Finally, Formula 1 engines are going to start-up in anger again for the 2021 World Championship season with three-day testing starting Friday at Bahrain International Circuit
The final one of the current rules package and perhaps one of the most intriguing since the dawn of the turbo-hybrid era in 2014.
Since then, Mercedes and mostly Lewis Hamilton have dominated F1, the team winning all 14 titles on offer and the reigning world champion driver winning six of those, with the other going to retired Nico Rosberg in 2016.
Mercedes are a well-oiled machine thus testing for them, in Bahrain, this weekend, should be to further sharpen their formidable weaponry and allow Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to dust-off the cobwebs of winter. They will also want to iron out any “problems” they may have encountered since last season.
Last year they flummoxed everyone with DAS, while they may not have such a gizmo to steal the headlines as they did in Barcelona last year. Nevertheless, expect the Mercs to be potent and more than ready to counter the ‘extras’ their rivals may have uncovered during the break.
How much they reveal this week remains to be seen, and if this indeed is their last season as a team, be sure they will want to go out in a blaze of glory which might tempt Toto Wolff to turn up the wick fully.
For many years Ferrari were perennial ‘winners’ of the “Winter Championships” but when it came to showing their hand when it mattered, too often they have been lacking. Hence the Big Trophy cabinet is bare since 2008 when they won their last constructors’ title and a year longer since Kimi Raikkonen claimed the drivers’ title for the Reds.
In recent years the Italian team have actively played down their chances, however, heading to 2021 they have again ‘leaked’ information that their power units will be back to full force for Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz.
Expect that over the next three days in Bahrain the Scuderia will continue to dial-in their new Spaniard to the team routines, as well as giving him real track time to adjust to the brand new package that awaits him.
In contrast, Leclerc is well ensconced in the team and will probably take the lead in technical feedback as his teammate familiarises himself ahead of their contest this season.
The sport, let alone the team and their legion of supporters, can ill-afford another woeful Ferrari and Bahrain will give us a glimpse of what they might have for 2021. Furthermore, another season in the doldrums may not save Mattia Binotto his job. It’s a big year for him and the team he leads.
In contrast, much is expected from Red Bull with Sergio Perez in the bullpen with Max Verstappen. Another super interesting driver combo that is sure to grab headlines later in the season.
At Sakhir, expect the Mexican (much like Sainz at Ferrari) to be on a steep learning curve about this new team and the way they operate, with the Dutchman tasked to see what can be extracted from the package which will be Honda-powered for the last time (officially) this season before the Japanese auto giant departs the sport yet again.
It has become something of a tradition that Red Bull are slow out of the blocks, Adrian Newey and his tech team too often too late in unharnessing the potential of their cars which tend to become sweeter as the season progresses.
Thus it is Verstappen who last year won the season’s final race, but it was another case of ‘too much, too late for the Bulls. Avoiding a repeat will be a priority and while there may well be glimpses of the potential in the next three days. Verstappen’s ‘body language’ will be telling.
McLaren also have their ‘new boy’ Daniel Ricciardo to bed into the team alongside Lando Norris ahead of what is a new era for the team, reunited with Mercedes power that served them so well in the past.
Zak Brown has been shrewd if resurrecting the team which was sunk when he arrived, luring Andreas Seidly must be the coup of the century for the Woking outfit as he has studied the ship and has been the architect of the turnaround.
After last year’s rise from the gloom, expectations are high for the once mightiest team in the sport with Ricciardo a signal of their intent. Expect the Australian to be reeling off the laps to get used to his new car and Mercedes power for the first time.
Norris too will be able to do back-to-back evaluations to ascertain if the German PU will carry them closer to the top three, or at least confirm the switch of engine supplier was a step in the right direction or not and will be hoping Racing Point’s victory last year is a good omen for McLaren’s new Merc era.
Aston Martin’s return to F1 is already dwarfing previous forays and is arguably one of the best projects to happen at the highest level in decades. This is a serious outfit that may have once been a billionaire’s vanity project but is now a proper contender.
Signing Sebastian Vettel was a masterstroke in marketing as the four-times F1 world champion is one of the most respected and liked characters on the grid; a PR person’s dream driver. The question is can the 33-year-old regain his mojo in the wake of a woeful 2020 season?
Testing marks his first step to redemption, as well as his first taste of Mercedes power. For now, it appears to be plug and play for the champion who switched from Red to Green and these next three days will help him familiarise himself with the project.
Teammate Lance Stroll is likely to be tasked with doing the comparisons between this year’s car and the Pink Mercedes of last year until, his new teammate begins sharing his wealth of experience with the team where it really matters, out on track.
Rebranded Renault makes its debut as the Alpine F1 Team with their multi-pronged leadership, out with Cyril Abiteboul and in with Fernando Alonso, the great Spaniard making his greatly anticipated return alongside Esteban Ocon.
By his own admission, the veteran will hardly need time to get up to speed despite his two years on the fringes. Expect Alonso to stamp his authority in the team from the minute the garage doors roll up to allow them on track, and watch 24-year-old Ocon prevent himself from being ‘Vandoorned’ by the 39-year-old.
The new operation that has morphed from Yellow to Blue, inherited a handy blueprint for this year’s campaign from last year’s effort. How they cope with the transition to Alonso and without Abiteboul will be key to the success they will have this year.
As the sole Renault/Alpine powered team they may benefit from the lack of customers or alternatively, as McLaren-Honda, suffer without the strength in numbers which will have an immediate impact; in Bahrain they will be collecting half the data they did last year when McLaren were still in the fold.
If Red Bull is Max Verstappen’s team, then it would be fair to say that AlphaTauri is currently ‘owned’ by Pierre Gasly. The 2020 Italian Grand Prix winner a changed man since he took the leadership role with the Red Bull B-Team.
With Daniil Kvyat dispatched and rookie Yuki Tsunoda in the sister car, expect Gasly to be in charge during testing as the Japanese youngster catches up and uses the Frenchman as a handy benchmark.
The Faenza outfit tends to ‘box above their weight’ and will be looking to do so starting in Bahrain on Friday.
Last year, Ferrari customer teams suffered greatly due to the demise of their power unit package. Whatever the Italian team were bust doing, apparently they can do it this year without restriction for whatever reason. This means that Haas and Alfa Romeo are due for a much-needed power boost too.
Haas and their two rookies will be needing all the horsepower they can muster as the car they have for Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin was a handful for veterans Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen last year.
For 2021, the team will be rolling out what is essentially a year old car in Bahrain, with no development since this time last year for two youngsters with no experience, and thus no benchmark either, as they both embark on their greatest journey.
Both drivers need track time and it is hoped the American(?) outfit, sponsored by a Russian billionaire will provide them with a bulletproof car for this purpose.
Schumacher’s arrival in F1 is one of the biggest stories of this decade already, his every move will be scrutinised and the wisdom (or lack thereof) of Ferrari placing the German with a team with no experience in developing rookies will be apparent pretty soon.
For bad boy Mazepin, he will need to do his talking on track if he is going to win some hearts and minds during his first year in the top flight. That would begin by bettering his teammate in every session, beginning with testing.
At Alfa Romeo they too will be relishing the return to ‘normal’ power from the Ferrari PU for their underwhelming driver pairing of Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi; the former a shadow of himself in his heyday and the latter obviously well connected and/or loved at Maranello to remain in F1 for yet another year.
Raikkonen has little to prove and will be The Iceman everyone loves irrespective of his performances, while Giovinazzi can only redeem himself if he can trounce his veteran teammate in the manner Leclerc sent Vettel packing.
What the Alfa package offers their drivers, which we will know soon enough, will determine whether the pair will be at the worng end of the midfield or the sharp end, for the former to happen they will have to produce a superb car for their drivers.
Finally, Williams with their all-new look retains last year’s driver line-up of George Russell and Nicolas Latifi who will be hoping for a half-decent car that will keep them off the back row of the grid.
Signs are good, money is apparently flowing, and testing will be a good indicator of things to come.
Bad memories of Williams testing debacles over recent years will only be averted when their car actually rolls out of the pits in Bahrain, or if their drivers will sit and wait for the car to arrive while their rivals pound around BIC.
Getting out on track when lights go green on Friday morning will be a big step up for the Grove outfit that begins their 2021 season without a Williams – Frank or Claire – leading the team for the first time since the seventies.
After a long lockdown testing is finally here, but three days of it goes against the ethos of what F1 was once all about, as someone said “it’s like playing for Liverpool or Real Madrid and you cannot train.”
Nevertheless, it will be an ultra-busy three days for teams and drivers as they maximise what they have at their disposal, any mishap for a team or by a driver this weekend in Bahrain will have a knock-on effect. (Remember when Gasly binned the Red Bull and wrote his exit check that day, a few months later he was back at Toro Rosso…)
The teams that hit the ground running will be the ones to watch, those with flaws will be exposed as the first pecking order begins to establish itself ahead of the marathon 2021 F1 season.