Currently reading: Reasons to be cheerful: 2021 Formula One season preview
Ahead of this weekend’s season opener, BBC Radio commentators Jolyon Palmer and Jack Nicholls tell you why should tune into this year's races
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11 mins read
25 March 2021

Formula 1 is tedious these days, right? It’s always just a procession of cars that can’t overtake one another miles behind Sir Lewis Hamilton in his untouchable Mercedes-AMG. Actually, popular though that view may be, it’s not true.

Yes, Britain’s finest cruised to a seventh title, but last season also gave rise to some fantastic races, shock results and brilliant performances from exciting new talents, and there’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t enjoy more of that in 2021. To make things even better, there are scheduled to be six extra races and a much greater variety of tracks after last year’s pandemic disruption.

This isn’t just our view but also that of Jolyon Palmer and Jack Nicholls, who travel the world covering every grand prix for BBC Radio 5 Live. Palmer raced in F1 himself in 2016 and 2017 for Renault, while Nicholls is a lifelong motorsport obsessive. The two men have known each other for a decade now, so it’s no surprise that they’re absolutely candid when they sit down (virtually) with Autocar to discuss why you should be tuning in when the 2021 season starts this weekend.

Can anyone stop Hamilton from winning the title?

JN “This is the last year of the current rules, and Mercedes-AMG are so far ahead and have the best driver again, but you would like to think that having Sergio Pérez alongside Max Verstappen this year will allow Red Bull to challenge a bit more and win a few more races. They were impressive when they won the last race of 2020 and are quite bullish – although for four seasons they’ve finished strongly, then not been there at the start of the next.”

Will the updated cars and new budget cap significantly affect any of the teams?

JP “The changes to the cars are small. Maybe Mercedes won’t be able to find that much on the car and we’ll start the year with a really close Verstappen-Hamilton fight, but history tells us that they do keep finding things on the car.”

JN “The positive for Red Bull is that some of the circuits that suit them but weren’t on the calendar last year, due to the pandemic, are planned to return, such as Monaco and Singapore. And I would expect them to be closer to Mercedes than they were last year in terms of pure pace. Although being closer doesn’t mean you’re close…”

JP “That’s a fair point: there was also no Mexico or Brazil, where Red Bull are usually quickest, so maybe the picture looked worse than it could have been. And although Pérez isn’t a world-beater, he will be an upgrade on Alex Albon, so it shouldn’t be so easy for Mercedes to just pincer Verstappen.”

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Will Aston Martin and McLaren fight for wins again, following their strong 2020 seasons?

JN “It’s going to be Aston Martin [formerly Racing Point], McLaren and Alpine [formerly Renault] battling over that third place again. And there are huge question marks over Ferrari as well, because last year was such a disaster [it scored no wins and came sixth in the teams’ championship] that you would think they have to come back reinvigorated."

JP “I reckon there has never been a better year for a midfield battle; they’re rolling out champions in the midfield now. You’ve got Sebastian Vettel at Aston Martin, who were good last year and can be expected to continue that way. Fernando Alonso is coming back with Alpine; he’s always going to be strong, so long as he’s fighting fit. And Daniel Ricciardo has gone to McLaren, who I think will make a big jump, having switched from Renault to Mercedes power units. I also expect Ferrari to improve a lot: given that they agreed to an engine development freeze from 2022, they must reckon they can find a load of performance again.”

Can Vettel recapture his old strong form? Some people were even suggesting he should retire…

JP “Vettel knew before the start of last season that he would be leaving Ferrari, plus Charles Leclerc was fundamentally faster than him from pretty much the word go. It probably just all snowballed into a really bad relationship with the team and loss of motivation. I bet he has had a really hard winter trying to get his feet under the table at Aston Martin. He will need to clearly lead Lance Stroll: if it’s 50/50, that’s bad news for Vettel’s image and legacy. There’s not another multiple champion who has the same number of question marks over his whole career. He’s in a really fast car, though, so it’s not a bad place to be for him, and he should be able to lead that team quite well.”

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JN “Yeah, I think Vettel will look a bit magic at times. I can see him scoring Aston Martin’s first F1 podium, no trouble at all. So much of it is about your comparison with your team-mate these days, so that’s where Vettel can seem invigorated, and that can spiral in a positive way for him.”

Can Fernando Alonso make a similarly exciting return at the age of 39 after two seasons out?

JN “I’m fascinated to see what Alonso is going to do, because he’s one of those drivers who is never doubted. Vettel has been questioned almost his whole career, but has anyone ever really questioned Alonso’s ability? Everybody is assuming he will be the fastest driver ever. Part of me thinks he has no chance, but then look at Hamilton, who’s 36.”

JP “Alonso has always been unbelievable at the wheel of an F1 car, but I agree. After a couple of years out, at the age of 39 and having just had a scary bicycle crash that resulted in a significant injury, he’s got to come back in and be fighting fit. There’s a chance that he won’t quite be at the peak we’re all expecting, because he was at just such a high level for so long. But then his work rate at the factory and testing the old car was unbelievable last year. And I know that just having the character of Alonso around again will be great for the guys at Alpine.”

How about the other major driver changes: Carlos Sainz to Ferrari and Daniel Ricciardo to McLaren?

JN “This year is going to be the first proper gauge of the McLaren duo of the past two years [Sainz and Lando Norris], as they’re going up against two of the top four drivers on the grid. If Sainz can match Leclerc, he will be doing an unbelievable job. Ricciardo is an even stronger driver, so McLaren did well in that deal; that one tough year [2018] against Verstappen [at Red Bull] seemed to knock the stuffing out of his image, but his performances are still right up at the top.”

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Michael Schumacher’s son, Mick, will make his F1 debut with Haas this year. Can he make an impact?

JP “I fear for him. He had a good season last year in Formula 2, but the whole environment that he’s joining is set up to be a really tough year: he’s alongside another rookie in probably the slowest car on the grid. He won the F2 title, so absolutely he deserves a shot in F1, but he hasn’t had the Leclerc, Russell or Norris-style panache in the junior series, and there’s no benchmark for him.”

JN “The only impact that he can make is to outqualify [team-mate] Nikita Mazepin and finish ahead of him every single race, much like Russell did against Robert Kubica in 2019 – but then Kubica was a race winner, so he had a bit of clout.”

JP “Russell is the perfect example of what you need to do to look good, because he’s highly rated even though he’s at the back and hadn’t scored a point until he got that one-off drive for Mercedes [in the Sakhir Grand Prix at the end of last year]. Everyone could see the potential in him through great qualifying laps and good moments.”

How do you feel about the proposal to hold qualifying on Friday and then have a Saturday sprint race before three of the grands prix this season?

JP “I don’t like it. It’s gimmicky, and is the problem it’s trying to fix even there? We had some great races last year – trying to pick a top three or top five was as hard as it has ever been – yet F1 is trying desperately to spice up the action. I don’t mind changing the qualifying format, but this would take away that Sunday feeling. And dishing out points for it would just confuse matters.”

JN “It’s trying to solve a problem that we’re already in the process of solving with the new rules for 2022 and the budget cap, so why don’t they wait and see what happens? If then F1 is still broken, maybe they will need to look at other elements.”

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Does this year’s 23-race calendar look exciting?

JN “Portimão is a really cool circuit, and the racing was great there last year. It will be interesting if we get good weather, because the cold surface played a major role. As for the new track in Saudi Arabia, it’s hard to go wrong with a street circuit. It will be something fun, new and different, and that was the thing with last year’s ‘new’ tracks: were they great, or were they just something fun and new and different? It was a mixture of both.”

JP “This time last year, I would have been pretty negative about the return of Zandvoort, because in theory it’s difficult to follow and to pass there; but having seen the surprise races at other tracks last year, I’m a bit more excited about it. It’s a fast, flowing track, and all who drive there enjoy it.”

Has Hamilton signed only a one-year contract with Mercedes to win a record eighth title and then retire?

JP “The timing of the one-year deal is fascinating for several reasons. Firstly, Hamilton is on seven titles and is the huge favourite to win again; you can’t go through on goal, dribble around the keeper and then not stick the ball in the net. Secondly, it’s good PR for Mercedes that the greatest driver ever is winning there and great for the team as a whole that Hamilton has become the greatest pretty much entirely in a Mercedes. But Russell should be in a Mercedes car in 2022, and then life would become a bit tougher for Hamilton, even if he is the greatest of all time. At some point, all the greats get beaten by the next generation coming through."

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Is Russell a future F1 champion, then?

JP “He can be. What impresses me about him is he clearly has pace, but also his mindset is really strong. He had one weekend in a Mercedes, and it wasn’t only that he outfought Valtteri Bottas in Bottas’s car; it was also the way he thought about working through the weekend, and how he got straight to business with Hamilton’s crew and dialling in the car how he wanted it.”

JN “For me, Russell is undoubtedly a future champion – but will he actually win the title? Verstappen is a future champion too, but will he ever be in a championship-winning car, despite being one of the best drivers out there?”

JP “And at the same time, Leclerc is a future champion. He’s so quick. We saw that in 2019, when he had the tools; yes, he made a few mistakes, but it was his first year at Ferrari. If he gets a sniff of a title, he can be there. This young generation is full of possible champions, which is very exciting.”

JN “Yes, I think this is one of the strongest eras of racing drivers for a while, actually. If the field were closer, it would be like the 1980s period of having the absolute greats of Ayrton Senna, Nelson Piquet, Alain Prost and Nigel Mansell all racing each other at the front.”

JP “You would be hard pushed to ever find a year in F1 history when there were so many teams headlined by an outstanding driver. The talent on the grid right now is probably at an all-time high.”

Why should we sit and watch the 2021 F1 season?

JN “Listen to it, don’t watch it! This season is going to lay out a lot of the plots that we’re going to see play out over the next few years. It’s the prequel to some great F1 racing when the new rules come in. Yes, Mercedes will be at the front and it will probably be Hamilton winning the title, but the amount we’re going to learn will be astonishing. There are so many huge stories, if not necessarily the competition for the title.”

JP “Yes, it’s that. There has never been a better F1 grid for talent, and if everyone can at least close up to Mercedes and Red Bull, we’re going to have some cracking races, hopefully with Alonso dicing it with the big boys again. You will have a brilliant midfield battle, and hopefully sometimes they can get in among it at the sharp end.

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“I’m confident that Hamilton will become the champion again, but along the way there will be a lot of interest and some cracking races.”

A jam-packed calendar

So long as Covid-19 doesn’t intervene again, F1 will host a record 23 grands prix this year, mixing classic tracks with modern ones and introducing two new events. Here are the dates for your diary.

Sakhir, Bahrain 28 March

Imola, Italy 18 April

Portimão, Portugal 2 May

Barcelona, Spain 9 May

Monte Carlo, Monaco 23 May

Baku, Azerbaijan 6 June

Montreal, Canada 13 June

Le Castellet, France 27 June

Spielberg, Austria 4 July

Silverstone, Great Britain 18 July

Mogyoród, Hungary 1 August

Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium 29 August

Zandvoort, Netherlands 5 September

Monza, Italy 12 September

Sochi, Russia 26 September

Marina Bay, Singapore 3 October

Suzuka, Japan 10 October

Austin, US 24 October

Mexico City, Mexico 31 October

São Paulo, Brazil 7 November

Melbourne, Australia 21 November

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia 5 December

Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi 12 December

All change for 2022

This season represents something of a holding pattern, with the 2020 cars updated rather than replaced like usual in order to save the teams money during the pandemic. The new rules will instead come in for 2022, and these are generating much excitement because the aerodynamic philosophy is being developed with a focus on enabling the cars to follow each other closely and thus promote better racing. Starting over should also change the pecking order, so there’s a strong chance that Hamilton’s hegemony will soon be challenged. F1’s attempt to level the playing field also extends off-track, where there will be a budget cap for teams, fairer distribution of prize money and weighted time allowances for wind-tunnel testing, giving the slower teams a better chance to make up lost ground.

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BigDaddyCorsa 25 March 2021

Almost as irrelevant as comments about "proper engines".... 

eseaton 25 March 2021
All irrelevant until they put some proper engines back in the cars. Which nobody has the guts to do...

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