggressive last year, so much so that it attracted a lot of attention and 11 penalty points total.

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He will race without those over his head and has already said he will need to adjust his approach in wheel-to-wheel racing when the time comes in F1.

Then there is AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda, who arguably grabbed the headlines on the final day with a string of hot laps in the final hour to go second fastest to Max Verstappen.

The Japanese driver has enjoyed a rapid ascent through the ranks, having arrived in Europe with no knowledge of circuits and three-years of single-seater experience under his belt.

He impressed Dr Helmut Marko by adapting to a new continent so quickly while maintaining a high level of performance and despite finishing third in the F2 standings last year, could be the one to keep an eye on this season in F1.

 

The pecking order

Alpine, Ocon F1 testing

Alpine, McLaren, Ferrari and Aston Martin could be even closer than last year

Florent Gooden / DPPI

The midfield battle looks to be closer than ever, with many predicting the order to fluctate throughout the season. Pre-season testing hasn’t answered all of the questions around who is looking best in the chasing pack, but that might be because things are looking even tighter than last season.

“In terms of performance, as far as what I’ve seen, it looks to be very close,” was Vettel’s assessment after testing. “That would be good if it’s like that. It looks like all the midfield has caught up.”

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The fight for ‘best of the rest’ went down to the final round between McLaren, Renault and Racing Point, with the Woking squad coming out on top. This year, it looks as though AlphaTauri has joined that battle, and Alfa Romeo are expecting a boost in performance from a new Ferrari power unit.

The Prancing Horse endured a miserable 2020, but Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz are already confident they will not face anything like the kind of power deficit it had last season, and Mattia Binotto says the team has found performance and rumours suggest a boost to the tune of around 40bhp.

That could put them back on the tails of Red Bull and Mercedes and present a problem for the likes of Alpine and Aston Martin. The level of competition will be even higher and the prospect of a Vettel and Fernando Alonso on-track battle is tantalising.