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Inside Line: F1 driver battles to be a highlight of 2021

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As a Formula 1 fan whose loyalties are with drivers rather than teams, I am fascinated by the stage that is set for the 2021 edition of the world championship.

Apart from who finished 1-2-3, the contest between teammates is more salubrious than it has been in a long time and are those primal rivalries sure to launch many headlines in the year ahead.

Starting with the pretext that in F1 (or motorsport in general for that matter) to finish first a driver must first beat his teammate. While on the surface drivers share a joke and do the buddy-buddy thing as is deemed civil, the harsh reality they all want to beat one another, and the guy in the other car is the first target.

So trust me, the teams welcoming new faces now are packed with smiles and high-fives. A new driver always injects a factory with expectations but once the honeymoon period is over there will be gloom, tensions, competition as two battled or the one spot which is team supremacy upon which a title tilt can be launched.

Let’s start with the teams without driver changes.

Mercedes will again be the benchmark with the safe bet they won’t tinker with their drivers and it will be pretty much business as usual with Lewis Hamilton their top gun with F1’s best wingman ever Valtteri Bottas ready to pick up the pieces while adding a buffer to his dominant teammate to the chasing pack.

At Williams, young George Russell will be brimming with confidence after a stellar 2020 season in which he showed the world that with a proper piece of kit he is about as good as it gets. Expect him to shine again and trounce Nicolas Latifi as he did last year.

The Canadian is in F1 because of his father’s money and also a fair share of talent, but clearly not in the league of his teammate. Hence Latifi will be aiming to raise his game with the knowledge that the guy in the pit garage next to him is a world champion in the making.

Remember how with five hours in the car Russell made Bottas look ordinary? Latifi should know what he is up against.

Alfa Romeo is the other team with (surprisingly) No driver changes. One would have expected Hinwill to sweep clean their under-delivering pair. Apparently, Giovinazzi sells a lot more Alfas than say a young Mick Schumacher would; from where I sit, if logic had prevailed, the Italian (expensive) journeyman would have been sent packing long ago.

But loyalty appears to be a big thing, Ferrari have kept their underperforming charge and the grumpy veteran who is a shadow of the guy who was “taking a shit” when Pele was in the house. But we love The Iceman so he stays for another season.

If Charles Leclerc (and before him Max Verstappen and also Daniel Ricciardo before that) set the template of how to deal with more experienced teammates, then Giovinazzi has failed miserably as, first he was humbled by the Monegasque who got promoted to the Scuderia, and has had no answer to Raikkonen who is hardly at his peak

In a nutshell, expect business as usual for teams that hung on to their driver pairings.

As mentioned, Verstappen not only humbled Ricciardo when the two were paired, the Dutchman’s shares also sky-rocketed to the point that Red Bull made it clear the Aussie was surplus to requirements.

Thereafter Max has gone on to destroy his teammates, well almost, Pierre Gasly has survived only just while Alex Albon was sent to rehab, namely DTM and sim racing where, incidentally, Max also beats him!

So now we have Sergio Perez in the Bullpen to bring the Yang to the Ying. The veteran must know he cannot outpace his younger teammate around whom the team is built. A smart Checo will plug and play, not cause waves and simply do what he does best, deliver in races of high attrition and then see where he ends up.

It is an intriguing contest between a Young Gun of the future, probably the best of his generation, up against a veteran who nearly had no drive when Aston Martin opted for Sebastian Vettel. The Mexican will be fired up to prove they made the wrong call.

On paper, for me, these two might yet become a very good pairing as long as they don’t run into each other. The chances of it all having wings or it going pear-shaped are 50/50 for now.

A brief history of the Ferrari driver programme before we get started on the two Charlies.

Seb was brought in to return the Reds to glory after the ‘oh-so-close-but-no-cigar’ years of Fernando Alonso. Meanwhile, Ferrari had a driver academy going with Jules Bianchi in the pipeline and set for great things until he was cruelly robbed of his life.

Next followed Charles Leclerc and Antonio Giovinazzi. Soon it became clear that Leclerc was the real deal and Antonio not and the former got the nod to replace Kimi and team up with Seb.

Within two years the Monaco Kid all but destroyed the German’s career. The Monaco flag was not speared into the Maranello soil and the Tifosi have reason to believe again in a driver.

Into this walks Carlos Sainz with a strong reputation and a will to be a star in Red. He is not heading there to play second fiddle and that’s where the intrigue begins. If Ferrari believes they have a pussy in the Spaniard then they may be in for a wake-up call.

Nevertheless, the challenges for him are stark: It’s Leclerc’s team right now and traditionally Ferrari have little space for the ‘other’ driver. Their greatest glory era came about by focusing on only one: Michael Schumacher.

How this all pans out and if they can fit two into the number one spot will be interesting, but don’t be fooled by the camaraderie and ‘love’ between the two new colleagues. This one has all the ingredients to be a tear-jerker and that’s where the fun will begin.

On to Aston Martin. And Sebastian Vettel. Make no mistake he is in Green this year because he will sell a lot more cars than Checo at this stage their respective careers. Their marketing is already using previously camera-shy German to great avail.

The trade-off? He gets the drive because he is marketable and not because he is the best driver in the world, as Leclerc proved and Ricciardo hinted at when they were teammates.

Vettel has to deliver now, away from the Ferrari pressure he needs to reset and with Mercedes power for the first time find the ‘one-finger’ Seb that humiliated his rivals a decade ago. If he still has it in him of course.

His benchmark this year is Lance Stroll and to find redemption Seb will have to beat him thoroughly and constantly, which will be a tough ask because the Canadian is no slouch when the stars align for him.

While I personally believe Lance should be in F1 on merit, the truth is he needs to do to Seb what Charles did or similar. Anything less will not convince the stubborn detractors.

However, this is likely to be the least contentious pairing of the lot as Seb’s current circumstances will not tolerate a Multi-21 episode or crashing into the other Green car. Forget Lance, Lawrence Stroll won’t be happy.

While peace may prevail at Aston, can the same be said about Alpine?

Cyril Abiteboul has been ejected without reason given and in his place a headless chicken, or a chicken with two or three heads depending from what angle you look at it.

Add to that the biggest head in motor racing – Fernando Alonso – and it might well be a season packed with headaches. Of course, it all depends on the car they hand him starting in Bahrain tomorrow.

If it’s a dud (when last did he have a decent car?) then as they say in mafia movies “fuggedaboutit” because the Spaniard will let us all know.

He returns to the organisation that won him his two F1 world titles in 2005 and 2006. What emerges from the winter will be interesting but be sure Fernando will be at the very top of his game, despite the jaw damage sustained while training.

All he has to do is make young teammate Esteban Ocon look ordinary which he no doubt feels he will do. He set the blueprint of destroying a young driver with Stoffel Vandoorne at McLaren, his intention will be to do the same with the French kid in the other car this time around.

Esteban is on a hiding to nothing should he not be able to beat Fernando on track, because off it he is already trounced as the status his teammate commands.

It is going to be a character-building year for Ocon, perhaps even a decisive one, while for Fernando this is likely to be his last project at the highest level and be sure he will make it a memorable one.

At AlphaTauri, Pierre Gasly welcomes rookie Yuki Tsunoda to the fold; one imagines the Frenchman is brimming with confidence after his finest year and looking ahead to deliver the same again in 2021, to keep himself as an option should the Perez-experiment bomb for Red Bull.

Tsunoda will be looking to learn from Gasly at first and then beat him. He also carries the hopes of Japan who have not had a driver in the top flight since Kamui Kobayashi in 2014. Yuki will be the country’s 21st F1 driver.

Finally, the only team to be fielding rookies, Haas, have Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin in their cars. A chalk and cheese combination if ever there was one, Mick the son of the former King of F1 – Michael Schumacher – and Nikita son of the Uralkali kingpin – Dmitry Mazepin – sharing a garage.

That should make for an intriguing fly on the wall footage – Mama Schumi and Papa Mazepin strutting their stuff in Gene Haas’ hospitality.

Of the two lads, expect Mick to be cautious out of the blocks, building his confidence and momentum to become a solid driver should the hapless Haas not be too far off the pace and demoralise him thoroughly.

He has ticked all the boxes to be in F1 on merit, personally, I hope he becomes a huge success not only for the Schumacher legacy but because it also needs a feel-good chapter after the skiing tragedy that robbed them and us all of the Michael we once knew.

In contrast, Mazepin junior, in the other car will be all out to make a name for himself at the expense of Mick as he attempts to rid himself of “the most despised F1 rookie ever” tag which has already tarnished his career.

While one can understand that for now Mazepin senior got his son the best deal to be in F1 by flinging many roubles at the American outfit, but Ferrari’s placement of Mick Schumacher in this shitshow (as opposed to Alfa Romeo) remains a baffling decision.

How bad the call was by Mattia Binotto and the wise men at Maranello only time will tell. If Mick is hampered or becoming damaged goods during this foray, trust me the proverbial poo-poo will hit the fan.

The Schumacher name carries big clout in F1, those who weren’t around at the height of Michael’s prowess are set to understand why. Beside every great man is an even greater woman they say, mark my words it’s true.

Finally a word on the liveries: the more they win the prettier they get. Trust me the Williams might look like a TV test pattern. If it is at the back of the grid it will always look like an eyesore.

However, in the unlikely event that it is a bullet and gets George a win or two and Nicolas a podium then you will see how pretty it becomes, and might even launch a trend of garish liveries.

That’s still racing for you. What wins on Sunday sells on Mondays!

So that’s what I am looking forward to this year among other cool stuff that makes F1 so addictive. I wonder who readers believe will grab the big headlines this season? And, of course, if I will be called out for missing the mark?

Addendum: I forgot McLaren boys!
Expect Daniel to be stellar and set a benchmark for young Lando Norris to sponge off, the kid is special and will keep the big smiling Aussie honest. Racecraft-wise the younger of the two can learn a great deal and matching his teammate will further enhance his reputation.

Ricciardo will deliver with a good car and will be relishing Mercedes power in a team that is banking on him to take the next step in the pecking order and challenge for regular podiums. Ricciardo in the mix entertainment guaranteed.