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The 2021 F1 season continues to take shape, with new teams and drivers joining the fray as the competition gets set to hit the track. As the season reaches its halfway mark, a number of unanswered questions remain, so let’s take a look at what could be a defining period for the future of the sport. Will Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen continue to dominate the competition? Will there be a changing of the guard as new drivers and teams find their feet, or will the top two remain untouchable?
Even though it’s been three rounds into the 2021 F1 season, we still have a number of unanswered questions to be answered. Can Lewis recover from his mid-season dip in form? Is Verstappen the real deal? What can Mercedes do to catch up to Ferrari? In this blog post we’ll look at the big questions still on the table as we head into the fourth round of the 2021 F1 season.
9:02 AM ET
- Lawrence Edmondson
– At ESPN since 2009
– F1 journalist accredited by the FIA since 2011
- Nate Saunders.
F1 Deputy Editor
– He was previously involved in rugby and British Superbikes.
– Studied history at the University of Reading
– Member of ESPNF1 in February 2014
As the Portuguese Grand Prix approaches, we take a look at some of the key issues so far…
Who has the fastest car?
Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen engaged in a wheel-to-wheel battle for the lead on the first lap at Imola. Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
For the third race weekend of the season, it’s hard to say which team is the favorite to win.
Mercedes will probably say that Red Bull is the favourite and vice versa, and try to shift the pressure from one to the other, but judging by the first two races, that’s too close to the truth.
That’s what Formula One should be. It’s much more interesting to have two (or more) teams competing to win than one team that almost certainly dominates for a year.
In the two races of 2021, it seemed that Red Bull had the faster car, but it was also clear that the difference was incredibly small.
Verstappen was 0.4 seconds ahead of the fastest Mercedes in Bahrain qualifying and could have been 0.3 seconds ahead had he not made a mistake on his qualifying lap in Imola.
But Mercedes won the race in Bahrain, with Hamilton pressuring Verstappen until he spun in Imola.
After the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix Mercedes technical director Andrew Shovlin said: We’re not going to congratulate ourselves afterwards and say that maybe we had a slightly faster car.
We leave here saying that we are not good enough and that they are going to win the championship if we don’t improve our car very quickly.
It is our mentality that we are always the ones hunting.
It’s clear that track layout and weather conditions will play a part in determining the fastest car at race weekends this year, and Portimao differs enough from Bahrain and Imola that things will change again this weekend.
One thing became clear in the first two races: Mistakes by some drivers or exceptional performances can and will make the difference.
What happened to the jerseys of the riders who changed teams?
Daniel Ricciardo and Sebastian Vettel have failed to reach their best form in the first two races. Bryn Lennon/Getty Images
The season is still in its early stages, but from the first two races a clear trend is emerging. Drivers in new situations don’t behave quite the way we would like them to.
The four drivers who switched teams – Sebastian Vettel, Daniel Ricciardo, Sergio Perez and Carlos Sainz – as well as F1 returnee Fernando Alonso, all made mistakes and/or were unable to keep up with their new teammates.
Since his move to Aston Martin Vettel has been rather disappointing. Ricciardo is off the pace and even had to do without teammate Lando Norris at Imola – Norris has been the star of the middle so far. Perez was unstable: He qualified second in Imola and put in a very unusual performance the next day. Sainz has a difficult benchmark in Leclerc, who has said he has not yet reached the level he wants to be at, while Alonso made little impression in the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix
Sure, it’s still early, but a lot was expected from these riders. The fact that so many good runners are struggling shows how hard it is for a runner to just switch to another team and run on the edge from the start.
Some of the riders on this list may have only just begun to settle into a new environment, but each of them can take comfort in knowing that they are not alone in their efforts to adapt quickly.
There are many reasons for this slow start. Modern Formula 1 cars are complex beasts, and track time is essential to get up to speed quickly. That’s a serious problem for these drivers – the preseason lasted only three days this year, compared to six in 2020. That’s not really a correct term either, because it was actually three eight-hour days divided between two drivers.
These drivers have entered a period where the cars are more or less an evolution of last year’s cars, meaning their teammates are likely to feel much more comfortable than if they had come to a team with a completely new concept. Ricciardo was also slow to find his feet when he joined Renault in 2019. Although he was the best on the brakes at Red Bull, it wasn’t easy to learn how to get the best out of a Renault that also has less downforce.
I am not naive to understand that a new team is a new challenge, Ricciardo said in Imola. I would say I thought the transition would be faster, but it’s the second race so I wouldn’t say that: I expected to be on the podium by now.
He added: Obviously the Lando reference is strong, so I’m going to fight back and do better.
Alonso may have been away from F1 for two years, but his reputation is such that few expect him to be at his best when he returns. To his credit, he refused to use his absence as an excuse.
I think each of us has a different story and a different problem or difficulty, Alonso said. I’ve changed teams several times – I’ve even changed categories or series several times – and there’s always a period of adjustment.
But that was never an excuse, and it’s not an excuse now. I have to do better than that. I wasn’t at the right level this weekend, but I will do my best in Portimao.
Red Bull boss Christian Horner praised Perez despite his second race of mistakes.
It’s different than what he’s used to, he said. He was on the front row and just missed the pole position.
There are great races in his future. We could see in the clear sky that his pace was steady.
At this point in the season, all of these drivers deserve positive treatment, given the short time they’ve had to adjust to the new scenario.
Whether Bottas and Perez will be at the top of the league in 2021
As impressive as the fight between Hamilton and Verstappen was, it revealed a gap in their teammates’ results.
After two rounds, Valtteri Bottas is already 28 points behind championship leader Hamilton, while Perez is 34 points behind. We have plenty of time in the remaining 21 races to close these gaps, but if they get any bigger by mid-season, it will be hard to imagine any driver coming back into the title race
In Bahrain, Bottas performed on par with Hamilton and Verstappen, but was let down by a slow second pit stop It is unlikely that he would have prevailed in this fight, but in terms of sheer speed he was not far behind.
But Bottas was clearly struggling in Imola. He qualified eighth on the grid and then spent most of the race stuck in traffic in the middle of the pack, which he should have passed.
His lack of racing performance contributed to his collision with George Russell, as he should not have been in a position where his Mercedes would have risked a collision with the Williams.
The poor qualifying and lack of speed just before the accident was due to the tyres not being at the right temperature, forcing him to fight with the track for traction at the crucial moments of the weekend.
Bottas struggled in similar conditions at last year’s Turkish Grand Prix, and that seems to be one of his weaknesses compared to teammate Hamilton, who won in Turkey and finished second in Imola.
For me personally for example, compared to Lewis, the tyre temperature in qualifying was so on the edge that sometimes you can manage it, like I did in Q1 when I showed a much faster time than in Q3, Bottas said in Imola. For some reason I couldn’t get it to work the same way in Q3.
It’s only a degree or two off the surface or tire temperature. It’s hard to explain. Obviously, the temperature on the runway fluctuated a bit depending on the amount of clouds, etc.
With warmer conditions in the coming races, Bottas could be back in the title race, but he will need a bad weekend from Hamilton and Verstappen to equalise again.
As mentioned, Perez switched teams over the winter and admitted he still needs to get used to the new Red Bull.
His good performance from the back of the grid in Bahrain and his second place in qualifying in Imola suggest his potential if he does well, but he has already made some unusual mistakes in the first two races.
He himself admitted that he made mistakes in Imola. He was penalised for trying to regain his position after a corner under the safety car – a rule he should not have broken.
But even if we grant Perez leniency, it’s hard to imagine him competing with Verstappen from week to week.
I have a good measure against Max, he always gives 100 percent and I just adapt, Perez said in Imola after qualifying. I didn’t expect to be here [in second place on the grid] at this stage, because I feel I’m far from where I should be.
It didn’t really go naturally so far, so [second place in qualifying] was a good confidence booster.
While the title fight between Hamilton and Verstappen seems incredibly close, Perez and Bottas could slip into a secondary role if their results don’t improve.
If they are more than 25 points behind the championship leader by mid-season, Mercedes and Red Bull might well force them to sacrifice their own strategy – or even their position on the track – to help their teammates.
Also of interest…
The accident ended the race for both drivers. Hasan Bratich/ Photo Alliance via Getty Images
Did Russell damage his relationship with Mercedes?
The clash between Russell and Bottas was one of the biggest sensations of the race in Imola, when the young Mercedes driver tangled with each other and both were knocked out of the race.
The fact that both drivers will be competing for the same Mercedes seat next year adds another twist to this story, and it was interesting to see Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff chastise both drivers for different reasons.
But a crash on a wet track should not affect the long-term future of either driver.
Russell apologised to Bottas the next day, suggesting that matters had been settled behind closed doors. The Williams driver will be keen to remind everyone in the coming stages why he is so highly regarded at Mercedes.
Unless Bottas continues to struggle with his performance, it is unlikely that the two will be seen at the same circuit in the near future. A few good runs and all will be forgotten.
Has Tsunoda been promoted too much?
After winning over a legion of fans in Bahrain with his first lap heroics, AlphaTauri rookie Yuki Tsunoda made a series of mistakes during the Imola race weekend that saw him finish last on the grid and 12th in the race.
These mistakes reminded us that Tsunoda is still a rookie, but they should not overshadow the speed he has already shown in his short Formula One career.
Like all rookies, he will make mistakes and he needs time to learn from them. It’s too early to judge him now.
Will Aston Martin live up to its criticism of the 2021 rules?
After calling for a change to this year’s aerodynamic rules at the start of the weekend in Imola, Aston Martin softened its stance on the issue on Sunday evening
It is clear that the aerodynamic changes introduced this winter have affected some cars more than others, but the debate now focuses on whether the rules have been changed with the intention of pushing back Mercedes and Aston Martin, or – as the FIA claims – to prevent tyre failure such as occurred at Silverstone last year.
Aston Martin team boss Othmar Schaffnauer said Sunday night in Imola: We have had several meetings with the FIA and I think at the moment we are very satisfied that the right steps have been taken.
We’re still in conversation, trying to understand what steps were taken to make sure it was done properly and fairly. So much for discussion.
There has been no further communication on this subject between the races.
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