Under the floodlights, the 2021 Formula One season got underway with a cracking race in Bahrain. On the surface, another victory for Sir Lewis Hamilton would suggest that normal service had resumed. But that’s far from the case and if the opening grand prix was anything to go by, this season will be unmissable.
We actually have a title fight
For the past two seasons, a real title fight has failed to materialize. Mercedes have dominated from start to finish and Valtteri Bottas has been unable to take the fight to Sir Hamilton. But this year already looks far more promising.
Red Bull were highly impressive during pre-season testing and they carried that form into the first race weekend, with Max Verstappen topping every practice session and securing pole position with ease. And although he narrowly missed out on victory, there is no doubt that the Dutchman finally has a car capable of beating Sir Hamilton.
Fans have been craving a proper Hamilton v Verstappen duel for years and now it looks like our prayers have been answered. Throw in Bottas and Sergio Perez, who drove brilliantly to finish 5th after starting from the pit-lane and we have a potential four-way fight for the title.
Bring it on.
Track limits in the spotlight (again)
It was the decisive moment of the race. With just a few laps to go Verstappen made his move on Sir Hamilton. The Brit gave the Dutchman plenty of room to try a pass around the outside of Turn 4 and for a moment it looked like Verstappen had pulled it off and with it sealed the race win. But alas, he ran wide, with all four wheels of his Red Bull exiting the white lines marking the track. Later that lap, he let Sir Hamilton re-take the lead and Verstappen was unable to mount another challenge.
This incident has yet again bought up the issue of track limits. The lack of clarity and consistency around them has bothered drivers, team principles, and fans alike, for many years. When do they apply and when do they not? Ironically, before the incident, Red Bull had been calling out Mercedes for running wide at Turn 4 to gain an advantage, even though according to Mercedes Team Principal Toto Wolff, it was OK to do that.
And then comes the issue of Verstappen letting Sir Hamilton by. While there was no doubt the overtake was illegal, the stewards immediately instructed Red Bull to tell the Dutchman to move aside. Why, as Verstappen pointed out post-race, was he not allowed to continue and receive a five-second time penalty later on, as has been the case in previous seasons?
Clarity and consistency of the rules must be a priority for the FIA this year.
Another record for Hamilton
We’ve become accustomed to Sir Hamilton rewriting the F1 record books for some time now. The Brit already holds the outright record for most race wins, most pole-positions, and most podiums, to name just a few. And following Bahrain, he can now add another to the list: Most laps led in F1 history.
His tally of 5126 laps led, surpasses the previous record set by Michael Schumacher. And Sir Hamilton can look forward to holding onto the record for many years to come. Not only is he fully expected to add to his total this season, but his nearest active challenger, Sebastian Vettel, is over 1600 laps behind.
Rebranded teams struggle
2020 saw one of the closest and most exciting midfield battles in recent memory, with five different teams pushing to finish 3rd in the Constructors championship. While more of the same was expected this year, some teams appear to have taken a big step backward, namely Alpine and Aston Martin, curiously the two teams to have rebranded this season, having previously raced as Renault and Racing Point.
Alpine had looked promising in the early stages, with the returning Fernando Alonso proving that age is just a number before brake failure saw him retire halfway through proceedings. His teammate, Esteban Ocon, could only muster a 13th place finish. Meanwhile, Aston Martin didn’t fare much better. Lance Stroll was able to claim a solitary point, but Vettel’s debut for the team was a disaster. He started last on the grid and collided with Ocon in the closing stages, coming home a pitiful 15th.
There is still plenty of time for both teams to make amends of course. But with McLaren storming ahead in the battle for the best of the rest and Ferrari improving massively from their disastrous 2020 campaign, the midfield fight doesn’t look so open this season.
As debut weekends go, Nikita Mazepin had perhaps one of the worst in F1 history. During qualifying, he spun off twice and set the slowest lap time, before crashing out of the race after just three corners. His crash, completely self-imposed, has only furthered the poor reputation that he earned in his days in the junior series.
Whether the fault can entirely be laid at his door remains to be seen. Just after the Safety Car restart, his Haas teammate, Mick Schumacher, also spun, going on to finish last of the drivers who didn't DNF. The American-owned team are favourites to finish bottom of the table. Their car on paper is the slowest on the grid and their two rookie drivers will need time to acclimatise to the sport.
Nevertheless, Mazepin and co. will need to get their act together fast if they want to prove their doubters wrong.