Is Experience the Best Teacher?

The Azerbaijan Grand Prix was definitely a race that was missed during 2020. A street circuit which often produces some exciting racing, testing overall straight line speed but allows for overtaking whilst testing the driver’s abilities to be calculated and precise enough to thread the car through the high walls of the circuit.

image courtesy of Getty images/ Red Bull content pool

Experience in an Formula 1 car is often key at tricky circuits like this, which shone through during this race, which did not disappoint. This week it seemed to be all about the older drivers putting in some epic performances which we know they are very capable of. They did give the young guns a run for their money, but it didn’t work out for all of them. Most drivers had solid races at Baku, but the skill of some of the experienced drivers was evident during the race, meaning they were able to maximise on what was a crazy race.

Perez is well known for his experience in an F1 car. Racing since 2011 in F1, he has learned a few things to keep in the mix when it counts, and this race was a clear example of that. In the early stages of the race he was able to keep up with Verstappen whilst keeping the 7 time world champion behind him under constant pressure. He managed his tyres well, showing pace in them during the pitstops, and had it not been for a slow pitstop he may have come out in front of his teammate. During the red flag restart, it would have been easy to get caught up with Hamilton going straight on down into turn 1 if he hadn’t backed out of the move. Even though in his F1 career he has very rarely been at the front, he handled the pressure absolutely perfectly to come out on top with a very deserved win.

Clearly full of confidence after a fantastic performance in Monaco, Sebastian Vettel had an incredible race and a solid weekend all round. Had it not been for the red flag at the end of Q2, he was looking at an almost certain top 10 qualifying, adding to the excellent qualifying from the previous race. After qualifying P11, finishing in P2 was absolutely deserved, and he showed his pace in the Aston Martin early on. During the first round of pitstops he gained the lead by default as the front runners changed their tyres earlier than expected. Vettel was able to manage the soft tyres whilst still pulling a gap on his rivals to then come out P7 after his pitstop. On the safety car restart he showed his experience again, navigating his way past Leclerc without contact despite getting very close. Vettel has gotten used to the new car very quickly, showing he has enough trust to make moves during both the restarts. A resurgence from him is definitely what the fans wanted after a not so great year with Ferrari in 2020.

Alonso had a highly anticipated return to F1 at the beginning of the season, however so far he hasn’t been so successful, being out qualified and finishing behind his teammate Ocon on Sunday. This could be down to getting used to F1 again after his time away from the series, along with getting used to a new car with a relatively new team under new management. Watching his on board camera from the restart after the red flag, he clearly showed why he is a double world champion. Starting on the grid in P10, he made up for places to finish P6 by the end of the 2 lap sprint. What is striking about his on board though, is the skill involved. He had the inside line into turn 1 but was being squeezed by Sainz, who also had Ricciardo on the outside. Alonso did not make contact with the wall or the other cars during any of this. He then demonstrated his race craft by waiting for the right moment on the same lap to overtake Tsunoda. This created an epic finish for him, the likes of which we were used to seeing before.

The oldest man on the grid did not want to miss out on the action, as is normal for Kimi Raikkonen. For him the highlight of the day was a skillful move on Bottas into turn 7, the slowest on the track, during the safety car restart. Raikkonen has shown throughout his time at Alfa Romeo that he still has plenty of talent to keep him in F1 and finishing in the points with moves like this are often the reason for this.

When talking about the experienced drivers on the grid, Lewis Hamilton is part of this conversation being extremely consistent and changing his style over time. However, the incident after the red flag restart was a rare mistake from him, the team revealing afterwards that he had flicked on the magic brake button whilst changing gears. This changed the brake bypass to mostly front end, meaning the car couldn’t stop before the turn. This admittedly makes the error an odd one because this has never happened before, despite the buttons position never really moving. They say it’s best to learn from your mistakes and Hamilton says they will grow as a team.

Overall, Mercedes had a terrible weekend. This is where the team experience came in, allowing them to try different set ups, strategy’s, and tactics to get the most out of a seemingly lacklustre performance from the car all weekend. By the end of Q3, the changes made to Hamilton’s car were successful with him managing to secure P2. Bottas on the other hand was arguably hampered by the red flag at the end of the session but suffered massively during the race. The Mercedes is not known for its great ability to pass other cars in the midfield, but with what appeared to be the quickest straight line speed and the power of the slipstream, a few DRS based moves into turn 1 were expected. Instead Bottas made his way backwards at the restarts and didn’t perform well. However, he did have a different rear wing to Hamilton, which the team confirmed as driver preference, this may have ultimately hampered him when trying to overtake.

Looking forward to the next couple of weeks, Mercedes will need to win in France to make up the points in the constructor’s championship after having lost more to the RedBulls this week. The outcome of the race could also have a huge impact on the Driver championship, with the front runners not gaining any points this week, it is massively important they maximise each race, as cancellations become more frequent and look to threaten the 23 race calendar. France is not known for amazing action over the last few years, but with the 2021 season we are having it could be unpredictable.

Monaco Grand Prix: Dominant Verstappen and heartbreak for Leclerc

Before the race began, Leclerc had issues on his lap to the grid. Finally making it back to his garage, it was a race to discover and fix the problem before the pitlane closed. This, however, was not possible.

After several messages between the FIA and Ferrari, the car was not able to start the race due to a failure of the left drive shaft. This was more heartbreak for the Monégasque, who has never finished a race in Monaco after getting DNFs in both 2018 and 2019 and in 2017 with Formula 2.

Because of this there was some question over whether the grid would be shuffled up. The FIA quickly decided, though, to keep everyone in the grid positions they qualified in. This meant that, for the first time since David Coulthard in 2001, nobody would start in pole position at Monaco.

Bottas then had a clean track on the inside to start with only Verstappen on the dirty side, leaving a potential for carnage at the start of the race.

Lights out and Bottas had a better start, but this was shut down by Verstappen before Turn 1. The rest of the pack got away cleanly, which is unusual for Monaco.

(Photo by Lars Baron/Getty Images) – Getty Images / Red Bull Content Pool

From there it was a relatively straight forward race before the pitstops. On lap 24, Hamilton was the first to pit in an attempt to undercut Gasly. However, it didn’t work on this occasion.

Bottas pitted on the next lap and drama unfolded as the wheel nut on the front right was machined off and the wheel became stuck on the car. Initially it looked as if they may be able to get it off, but this was to be the end of his race.

This created a huge opportunity for Red Bull and Verstappen. Some excellent team play by Red Bull meant that Perez had opened up a gap on Hamilton, Gasly and Vettel to be able to pit without losing too many positions. Bono had to break the news to an already very annoyed Hamilton that he had lost a further position to Perez as a result.

With 20 laps to go, Lando Norris started to complain about his tyres as Perez began to catch him at nearly one second per lap. However, as is normal around Monaco, it is very difficult to overtake and Norris managed to hold off Perez for the final podium position.

McLaren Media Centre

Having accepted his position on the track, Hamilton pitted for soft tyres to fight for the fastest lap point. This was not as simple as it seemed, as he had to let Verstappen lap him before charging for fastest lap. He did eventually get the extra point, a consolation prize after a not-so-successful weekend. This point, whilst not important now, could become crucial in the last stages of the season.

Finally, after a very dominant performance, Max Verstappen won the Monaco Grand Prox. He broke his Monaco ‘curse’ by making it onto the podium for the first time. Sainz followed in P2 with Norris in P3. This was one of the happiest podiums in Formula 1, with all drivers excited to be there. It also gave the fans a great Sainz and Norris reunion which everyone has been wanting since Sainz moved to Ferrari.

Vettel got a well deserved driver of the day vote after a great performance, gaining two places in the race and making a great move on Gasly when he came out of the pits to secure him P5.

Due to his win Verstappen now leads the driver championship, which is the first time since Australia 2013 that it has been led by someone other than a Mercedes driver or Vettel. This is also the first time Red Bull have led the constructor’s championship since 2013.

Monaco Grand Prix Qualifying: Leclerc crashes onto pole at home race

Charles Leclerc took pole in his home race at Monaco on Saturday afternoon after delivering a good lap on his first run in Q3. The qualifying session did not end in the best way for the rest of the drivers though, after the Monegasque driver lost control of his car coming out of the swimming pool section and ended up in the barriers and brought out the red flag.

This bitter-sweet ending to his qualifying session meant that Max Verstappen, Valtteri Bottas and Carlos Sainz, who were all setting decent times behind him, had to abort their laps.

© Copyright: FIA Pool Image for Editorial Use Only – FOTO COLOMBO IMAGES SRL

A frantic Q1 got underway under cloudy Monaco skies with cars all over the short layout track and drivers had to do multiple warm-up laps to get the tyres to running temperatures as the track was colder compared to previous sessions. Both the Haas cars saw their drivers go out in Q1, especially Mick Schumacher who had a huge crash coming out of the casino square in free practice even failed to make it onto the track in the session.

A surprise knockout of Q1 was Fernando Alonso of Alpine who has had such a brilliant record at the track previously and this meant he would only be starting as high as P17 for tomorrow’s race. His teammate Ocon on the other hand qualified at a decent P11 giving himself a chance to score points. Highly talented Japanese rookie Yuki Tsunoda in the Alpha Tauri was another driver who had to exit Q1 after his hot lap could only manage to put him at P16. Latifi in the Williams could only manage a P18 while his teammate George Russell got out of Q1 yet again and will be starting at P15.

Q2 saw the 2018 Monaco GP winner Daniel Ricciardo get knocked out after his lap was only good enough to be placed at P12 which shows that the Australian is still getting accustomed to the McLaren car. His teammate Lando Norris however had yet another good qualifying session at put his McLaren at P5. Lance Stroll of Aston Martin and Kimi Raikkonen of Alfa Romeo were the rest of the drivers to be knocked out of Q2 and they are set to start from P13 and P14.

Credit: McLaren Media Centre

Q3 got off to a brilliant start as expected with Verstappen in the Redbull taking on the Ferraris of Sainz and Leclerc but it was Leclerc who came out on top after the first runs. Mercedes who were struggling all weekend will take some comfort from the fact that Valtteri Bottas atleast managed to put his car onto P3 at the grid after the end of the session. Concern will still be present around Lewis Hamilton’s starting position after the championship leader could only manage a lap good enough to put him at P7.

Pierre Gasly put in another stellar performance even outqualifying Hamilton in the process and will be starting his race P6 alongside Norris in P5. Sebastian Vettel in the Aston Martin impressed yet again after qualifying for Q3 and he will lining up alongside an old rival in Lewis Hamilton at P8.

The Monaco GP returning after a 1 year break is all set to alter the course of the championship standings should Verstappen finish where he is starting from. Fate could still intervene for Charles Leclerc at his home race as his pole position might be taken away from him if his gear box has suffered from the crash but for now, Ferrari have a real chance of making a statement after a horrible season of 2020.

 

Miami Grand Prix confirmed for 2022 F1 season

Formula 1 has confirmed that the Miami Grand Prix will join the championship calendar for next year’s season.

The new street circuit will be centred around the Hard Rock Stadium, home of the Miami Dolphins. It will be a 5.41km track with 19 corners, 3 straights and the possibility of 3 DRS zones to promote overtaking.

F1 has also said it plans for the Miami Grand Prix to have a positive local impact, via a programme to support local businesses as well as a STEM education programme through F1 in Schools. An allotment of discounted tickets will also be available for Miami Gardens residents.

Courtesy of F1

F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali said: “We are thrilled to announce that Formula 1 will be racing in Miami beginning in 2022. The US is a key growth market for us, and we are greatly encouraged by our growing reach in the US.

“We will be working closely with the team from Hard Rock Stadium and the FIA to ensure the circuit delivers sensational racing but also leaves a positive and lasting contribution for the people in the local community. We are looking forward to bringing the greatest racing spectacle on the planet to Miami for the first time in our sport’s history.”

Miami will be the 11th US circuit F1 has raced at, after Riverside, Sebring, Watkins Glen, Long Beach, Caesar’s Palace, Detroit, Dallas, Phoenix, Indianapolis and the Circuit of the Americas.

Along with the US Grand Prix at COTA, 2022 will also mark the first time the US has hosted two F1 Grands Prix since the Detroit and Dallas Grands Prix in 1983.

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

Mercedes unveils “old friend” W12

Mercedes has unveiled its new W12, the car with which it hopes to win an eighth consecutive pair of F1 titles in the hands of Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.

Courtesy of Mercedes AMG F1

The Mercedes AMG F1 W12 keeps the black base livery introduced last year as part of the team’s anti-racism commitments, fading to silver on the engine cover. It also features much more prominent AMG branding across the car as per Mercedes’ plans to foreground its high-performance division within its F1 marketing.

The most visible changes to the design that’s carried over from 2020 are towards the rear, which is more tightly packaged around the engine. The front of the car is largely the same, which bucks the trend of the front-end development seen in the launches so far, but that could still change before testing next week.

Mercedes technical director James Allison called the W12 “an old friend in many ways”. However, he admitted that the launch spec of the car was missing some aero developments to the floor, which the team wanted to keep hidden from its rivals before testing.

Allison also said that AMG High Performance Powertrains have added more power to the engine for 2021. Beneath the chassis, the W12 features further improvements to the suspension and cooling systems.

Although the W12 is the clear title favourite for 2021, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff greeted the new challenger with his trademark scepticism. “Every year we reset our focus,” he said. “The scoreboard goes to zero and there’s always more performance to be found.

“It’s very natural to get used to success, and therefore not fight as hard for it. But this team has not shown any of that. I see the same fire, hunger and passion now as I did the first time I walked through the doors in 2013.”

Courtesy of Mercedes AMG F1

Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen launches the C41

Alfa Romeo become the latest team to officially launch their 2021 F1 challenger – the C41, during an online media event in Warsaw.

Scheduled during a week of official car launches, it joins the current trend of online hosted events, rather than its traditional reveal usually unveiled at Winter Testing.

The team went all out to impress the tens of thousands of fans, using music and dance to portray a classy, elegant and cultured impression of Alfa Romeo.

The Alfa Romeo C41 car breaks from sequence, given the team raced with a C39 in 2020. However, the team wishes to skip the C40 name in favour of a title that aligns the chassis number with the year of racing.

The team  also underwent a livery change with a white on red style, the inverse of the last few years.

Credit: Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen Team

Alfa Romeo will be aiming to bounce back after a difficult 2020 which saw the team score just eight points as drivers Kimi Räikkönen and Antonio Giovinazzi struggled to compete with the midfield teams further ahead.

However, with a new and improved Ferrari power unit, fired up earlier this month, Alfa Romeo can find plenty of optimism surrounding their hopes for an improved campaign.

Credit: Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen Team

On the changes made to the C41, technical director Jan Monchaux said:      “[We had to] Invest our tokens on a new nose […] front suspension, front wing and the bargeboard deflector. The rest of the effort was spent on the floor and the diffuser where due to the regulations we lost a lot of downforce.”

Due to changes in the technical regulations, teams are restricted to what they can develop. Many parts of the 2020 cars are carried over to this year.

“The chassis is the same, the gearbox is obviously the same and the rear suspension as well because of the regulations”

“Then for return-on-investment reasons we decided to carry over radiators and some part of the body work to really in the short time we had to concentrate on the areas we were expecting to provide the highest return on investment.”

Speaking of the team’s hopes, Fred Vasseur said: “For sure the expectations are high,” he explained. “It is an exciting time for the team at the launch of a new car.”

“The most important is to try improve so to put a goal is limiting. Step by step we have to come back. It is a long path but we will improve.”

“We will see in Bahrain in a few weeks time where we are exactly.

Many factors are being considered for Alfa Romeo’s long term plan back to the front including investments on infrastructure such as a new wind-tunnel and simulator. “We’ve invested a lot of money and energy to the simulator. We are at an early stage at the project. I am really convinced on it.”

On preparations for the season, Kimi  underplayed it explaining that it has been: “Very normal life, nothing special. We are excited for the year.”

“There’s rules changes, but in a few weeks we will see from testing how things are running, how things are feeling and roughly in one months time we will see roughly where everybody is.” 

 I enjoy the racing and the challenge to try to improve things and to get better”

Both drivers will be retained for the 2021 season supported by reserve and test drivers Robert Kubica and Tatiana Calderon.

On his 2021 European Le Mans program Kubica said: “It’s a great opportunity I will have to discover a new car, new series, but also a bit of different way of racing”.

“From a performance point of view the field is very competitive in European Le Mans Series. But of course we are working on getting ready and first of all will be to learn as much as I can and try to do something good.”

“You always want to do your best and I think this will be a goal.”

On the driver line-up, Vasseur stated stability and continuity was key: “We only have three days (testing) this winter, we won’t lose time to know each other and to build up a relationship. The relationship between the team and the drivers is a good one and this is crucial.”

Credit: Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen Team

McLaren launches 2021 contender

McLaren have become the first F1 team to unveil their 2021 challenger in a launch held at their factory in Woking.

Externally, the MCL35M is quite similar to its 2020 predecessor, featuring the same orange and blue livery. The most notable difference is around the power unit with tighter bodywork and a narrower floor.

McLaren Media Centre

Speaking of the launch in a press release, CEO Zak Brown said, “After a challenging but rewarding 2020, we have firmly hit the reset button for this season as we continue on our path towards the front of the grid. This will be an even tougher season but we’re ready to meet the challenge. I want to pay tribute to Formula 1 and the FIA and our fellow teams in continuing to work hard for the benefit of our sport as we strive to bring exciting racing to fans around the world.”

McLaren’s driver line-up has partially changed for 2021. Lando Norris is staying on for a third season, while Daniel Ricciardo is now driving alongside him. He replaces Carlos Sainz, who has moved to Ferrari for this year.

Team Principal Andreas Seidl said, “Together, Lando and Daniel comprise one of the most competitive driver line-ups in the sport. With these two behind the wheel of the MCL35M, we know we’ll have a team that gives total commitment in the pursuit of on-track performance as we head into the 2021 season.”

After using a Renault power unit from 2018 to 2020, the 2021 McLaren features a Mercedes power unit. McLaren previously worked with Mercedes between 1995 and 2014, a partnership that yielded three drivers’ championships and one constructors’ championships.

McLaren Media Centre

Speaking of the partnership, Technical Director James Key said, “One of the key elements of the MCL35M design is the integration of the Mercedes-AMG power unit, which has taken a considerable effort from the team in Woking, as well as our colleagues at Mercedes. Despite our limited scope for installation in a homologated car, the team has done a fantastic job of optimising our design work.”

The MCL35M will run for the first time at Silverstone tomorrow as part of a filming day.

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.

F1 Virtual Grand Prix Series to return

During last year’s extended off-season, F1 put on a set of Virtual Grand Prix races to sustain our appetite for racing whilst we couldn’t do that in real life. It ran between the weekend of what would have been the Bahrain Grand Prix to the weekend when the Canadian Grand Prix would have taken place, before F1 returned to real racing three weeks afterward.

The races were entertaining and there was hope we could see the Virtual Grand Prix return during the winter off-season. Well, now it’s back!

Starting at the end of this month, a run of three consecutive weeks will see more drivers, other notable sporting athletes and celebrities compete on the F1 game. The first race will take place on January 31st on the Red Bull Ring, the second on February 7th on Silverstone and the last round on February 14th on Interlagos.

Unlike the 2020 events which all ran as standalone races, all three events will keep a points tally and have a champion at the end of it. Had points been counted last year, Williams driver George Russell would have been the unofficial winner with four wins in the last four races, but this time a champion will officially be crowned.

For the three-race championship, the format has been given a little shake-up. Before the official race, the drivers of the F1 Esports series will take to the virtual track in a five-lap sprint which will essentially be a qualification race to determine the grid.

In support of last year’s Virtual Grand Prix events, the F1 Esports drivers such as eventual 2020 champion Jarno Opmeer, his predecessors David Tonizza and Brendon Leigh among the many other talented racers would compete in a Pro Exhibition race. Now they’ll be playing a much more direct part in the event itself, perhaps enticing more people to seek out the F1 Esports series when it returns for its fifth season later this year.

Enzo Bonito and David Tonizza, FDA (Scuderia Ferrari Media)

After the grid is determined, the usual crowd will take over and compete in a 50% distance race. All ten teams will battle for points and will nominate a charity for F1 to send a donation to after the three-race season ends, with all the drivers playing a part in getting the best possible result and earning their selected charity some money.

So who will compete? F1 says to keep your eyes on their social media channels for driver announcements in the upcoming weeks. Expect a fair amount of celebrities and other sporting athletes to compete alongside drivers both in F1 and from other categories.

13 of the 23 drivers from last season competed in at least one race in the first run of Virtual Grand Prix races: Lando Norris, Nicholas Latifi, Charles Leclerc, George Russell, Alexander Albon, Antonio Giovinazzi, Carlos Sainz, Pierre Gasly, Esteban Ocon, Valtteri Bottas, Sergio Pérez and even the super subs Pietro Fittipaldi and Nico Hülkenberg.

Expect that a few of these will take part. Despite being some of the first to commit to them, Norris and Leclerc are both currently recovering from COVID-19 and Norris has even stated he would be taking a step back from any committed sim racing events in the off-season.

Other notable drivers who competed include former drivers like Jenson Button, Anthony Davidson, Johnny Herbert and Stoffel Vandoorne, DTM driver Phillip Eng, F2 driver and Renault junior Guanyu Zhou, and many Ferrari Driver Academy members like Robert Shwartzman, Callum Ilott, Gianluca Petecof and Arthur Leclerc. BTCC driver Nicolas Hamilton even did a couple of races with his brother’s former team McLaren.

Many guest drivers from outside of motorsport drove during the first leg of Virtual Grand Prix races—some with more success than others—such as surfer Kai Lenny (pictured in the feature image above driving for Red Bull). Some standout performances from top athletes in other sports include Real Madrid goalkeeper Thibaut Courtois and professional golfer Ian Poulter, who both also competed in many of Veloce Esports’ Not The GP races.

Some other popular additions to the grid would include YouTubers such as Jimmy Broadbent who did a few races with Racing Point, and also Tiametmarduk who competed in the last two Virtual GP events for McLaren after becoming their Esports team’s brand ambassador.

Ultimately, the Virtual Grand Prix races were an immense success even if they could have been conducted better. But with the lack of time to plan in advance and how the F1 schedule was changing all the time, we got the best we could. Now though, this three-race mini championship promises to provide us with some immense entertainment as we prepare for the 2021 F1 season.

Keep an eye out on F1’s social media channels to find out who will represent the 10 teams and expect to be able to watch the three events in the three successive weeks beginning on January 31st on F1’s official YouTube, Twitch and Facebook pages.