Can Red Bull beat Mercedes in F1 this year? These are the team prospects for 2021
By Alan Baldwin
LONDON - Lewis Hamilton can win a record eighth Formula One world championship while his Mercedes team celebrates an unprecedented eighth successive title double in the longest ever season, pandemic permitting.
Alternatively, the planned 23-race championship could mark the end of an era with Red Bull's Max Verstappen leading a generational changing of the guard.
It may even be 'farewell Sir Lewis', with the newly-knighted Briton - set also to become the first driver to win 100 races - extending his contract only to the end of 2021.
"I chose to have a one-year deal so that I could see how the year goes," he said.
The season also sees a Schumacher lining up on the starting grid for the first time since Michael's departure at the end of 2012 and Saudi Arabia making its debut with a night race in Jeddah.
Red Bull's car was quick, stable and reliable in pre-season testing, with Verstappen fastest, while Hamilton and team mate Valtteri Bottas were unsettled by the skittish handling of the Mercedes.
Mercedes says Honda-powered Red Bull has the edge on performance but Red Bull, which has brought in the experienced Mexican Sergio Perez alongside Verstappen, says Mercedes areis very much the favourite.
Either way, the stage is set for the closest-fought battle yet between the king and the youngster who would seize his throne.
The March 28 season-opening race in Bahrain will provide some clarity, with testing notoriously unreliable as an indicator of form, but the title battle looks set to remain between last year's top two teams.
F1 TEAM PROSPECTS FOR 2021:
44-Lewis Hamilton (Britain), 77-Valtteri Bottas (Finland)
Mercedes is chasing an unprecedented eighth successive title double but testing did not go to plan. The champion completed the least laps of any team, with both drivers finding the car skittish.
While there is always scepticism about testing times, Mercedes is not where it wants to be and no longer has the now-banned DAS steering system. Both drivers are out of contract at the end of the year, their futures uncertain.
Prediction: Still the favourites but for how long?
33-Max Verstappen (Netherlands), 11-Sergio Perez (Mexico)
Red Bull had an impressive test, with Verstappen fastest overall. The car looked quick, stable and reliable while Honda reckons its engine could be ahead of the one Mercedes had last year. Perez will take time to bed in after moving from Racing Point but the team now have a line-up of race winners. Mercedes says Red Bull is ahead on performance.
Title contenders. Verstappen is Hamilton's biggest threat
3-Daniel Ricciardo (Australia), 4-Lando Norris (Britain)
Ricciardo has moved from Renault in a line-up blending experience with youth but the Australian may take a while to get up to speed. McLaren has switched from Renault power to Mercedes and looked solid in testing with plenty of laps and a car whose novel diffuser design attracted plenty of attention.
Fighting again to be best of the rest behind Mercedes and Red Bull but it will be tight.
ASTON MARTIN (Previously RACING POINT)
5-Sebastian Vettel (Germany), 18-Lance Stroll (Canada)
Four times world champion Vettel starts over after six years at Ferrari, the last two eclipsed by Leclerc. The German seems more relaxed and the team and Stroll should benefit from his experience as the Aston Martin name returns as a constructor for the first time in 60 years. Testing was troubled and Vettel, who needs time in the car, did fewer laps than anyone.
Should have been third last year but closest rivals McLaren now have the same engine, making the task harder.
ALPINE (Previously Renault)
14-Fernando Alonso (Spain), 31-Esteban Ocon (France)
Two times world champion Alonso returns after two years out and at the age of 39, but with plenty of hunger. Ocon will be hoping to build on his first podium last year for the Renault-owned team now rebranded Alpine. The car looked quick and reliable.
Fighting hard in midfield, some podiums again.
16-Charles Leclerc (Monaco), 55-Carlos Sainz (Spain)
Ferrari is coming off the back of its worst season in 40 years, with Sainz replacing Vettel in the team’s youngest line-up since 1968 and with a new engine offering more straight-line speed. The focus will soon switch to the 2022 car, however.
The only way is up, although returning to the top three looks a stretch.
10-Pierre Gasly (France), 22-Yuki Tsunoda (Japan)
Red Bull's sister team looked strong in testing and Gasly, a surprise race winner last year, completed the most laps (237). Tsunoda was second fastest overall and is the first Japanese in F1 since 2014.
The midfield will be tighter than ever but AlphaTauri look capable of moving up.
7-Kimi Raikkonen (Finland), 99-Antonio Giovinazzi (Italy)
Alfa impressed with its pace in testing, Williams' George Russell singling the team out as the surprise package of the three days. Raikkonen is still going strong 20 years after his debut.
Moving away from the bottom group and establishing themselves as a solid midfield outfit has to be the goal.
47-Mick Schumacher (Germany), 9-Nikita Mazepin (Russia)
Schumacher will get the headlines as the son of Ferrari great Michael makes his debut alongside Russian rookie team mate Mazepin, whose billionaire father has provided title sponsorship. Points for either will be hard-earned.
Haas look likely to be the tail-enders, focusing already mostly on 2022.
63-George Russell (Britain), 6-Nicholas Latifi (Canada)
The team have scored one point in two seasons and none last year, but things are looking up under new ownership. The pace in testing was solid. Russell is the one to watch, linked to a future Mercedes seat, but he can only do so much.
Moving off the bottom, but scoring points will still be difficult.