The final piece is in place for the new F1 season, and it was a pretty significant one with the confirmation of Lewis Hamilton penning a new deal with Mercedes for 2021.
After the world champion’s contract with the Silver Arrows expired at the end of December the Brit was technically a free agent before back and forth negotiations saw him agree to sign up for a new campaign.
It’s one where the 36-year-old will be looking to seal a record eighth world championship to eclipse the record he jointly holds with the legendary Michael Schumacher, but there are still plenty of sub-plots heading into the new season as Sportsmail looks at how the 2021 campaign is shaking up.
Lewis Hamilton has finally committed to Mercedes for the 2021 Formula One season
Is this the Lewis Hamilton finale?
When the world champion for six of the last seven seasons pens only a one-year deal at the team he has enjoyed so much success at, there does appear to be a feeling that the winds of change are in the F1 air.
Not that the state of play on the track looks like changing for now, at least ahead of pre-season testing, with Hamilton’s commitment meaning he enters the campaign as firm favourite to lift his eighth world championship.
Hamilton kept his words corporate on his contract renewal, and made minimum fuss over it on social media, suggesting he is not 100 per cent happy with the deal worth £30million to him this term.
There have been no indicators on his recent form that suggest his talent is on the wane, and with his team-mate Valtteri Bottas only able to match his speed on the odd weekend, title No 8 looks an almost certainty.
With F1 heading into a new era with a raft of rule changes in 2022, Hamilton may see this season not just as a farewell to Mercedes who have admitted to eyeing future stars, but also to F1.
With 2022’s new rules potentially being a lottery of who comes out most competitive, Hamilton may decide to exit the sport while the going is good and he is at the very top with all the titles and records any driver could wish to have.
Hamilton will again hope to lead the way for the team in his quest for a record eighth title
The Brit begins the season as strong favourite to win the title for the seventh time in eight years
Can Max Verstappen finally lead a title challenge
Another factor that could see Hamilton jump from F1 before he is pushed is the emergence of the next generation that given the chance are eager to snap at his heels.
By far the biggest threat of them all is Verstappen, who despite having been on the grid since 2015 is still a relatively young driver at 23 years old. To put that into perspective, Sebastian Vettel became the sport’s youngest world champion at the same age in 2010.
There are now no longer any questions over Verstappen’s ability. Given Hamilton’s advancing years, the Dutchman is the hottest property on the F1 market. Despite Mercedes’ dominance since 2014, Verstappen has impressively won 10 races for Red Bull since his debut for the team at the Spanish Grand Prix five years ago.
But his career has stagnated since, not through his own fault. Red Bull have been able to cause Mercedes headaches at a few races throughout the last half-decade but at not enough of them to give Verstappen hope of a title challenge.
Sadly for the Dutchman the signs of that changing in 2021 don’t look likely, with the cars expecting minimal alterations from a 2020 season that was easily controlled by Mercedes.
Once again it looks like Verstappen’s best hopes of wins will be trying to pick up the pieces dropped by Hamilton and Mercedes barring an unexpected downturn in form by the world champion and his all-conquering team… which hasn’t happened at any point in the last seven years.
Max Verstappen has been eager to take a title challenge to rival Hamilton these last few years
He won the last race in Abu Dhabi but Red Bull have so far failed to build a title challenging car
What can we expect from Mick Schumacher?
It’s a double-edged sword for young Mick. Granted, the prestige of the Schumacher name and gene was always going to assist his way up the ranks in motor racing, but which rookie wants to be compared with a seven-time world champion and their own father before even competing in Formula One?
Credit must be handed to the 21-year-old though who is much more than just a famous name to flash for PR purposes – there is a fine talent there too. Schumacher will make his F1 debut with Haas (technically on loan from Ferrari) having impressively taken the championship in the feeder F2 series.
Fans though hoping for an explosive Hamilton-esque debut drive to the podium may have to temper their early expectations for Schumacher.
Mick Schumacher (right) is under contract at Ferrari where his father Michael (left) won five of his record seven world championships during the early 2000s
The Haas is not a front-running car, and on last season’s evidence of the team there is more chance of him trying to prevent it from propping up the field rather than bringing a nostalgic return of seeing the Schumacher name alongside a P1 graphic.
Wins, podiums, fastest laps – forget it. It’s not realistic in the Haas and if it does happen it will be down to fortunate circumstances. Haas have been in F1 for five seasons now and they have not taken a single one of the three elements and haven’t looked close to doing so.
To judge Mick Schumacher fairly is to compare him to his team-mate and fellow debutant Nikita Mazepin, who while impressive in F2 last year, is someone Schumacher needs to defeat over the season to keep him on Ferrari’s radar.
Schumacher heads into F1 as the F2 champion after an impressive junior career
The son of the legendary Michael will race for Haas (above) who he tested for in December
Will Ferrari return to form?
This is arguably the big unknown of pre-season but for the sake of a competitive championship, Formula One needs its star team to show a vast improvement on its catastrophic 2020 campaign.
Despite having the talents of Vettel and Charles Leclerc behind the wheel, the team could only limp to sixth place in the 2020 championship – their worst placing in 40 years.
Leclerc remarkably managed to escape the season with his reputation arguably enhanced having somehow grabbed two podiums and consistent points which kept him on course for fourth place in the drivers’ championship up until the final couple of rounds, trouncing four-time world champion Vettel in the process.
Much of Ferrari’s issues last season concerned their engine, which was significantly down on power compared to previous seasons where following investigations from the FIA the parties agreed a deal not privy to the rest of the teams who were angered by the opaque nature of such an agreement.
Nonetheless, it certainly didn’t benefit Ferrari with the late agreement seemingly causing a whole range of problems to the overall balance of their car, as well as Ferrari engine supplied teams such as Alfa Romeo and Haas.
While not many expect them to be battling for the title so soon again, it is hoped they can now produce a much better car in tandem with the engine as the highly promising Leclerc is joined by former McLaren driver Carlos Sainz as his new team-mate for 2021.
Charles Leclerc recorded an astonishing two podiums for an ailing Ferrari team last season
Ferrari will hope to have solved their engine issue to help power the young star to the front
How will Covid affect the new season?
It already has! The traditional opening round at the Australian Grand Prix in Melbourne has been postponed as a result of the pandemic but is scheduled to take place much later in the year in November – a scene for Hamilton’s eighth world championship coronation perhaps?
F1 though has otherwise tried to brush aside Covid concerns, so much so that it hopes to hold a record 23-race campaign.
Once last season got going in July, there were very few wobbles in terms of logistics and finding venues to race at which enabled a respectable 17 grands prix to be contested.
Drivers and teams may once again have to adhere to secure bubbles and constant tests, which last season saw drivers include Hamilton miss races due to positive results – and this factor is unlikely to alter in 2021.
It will be hoped this year that more fans will be able to attend the sport and with many races taking place in the summer time for the venues, that should be a possibility this term.
With much more now known about the virus and a full season of experience of racing around it, it is hoped that its effects are more limited this season.
Many Formula One races last season took place in front of empty stands due to the pandemic
FORMULA ONE CALENDAR 2021
Mar 28 Bahrain GP
Apr 18 Imola
May 2 TBC
May 9 Spanish GP
May 23 Monaco GP
Jun 6 Azerbaijan GP
Jun 13 Canadian GP
Jun 27 French GP
Jul 4 Austrian GP
Jul 18 British GP
Aug 1 Hungarian GP
Aug 29 Belgian GP
Sep 5 Dutch GP
Sep 12 Italian GP
Sep 26 Russian GP
Oct 3 Singapore GP
Oct 10 Japanese GP
Oct 24 United States GP
Oct 31 Mexican GP
Nov 7 Sao Paulo GP
Nov 21 Australian GP
Dec 5 Saudi Arabian GP
Dec 12 Abu Dhabi GP