F1 2021 preview: what you need to know

Published: 26 March 2021

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The F1 2021 season begins this weekend, and it promises to be one of the most interesting in a while. New rules seemed to have pegged back the dominance of Mercedes, and the grid also features some big changes: a rookie Mick Schumacher will now race alongside double-world champion Fernando Alonso, while Daniel Riccardo will now suit up in McLaren colours.

Elsewhere on the grid, Carlos Sainz will now join Charles Leclerc, having taken the seat of Sebastian Vettel, who now races for the newly-formed Aston Martin team. 

So, what should we expect from the 2021 edition of F1? Over to our F1 correspondant, Tom Clarkson: 

How's the calendar looking?

There have been a couple of Covid-related changes to the first draft, released in November, but F1 remains bullish about pulling off a record 23 races. 

There’s a nice mix of new and old. New: Saudi Arabia. Old: Imola and the return of Monaco after a year out.

Can Seb Vettel win again?

Where were you, Sebastian Vettel? Last year the stunningly quick four-time world champion, who can make a car dance on the limit, was nowhere to be found. He certainly wasn't driving an SF1000 Ferrari. 

Seb ended last year 65 points behind his team-mate Charles Leclerc. He managed a single podium finish (Turkey) and only out-qualified Leclerc four times in 17 races. But there were extenuating circumstances, most notably the fact that he was sacked prior to the start of the campaign, creating friction from the get-go.

He's still motivated and he could react well to being in a smaller team at Aston Martin, where once again he's the main man.

Are we to take Alonso's return seriously?

Fernando Alonso will turn 40 at the end of July, two days after Alpine (the artist formerly known as Renault) contests its first home GP. That won't make him the oldest driver on the grid (Kimi Räikkönen's 41) but he is much older than most of his rivals. 

Rookie Yuki Tsunoda is only 20. Despite his age and two years away from F1, Alonso has lost nothing. He topped the post-season test in Abu Dhabi, lapping 0.4sec faster than Renault's race drivers had managed in qualifying the previous weekend, and he's still a force of nature. 

'Why aren't we running the 2022 wind-tunnel model on New Year's Day?' he asked recently.

More rule changes?

In an effort to save money, last year's chassis have been carried over. That's not to say nothing's changed, mind. Downforce has been cut 10 per cent through changes to the shape of the floor and the rear brake ducts, and the minimum weight has been increased from 746kg to 752kg, both of which will slow the cars, as will Pirelli's plan to bring along harder, more durable compounds. 

Furthermore, a sliding scale of permitted wind-tunnel time has been introduced, favouring the weaker teams. Champions Mercedes will get less tunnel time than 10th-placed Williams, for example. A budget cap has been introduced for the first time, limiting teams to $145m. 

Can Lewis make it eight – and can Bottas pick himself up?

In short, it's hard to see Lewis Hamilton being beaten this year. He still has the fastest car and the best team around him, even if some cracks unexpectedly appeared late last year. And Lewis is still the best driver. Others can challenge him on sheer pace, but the overall package of Lewis 

Hamilton Racing Driver remains peerless.

Don't feel too sorry for team-mate Valtteri Bottas. He can continue to cheer himself up by looking at his ever-increasing bank balance each morning. 

Will it be another nightmare year for Ferrari?

Ferrari finished sixth in 2020, their worst constructors' position since 1980, and some 442 points behind champions Mercedes. That deficit was the equivalent of 18 wins.

A new engine of sorts is being pushed through for 2021, but don't expect it to move any mountains. Carlos Sainz coming in to partner Leclerc gives them a quick, dynamic driver line-up, but their next real opportunity lies with the new cars in 2022. 

Who's driving for who?

Merc-AMG's line-up is unchanged, while Carlos Sainz joins Ferrari (Leclerc stays) from McLaren and Sergio Perez replaces the luckless Alex Albon at Red Bull (to face Max Verstappen as team-mate).

No change at Williams or Alfa, AlphaTauri drafts Tsunoda in alongside the awesome Pierre Gasly and Renault becomes Alpine with Esteban Ocon and Alonso driving. Racing Point becomes Aston Martin (Vettel and Lance Stroll), Haas now has Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin, and Daniel Ricciardo joins Lando Norris at McLaren.

Nikita Mazepin – bad boy of F1? 

Mazepin isn't a bad driver. The problem with him is everything else: his temperament, his misogynistic views and his immaturity. He hasn't been a great advert for F1.

What do we think of new boss Stefano Domenicali?

Domenicali oozes quality. Twenty-five years at Ferrari, where he was team principal, then CEO of Lamborghini and now CEO of F1 – only the sport's third boss in 70 years. Safe hands? Almost certainly. As David Coulthard puts it: 'I can't think of a better man to lead the sport going forward.'

By Tom Clarkson

F1 correspondent, BBC pitlane man, accesser of all areas, head beans-spiller