Formula One returns on Sunday for the season-opening Grand Prix in Bahrain following one of the shortest and yet intriguing pre-seasons in recent years.
All the teams took part in the three-day running at Sakhir and while just looking at lap times offers little in the way of confirmation of who is quickest, they can offer some clues as to how the teams shape up at the start of the year.
With rare concerns over Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes, hopes of a Red Bull title charge, new teams, returning heroes and debutants from sons of legends, Sportsmail looks at the 10 big questions heading into the new F1 campaign.
Lewis Hamilton arrives at the Sakhir circuit on Thursday ahead of the new Formula One season
The Mercedes star will be looking to win a record eighth world championship this term
Hamilton and team-mate Valtteri Bottas had problems with their Mercedes cars during pre-season testing at the Sakhir Circuit in Bahrain
Are Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes sandbagging?
It’s been eight years since we saw Mercedes start a season looking like anything but outright title favourites, but the three-day test in Bahrain showed all is not well for the double world champions from the past seven years.
They lost crucial track time on day one following a gearbox failure, and the new W12 car appearing to have handling issues near the rear of the car will have been a cause for concern to drivers Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas.
Now we have been here before with Mercedes in pre-season testing, with Ferrari famously looking like they were the quickest team in 2019 only for Mercedes to lead a straight forward one-two victory come the opening race of the season in Australia.
So are Mercedes sandbagging? Make no mistake the car is quick and it will be at the very worst a serious contender for another double world championship. But while we should not be surprised if they still win at Sakhir, they do look beatable heading into the new season.
Struggling with the rear handling of the car, Hamilton spun off during testing for Mercedes
Can Red Bull finally battle for the title?
It has also been eight years since we headed into a new season with genuine belief that Red Bull could be title challengers.
It was a different energy in 2013, with Red Bull having taken both championships in the previous three seasons with Sebastian Vettel behind the wheel.
Since then they have stuck near the top but have gotten into a habit of starting slowly, developing the car well and grabbing impressive wins late on in the season.
This time around though they look to have struck a sweet spot in testing. The new RB16 ran without issue, it looked quick especially in the hands of Max Verstappen, and they now head into the first race at Sakhir with genuine belief they can actually win.
Even if they do not, Red Bull’s pre-season is one of their best in recent memory and if they can hit the ground running, having won the last race of the 2020 season in Abu Dhabi as well, F1 could finally get a multi-team and driver battle for the world championship it has arguably not seen for almost a decade.
Max Verstappen (left) and Red Bull will have been encouraged by their testing form in Bahrain
Can Aston Martin emerge as best of the rest?
While there appears to be a defined top two following testing, the battle within the midfield looks like it has never been closer.
Half the grid have a realistic shot of trying to claim third spot and, while testing offered clues into how the order could look heading into Sakhir, there wouldn’t be too many shocks if you just picked the five teams at random.
However, it appears McLaren are looking in best shape to carry on from where they left off in 2020 as the third best. Lando Norris is now an established part of the team and with new experienced team-mate Daniel Ricciardo onboard they have enjoyed a productive testing programme with the new car now powered by Mercedes.
Aston Martin, born from Racing Point, had a few teething troubles with their new car while positing lap times that appeared modest at best so perhaps they have potential to release. They will hope to get the best again out of four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel after the German appeared to lose form and motivation in his final couple of years at Ferrari.
Meanwhile Alpine, having taken over from Renault, recorded a conservative if not quite headline grabbing test and could be playing their cards close to their chest.
Alfa Romeo may be heading up the grid this term with an improved Ferrari power unit and AlphaTauri posted some impressive lap times, even if there are suspicions they have shown their full potential.
From the potential midfield runners, that leaves just a certain team from Maranello…
McLaren (left) and Aston Martin will be hoping to claim third in the championship this season
Aston Martin have taken over from Racing Point and have Sebastian Vettel driving for them
Have Ferrari recovered from a horror 2020?
Ferrari went into winter testing in 2020 hoping they would have a car capable of challenging for the title. For them to end the season sixth was nothing short of catastrophic.
In fact it was their worst season in 40 years and it could have been worse had Charles Leclerc not dragged his car to two podiums and perform heroics by challenging for a top four spot in the drivers’ championship right up until the end of the season.
So what went wrong? Ferrari had serious issues regarding their engines last season and their lack of power following questions over their legality seemed to compromise their overall car – something that appears to be backed up by fellow Ferrari powered teams Alfa Romeo and Haas also struggling in 2020.
Pre-season testing has seen good news for Ferrari in that they seem to have made progress with the engine but not quite enough to make them title challengers again.
A big plus for the team heading into the season is having one of the most talented drivers on the grid in Leclerc and a motivated new team-mate in Carlos Sainz, who joins him on the other side of the garage following an impressive couple of years at McLaren.
Ferrari are not likely to challenge for the championship but can hope for an improved season
Will the sprint races be a success?
Sprint races are going to be trialled in 2020 at three venues to act as a replacement for qualifying as F1 chiefs explore ways to make the sport a little more exciting.
One of those venues will be Silverstone and it is part of a weekend shake up. Friday’s second practice session will be binned in favour of a qualifying session for the sprint race – which will be approximately 30 minutes long and take place on the Saturday afternoon a day before the race.
The order of the sprint race result will determine the starting grid for the main event – Sunday’s Grand Prix. Points will be awarded for the sprint race and the other countries being considered to trial the concept are Canada, Italy and Brazil.
While the race weekend of three practice sessions, qualifying and the race is now a long established feature of F1, many feel the concept has become stale and outdated – with much of the practice running offering very little engagement outside of F1’s core fanbase.
Sprint races offer an improvement on this front, and at the very least are worth a trial to try and inject some excitement into the Grand Prix weekend. Critics suggest the format is too much of a gimmick, while the option of earning points slightly devalues those earned during race day. Hopes are high that they can prove a success and at the very least it is good to see F1 exploring ways to make the sport more exciting.
Sprint races will be trialled at Silverstone in place of qualifying at the British GP this year
What would be a good season for Alonso?
Fernando Alonso is back after two seasons away and he will line up with the Alpine team who over the winter underwent a rebrand having previously been known as Renault.
While it is excellent to see the 2005 and 2006 world champion back on the grid, there are questions over how he will fare on his return given the time he has spent away from the sport and the fact he is 39-years-old and can be expected to be naturally past his best.
We’ve already seen a recent example of legendary drivers returning from retirement and failing to match past glories or even performance when the seven-time world champion Michael Schumacher was given the run around by Nico Rosberg at Mercedes for three years before the then 43-year-old retired again in 2012.
Alonso in that respect is risking a lot for little gain. He can’t be expected to challenge for the world championship for Alpine, this season at least, and opportunistic podiums look like being as good as it could possibly get.
A good season for Alonso would just be beating his team-mate Esteban Ocon, with the 24-year-old Frenchman enjoying a productive year at the Enstone outfit last year and he is very much capable of giving the Spaniard the ‘Rosberg treatment’.
After two years away from F1, two-time world champion Fernando Alonso returns with Alpine
How will Covid affect the record 23-race calendar?
Formula One did an excellent job last season of taking a totally decimated calendar following the coronavirus outbreak and from mid-season managing to revise a 17-race championship across Europe and three final races in the Middle East to maintain its integrity.
With the virus still a major talking point, you would think F1 would be a bit more conservative with its calendar for this season but instead it has gone out to create the biggest season ever with a record 23 races.
Despite the rollout of vaccines, there are still many unknowns about travel restrictions which could become stricter than last year and cause logistical nightmares for team staff as they seek not to just travel across much of Europe this term but now all around the world.
Admittedly it is likely elite sport passes like in football could see these problems avoided but new virus variants or sudden rule changes at Government levels could happen at any time and F1 have taken a big risk in choosing now to increase their global reach.
The sport is also in talks with venues over allowing spectators to circuits, with a few successfully trialling this last season with encouraging results.
This year will see the addition of two new circuits including a return to a now revamped Zandvoort track for the Dutch GP in September which, providing fans will be allowed to attend, is expected to see huge support for Max Verstappen.
A December trip to Saudi Arabia will see F1 compete on the streets of Jeddah for the first time at the penultimate race of the season.
The revamped Zandvoort track will see grand prix racing return to Holland for the 2021 season
FORMULA ONE CALENDAR 2021
Mar 28 Bahrain GP
Apr 18 Emilia Romagna GP
May 2 Portuguese GP
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
Is Mick Schumacher in for a tough rookie year?
There is lots of excitement over the debut of Mick Schumacher just nine years after his legendary father competed in the sport for the last time.
The 22-year-old is not just a famous name though, the talent has been passed down from Michael to his son who comes into F1 having won the feeder F2 series last term.
Racing for the Haas team, expectations were always expected to be grounded at an outfit, who in 100 races since 2016 have still yet to feature on the podium. Yet this year could prove tougher than expected.
From the outset of their car launch, Haas were very grounded in their expectations insisting that development would be close to zero as they focus on building a 2022 car in line with the vast rules and regulations that will kick off a new era of F1 next season.
But with next to no development on a car largely carried over from last season where Haas finished second from bottom in the championship with just three points, it does not bode well at all.
Many had the American team as the slowest on the grid following testing and Schumacher faces a year near the back of the grid where he will have to see off fellow rookie team-mate Nikita Mazepin.
Mick Schumacher could face a tough year at the back of the grid on his rookie F1 season
Is Yuki Tsunoda AlphaTauri’s secret weapon?
Aside from Hamilton’s contract saga with Mercedes, Yuki Tsunoda’s confirmation to drive for AlphaTauri this term was one of the last spots to fill in the 2021 driver line-up.
He has gone under the radar mostly but he could emerge as one of the most exciting talents to have come out of the Red Bull factory since Verstappen.
Aggressive behind the wheel, quick, not shy of an overtake Tsunoda has the potential to become one of Japan’s best ever Formula One drivers – if not the best having starred on his way to P3 in the F2 championship last year.
Again, testing times have to be taken with a pinch of salt but he set the second fastest time across the three days and was only less than a tenth slower than Verstappen.
Red Bull chief Helmut Marko offered a clue into just how much you could judge the 20-year-old’s pre-season test by declaring his performance as ‘sensational.’ He could well emerge as rookie of the year by quite some way.
There is a lot of excitement about AlphaTauri’s young rookie Japanese driver Yuki Tsunoda
Are Williams finally looking on the up?
It’s been a rotten few years for Williams who having gradually slid down the grid in recent seasons to then hit rock bottom in more than one way last term.
Finishing dead last in the championship with zero points was a nadir for the team during a campaign where team founder Sir Frank Williams also sold off his ownership to Dorilton Capital to mark the end of an era.
Like many other teams, Williams’ new car for this season is largely a carry over from last term as focus shifts more towards 2022 but there are reasons to be optimistic down at Grove.
Testing went smoothly, much more smoothly than their virtual car launch which was cancelled due to hackers, and times were encouraging to suggest they have even climbed above Haas.
With the talented Brit George Russell also onboard they can ensure the maximum will be extracted from their package as they head into the season hoping to at least grab their first point since the 2019 German Grand Prix.
Williams will be hoping to move off the bottom of the grid heading into the 2021 F1 season