Does Hamilton finally have a fight on his hands? Six talking points for the 2021 Bahrain GP

2021 Bahrain Grand Prix

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After a one-sided contest last year, will the 2021 F1 season provide a more satisfying battle for the championship? The first race of the new year in Bahrain will give the first answer to that and other vital questions on the season ahead.

What are Mercedes up to?

The talk of testing was when the world champions would reveal their true pace, and whether they were in as much trouble as it seemed. Mercedes gave very little of their form away, prompting speculation they have some kind of upgrade planned for the early stages of the championship.

Red Bull had good cause to be pleased with their performance, setting competitive times seemingly whenever they pleased and completing plenty of running. New hiring Sergio Perez appears to have settled in well despite having only a day-and-a-half at the wheel of his 2021 machine.

F1 returns to Bahrain just four months since it last raced there. Max Verstappen qualified four-tenths of a second behind pole-winner Lewis Hamilton on that occasion.

Have a combination of Honda power unit gains and tweaked technical regulations allowed Red Bull to narrow or even overturn that deficit? Qualifying on Saturday will give the first indication whether Hamilton and Mercedes have a title fight on their hands this year.

Are Ferrari back in the game?

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Bahrain International Circuit, 2021
Ferrari say their power unit is much improved
Rumours of major gains in the Ferrari engine department are a standard part of any off-season. But after the startling step backwards the team made last year, and with engine specifications due to be frozen in 12 months’ time, it has become imperative for the team to make progress in this area.

Fortunately for them, they appear to have done so. The cars showed better straight-line speed in testing, as did customers Alfa Romeo, while Haas focused more on mileage than performance.

“The engine has made a large step forward,” sporting director Laurent Mekies told RaceFans at the test. If that’s the case, the three Ferrari-powered teams may emerge from the winter in much better shape.

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Has anyone dropped the ball over the winter?

While Mercedes seemed not to have an especially productive pre-season test, customers Aston Martin were also beset by occasional car problems which may put them at a disadvantage going into the opening race.

Haas, who made the fewest changes to their cars and have said that picking up one or two points this year would be “fantastic”, seem resigned to a tough start to the new championship. However it won’t be until the teams push their cars to the limit for the first time that we get an impression who is genuinely competitive – and who isn’t.

Can Alonso push Alpine forward?

The contingent of world champions on the grid this year has swelled to four this year with the return of Fernando Alonso to Alpine – formerly Renault, the team he won his two titles with.

Fernando Alonso, Alpine, Bahrain International Circuit, 2021
There are four champions in the field this year
Two decades on from his debut, Alonso remains as intensely focused as ever. He grabbed every opportunity to drive the Renault last year, even showing up at the young drivers’ test, to the chagrin of some rivals.

However his preparations took a literal knock last month when he was involved in a collision with a car while cycling, which left him with a fractured jaw. A metal plate was inserted during surgery and will remain there until the end of the season.

Alonso has made it clear his focus in returning is to prepare himself for the new technical regulations which will arrive for the 2022 F1 season. But in a car which was good for a handful of podiums and fifth in the points last year, expect him to ferociously pursue any chance to score a big result.

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Are ‘Sprint Qualifying’ races actually going to happen?

Feature: F1 almost had Saturday sprint races 35 years ago – this time it probably will
Over six weeks since RaceFans revealed F1’s plans to introduce sprint races – to be known as ‘Sprint Qualifying’ – at three rounds this year, the final plans are yet to be confirmed. While paddock chatter has persistently indicated it is a matter of ‘when’ not ‘if’ the proposal will be approved, the fact remains it still hasn’t with the first round now just days away.

Discussion have encountered that usual sticking point – money – as teams are demanding remuneration in the event they suffer significant damage in a sprint race. Offering to cover those costs could prove expensive for F1’s owners, as Romain Grosjean’s monumental crash at this circuit last year showed.

Given that the extra races are expected to pay points, it’s remarkable F1 is on the verge of beginning its new season without having firmed up such an important part of the regulations.

Which rookies will impress?

Feature: RaceFans’ top 10 Formula 2 drivers of 2020
Three of the top five drivers from Formula 2 have made the step up to F1 this year. Champion Mick Schumacher brings back one of the sport’s most famous names – and timing screen abbreviations – and is inevitably a huge focus of attention.

Schumacher’s Haas team mate Nikita Mazepin has, to put it very mildly, not covered himself in glory. Fifth place in F2 last year was a decent return on his second year in the series, though he almost collected enough penalty points for a ban. Of even greater concern was his conduct outside the cockpit which earned widespread criticism, including from his team, though not far enough to consider benching a driver closely linked to their new title sponsor.

Yuki Tsunoda, third in F2 last year and top rookie, is a quick and exciting driver who made clear progress throughout last season. He has an ideal environment to learn at AlphaTauri alongside Pierre Gasly.

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Over to you

What do you expect from the first Formula 1 race of 2021? Are Mercedes genuinely in trouble? And which of the many new combinations of teams, drivers and engines have you got your eye on?

Have your say in the comments.

2021 Bahrain Grand Prix

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Author information

Keith Collantine
Lifelong motor sport fan Keith set up RaceFans in 2005 - when it was originally called F1 Fanatic. Having previously worked as a motoring...

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44 comments on “Does Hamilton finally have a fight on his hands? Six talking points for the 2021 Bahrain GP”

  1. It always seems that when other teams start making real gains on the run-a-way leaders, the regulations change, allowing another run-a-way leader for the next 5 or so years… Its extremely frustrating.

    1. Yes I know. Although I believe Brawn has said he knows about it, and will keep stable regs for a good long while after the major ’22 change, which was deemed necessary.

      In the old days, it was of course done on a whim for nothing else than Mosley’s power games, or Ecclestone’s idea to create mayhem.

    2. Part of the explanation might actually be that the dominant team would switch focus to the new regulations faster, allowing other teams the opportunity to catch up.

  2. Why would anyone else pay for damage to cars? That’s the teams’ responsibility and if they aren’t keen on accepting the extra risk, they shouldn’t agree to the proposals. The idea that F1 would pay for damage caused by a driver crashing his car in a race is ridiculous.

    1. @petebaldwin It’s a negotiation. They were probably offered monetary compensation to cover their extra costs in exchange for supporting the proposals (or to put it another way, the teams made this a condition of their acceptance of the proposals). They just haven’t finalised the figures yet.

      1. That’s not how it’s written though – “teams are demanding remuneration in the event they suffer significant damage in a sprint race”

        If they just want more money in general, that’s fair enough although it basically means they paid the teams to agree to this idea which explains why they all agreed to not talk about it and pretend that everyone thinks is a good idea.

    2. Well, as you may be aware, the cost cap has already kicked in and that cap didn’t take into account these extra sprint races…so as it stands, the cost of any damage the cars sustain during those extra races has to come from that budget cap! And (some of) the teams have their budgets for the season already set and therefore may ‘struggle’ to cover the cost associated with the extra races. And not only costs associated with damages to the cars but also regular running costs such as fuels, oils, engine maintenance/servicing, spare parts.
      So bottom-line is, if F1/FOM and FIA want those extra sprint races, then they should either increase the budget cap or pay for the costs associated with those races. And I think the teams have a valid point!

  3. Perhaps I’m too cynical but I don’t buy Mercedes problems at all and fully expect a 1-2 in qualifying and the race. As much as I’d love Red Bull to be closer to them – or even faster than them I just can’t see it going on the evidence of previous years. So I kinda see another dull season at the front of Bottas not quite managing to keep Hamilton from yet another title and Red Bull picking up a win here or there when Mercedes have a weak weekend. I see it more likely Red Bull will be under closer threat from behind than them pressuring Mercedes at the front.

    I do think the midfield is too close to call though – 3rd in the constructors seems to be a realistic goal for everyone except Williams, Haas and maybe Alfa Romeo. I’m expecting at least one podium from Aston Martin, Ferrari, McLaren, Alpine and AlphaTauri.

    1. @rocketpanda I think you are echoing why most people are giving Mercedes the respect they have earned by not assuming they’re now behind, no longer the benchmark, or at least by not assuming they won’t sort things throughout the season, likely even sooner than later.

      But alas, what happened last year is done, and what this weekend brings as well as the rest of the future is an unknown, so we just rely on hope. Merc fans hope they are still fine, the rest hope otherwise. But I’m just saying as much as the evidence is there, they all still have to put rubber to the road and prove where they stand, and that takes a whole season. Eg. If Mercedes sorts themselves, so too is there every chance RBR will only get stronger throughout the season too. Just saying as tempting and as understandable as it is to just write everyone else off and hand LH and Mercedes the trophies right now, that’s just not how it works. I’m sure I’m not saying anything you don’t know, and after all you did suggest you are perhaps being too cynical.

      I think it might be reasonable for all we know this close to the first Saturday, to hope that RBR are at least close enough that they will indeed pressure LH and at least have him unable to ever just take leads and crank it down and control the pace all day in a conservative manner. I don’t personally see, as you suggest, RBR being under closer threat from behind than to be pressuring Mercedes, as I just don’t expect Mercedes to have taken the same leap of performance over everyone else this season like they did between 2019 and 2020. Obviously pure speculation but it’s fun anyway.

      For me in a perfect world RBR gets the jump on Mercedes with at least a few wins before Mercedes finds their way and claws that back and it becomes see-saw battle all season.

  4. There’s only 2.5 questions that really need answering

    1- who will lead the field &1.5- how many teams will be in the lead pack

    2 – who will lead the midfield

  5. Well, I still think Mercedes spent the last 2 weeks with full resources back in the factory to try to solve the rear end “unbalance”, so they will be probably on pole for first race. I just hope that Red Bull could be less than 0.2 from them on true pace to give Max and Checo a bit of a chance to pressure Lewis and Toto a bit on the races. On last day of testing Mercedes was a bit more planted on track but still less planted than Red Bull or Even Alpha Tauri. I hope this leads to the Merc to overheat more their rear tires and give more of a chance of a real fight in the race and not “cruising Lewis winning week in and week out” from 2020. I also hope we will have a chance to see McLaren, Alpine, Ferrari, Alpha and Alfa being closer to the front and fighting for occasional podiums (although Ferrari looked more sensitive and less planted than the others in testing) I believe Alonso will be able to shine on race days too, he seems really focused, and I believe Alpine sandbagged a bit. Aston will be more of an unknown, but they are clever and really well funded now, it will depend on Vettel getting back to form. Let’s see if Williams can mix with the pack in more races than last year. Overall, this season is promising much more than last one, let’s see.

    1. Of course on pre-season testing ‘form’, RBR should be ahead of the Mercs but in our assessments, we should consider this:
      Historically, most teams (if not all) will bring updates/upgrades/new parts/refined parts to the first race of the season and I don’t think this season will be different in that regard. And on this note, remember that although the Mercs have said they’ve used their development tokens, they are yet to reveal where they’ve spent them…and I have a strong suspicion, as others, that the Mercs will introduce upgrades that will include where they’ve spent those tokens. Whether the upgrade will ‘cure’ the rear instability we saw in testing is another matter. What is almost certain is that they will introduce upgrades based on the simple fact that they are yet to reveal their tokens spend.

      1. One rumour is that Mercedes ran a new gearbox in an old gearbox carrier (explaining rear axle downforce issues) that will be updated before the race. Or then again it might be a new nose on the way with similar downforce issues being created in Bahrain while they ran the old one…

  6. What are Mercedes up to? – Nothing. They’re still going to be the team to beat.
    Are Ferrari back in the game? – Hopefully.
    Has anyone dropped the ball over the winter? – Hopefully, not.
    Can Alonso push Alpine forward? – Occasionally, yes, but over a season, not alone.
    Are ‘Sprint Qualifying’ races actually going to happen? – Getting everything set in stone shouldn’t have taken this long and still not be completed.
    Which rookies will impress? – Tsunoda as he’s the only one in decent enough machinery.
    What do you expect from the first Formula 1 race of 2021? – I hope for a good quality of racing.
    Are Mercedes genuinely in trouble? – No, I don’t think so.
    And which of the many new combinations of teams, drivers and engines have you got your eye on? – Mainly Tsunoda and Perez.

    1. I think it will take Mercedes ( and Aston martin for that mather) some races to solve the rear end problems.
      it seems the low rake cars are much more impacted by the lost floor space then the high rake concepts.
      To solve that issue will take some development on track. its not something you can solve off track. if that was the case merc already solved it beforehand.

      1. Many people have said the rake thing is nonsense and nothing to do with it 🤷‍♂️

  7. Mildly interested
    24th March 2021, 14:49

    Just how good Tsunoda is will be the only point of interest for me. I expect everything else to be as before. It’s not as though Red Bull were miles behind last year, just inconsistent. Perez is already making excuses: RB didn’t hire him to take 5 races to get up to speed so I don’t expect him to disrupt Mercedes’ strategy, but ironically, he’s gone well in Bahrain before (e.g. last year and remember Button’s “complaints” in 2013?) so 1 race won’t make a season.

    Williams will be further away than before having squandered the best engine (and a good driver) for years and are now facing an improved Ferrari engine in their direct rivals’ cars with a “peaky” aero design.

    Riccardo will destroy Norris; Alonso will destroy Ocon. Vettel will flourish if the rear of the car isn’t nervous – just as well he didn’t go to RB as per his “coming home” hint in Netflix (sorry, not really a spoiler alert is it?). McLaren will beat Aston Martin and Williams to be top MB customer.

    Netflix won’t make another season worth watching (God, what silly little boys they all are with their “funny” COVID one liners! Reminds me of Brundle’s comments about 1994-era Hakkinen).

    So pick a favoured cliche from these: “when the flag drops, the BS stops” or “has won the winter Championship”.

    1. Mildly interested
      24th March 2021, 14:51

      hmm, weird that the “insert name here” was removed from the last sentence.

      1. Funny how you think Perez will flop and is ‘already making excuses’ whereas Vettel said pretty much exactly the same thing a few days ago about taking time to get up to speed and you then predict him to flourish… consistency?

        1. I think Perez just said that to prevent instant pressure if he said I will be in the top 3 then he would have put pressure on his shoulders. But i think he will be there somewhere.

  8. Ricciardo v Norris will be interesting so will how close Perez can get to Verstappen. In quali I think not that close but over a race will be interesting.

    Merc to dominate, Ferrari to be in no mans land in a comfortable 3rd.

    Aston Martin to be the disappointment of the season.

    1. Red Bull and Merc for a tight championship battle (when compared to last season)

      McLaren and Ferrari to fight for third

      Alpine, Alpha Tauri, Aston Martin and Alfa Romeo to fight for 5th

      Williams ahead of Haas in 9th and 10th.

  9. Didn’t Lewis recover instantly from Covid-19 last year when he saw that Russell was about to do a “Lewis plus a bit extra” performance in the Mercedes.
    He sure jumped out of that bed in a panic.

    This year, so far, Lewis is safe. He will show us again in Bahrain what a great champion that little car is.

    1. ooooooOOOOOOoooooo salty.

    2. Hmm I thought Hamilton was never ill, but did not want to join in the tire mixup so pink merc could score decent points for the team.

  10. Roth Man (@rdotquestionmark)
    24th March 2021, 16:02

    If this were 2022 I’d be excited by the pre season testing results but as these cars are mild tweaks of last years it goes without saying the sandbag masters were at it again. I would love to be proven wrong.

    That said I am very excited for this season, so many talking points, Mclaren with Mercedes engines could be right in the mix, Max and Checo, Leclerc vs Sainz and a more positive looking Ferrari situation, Alonso the master is back and looking like never went away, Seb and Aston and countless other stories.

    1. I am not sure that McLaren is going to score so high as they lost 2 tokens for the engine installation. While Astin, Ferrari will be fast. People just think McLaren drop a Mercedes engine in their chassis and instant performance increase.

  11. On the subject of there being four champions in the field this year, it struck me watching an Alonso interview earlier that those four, plus Rosberg, Button and Schumacher, are together the seven champions that we have had since 2000.

    No more than that in the 21 years that it has taken Schumacher’s son to come into the sport.

    1. And two of those are just shy of holding 20% of all WDCs between them.

      1. Yes, four of the seven have won just one/two WDCs. The remainder have won at least four.

        1. Yep and in the 90s there were 7 champions alone, Senna x2, Mansell, Prost Schumacher x2, Hill, Villeneuve, Hakkinen.

          1. The 2010s was by some margin the least competitive decade in F1’s history, with only three world champions and 12 race winners across the 10 seasons from 2010 to 2019.

          2. True that, dominant cars were always around but not to this extent, especially when it comes to the length of the domination.

          3. @red-Andy, I make it 14 race winners, maybe you didn’t update for last years First time winners Perez and Gasly.

          4. @slowmo By “decade” I was referring to the ten-year period between 2010 and 2019.

          5. @red-andy the fact that you actually wrote the years in your original post shows I was clearly too tired to be posting last night :-)

          6. I love these kind of stats and shows that the F1 machines (impressive as they are) are just to complex, expensive and reliable.

  12. 1. Mercedes are still going to be the team to beat, but Red Bull will be closer.
    2. They will not even be close to being title contenders but Ferrari will have improved, and Leclerc will be top of the midfield.
    3. Nobody has dropped the ball. A similar pecking order to last year, but most teams will be closer together.
    4. In the past, teams that Alonso has driven for have rarely improved over his time there. He may be one of the greatest drivers ever, but he is not someone I would want to work with. However, the exception to this is his first stint at Renault, when he won two championships, so maybe it will be different now he’s back at that team.
    5. Sprint Qualifying will be run at some races, but as it is not happening in Bahrain or any of the early rounds, I think we can forget about them for now. Hopefully they will not be back in 2022.
    6. Yuki Tsunoda will be the most impressive rookie. Schumacher and Mazepin will struggle to impress as it they are teammates with each other, and in an uncompetitive car, but Tsunoda is in a much better car, with an experienced teammate, and I also rate him more highly than the other two.

  13. Oof – still chuckling from the idea that ‘Nando improves any team :D

    1. Okay, Merc always sandbag. But Red Bull look a LOT more stable. I really believe this is a change-over year with RB being the pick of the crop, but it’s fools gold. Merc have moved on and want to start 2022 top Johnnies.
    2. I’m not sure Ferrari will ever be top dollar in F1 again. The Prancing Horse has turned into a ‘mare from which they never awake. They will move away from F1 within 5 years. F1 WILL survive the loss.
    3. Lewis may have dropped the ball. He feels too remote. When George replaced him in his seat, 2018 Lewis would have offered him support or at least best wishes. The too early return for Lewis, when not race fit, speaks of fragility within him.
    4. I am sad to see Alonso back on the grid. 20 cars. I want to see fresh drivers coming to the fore. Should be applaud Nigel Mansell next year at Williams? If Alonso is so good, why has he not previously been able to win more than 2 WDC? No. Not good for F1. Straw clutching for Renault/Alpine. Shame.
    5. For Sprint ‘quali’ races to happen, budgets need to be extended, parts allocations need to be extended. More racing laps mean more expense. I cannot see it working.
    6. Yuki will shine and blow everyone’s proverbial socks off. He has a lot less experience in open seat racing than any of his F1 peers, but he looks like he has an amazing ‘feel’ for his car. The Haas boys won’t feature as Haas is making no serious investment in 2021 F1.

  14. My Take:
    Yes Mercedes have a problem – the big question is whether or not they can fix it by the weekend or will it take longer
    Yes Ferrari will be stronger – probably not enough to challenge for wins but they’ll be in contention for podiums
    Yes – Mercedes have dropped the ball – now its a question of whether they can recover quickly. I suspect AM might have as well.
    No Alonso alone won’t push Alpine forward – possibly the absence of Cyril might but I’m still not expecting miracles from them.
    Yes sprint qualifying will happen and will be adopted for all races from next season as it will be declared a huge success regardless of whether it is or not.

  15. The Mercedes car will get stronger, but I don’t expect them to dominate the opening rounds. A Mercedes driver will win the WDC, likely Hamilton.

    Red Bull and Honda will be a major force but the 21 Merc PU will be another step above the Honda. Verstappen will have half a tenth at least on Perez in most qualifying rounds, but I expect both cars race pace to be similar.

    Mclaren might sneak a pole position early in the season and be subjected to some diffuser rule clarifications. Ricciardo to edge Norris by a couple of tenths in qualifying, and a couple of places in race classification.

    Ferrari will mostly lead the midfield with an improved PU. Leclerc will continue to shine and mostly outperform Sainz. They’ll make poor strategy errors which will cost points.

    Aston Martin will have a successful year and finish 4th in the WDC. It’ll be a close fight with Ferrari. Vettel will outperform Stroll across the board.

    Alpha Tauri will be regular points winners, with Tsunoda leading the way in qualifying. Gasly will edge it in drivers points.

    Alpine will be mediocre. Alonso will start publicly berating the team towards the end of the season, saying all hopes rest on the regulation change. He’s the best driver in a mediocre car, that’s why he’s not got more points eetc.

    Alfa Romeo will barely feature in race coverage, never mind Drive To Survive season 4.

    Williams will score more points than Haas. Russell will remain at the team for 22, then join Mercedes for 23.

    Haas will be the new Marussia/Caterham for a year and be a second or more off the pace by the end of the season.

    1. Russell will remain at the team for 22

      He’s already hinted that he’s got stuff lined up. Either Mercedes sign him or he signs elsewhere, I think. Minimum, he’s Verstappen-Leclerc level. Mercedes can’t park him as a reserve forever. Or beyond this year imo.

  16. I thoroughly enjoyed reading this article. As always, I’m over-excited about the beginning of the new season. So many driver changes this year! So, although I think the machinery hype will ultimately boil down to little significant change in the order of constructor strength, we have a helluva lot to watch on the driver front. Stoked!

    As always, almost the best part of being a motor racing fan for me is having Race Fans as a source of information and discussion, so thank you in advance to all of you out there who express your opinions and to those whose provide us with this wonderful service: @KeithCollantine, @dieterrencken, @hazelsouthwell, @willwood, et al.

    If you are not a RaceFans Supporter yet, think about joining the rest of us in supporting this brilliant independent motorsport newsite. The minimum contribution should be peanuts for most of you but, in numbers, we help so much.

    Sorry if this reads like I’m looking for a gold star and to be teacher’s pet. I’m not: it’s from the heart. Okay, let’s go racing!!

  17. Everyone hoping but you woudn’t bet much on it would you

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