F1 originally intended a major overhaul of its technical regulations in 2021, but instead got thrown a curveball which brings opportunities for some.
The disruption everyone already knows about caused by the Covid-19 pandemic threw the world of F1 into disarray. On the financial front, many doubted whether some teams would survive 2020 with it looking like no racing would take place until at least 2021. But F1 found a way to start a season with a fresh new calendar and safety measures in place – making sure 2020 saw out an official Formula 1 World Championship season of 18 races.
Eventhough we have to wait one more year for the ever-promised revolution that is 2022, 2021 therefore throws up new opportunities for fans to be captivated once again with headline grabbing stories.
Sebastian Vettel and Aston Martin
September’s announcement of Vettel’s move to Lawrence Stroll’s newly acquired team looked all but uncertain after the kick in the teeth that was Ferrari’s decision to not retain the four-time world champion for 2021. A dire 2020 season for Vettel, factoring out that fluke podium at Istanbul Park, meant most in the paddock can not wait to see him in green (or green and pink). Himself included.
The German’s target of emulating his hero Michael Schumacher at Ferrari got off to a good start in 2015, but never quite picked up speed so to speak with an array of embarrassing mistakes and underwhelming machinery. Lets not forget that he won each and every one of his titles with Milton Keynes-based Red Bull Racing – arguably the only team to provide the perfect environment for Vettel just 20 minutes from Racing Point’s home at Silverstone.
He believes he can ‘build something very special’ with Racing Point/ Aston Martin and the fact it’s a British motoring brand and an entirely British race team operation (dating back to the Jordan Grand Prix days) should be hugely beneficial. His understatedness and love of most things British accompanies unrivalled leadership, experience and a champions mentality alongside Lance Stroll. Something the Silverstone team has perhaps craved lately.
Dietrich Mateschitz insists Red Bull chose Perez exclusively based on on-track performance – and 2020 was the year of Perez’s life so far with a long awaited victory and a smattering of podiums in the controversial Racing Point. But 2021 will be the Mexican’s toughest challenge and judging by how ruthless Red Bull can be on the driver front, Checo has to perform alongside Verstappen – who bar Hamilton, is probably the ultimate in raw speed and racecraft.
It will have taken quite a lot for Helmut Marko, Christian Horner and Mateschitz to swallow their pride somewhat and sign the first driver directly to the main Red Bull team from outside their young driver programme since 2007. Unfortunately Alex Albon has seriously struggled in the second seat, being outqualified by Verstappen in each and every Qualifying in 2020 and never really coming close on Sundays. So they had to look elsewhere for the sake of the team’s chances in both championships, hoping Perez could use those unique tyre-whisperer skills that date right back to his early F1 career with Sauber and McLaren.
Perez definitely doesn’t need to beat Max, just be closer than Gasly or Albon to give the Mercedes’ strategists a bit more to think about and ensure Verstappen brings in those victories. This way Red Bull hopes to have a chance of toppling the mighty beast that is Mercedes.
The majority consensus is Mercedes power units will be a great step in the right direction for the team from Woking that has been on an excellent recovery up the championship order since those fateful Honda years. But that’s only true if the engine (and the team of people around it from Mercedes High Performance Powertrains) is well-integrated into the car. In a normal season this is a challenge in itself as McLaren themselves showed when they switched to Honda horses for 2015. Conflicting requirements from the chassis design side and Honda meant the power unit would overheat as the tightly-packed chassis played havoc with cooling. However to save costs, 2021’s grid will be made up of 2020 chassis’, all be it with a light amount of aerodynamic development permitted. So installing a Mercedes power unit into what is essentially a Renault arrangement will be tricky at first.
Hopefully McLaren will play the long game and sacrifice initial performance on track, perhaps for the entire 2021 season, to ensure the Mercedes relationship is all set for the hotly anticipated 2022 season.
The Traditional Calendar
In November, the FIA confirmed its intent to pursue a calendar similar to that of the originally planned 2020 season. With a provisional start date of the 18th March 2021 at the Albert Park Circuit, Melbourne, Australia.
The sheer gravity of Chase Carey, soon-to-be Former Chairman and CEO of Formula 1, and the FIA’s achievement to accomplish a last minute eighteen race calendar in 2020 can not be understated enough. But the intent is that now they have proven the sport can safely travel and operate races in the current climate, to attempt a season more recognisable to F1 fans. The calendar also happens to host the most amount of races ever seen in an F1 season – with 23 Grand Prix thanks to the eleventh hour arrival of a street race in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
What was meant to be the fourth round of the original 2020 calendar – a street circuit in Hanoi, Vietnam that even made it onto the F1 2020 game – will not feature at all in 2021. The highly popular circuits of Imola and Portimao are the venues thought to be strongly in the running to fill the April 25th gap left by the part street circuit, part permanent facility.
After an extra years wait for the Dutch army of Max Verstappen fans, the Dutch Grand Prix at Zandvoort will finally take place in a new position on the calendar between the Belgian and Italian Grand Prix, making up the first of two consecutive triple header races in the latter stages of the season. As the arduous 2020 season highlighted in all its glory, triple headers are not popular with drivers, mechanics and teams alike. But they do add the possible jeopardy of fatigue invoked human error.
Car Development and the Budget Cap
These are two enormous topics that should be crucial to the pecking order towards the end of 2021, and the long term future past 2022. The last big regulation change was for 2014 (incidentally planned for 2013 but pushed back a season) which seriously shifted this pecking order, ending Red Bull’s run of four championships and beginning Mercedes domination of seven seasons to date. However an interesting aspect in this actually took place throughout the second half of 2013 as Andy Cowell, Mercedes’ former engine guru, recently admitted in an interview with The Race.
Red Bull continued to develop their 2013 car past the summer break, in the frame of mind that Mercedes were doing it too. To preserve their lead, Red Bull sacrificed development of the all new car to see off what they thought was a huge threat. But Cowell admitted Mercedes had given up on 2013’s machinery by the Summer and in turn Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel won every race of the second half. 2014 brought no wins for the German driver and only three for his new teammate Daniel Ricciardo, marking Vettel’s departure to Ferrari and a slippery slope to recovery for the formerly undefeatable Red Bull. This will be a case study for many teams to consider.
As everyone is only allowed to start their 2022 car development from 1st January 2021 under the new Budget Cap, the upcoming season is a makeshift one. The price of not being at peak form in 2022 will be too much to bear thinking about but being noncompetitive in 2021 isn’t a great thought from the Team Principal’s perspective either. The amount of aerodynamic development teams can perform during the year will be solely based on their finishing positions in the previous seasons championship. There may be remarkable inter-team differences as to when to shift focus onto the new era and whether it’s worth ‘sandbagging’ for long term gains.
It’s possible that that conundrum is decided by external factors like sponsorship deals – how much can the team actually afford to drop down the order in 2021, for those long term benefits? And the further the financially smaller teams can stretch towards the Budget Cap, the leveller the playing field should materialise at.