Why we can be more optimistic about the 2021 F1 season after testing
Has a shortened pre-season testing program given F1 fans more or less hope for a competitive 2021 season??
Courtesy - Red Bull Racing
In what felt like a blink of an eye, 2021 pre-season testing is officially complete after 3 days of running in Bahrain. After weeks of hidden car reveals and hyped up re-brands, it was finally time for the teams to lay their cards out on the table and allow their rivals to get a sense of who aced the new regulations. Testing in Bahrain finally allowed us the chance to see how teams have re-designed their cars for the new regulations. Even though it is a carry over season, many teams like Red Bull, Mercedes, and McLaren went to great lengths to hide their new innovations during the launch season. To make up for that, we were able to analyze the new cars over 24 cumulative hours of running at the Sahkir Circuit. Red Bull were even nice enough to hit the eject button on their engine cover so that we could have a closer look at their new power unit! But with the lap times completed and kilometers logged, are F1 fans more optimistic about the 2021 season after testing or does it look like we're going to more of the same old song this season? Well after livestreaming over six hours of testing coverage on our channel, I've compiled a list of reasons why you should be cautiously optimistic about the 2021 F1 season.
Mercedes on the Back Foot?
Courtesy - Mercedes AMG Petronas
Regulation changes offer Formula 1 teams a chance to 'reset' and potentially make gains on their rivals. In 7 seasons of the Turbo-Hybrid era, Mercedes has aced every single small and major rule change en route to winning all world titles in this era. But as the W12 hit the track on the first day of testing, we saw struggles from the World Champions that we are not used to seeing even in the pre-season. Gearbox gremlins forced Mercedes to only complete 48 laps of running on Day 1, their lowest lap total since 2014. Day 2 was a smoother day in terms of technical issues but again we saw an uncharacteristic mistake from Hamilton as he beached his car in the gravel and finished the day in second last place. On the final day, we saw more struggles from Hamilton as the W12 looked to be a handful and it even led to a Lewis spin out of the final corner during a quali sim. So is the mighty Mercedes finally beatable in 2021?? I'm not that naive to write them off this early in the year as that car still has plenty of pace and power. As TSN F1 analyst Tim Hauraney explained during our Day 2 debrief show, Mercedes could very well make quick adjustments and maybe even run a new spec floor for the first race of the year which could turn around their fortunes. They are an incredibly innovative and intelligent bunch so I expect them to be the favorites until proven otherwise. But the lack of running in testing is not ideal even for a team like Mercedes. They completed the fewest laps out of any team with 304 and that led to their drivers facing one of the more challenging pre-season tests in recent years. It's been a while since I've seen Hamilton wrestling his car through corners as he's usually exceptionally smooth but that might hint at the possibility that Mercedes' off-season changes have made the car more difficult to drive than in 2020. If it is indeed a half step backward in 2021, it might finally offer us the chance for a close championship battle that we've desperately been needing but don't count Mercedes out just yet.
Mid-Field Pack Gets Even Stronger
Courtesy - Alpine Racing
We've relied on the mid-field battle in the past few seasons to give us the close fight we've been hoping for at the front of the world championship. Well if 2021 testing is any indication, that fight is about to get a lot more fierce and competitive with each team seeming to make solid improvements on their 2020 cars. In what was a positive surprise, Alpine executed a perfect run plan in testing with no significant issues and they leave Bahrain with the second most laps completed with 396. Alpine had a program with a focus on understanding the aero package but both drivers seemed upbeat and pleased with the progress so far. Their rivals over at McLaren wasted no time in picking up from where they left off in 2020. Daniel Ricciardo went fastest in the Day 1 AM session while his teammate Lando Norris finished second in the PM session. McLaren probably had the biggest task of any team during testing as they were running a new Mercedes power unit and effectively a new chassis as well. They debuted some interesting sidepod and bargeboard designs that they heavily guarded during the launch season but the new updates have certainly seemed to work for the MCL35M. Getting 327 laps completed in 3 days is solid for McLaren and confirming the correlation data of their new package. Daniel Ricciardo was certainly happy with his debut session for McLaren and is gearing up for a promising season ahead of him and the team.
Although testing wasn't as successful as their launch, Aston Martin still showed some solid pace at times during the three days of running. Reliability issues really hampered the debut of Sebastian Vettel but he's still upbeat about his end to the test as he was able to get in a decent long run. When the AMR21 was in the hands of Lance Stroll, he showed good one lap pace finishing third on Day 2 but the lack of running makes it difficult to say where Aston Martin currently sit in the pecking order. Aston's lap count of 314 was second last to only Mercedes so it's safe to say things didn't go according to plan at Aston Martin. Finally you have the dark horse of the mid-field and that is Alpha Tauri. With the 5th most laps overall and the second fastest time in testing, Alpha Tauri might be ready to break into the top six of the standings. The new Honda power unit looks promising but more than anything, Alpha Tauri can be extremely excited about the performance of rookie Yuki Tsunoda. They can also head home satisfied that they were able to get through their entire testing program with no issues and get some really good long run data when the car was in the hands of Pierre Gasly. To see the strength of these mid-field teams is a great indication as to the type of racing we're going to get in a few weeks time when the season gets underway.
Red Bull Have Their Act Together
Courtesy - Red Bull Racing
It's been quite a long wait but Red Bull might finally have their you know what together at the very beginning of the Formula 1 season. This is the first pre-season testing in a while in which Red Bull will leave with the best lap time and confidence that their winter program went better than Mercedes. Max Verstappen topped two sessions on the C3 and C4 tyres on Day 1 and 3 respectively in his RB16B while his new teammate Sergio Perez looked comfortable in the longer run simulations. With the adjustments Red Bull have made to the rear suspension this season, visually the RB16B just looked a lot more stable and easier to drive than its predecessor. Verstappen was really attacking the corners of the Sakhir circuit on the final day of testing and he hailed this test as Red Bull's best since he's been a part of the team. Considering how well Verstappen extracted performance out of a tricky RB16 in 2020, his positive comments on the new car this year gives us great hope that Red Bull have finally gotten their act together and can mount a challenge to Mercedes right from race one. More good news for Red Bull is the fact that their new Honda power unit held up extremely well during testing. Between the two teams supplied by Honda, they managed to complete 700 laps of running with no issues and when we look at the Sector 1 & 3 times, the Honda power is more than holding its own against their rivals. Of course the team is weary that this is just testing and Mercedes always seems to have a trick up their sleeves but 2021 feels like it might be a different story. When you eliminate all the numbers and data, visually you can tell that the Red Bull drivers are much happier with the balance and drivability of their cars in comparison to their Mercedes rivals.
The Rest of the Grid
Courtesy - Alfa Romeo ORLEN
All in all, I really do believe we're in for a great season of Formula 1. Even at the back of the grid, it seems like the likes of Williams and Alfa Romeo have also made good progressions from last year as we saw 41 year old Kimi Raikkonen topping the timing sheets and putting in a monster 229 laps of his own. Williams completed the third most laps during testing and George Russell also put in the sixth fastest time on the C5 tyre. Considering the last few seasons, this was a solid start to the year for Williams. Ferrari on the other hand had a mixed testing session with some positives and negatives. On the positive side of things, the new Ferrari power unit seems to be a good improvement on 2020 as evident by the customer teams as well. The SF21 however still looks like a handful to drive at the rear of the car and Carlos Sainz has yet to find the groove yet at his new team.
But what do you think about the upcoming season after winter testing? Are you more or less optimistic about the hopes of a close championship? Jump down in the comments below and let me know what you think!