The chequered flag may have just been raised to signal the end of the 2020 Formula One season, but already the sport’s fanatics are counting down the days until it all gets underway again next March.
Lewis Hamilton stormed to a record-equalling seventh world title in 2020 amid the backdrop of a coronavirus-plagued season, but while the title win was a formality, there were many intriguing subplots coming to fruition in the background.
Teams have one by one confirmed their drivers line-up for next year, with Carlos Sainz replacing Aston Martin-bound Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari, Daniel Ricciardo joining McLaren and Mick Schumacher getting his first taste of F1 action with Haas.
There are set to be plenty of fascinating twists and turns ahead next season, and here Sportsmail takes a look at why this might just be one of the most exciting years in the sport for a long long time…
Lewis Hamilton stole the show once again in 2020 and he will be hoping for the same in 2021
HAMILTON’S A MAN ON A MISSION
The 2020 season underwhelmed in terms of the drivers championship as Hamilton didn’t even have to get out of second gear to level with Michael Schumacher on seven world titles.
After failing to get on the podium and seeing Mercedes team-mate get Valtteri Bottas get off to a flyer in the season-opener in Austria, the Brit already said enough was enough.
Hamilton remarkably went onto win 11 out of the next 16 races, claiming the championship by an astonishing 124 points.
It couldn’t have been any easier for Hamilton as Mercedes continued their dominance over the rest of the field, with Bottas finishing second ahead of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen.
And after matching Schumacher’s incredible record, Hamilton only has only one thing on his mind heading into the new season – winning an unprecedented eighth title.
Unless Verstappen can mount a title charge with Red Bull, it’s hard to see past Hamilton etching his name into the history books once more…
The 35-year-old Brit is chasing an unprecedented eighth Formula One world title
IS THIS THE LAST YEAR OF MERCEDES’ DYNASTY?
As Hamilton goes in search of a record-shattering eighth world title, his Mercedes team are also looking to continue their utter dominance over their rivals – if you can even call them that at the moment…
Mercedes have scooped up all 14 drivers’ and constructors’ titles since 2014, and that ridiculous winning streak looks set to continue in 2021.
But 2021 could in fact represent the final chapter of Mercedes’ dynasty with all-new FIA regulations coming into place from 2022 onwards, with cars designed to improve the show through a reduction of downforce.
The changes were meant to come into place next season but that has been delayed amid the coronavirus pandemic.
The new regulations should enable drivers to race closer to one another thanks to a change from downforce mainly generated by the surface of the car to a more ground-effect driven concept, which should reduce turbulent air.
This means there will be significantly less impact on those drivers behind – giving them more of a chance to overtake.
Other key changes to help make the sport a more level playing field, include a budget cap and fairer prize money structure.
How much all the above will impact Mercedes remains to be seen, but the regulation changes will surely provide fans with more closely contested battles going forward.
Mercedes, led by Toto Wolff, have continued their utter dominance over the rest of the field
CAN RED BULL… OR FERRARI SOMEHOW CHALLENGE MERCEDES?
While Mercedes are heavily tipped to maintain their superiority, the likes of Red Bull and Ferrari will quietly have other ideas.
Red Bull were runners-up to Mercedes in 2020 and have been a top-three finisher in the final standings for the past five seasons. But they will be desperate to finally go one better.
And they meant business after announcing a surprise move for the experienced Sergio Perez last Friday.
Red Bull acquired the services of the best driver available in the market, and after he finished fourth in the championship last season and clinched his maiden victory at the Sakhir Grand Prix, there are high hopes for both him and Verstappen in 2021.
Perez has replaced Alex Albon in the Red Bull hotseat, with Christian Horner clearly opting for experience over the future. It’s a move for the here and now, and Red Bull are set to throw everything they’ve got at Mercedes.
Ferrari meanwhile, after a tough 2020, look like they have a very settled drivers line-up for years to come.
Carlos Sainz joining Charles Leclerc at Ferrari represents a hugely exciting and dynamic duo, who more than have the capabilities to shake things up at the front of the grid.
Max Verstappen will be leading Red Bull’s charge to displace Mercedes at the top of the pile
A MOUTH-WATERING GRID
There has been a huge shake-up heading into the new season, which gets going in Melbourne at the Australian Grand Prix on March 21.
And there are plenty of interesting battles to be aware of with constructors changing things up for 2021.
Arguably the biggest move is Sainz joining up with Leclerc at Ferrari after four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel parted ways with the Italian giants.
The German driver – following five seasons with Ferrari – has linked up with Aston Martin, formerly known as Racing Point, where he will work alongside exciting young driver Lance Stroll.
Meanwhile, after a few seasons of frustration at Renault, Daniel Ricciardo is looking to work his way back to the top with McLaren.
McLaren – who have an exciting line-up of Ricciardo and Lando Norris – will be dreaming of big things next year now after finishing third in the constructors standings last season ahead of Ferrari.
If all of the above wasn’t enough, two other names are grabbing plenty of attention. Firstly, Fernando Alonso returns to the grid with Renault taking Ricciardo’s seat, and Mick Shumacher – son of German legend Michael – has been promoted with Haas.
Daniel Ricciardo could take McLaren to bigger heights again after moving from Renault
PLENTY OF IN-HOUSE COMPETITION
We have witnessed it many times down the years, but once again in 2021, there should be plenty of intriguing in-house match-ups come race day.
Now that Sainz has joined Ferrari, a fascinating battle with team-mate Leclerc should give fans plenty of entertainment going forward.
Sainz’s move to Ferrari on a two-year contract has created the youngest driver pairing in the Italian team’s recent history – and what a line-up it is.
Ferrari didn’t enjoy the best of years in 2020 – finishing a lowly sixth in the constructors standings – but they will be hoping that was just a blip in the road, and with Sainz and Leclerc behind the wheel there could be plenty of success in the future.
While many may see Leclerc as the main man, being tipped to become a future world champion, Sainz will have other ideas and certainly won’t see himself as No 2 driver having finished sixth over the last two seasons with McLaren.
And talking of McLaren, Ricciardo’s move has got many people wondering whether he can rekindle his magic following a tough couple of seasons with Renault at a constructor on the up once again.
Ricciardo jumped ship from Red Bull as he wanted to be top dog following Max Verstappen’s emergence, and at McLaren – he may finally get his wish again. But Norris will have something to say about that after a fine 2020.
And finally, the surprise move by Red Bull to sign up Perez next year has got people talking, and that will definitely be another pairing to watch out for.
Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc are about to begin an exciting in-house rivalry at Ferrari
THE MAN TO PROVIDE COMPETITION FOR VERSTAPPEN… AT ALPHATAURI!
For Red Bull, they have pinned their hopes entirely on Verstappen in recent years, while their No 2 driver is there to pick up the pieces and points when their main man doesn’t deliver.
Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon have become the unfortunate victims of Red Bull ruthlessly dropping their No 2 in recent seasons as they finally look to find a driver worthy of competing with the Dutchman.
It is Perez’s turn this season to attempt to provide the goods for Red Bull team principal Christian Horner, but there is another man perhaps waiting in the wings for his chance.
And that man is representing their junior team, AlphaTauri. There are high hopes on Yuki Tsunoda, who has been promoted to Formula One after impressing in F2.
During his maiden season in F2 the 20-year-old – Japan’s first driver at the highest level since Kamui Kobayashi back in 2014 – ended with seven podiums, including three victories to finish third overall.
He will be given time to settle in at AlphaTauri and will look to match Gasly going forward – but the eventual aim is to promote him to the Red Bull senior team once he has enough experience under his belt.
Tsunoda has enjoyed a rapid development, with his speed standing out, and Red Bull may soon have the man who can work perfectly alongside Verstappen.
Yuki Tsunoda will be one to keep an eye on next season with Red Bull’s junior team AlphaTauri
THE RETURN OF FERNANDO
One of the sport’s best is back on the track, and we can’t wait to see how Fernando Alonso fares during his third stint with Renault – whose rebrand has seen them change name to Alpine.
The Spaniard, who has replaced Ricciardo and will partner Esteban Ocon, agreed an initial two-year contract contract to rejoin the Formula One team – where he won his two world titles in both 2005 and 2006.
Alonso is the first driver to have three separate stints with a single team, firstly between his glory years of 2003 to 2006, and then again in 2008 to 2009.
It represented a bold statement by Renault, highlighting their commitment to fighting back towards the front of the grid by pinning down Alonso again, who has won 32 times and enjoyed 97 podiums overall.
And the fire is clearly back for Alonso, who made his Formula One debut 19 years ago at the Australian Grand Prix, as he posted the fastest time of all the runners at the post-season test in Abu Dhabi.
‘It was good and very nice to be back in the car especially with the race team,’ the 39-year-old said. ‘I’ve been testing the 2018 car in preparation but this one felt a bit more serious and it ignited a little bit the competitive spirit.
‘We signed off lots of basic things we did in preparation at the factory like seat fitting, pedal position and so on, which is beneficial with only one and a half days of winter testing next year. We ticked boxes today and we go into Christmas and New Year with good spirit and everyone motivated in the team.’
A fired up Alonso, one of the most successful drivers in the sport’s history, will certainly be grabbing most of the headlines when the Australian Grand Prix comes around.
Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso makes his return to Formula One in 2021
BIG SHOES TO FILL
And another man set to be in the spotlight when the new season rolls around in March is the son of legendary German driver Michael Schumacher.
Yes, that’s correct – Haas will have a complete different look next season with Schumacher’s son, Mick, and Nikita Mazepin taking the place of Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen.
But it’s the signing of 21-year-old Mick that is at the centre of attention after he put pen to paper on a multi-year agreement with the American Formula One team.
And there is plenty of anticipation on his shoulders as he gets ready to make the step up after clinching the F2 drivers’ championship in 2020 ahead of young Brit Callum Ilott.
A member of the Ferrari driving academy, there is a view that he will one day follow in his father’s footsteps and race in the famous red car that his dad won five of his seven championships in.
The German has already been getting to grips with his new Haas car, racing in practice at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and completing a day of testing in preparation for his eagerly-anticipated Formula One debut.
But while he has big shoes to fill, Mick insists he is simply focusing on making a successful first step into Formula One, and not dreaming about emulating his sporting icon father.
‘I’m sure nobody goes into this sport saying I’m going to win everything and I’m going to be a seven-time world champion,’ he said.
‘It’s something you cannot say, it is obviously a dream, something you want to achieve but you can’t say this is what will happen because you know there are so many things in this sport that can happen that you have to be ready for.
‘To be honest I’m just grateful to be in it and to be able to set my first foot marks, do my first races and see where the path leads me. If it does happen to be a very successful one, I’ll be over the moon. And if it doesn’t, I still managed to get into F1 and do what I enjoy the most.’
The debut of Michael Schumacher’s son, Mick, in 2021 is grabbing plenty of headlines
MORE TO COME FROM RUSSELL?
After George Russell’s Mercedes exploits in Bahrain near the end of the season, it was back to reality with Williams for the young Brit.
After an improved yet still difficult season with Williams, Russell relished his cameo opportunity with Formula One juggernauts Mercedes as he stepped in for coronavirus-stricken Hamilton at the Sakhir Grand Prix.
Russell finished second in qualifying behind Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas and was on for a fairy-tale victory come the Sunday.
Russell was close to pulling off the unthinkable in Bahrain after overtaking Bottas at the first corner before holding a commanding lead of five seconds over the Finnish driver.
But his dreams were soon shattered following a tyre mix-up and puncture, before he eventually finished down in ninth place.
However, his nerveless display led to him winning plenty of plaudits, and it certainly hasn’t done him any harm for his future Mercedes ambitions.
But first its back to Williams for the new season, and he will be hoping to go from strength-to-strength – with Mercedes expected to keep a close eye on the youngster.
If he continues to impress in 2021 with Williams, then maybe just maybe he could be about to move onto bigger and better things.
George Russell has a big year ahead of him after enjoying a taste of life with Mercedes
AND FINALLY… MORE RACES THAN EVER BEFORE!
After the 2020 season was somewhat plagued by the coronavirus pandemic, staging only 17 races compared to the usual 21, the sport is going bigger than ever before next year.
Formula One’s governing body, the FIA, has confirmed the 2021 season will play party to the longest calendar in the sport’s history.
Overall, there will be 23 grands prix held throughout the year – starting in Australia on March 21 and finishing up in Abu Dhabi on December 6.
The calendar of course is dependent on no further Covid disruption but Formula One is confident the full schedule will go ahead as planned.
The British Grand Prix at Silverstone is scheduled to be staged on July 18 while the Brazilian Grand Prix will continue as usual in Sao Paulo on November 14 after plans for the race to be held at a new track in Rio De Janeiro ran into trouble.
There will be more races than ever before in 2021, with 23 scheduled on next year’s calendar