RACE DEBRIEF

    It’s that time of the year when resolutions are made, hopes are raised and the excitement builds, as the dawn of a new Formula 1 campaign is almost upon us. The regulations may be largely stable heading into 2021, but there is still plenty of room for the pecking order to change, which is why I’m not holding back with my predictions for what might lie ahead…

    1. Red Bull will win the constructors’ championship

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    I'm going bold from the off. It’s been seven seasons since Red Bull not just won the constructors’ championship but provided a genuine challenge for the iconic silverware, a statistic which falls well below owner Dietrich Mateschitz’s high expectations.

    This year, though, things will be different as Red Bull will benefit from the stable rules. Every year since their title triumph in 2013, they’ve started on the backfoot with a new car they struggled to understand. This season, there will be no blank sheet of paper, with Red Bull carrying over 60% of their car.

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    They triumphed in the 2020 finale in Abu Dhabi, which had previously been a Mercedes fortress, which bodes well for a stronger start next year. Their rate of in-season development was excellent and with the direction of their RB16B defined, and a solid understanding of their base car, they can only kick on.

    Expect Red Bull to be a thorn in Mercedes’ side from the very first race, with Max Verstappen leading the charge and his new experienced team mate Sergio Perez giving them the ruthless consistency they have craved from the second car.

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    With the line-up they now have, stable rules that play to their advantage, and the momentum after a strong end to 2020, there cannot – and will not be – any more excuses.

    2. Renault – now Alpine – will break into the top three

    Alpine branding for 2021

    Fifth in the constructors’ championship belies the huge progress Renault have made since becoming a works operation in 2016, the French manufacturer scoring three podiums during that five-year period.

    Under their new guise Alpine, the Enstone-based squad – which is arguably the best resourced of the midfield teams – will continue their upward trajectory in 2021.

    Two-time champion Fernando Alonso will give them that heavyweight feel, and while it may take him some time to get back up to speed, his huge experience and impressive feedback will be crucial.

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    Couple that with the maturing Esteban Ocon, who showed flashes of genuine speed last year despite being outshone by Daniel Ricciardo, and who will fancy his chances of taking on his more illustrious team mate, and you’ll have a brand capable of regular podiums that can make a spot in the top three of the constructors’ championship possible.

    3. McLaren will win a race

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    Carlos Sainz came tantalisingly close to his first victory in Monza, in what would have been McLaren’s first triumph since the 2012 season-ending Brazilian GP, as the British team turned a corner to raise hopes they will be a force once more.

    READ MORE: How McLaren emerged as Mercedes and Red Bull’s biggest threat – and why they could be a factor in 2021

    Third in the constructors’ championship, beating better-resourced squads Renault and Racing Point – who will become Alpine and Aston Martin respectively this year – was a sensational achievement, as they seized their opportunities and operated at a high level.

    They head into this year with momentum, a fresh injection of significant investment, and with a new power unit supplier in Mercedes, the current class-leader.

    With Daniel Ricciardo coming onboard, after one of his strongest ever seasons, alongside Lando Norris – who came of age last year – plus a challenger that their technical chief James Key says “is akin to a new car”, I predict McLaren will end their eight-year wait for their 183rd Grand Prix win.

    4. At least seven different drivers will stand on the top step of the podium

    F1 Grand Prix of Italy

    Mercedes are overwhelming favourites for 2021, so it goes without saying Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas will win plenty of races between them next year.

    Max Verstappen will triumph, too, as will team mate Perez. And with McLaren set to win one and Aston Martin almost certain to have a car capable of the top step – that’ll make at least six different winners.

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    Last year was a strange one, which showed that races can be unpredictable at the front – with Pierre Gasly giving AlphaTauri victory at Monza and Perez triumphing at Sakhir – and I expect that trend to continue into this year.

    That’s why I'm saying there will be at least seven different faces on the top step – which would be more than a third of the grid and bode well for an exciting season.

    5. Vettel will finish best of the rest behind the Mercedes and Red Bull drivers

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    This is perhaps my boldest prediction, given the four-time champion had such a difficult final campaign with Ferrari last year as he suffered the most disappointing campaign of his long and illustrious career.

    His confidence was knocked, first by being consistently beaten by rising star team mate Charles Leclerc, then by his struggle to get on top of a tricky car.

    READ MORE: ‘I will miss them’ – Vettel says forgettable final race for Ferrari made memorable by farewell gestures from the team

    But Aston Martin offers him the chance of a rebirth. They will herald him as their leader, put their arm around him, and listen to his wealth of experience.

    They clearly had a car capable of regular podiums last year, and Vettel will help them optimise that package and achieve more consistency, while also acting as a mentor for owner Lawrence Stroll’s son Lance.

    We saw a big bounce in Vettel’s form when he landed at Ferrari, having been beaten by Daniel Ricciardo at Red Bull as defending champion, and I expect this move – which will involve him resurrecting a famous marque – to have a similar effect, leading to him finishing fifth in the standings behind the Mercedes and Red Bull drivers.