The first race weekend of the 2021 Formula 1 season is underway in Bahrain and as with every season, here are some of our predictions for the year.
Of course, every season in Formula 1 delivers a championship battle. But the key question always has been - who are the title protagonists? In the hybrid-turbo era, the battle has either been between the two Mercedes drivers or between Lewis Hamilton and Sebastian Vettel. However, in the last couple of seasons after Vettel-Ferrari faded away, Hamilton has been almost unchallenged in his title quest (Sorry, Valtteri!).
In 2021, we predict that the battle of the two generations, Hamilton vs Verstappen, will finally be at play. Our belief is fueled by three factors - first, Red Bull Racing-Honda's solid buildup to the first race. Second, Hamilton-Mercedes' struggles through the pre-season test. And third, the reported discomfort between the World Champions over their most-recent contract extension.
Yes, Mercedes has the talent and might in their operation to recover from their shaky pre-season form, but there's no denying that they will arrive at the first race of the season on the back-foot. As for Red Bull Racing-Honda, they have had their best pre-season in years and will have momentum on their side. By the end of the qualifying hour in Bahrain, we will get a lot more insight into how this battle will evolve through the season. And since we're sticking our neck out, we pick Max Verstappen to claim the Drivers' Championship in 2021.
Best of the rest
Just in case the Red Bull Racing vs Mercedes rivalry doesn't show up (like it didn't in the last several seasons), we can guarantee that the mid-field is where the action will be. In fact, pre-season testing indicates, and it may well be a false indication, that Alpha Tauri and Alfa Romeo Racing will join the likes of Ferrari, Mclaren, Aston Martin and Alpine in the mid-field this season. That's 12 drivers, including the likes of Alonso, Vettel, Ricciardo and several other talented ones, fighting for positions from P5 till P17.
The mid-field driver rivalries will headline in 2021, just as we wrote in our previous column where we explored 'what's new in 2021'. There are several team-driver reputations at stake: Alpine-Alonso and Vettel-Aston Martin, more specifically. Also, the mid-field teams have varied approaches to the season. Alpine are sticking to their power unit designs from 2020 while Honda (powering Alpha Tauri) and Ferrari have completely new power units for the season. In the case of Honda, they have actually advanced their 2022 power unit to be used in 2021. Aston Martin's 'Mercedes approach' delivered good results in 2020 (when they raced as Racing Point) and they will continue down a similar path this season, too.
The most-exciting in the mid-field has to be Mclaren and their reunion with Mercedes. The team that clinched the 'best of the rest' (3rd place in the Constructors' Championship) last season will have the championship-winning power units in their cars from 2021. Their feat was even more impressive given the fact that they didn't have the 3rd fastest package. For 2021, we predict that Mclaren-Mercedes will be the 'best of the rest' by a comfortable margin.
Five Grand Prix winners
Expectedly, both the Red Bull Racing and Mercedes drivers will score wins in 2021 - bringing the tally of race winners to four. However, we predict we will have a surprise winner in 2021. The surprise might not be as big as Pierre Gasly winning the Italian Grand Prix last year in his Alpha Tauri, but it will be a surprise nonetheless.
Mick Schumacher won't score a point
For the Schumacher fans out there, this one is a disappointing prediction, no doubt. But such a no-score could be down to Haas' racing car for 2021 than the reigning Formula 2 champion's talent. However, scoring points isn't the only way to shine, as proved by George Russell. We expect Schumacher to shine in qualifying or in the few chances that might come his way through the 23-race calendar.
Out of the three rookies making their debut in Formula 1 in 2021, we predict that Alpha Tauri's Yuki Tsunoda will be voted as the 'best rookie' of the season. His performances will be a function of his Honda-powered race car and talent.
Both the former World Champion drivers are out to seek redemption in 2021. Alonso, returning with Alpine, will showcase why he is still one of the best drivers in Motorsport. However, we predict that he won't finish in the top-10 in the Drivers' Championship. As for Vettel, he will regain his old self at Aston Martin and manage a top-8 finish.
No world champion will retire
In 2021, four World Champions will race in Formula 1 - Hamilton, Vettel, Alonso and Raikkonen. Of these four, two have contracts that expire at the end of the season - Hamilton and Raikkonen. However, we predict that both drivers will continue racing in Formula 1 in 2022. In fact, we don't expect as many driver changes in 2022 as we've seen in 2021. But for the driver changes that will take place, we predict that they will be big-ticket promotions.
COVID-19 will impact Formula 1
After successfully co-existing with COVID-19 in 2020, Formula 1 will attempt to execute its longest calendar in history ever in 2021. We expect the sport to continue to be impacted by the COVID-19 virus. We predict that the first impact will be seen on the calendar with at least a few rounds being replaced or cancelled. The other impact will be on the drivers and other team personnel and here's hoping that everyone is able to race safely on and off track.
Jehan Daruvala - top-3 in Formula 2
Last week, we spoke to India's lone Formula 2 racer Jehan Daruvala regarding his season preparations. The Red Bull Junior Driver will race in the series for the second year in succession. He listed Robert Shwartzman, Christian Lungaard and Dan Ticktum as his key title rivals. We predict that Jehan will finish the season in the top-3 of the championship and earn himself a spot in the Formula 1 young drivers' test at the end of the season.