Formula 1's 2021 season has officially kicked off in Bahrain with today's practice sessions. Predictably, Mercedes-AMG has suddenly remembered how to go fast; the drivers are complaining more about traffic than the average commuter, and there's as much drama as sponsor-approved coffee brewing. Of course, after just one practice session there's nothing decided yet, and we've got a planned 23 races to figure out what's what. But in any case, these early times from testing make it look like this could be, for the first time in a while, a genuinely close-fought F1 season.
Mercedes-AMG's Dominance Over?
The story of pre-season testing (also held in Bahrain, two weeks ago) was that the usually-unimpeachable Mercedes-AMG team seemed to be having flashbacks of its disastrous last performance at Sakhir, when it bungled George Russell out of a race win—twice. Losing running to reliability issues during testing and with the car looking twitchier than a journalist waiting to write "Mercedes-AMG's dominance over" as a headline, it was hard to tell if it was sandbagging just a bit too hard or genuinely in trouble. Fortunately, first practice today has answered that question since both Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas are back near the top of the times—but, excitingly, with both Red Bull and McLaren in the mix with them.
There's been a lot of movement across the grid over the past year, with plenty of new, slightly off-the-wall pairings. Sebastian Vettel has moved to Aston Martin (formerly Racing Point) to team up with Lance Stroll. Stroll had a scrappy season last year, especially while recovering from COVID-19, but if Stroll's season was a mess, he achieved more podiums than multiple-time-world-champion Vettel during a nightmare final year at Ferrari. It will be interesting to see who finds their footing faster at Aston, which means an intra-team battle will most likely ensue early in the season.
Similarly, Daniel Ricciardo has moved to what seems like a seriously resurgent McLaren team. It's switched to Mercedes power and found a funky diffuser trick that no other team has been able to exploit despite limited development this season. Ricciardo's a proven race winner but his star faded at Red Bull and Renault didn't give him a car to challenge for wins, at least not until the second half of the 2020 season. Meanwhile, McLaren's own Lando Norris, ten years Ricciardo's junior, needs to prove he isn't scared of a fight with the big boys.
Maybe the most interesting move is that Sergio Perez switched to Red Bull after a rollercoaster final season at Racing Point. He finds himself in the potentially unenviable situation of, as several drivers have before, being compared to Max Verstappen. Perez comes into the team with much more experience than any driver they've added in recent years, however. He will definitely be one to watch.
Last but not least, the talking point no one can get away from this season is that Lewis Hamilton has almost no records left to break, except the truly big one. If he wins the title this year he'll have eight championships: more than any other driver ever, and a record that is likely to stand for a long time.
Calling Hamilton a generational talent is probably unfair, as he's been beating drivers substantially his junior for longer than he was intimidating the old guard. The 36-year-old only has a one-year contract at Mercedes-AMG and although he's seemed to change his mind a few times, he has said that retiring isn't out of the question. Whether he does or not, there will be a time limit on his career, especially at the very top (tell that to Fernando Alonso, of course, returning to the grid this year to turn 40 at Alpine) and for someone so exceptionally good at what he does, it's worth savoring the time we get to watch him.
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