RACE DEBRIEF

    Pre-season testing in Formula 1 always tends to throw up more questions than it answers. So, after Mercedes struggled in Bahrain while Red Bull led the way, and a number of drivers and teams put in starring performances, how is the 2021 season actually shaping up? We tackle the 12 burning questions heading into what’s set to be F1’s biggest, and busiest ever, season.

    1. Can Mercedes sort their issues out?

    If Mercedes were sandbagging at 2021 pre-season testing, they certainly pulled the wool over our eyes.

    Spins, delays and technical issues meant the Silver Arrows recorded the least amount of laps of anyone with 304 (versus Alfa Romeo and AlphaTauri’s 422) while although data analysis suggested they actually lead the way on long run pace, Mercedes lagged behind Red Bull on short runs – while neither Valtteri Bottas nor Lewis Hamilton appeared at ease in the new W12.

    They’ll probably bounce back of course – this is Mercedes after all – but the question is, how long will that recovery take?

    READ MORE: ‘Red Bull are ahead’ – Mercedes concede rivals were ‘class act’ of testing and admit they ‘don’t have answers’ for W12 handling issues

    TESTING DAY 2: Lewis Hamilton beaches in the gravel

    2. Can anyone stop Hamilton winning his eighth crown?

    Despite his testing tribulations, Hamilton will still go into the season as favourite to add a record eighth crown to his tally, and even more firmly cement his G.O.A.T. status.

    But team mate Valtteri Bottas said he had a “happy head” going into 2021, and repeated several times over the test that he “absolutely believed” this would be his year – while with Red Bull having led the way in pre-season testing, and the team’s new pairing of Max Verstappen and Sergio Perez looking well-matched (more on which later…), Hamilton could have his work cut out.

    READ MORE: Bottas says 2021 title win still on the cards despite ‘most challenging’ pre-season yet with Mercedes

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    Can Hamilton be stopped in 2021?

    3. Will Lewis race on after this season?

    Many were surprised that the deal that was finally reached between Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton for 2021 only ran until the end of the season.

    Hamilton turned 36 in January, is likely to claim his 100th win and pole position in 2021 (and possibly that eighth crown), while he’s never hidden his interest in activities outside the racetrack – so there’s a question of what more there is left to achieve in the sport.

    You’d suspect a fierce competitor like Hamilton would at least like to sample the gamechanging 2022 rules – but whether he opts to or not, and whether he decides to do that with a different team or not, will doubtless be the subject of hot speculation when silly season gets going in earnest in 2021.

    ANALYSIS: Why Hamilton's new Mercedes deal is only for one year – and what it means for 2022

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    Will Hamilton keep going in 2022?

    4. Can Perez get on the pace of Verstappen?

    Sergio Perez looked a touch ragged on day two of testing, admitting that the handling of the Red Bull was “totally different” to what he was used to after seven seasons at Force India/Racing Point.

    By day three, though, Perez looked in far better shape, with Red Bull seemingly set to field their strongest line-up since the Daniel Ricciardo-Verstappen pairing in 2018. That should help them to spar with Mercedes for their first title honours since 2013 – but it will be juicy to see how the highly-regarded Perez stacks up against Verstappen across the year, in what will be his first real chance at a top drive in F1.

    READ MORE: 'I’ve got absolutely nothing to lose' – Perez on why he's not fazed by the challenge of facing Verstappen at Red Bull

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    Will Perez or Verstappen get the most out of the RB16B?

    5. Who’ll finish in P3 in the constructors’?

    “It’s not a midfield anymore, it’s a field,” said Alpine’s Marcin Budkowski at the end of testing. The picture behind Red Bull and Mercedes after testing certainly looks muddled, with McLaren, Alpine, Ferrari, Aston Martin and AlphaTauri in particular all demonstrating strong pace at times in Bahrain.

    Purely on pre-season form, you’d probably give it to McLaren, with new boy Ricciardo and Lando Norris having enjoyed fast and reliable motoring in the Mercedes-engined MCL35M.

    But we’d expect the advantage between those teams to ebb and flow over the course of the season, while there’ll be a particular focus on whether Aston Martin can rehabilitate the mojo of four-time champion Sebastian Vettel.

    F1 POWER RANKINGS: We've ranked the teams from 10 to 1 after pre-season testing – do you agree?

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    Ricciardo, Norris and McLaren arguably look best-placed to take P3 again in the constructors'

    6. Are Ferrari back?

    Pre-season testing 2021 was a far more positive experience for Ferrari than in 2020, the team saying that straight-line performance was no longer an issue thanks to their new power unit and reduction of drag, while both Charles Leclerc and new recruit Carlos Sainz showed strong pace at times in Bahrain.

    There were niggles however, with Sainz not looking entirely at one with the new SF21 at times, while there were still question marks over both Ferrari’s true pace and their reliability.

    It’s looking better – but exactly how much better, we’ll probably find out at Bahrain Grand Prix qualifying.

    READ MORE: Atmosphere at Ferrari already better after ‘strange’ 2020, says Leclerc

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    It will probably take some time for Sainz to get 100% comfortable in the SF21

    7. Is the Alonso-Ocon relationship going to remain intact?

    There’ll be an interesting dynamic playing out at Alpine this year, with Esteban Ocon going up against returning two-time champion Fernando Alonso.

    Both drivers have previous when it comes to team mate beef, while both have plenty to prove too: Alonso that this return hasn’t been in vain, and Ocon that he still has the right stuff, after he was largely outperformed by Ricciardo last year.

    Could be a bit of tinderbox, that one.

    READ MORE: Alpine explain the thinking behind their eye-catchingly wide airbox design

    TESTING DAY 2: Fernando Alonso's fastest lap on Alpine debut

    8. How will Haas’ all-rookie line-up fare?

    It’s fair to say there’s probably the least amount of optimism in 2021 swirling around the dramatically re-liveried Haas squad. Their VF-21 looks to be the least evolved of any car on the 2021 grid, it won’t be updated at all this season, while it would be unfair to expect miracles from their all-rookie line-up of Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin.

    That said, both drivers gave a decent account of themselves at testing – barring a few scraps for Mazepin out on track – and it will be worth watching whether the Russian or reigning F2 champion Schumacher come out on top in that particular fight, with the team likely to be fending off the likes of Alfa Romeo and Williams, the latter going in search of the first point since the 2019 German Grand Prix.

    READ MORE: Mazepin ‘hugely confident’ of Haas potential – but expecting ‘very big learning curve’ in 2021

    Formula 1 2021: Bahrain March testing
    Schumacher and Mazepin performed well in Bahrain

    9. Will this be Kimi Raikkonen’s last season in F1?

    There were rumours swirling in 2018 ahead of Kimi Raikkonen’s dropping from Ferrari that the end might have been approaching for the Iceman’s illustrious career. And yet here we are in 2021, with the 41-year-old preparing for his 19th season in the sport with Alfa Romeo.

    Will it be his last? Well, the Finn showed he was still plenty competitive at pre-season testing when he posted the fourth fastest time of all (and still has plenty of fight in him, as evidenced by the video below), while he looks happy in the Alfa Romeo set-up and, like Hamilton, probably fancies a go in the new 2022 cars.

    Enough to do a full year in 2022? Again, that’s probably another one for silly season.

    WATCH: Kimi Räikkönen on his incident with Carlos Sainz

    TESTING DAY 3: Sainz and Räikkönen touch as testing draws to a close

    10. Will these cars be the fastest ever seen in F1?

    Odd question, perhaps, given the downforce rules the teams have had to abide by for 2021 designed to slow them down.

    But McLaren, for one, already managed to get around part of the new regulations with their clever diffuser, while few were in doubt that most teams would eventually recover at least 100% of the downforce lost, even as their attention turns to their 2022 cars.

    Verstappen’s leading time from testing was a full 1.696s off Hamilton’s 2020 Bahrain Grand Prix pole time – but will that gap have shrunk by the time the teams hit the track for this year’s race on March 26-28?

    READ MORE: Aero tweaks, new tyres and the cost cap – The 2021 F1 rules and regulation changes you need to know about

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    Will the 2021 cars be breaking records this season, despite the aerodynamic changes?

    11. Will we see reserve drivers in action?

    While there’s certainly more optimism surrounding Covid-19 than there was 12 months ago, the vibe at 2021 pre-season testing was still very much face masks, bubbles, social distancing and lots of throat and nose swabbing – not to mention a lack of fans.

    That picture will hopefully change as vaccinations increase in 2021 – but the virus is still with us, meaning teams could be forced to call upon reserve drivers this season.

    That could be particularly interesting for Nico Hulkenberg, who Toto Wolff hinted could play a role as a Mercedes reserve in 2021 (or, failing that, at McLaren and presumably Aston Martin), after his starring outings for Racing Point last year. Did someone say ‘Hulkenberg podium’?

    READ MORE: HulkenBack 3.0? Wolff hints at potential reserve role for Hulkenberg at Mercedes in 2021

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    Could Hulkenberg see action for Mercedes this season?

    12. How will the drivers fare at the calendar's new races?

    With 23 races slated for 2021, there’ll also be some new and returning venues for the drivers to get their teeth into this season, including the comeback of Zandvoort after a 36-year hiatus, and the inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix – on what’s set to be the fastest F1 street track ever (and second only to Monza on average speed this season).

    READ MORE: 6 key facts about the ultra-fast Jeddah Street Circuit

    Add returns for Imola and Portimao this season, as well as a chance to race at tracks like Monaco, Interlagos and Albert Park that we had to skip last year, and it should all add up to one hell of a 2021 season.

    ONBOARD: Discover Saudi Arabia's new F1 track