Home is where the heart is for Red Bull – Austrian GP preview

The Formula One circus stays in the Styrian mountains as the Red Bull Ring plays host to the Austrian Grand Prix, just seven days after Max Verstappen claimed victory at the same circuit in the Styrian Grand Prix.

It would take a brave person to bet against Verstappen taking his third consecutive victory on Sunday, given his dominant performance last weekend. Sergio Perez will be hoping he can make it two Red Bulls on the podium, after coming within a second of Valtteri Bottas in the previous race.

A double podium is probably the best case scenario once again for Mercedes with Lewis Hamilton making a rare trip to the Brackley simulator in an aim to extract every last inch of performance out of his car. The quick turnaround means no upgrades for this race, and there are mixed messages from the Mercedes camp regarding how much more development we will see on their 2021 car.

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes (LAT Images / Mercedes AMG F1)

The pace from the top two teams meant Ferrari and McLaren were once again left fighting for fifth. Although it was Lando Norris who won the midfield battle last weekend, Daniel Ricciardo was showing good pace before reliability troubles dropped him down the order. Ferrari will also be hoping for a smoother weekend from Charles Leclerc, who showed some inspired moves after being controversially involved in Pierre Gasly’s retirement.

AlphaTauri, Alpine and Aston Martin will look to pick up some of the lesser points once again, in what looks to be one of the tightest midfield battles for years. Strategy could well be key in this battle, as free air is hard to come by on the track with the shortest lap time of the year. Pirelli are also bringing softer tyres to the Austrian GP than they did at the Styrian round, which might lead to more action in the pitlane.

For George Russell, he will be hoping his pitlane action is much more conventional this weekend. A pneumatic leak cost him a shot at his first ever points for Williams, with the Brit admitting that there’s no guarantee he will be able to replicate that performance again this time around. His teammate will also be hoping for a better result, after being an innocent victim in last weekend’s lap one shenanigans.

 

Alfa Romeo will be hoping they can sneak a point, after just missing out with Kimi Raikkonen last time around. The intriguing battle between the Haas cars will also be one to watch, as Mick Schumacher and his teammate battle for inter-team supremacy, which must be a small ray of light in a very difficult debut season for both drivers.

It’s fair to say last week’s race was not a classic, but different tyres (and possibly different weather) could make the Austrian GP an entirely different beast indeed.

 

F1 testing: Bottas fastest on day 2 despite more Mercedes problems

Valtteri Bottas ended the second day of pre-season testing in Bahrain with the fastest time, despite more mechanical problems afflicting Mercedes and their customer Aston Martin.

Bottas set his pacesetting lap of a 1:30.289s late in the afternoon session, on a run on the softest C5 tyres. However, Bottas lost a considerable amount of running earlier in the session due to an issue with his car’s floor, which compounded the gearbox problems that held him back yesterday.

Similar Mercedes gearbox issues stopped Sebastian Vettel from getting any meaningful running with Aston Martin. The German managed just six laps in the morning session before his car began a lengthy spell on jacks in the garage. Vettel did return to the track before the end of the session, but only recorded four more laps before handing over to Lance Stroll for the afternoon.

Courtesy of Aston Martin F1 Team

Lewis Hamilton also had a troubled day of testing for Mercedes. The defending champion drove in the morning but spun into the gravel towards the end of the session and brought out the red flag. He ended the day 15th fastest, only ahead of Vettel.

Not all the Mercedes-powered teams had problems today, however, with McLaren continuing the strong pace displayed yesterday. Daniel Ricciardo was one of the early pacesetters and topped the morning session, while Lando Norris was quickest for a while in the afternoon before ultimately ending the day fourth behind Bottas, Pierre Gasly and Stroll.

Alpine also had a solid day with Fernando Alonso at the wheel of the A521. The Spaniard was second-quickest behind Ricciardo in the morning session, and logged a total of 128 laps by the end of the day. He also completed a comprehensive run plan that included testing three different floor configurations and two different engine covers.

Courtesy of Alpine Racing Media

Following Esteban Ocon’s 129 laps from day one, Alpine are now leading the way in terms of combined mileage heading into the final day of testing. Meanwhile, all four Mercedes-powered teams have the fewest total laps, with Williams on 215 followed by McLaren (195), Aston Martin (177) and Mercedes themselves (162).

However, Nicholas Latifi did record the most laps of any driver on day two, with 132 for Williams.

Day 2 classification:

Pos. Driver Team Time Laps
1 Valtteri Bottas Mercedes 1:30.289 58
2 Pierre Gasly AlphaTauri-Honda +0.124 87
3 Lance Stroll Aston Martin-Mercedes +0.171 70
4 Lando Norris McLaren-Mercedes +0.297 52
5 Antonio Giovinazzi Alfa Romeo-Ferrari +0.471 124
6 Charles Leclerc Ferrari +0.597 73
7 Nicholas Latifi Williams-Mercedes +1.383 132
8 Sergio Perez Red Bull-Honda +1.393 117
9 Daniel Ricciardo McLaren-Mercedes +1.926 52
10 Fernando Alonso Alpine-Renault +2.050 127
11 Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri-Honda +2.395 57
12 Mick Schumacher Haas-Ferrari +2.594 88
13 Carlos Sainz Ferrari +2.783 56
14 Nikita Mazepin Haas-Ferrari +2.812 76
15 Lewis Hamilton Mercedes +3.110 58
16 Sebastian Vettel Aston Martin-Mercedes +8.560 10

Alpine’s 2021 F1 car officially unveiled

Alpine has unveiled its new contender for the 2021 season, the A521. The first car built by the newly rebranded team at Enstone.

Although a new name to F1, Alpine have been a part of motorsport since the 1950’s. After being bought out by Renault in 1973 they have developed a reputation as Renault’s ‘high performance’ brand. The Alpine name was used for Renault’s rallying and endurance endeavours, resulting in an Alpine-Renault World Rally Championship in 1973, and the 1978 Le Mans 24 Hours.

Alpine ceased production in 1995 but was revived in 2017, before the decision last year to elevate their long-forgotten brand to the pinnacle of motorsport.

Courtesy of Alpine F1

During a virtual launch, the car was unveiled in a striking blue, white and red livery.

On the new livery, Laurent Rossi, Alpine CEO stressed the symbolism of French and British collaboration:

“This car identifies the Alpine identity. It’s livery conveys it’s values. The blue, white and red is a reference to both the French flag and Union Jack. Representing the soul of this multicultural team that merges flamboyant skills under one banner.”

At first glance, the A521 looks to have the trademark 2021 shrunken sidepods and more complex outboard vanes to the bargeboards – all because of the new floor and diffuser setup created by changes in the aerodynamic rules. The rear wing looks subtly different too with more complex endplates.

“We had to adapt, we had to innovate, but that’s what we do best.” said Marcin Budkowski, speaking on the new technical changes.

“This year’s car is an evolution of last years contender. […] we’ve worked and tried to improve every area that was left free to develop.”

“But also the FIA, to spice things up a bit, have changed the aerodynamic regulations that means we have lost a lot of performance which we’ve tried to recover.”

“Interestingly, they are in an area that normally doesn’t behave in the same way on track than our tool and simulations tell us. So it’s going to be very important to get the best collaboration between people at the factory and on track to develop the car aerodynamically and allow us to realise our ambitious development programme for the first few races.”

Courtesy of Alpine F1

In addition, Renault will have a new and improved power unit, looking to maintain and improve it’s impressive position as one of F1’s most powerful units in terms of straight line speed.

On the team’s power unit, Laurent Rossi stated: “The delay in the technical (engine) regulations means we will be using an evolutions of our RE20A unit. There are a few developments with the power train and we have worked specifically for optimum  performance and reliability.”

The team finished fifth in the constructors championship in 2021, with three podiums to there name, their first in almost a decade of racing.

With returning two-time champion Fernando Alonso and Esteban Ocon, they will be hoping to have similar success with what will be a formidable line-up with a mix of youth and proven championship winning pedigree.

“The team at Enstone are highly experienced and motivated” said Racing Director, Davide Brivio. “I’m very lucky to have two very excellent drivers.”

“The dynamic between Fernando and Esteban is going to be an interesting one, they can definitely benefit from each other. “

The Alpine A521 will make its first extended on-track appearance at the start of pre-season testing in Bahrain, which takes place from 12-14 March.

The fall of Michael Schumacher’s record? F1 2021 season preview

At just 103 days, the winter break between 2020 and 2021 is one of the shortest, certainly in modern history in Formula One. In actual fact, it was set to be shorter still, but with the postponement of the Australian Grand Prix, the new season will kick off in Bahrain, but what can we expect from this year?

Well, in truth, this year will probably be a case of “same, but different”, as regulations set in place for 2021 mean that the 2020 cars have been carried over to this year, and only aero parts and PUs are eligible to be changed. Fundamentally, though, the cars must remain the same, and the chassis will be identical to last year, so do not expect any massive jumps in performance.

This means to say that Mercedes should still be top dogs, Red Bull should be a close second, and the midfield will still be as intense as it was throughout the entirety of the 17 races last year.

Mercedes seek to win their eighth consecutive Constructors’ title this year – Courtesy of Mercedes Media

But while substantial increases or otherwise in performance is too much to expect, little nuggets of gold may just help swing the tide a little as someone, somehow, looks to topple Mercedes’ absolute brilliance at the front.

Sergio Perez, surprise winner of the crazy Sakhir Grand prix last season, will make his highly-anticipated Red Bull debut having replaced the hapless Alex Albon. The discussion has been raging as to whether he will be able to beat their current titan Max Verstappen, and whether the Mexican truly does have the pace to compete at the front and spur Red Bull into serious Constructors’ Championship contention. It is widely expected that, if Perez is dominated by Verstappen the way Albon and Pierre Gasly were, it is a case of the car being geared to the Dutchman, as opposed to a lack of pace from Max’s team mates.

264 points separated Mercedes and Red Bull last year, so it will be fascinating to see if Red Bull’s third driver pairing in as many years will be able to close the gap and make life a little more uncomfortable for the imperious champions.

After leaving Racing Point following seven years with the team, Sergio Perez arrives at Red Bull to replace the departing Alex Albon – Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

Speaking of whom, newly-crowned champion Lewis Hamilton has finally put pen to paper on a new contract with the German team, in a deal that takes him to the end of the 2021 season.

Reasons for just the one-season extension have been speculated about; who knows if it could be down to the impending salary cap, or whether it is because Hamilton feels as though he only has one year left with the Silver Arrows, and in Formula One as a whole?

This would make sense. Hamilton is set to win his eighth championship this season, beating Michael Schumacher’s remarkable seven in the process.  The sport could certainly do with having Hamilton around next year, and we are likely set to see one of the most historical moments in the history of Formula One.

His team mate Valtteri Bottas could well be going into his last year with the Silver Arrows, but conversely to Hamilton, his future may not be in his own hands. In spite of a second-placed finish in the championship last season, Bottas’ overall performance has occasionally left something to be desired, and he will need to show stronger title credentials this year if he is to remain a part of the team in 2022.

A large part of this equation is the impressive progress of George Russell who, with a good performance in the Williams in 2021, could find himself in line for a drive next season. Particularly after Russell’s magnificent pace last year in the Sakhir Grand Prix alongside Bottas, this season will be a monumental one for both of them.

Depending on his 2021 performance, George Russell could well be in line for a 2022 drive with Mercedes – Courtesy of Williams Media

Further down, Carlos Sainz and Daniel Ricciardo are definitely ones to watch as they make their debuts for Ferrari and McLaren respectively. Ferrari acquired the services of Sainz after Sebastian Vettel’s departure for Aston Martin, while Australian Daniel Ricciardo left Renault for McLaren, replacing Spaniard Sainz. Ferrari’s new engine and aero parts for this season could lift them further into the midfield battle, and above the abysmal eighth place they managed last season with Vettel and Leclerc. Vettel meanwhile, with his new team and new haircut to boot, will attempt to make his presence felt in his new adventure with the new Aston Martin team, who take over from Racing Point this year.

Just as exciting as the German’s new venture, Fernando Alonso makes his comeback in 2021 in the Alpine team that has replaced Renault for this year, and after two seasons out, expectation is high. Frenchman Esteban Ocon, who managed his first podium last season in Sakhir, gets a real test of his ability by going up against a driver who, as well as being a two-time champion, is widely regarded as one of the quickest and most skilled drivers in F1’s rich history.

Fernando Alonso returns to F1 this year after two years away from the sport – Courtesy of Renault Sport Media

Alonso, though, comes back probably feeling a fair bit older than he did when he left. He raced against Jos Verstappen and Michael Schumacher during his first 18-year spell in the sport, and he is now about to race against their sons.

While Max had already become a fixture towards the end of Alonso’s first tenure, Michael’s son Mick will now be on the same grid as one of his father’s greatest rivals, as two generations collide.

Ferrari Academy Driver Mick Schumacher makes his F1 debut with Haas this year – Courtesy of Ferrari F1 Media

Schumacher claimed glory in the F2 championship last season with Prema, and he arrives in Formula One with one of Ferrari’s junior teams: Haas. The American outfit enter this year will a new driver lineup; the departing Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen are replaced by Schumacher and car number nine.

As Lewis Hamilton seeks a record eighth championship, and Mercedes try to extend their record of Constructors’ championship successes, the 2021 season is a huge one for a lot of drivers, in what is the last year before the regulation changes in 2022.

An optimistic future for new-look Alpine?

Renault’s Formula 1 efforts will undergo a major shift in 2021, with a new driver lineup, core changes to the team, and most notably, a complete rebranding of its works squad as the Alpine F1 Team.

But after falling short of its target to be a regular race winner and even title contender by last year, the Enstone-based team has some soul-searching to do under its new guise. So are the changes planned going to be enough for Alpine to succeed where Renault couldn’t?

The drivers

Fernando Alonso, Renault (Renault Sport Media)

Fernando Alonso. Like him or loathe him, he’s back to spearhead Alpine’s first year in F1.

The two-time world champion was coaxed out of his sabbatical to replace the team’s former star driver Daniel Ricciardo, and Alpine will be hoping he brings some of the insight and inspiration they need to catch the likes of Mercedes and Red Bull.

The big question mark over Alonso’s return is of course the fact that he’s now been out of F1 for two years. He’s not exactly been resting easy in that time, having taken a WEC crown, two Le Mans victories and one at Daytona, and made headline-grabbing entries into the Indy 500 and Dakar Rally. On top of that, he also conducted an extensive testing programme with Renault throughout last year.

But two years out of Grand Prix racing is a long time, and it remains to be seen if Alonso can return at the same level he left the sport in 2018.

On the other side of the garage will be Esteban Ocon, returning for his second year with the Enstone team. Ocon had a rocky campaign in 2020 and spent much of the season getting back up to full racing speed after 18 months on the sidelines as Mercedes’ test and reserve driver.

But by the end of the year Ocon had closed his qualifying gap to Ricciardo and scored Renault’s best result of the season (and his own maiden podium) with second at the Sakhir Grand Prix. Had Ricciardo stayed with Alpine this year, it’s likely Ocon would have made it a much closer teammate battle as he did over his two years with Sergio Perez at Force India.

Alonso and Ocon are an uncertain lineup for Alpine’s first season, and it’s not a given that their potential and past form will equate to strong results in 2021. But if everything goes as Alpine are hoping, this could be a formidable driver pairing in the midfield battle and one with a lot of promise for the team’s near future.

The team

Cyril Abiteboul, Renault (Renault Sport Media)

One of the big headlines this month was that Cyril Abiteboul, Renault’s longtime team principal and CEO of the F1 operation, was stepping down from the team ahead of the new Alpine era.

It’s a move many have been calling for for some time now, as Abiteboul’s management has taken the lion’s share of blame for Renault’s failure to break out of the midfield. And whether or not that’s right, it is true that Abiteboul’s time in charge at Enstone was defined more by his engagement with the politics of F1 rather than the success of the team.

This is hopefully something that will change with Abiteboul’s replacements. Laurent Rossi, previously Renault’s Chief Strategy Officer, has already been announced as the new Alpine F1 CEO, while Executive Director Marcin Budkowski is tipped to take over as team principal.

Splitting Abiteboul’s role between these two is a sensible choice for Alpine. Rossi’s corporate strategy background makes him the ideal choice within the Renault group to lead the business side of Alpine’s rebranding. Meanwhile Budkowski, who has overseen the day-to-day operations at Enstone for years, will be free to focus on the sporting side of running an F1 team.

Add to that a new Racing Director in Davide Brivio, who just led Suzuki and Joan Mir to double MotoGP title glory in 2020, and Alpine has the makings of a real heavyweight team at the top.

It might take longer than 2021 for the full effect of these changes to be felt. But as we’ve seen in the likes of Toto Wolff at Mercedes or Andreas Seidl and Zak Brown at McLaren, sometimes the right leadership structure at the right time can be just what a team needs to propel itself out of a stall.

The car

Alpine A521 (Alpine F1 Media)

The car is a mostly known quantity at least, as under the 2021 regulations Alpine’s A521 is essentially a carry-over of last year’s Renault R.S.20. And that bodes well for Alpine, as the R.S.20’s power and rear traction made it a formidable package at low-downforce circuits last year, as well as through low- and medium-speed corners in high-downforce configuration.

The A521 will be slightly different to the R.S.20, as its floor will be trimmed off in accordance with the rules to reduce the aerodynamic pressure on the tyres. How much of a difference this will make isn’t clear. Several teams have played up the impact of this floor tweak throughout 2020—but the same noises were also made about the front and rear wing changes in 2019, which hardly produced the tectonic shift that was billed.

However, it’s thought that the A521’s low rake philosophy—which was a new, Mercedes-inspired direction for last year—will mean that Alpine has less of a headache navigating the change than some of its rivals, at least in the early part of the season.

And so long as the overall design isn’t too unsettled by the revised floor, Alpine will definitely have a car quick enough to challenge for third in the constructors’ championship again.

Ultimately, we won’t know if Alpine is able to make that breakthrough that eluded Renault until the season gets underway. And even then, with the focus this year almost entirely on 2022’s aerodynamic overhaul, we might be kept waiting to see if the team can finally make good on its ambitions to be title contenders again.

But with the performance gains made last year, combined with a hungry driver lineup and some canny leadership changes, it’s looking like an optimistic future ahead for Enstone’s new Alpine era.

Esteban Ocon, Renault (Renault Sport Media)

Cyril Abiteboul: Renault boss steps down from role

Ahead of Renault’s new identity as Alpine, and a reshuffle at the team, Cyril Abiteboul is leaving his role as team boss effective immediately.

Abiteboul’s journey as a team boss began in 2013 when he took charge of the doomed Caterham, having acted as Renault’s Deputy Director of Sport until 2012.

In 2015, he returned to this role and, having seen the Renault name return under Frederic Vassuer’s leadership, he took charge of the French outfit at the back end of 2016.

Under Abiteboul’s leadership, Renault managed a fourth-placed finish in 2018 – Courtesy of Renault F1 Media

Sandwiched in between these stages of his career has been the controversy with Red Bull. On various occasions between 2015 and 2018, he had several public fall-outs with Red Bull Principal Christian Horner. Red Bull’s struggles with Renault power in the hybrid era led to tensions between the two teams, and Horner’s complaints about the performance and reliability of the Power Unit began to irritate Abiteboul.

This relationship came to a head in 2018, when Red Bull announced they would no longer be using Renault engines for 2019 onwards, and would instead turn to Honda, who had supplied Toro Rosso that season to a degree of success.

power Unit Disputes led to a complete breakdown in the relationship between Red Bull and Renault in 2018 – Courtesy of Red Bull Content Pool

Renault endured a tough 2019, finishing fifth compared to fourth in 2018, and a long way behind McLaren.

A similar story rang true in 2020, but they were much closer to McLaren and Racing Point, fighting for third during much of the campaign, but ultimately finishing fifth again.

They also managed three podiums last year; Daniel Ricciardo finished third in Germany and Imola, while Esteban Ocon claimed a spectacular P2 in Sakhir, in what was Sergio Perez’s first win in Formula One. The Mexican has signed for Red Bull this year, replacing Alex Albon.

Daniel Ricciardo’s third at the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix was the second of three for Renault last year – Courtesy of Renault F1 Media

Abiteboul’s tenure will be remembered with a great deal of respect. He fearlessly led the team through thick and thin, and has laid the groundwork for Alpine to progress and achieve the success Renault once enjoyed. He enticed Ricciardo into his project, and having lured Fernando Alonso back to the team after the Australian’s departure, Abiteboul bows out with the team in a far better state than it was in when he arrived.