Bahrain Grand Prix: 6 things to look out for ahead of new Formula One season
It's time for the talking to stop and the lights to go out as F1 prepares for what could be one of the most competitive seasons in years.
With driver changes, new teams and some familiar names back on the timesheets, Sir Lewis Hamilton could have his work cut-out for him if he's to claim a record-breaking eighth world title.
The action is expected to be thrilling up and down the grid, but here are six things to look out for heading into the 2021 curtain raiser in Bahrain this Sunday.
Red Bull taking the charge to Mercedes
This season could be Max Verstappen's best chance to win a world championship yet. The 23-year-old Dutchman was the form man during testing, setting the best time of all as Red Bull flexed their muscles in the desert. Verstappen picked up three wins in 2020 but with that potential early advantage over Mercedes, will want to hit the ground running and hammer home their advantage in the first races.
With Sergio Perez coming into the team too, Red Bull have a great opportunity to take the fight to Mercedes on two fronts, with the experienced Mexican in impressive form last season before signing for the Milton Keynes team.
Mercedes looked at odds with the rear end of their new W12 car, as both Sir Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas looked on the edge, especially in the twisty middle-sector of the Bahrain circuit. They looked down on overall pace too, though testing is one thing, racing is quite another.
Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin
They're not a new team, and he's not a new driver, but the new combination of the four-time world champion at the former Racing Point team could see a rejuvenation for the German. Going stale at Ferrari as his relationship with the Scuderia soured in the last couple of years, Vettel's stock dropped dramatically – taking just one podium finish last season – but joining the team, renamed Aston Martin, could see him back at the sharp end of the grid again.
They struggled with technical issues in testing though, so Aston may be starting on the back-foot but have a car they know is quick, based on last year's race-winning contender.
Return to form for Ferrari?
The Scuderia spent 2020 in the doldrums. Punished by the FIA for reasons still hidden behind a secret barrier, they finished in their lowest constructor's ranking since 1980 last time out. Those sorts of results won't stand in Maranello though, and with Carlos Sainz Jnr now partnering Charles Leclerc after moving from McLaren, Ferrari will want a much-improved 2021 campaign ahead of the rule changes next year.
Don't expect them to be regularly fighting for wins, but they will be eager to be back in the hunt for the midfield and podium spots at the very least.
Put-up or shut-up for Fernando Alonso
He's had plenty of excuses for not winning more championships, races and points down the years, but after two-years away from the sport, it's Fernando Alonso's last chance to make it stick in the sport. The 2005 and 2006 world champion could not deliver championships during two spells at McLaren or five seasons at Ferrari in a career plagued with misjudged moves to teams at the wrong times.
Outspoken and hugely confident in his own abilities, he rejoins the team he won his two titles with, named Alpine for 2021 onwards, but it's now the 'last chance saloon' for the 39-year-old – who raced against two of the 2021 grid's dads – to live up to his own hype in the twilight of his career.
Pace behind the laughter at McLaren
Do not let their lively personalities away from the track detract from the steely determination Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris will show this season. The McLaren package looked pretty handy last season, but with the dominant Mercedes engines powering them again, for the first time since 2014, the smiles at Woking might just be backed up on the track this season with some promising testing performances.
Ricciardo makes the move to McLaren from two years at Renault where he struggled with uncompetitive machinery, but scored two podiums towards the end of last season, while Norris needs a big season against an experienced team-mate to avoid the tag of 'plucky youngster with no end product' in his third campaign.
MSC returns to the track
Three initials so synonymous with F1, MSC returns to the timing screens this year with Mick Schumacher – son of seven-time champion Michael – making his debut in the sport with Haas.
Not just signed because of his surname though, Mick claimed the F2 championship – the same title won by Charles Leclerc and George Russell in recent years – last season so has the pedigree to back up his place on the grid.
It will be a difficult debut season though, with Haas expected to be the slowest car on the 2021 grid, and a controversial team-mate in the form of Nikita Mazapin will ensure an uphill PR battle for the team. The spotlight will be bright in Schumacher's eyes too as fans of his dad expect big things and echoes from the past, and that will be no mean feat for the 22-year-old to have to overcome.
If he managed to succeed this season though, it will be a great platform for him to build a career away from Michael's shadow.