F1 2021 at Mid-Season
Volume 46 Issue 18
Aug 28, 2021
Bob Varsha gives us his mid-year update of Formula One racing season so far.
As the Formula One World Championship reached the summer break in what was originally envisioned as a record 23-race schedule, eleven have been run.
How many events will eventually unfold is pure conjecture at this point, as we have already seen the pandemic-driven cancelation of annual features in Australia, China (indefinite postponement), Canada, Singapore and Japan, while Covid hotspots in countries such as Brazil, Mexico and even the USA put additional events in jeopardy.
That said, quick work by series officials resulted in replacement races in Portugal, Italy (Imola) and a second race in Austria. Rumors suggest that options to fill out the schedule include a return to Mugello in Italy, a debut in Qatar, and even a second race at the Circuit of the Americas in Austin.
Last season saw seventeen of the originally planned twenty-two races completed, so there is reason to be optimistic that the 2021 season will conclude with a reasonable home stretch. And so, now is a convenient moment to look back and assess what we’ve seen, and what may lie ahead.
This has already been a grand prix season like no other. The teams are fielding last season’s cars, modified to meet mandatory reductions in aerodynamic downforce.
Meanwhile, a dramatic new F1 car concept, revealed at the British round at Silverstone in July, forces each team to allocate resources to both this season’s equipment and the production of a “clean sheet of paper” weapon for next year.
Some, such as the modestly-budgeted Haas team, declared they wouldn’t even attempt to further develop their current car. As the season progressed, several other teams have abandoned seeking performance updates in favor of focusing on their 2022 cars, which will run on 18-inch Pirelli tires for the first time.
Making this even more of a challenge is this year’s introduction of the $145 million spending cap, which has forced the big teams, especially the big three of Mercedes AMG, Red Bull Racing and Scuderia Ferrari, to reduce staff, reallocate personnel and modify development plans to get under the cap while simultaneously competing this year and preparing totally new machines for next season. A big ask, as they say.
On the bright side, what has unfolded on track is the most competitive championship in years. For the first time since the dawn of the hybrid era in 2014, Mercedes has found its run of seven straight world championships for both drivers and constructors in serious jeopardy.
In fact, for the first time in that span, someone other than a factory Mercedes driver has led the championship.
That man, of course, is Max Verstappen. The engineers from Red Bull and Honda arguably caught their Mercedes counterparts napping coming into the season.
Whether Mercedes relied too heavily on their previous performance advantage or not, Lewis Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas found their low-rake, long-wheelbase cars wanting, especially on those tracks that made it difficult to get the front tires up to temperature quickly, such as Bahrain, Monaco and Paul Ricard in France.
All were among Verstappen’s five victories to date, with a sixth in Azerbaijan going to teammate Sergio Pérez.
Only Verstappen’s blown tire in that race and his heavy crashes at Silverstone and the Hungaroring prevented the Dutchman from opening a huge lead in the championship, instead dropping him eight points behind Hamilton.
While the Mercedes and Red Bull team leaders chase the drivers title, their teammates Bottas and Pérez have underperformed somewhat in their critical support roles.
Off to the worst start of his Mercedes career, Bottas has cracked the top three in the championship just twice, and is rumored to be on his way out in favor of young star George Russell at Williams.
By the time you read this their fates may be known. Pérez, too, is in a contract year at Red Bull, and having won at Baku after his teammate’s DNF and Hamilton’s astonishing slide into the runoff on a late restart, a strong second half should mean he will return. The points gap between the two teams has see-sawed through the first half-season, and stands at 12, with Mercedes on top.
Meanwhile, all the drama at the front has eclipsed a remarkable story at Ferrari. After one of the worst seasons in the storied team’s history in 2020, in which the red cars failed to lead a green-flag lap and finished outside the top five in the constructors’ chase for the first time since 1980, Charles Leclerc and new teammate Carlos Sainz, Jr., have hauled themselves back to relevancy and are tied for third in the standings with another great name emerging from recent mediocrity, McLaren-Mercedes.
Leclerc scored stunning poles at Monaco and Azerbaijan, both drivers are scoring consistently, and they lie sixth (Sainz) and seventh in points.
Ferrari boss Mattia Binotto says performance updates are coming, and they’ll be needed: the drivers have burned through their allotment of three engines each, and the next fresh installation will bring ten-place grid penalties.
McLaren, on the other hand, has kept pace with the Ferrari pair despite leaning heavily on the performance of just one driver. The arrival of proven winner Daniel Ricciardo has produced little in either qualifying or race trim, but incumbent Lando Norris has been a star, qualifying close to the front and scoring in every race he’s finished, including a pair of podiums.
Team technical boss Andreas Seidel has admitted that the car is difficult to drive, and that Ricciardo can be excused for struggling to come to grips with the required heavy braking and accelerating, as opposed to carrying speed through the corners as he prefers.
If the popular Aussie can get a handle on it when hostilities resume, the battle between Ferrari and McLaren will be fascinating.
Another evenly-matched pair are Alpine (previously Renault) and AlphaTauri-Honda, just nine points apart for fifth among constructors.
Although former champion Fernando Alonso says he’s driving better than ever, he has performed on even terms with his much younger teammate, Esteban Ocon. The Frenchman claimed his first first career victory on the eve of the summer break in Hungary, with an assist from Alonso, who held a charging Lewis Hamilton at bay with ferocious but fair defensive driving.
It appears that Alonso, not known for self-sacrificing teamwork, is in fact a different driver at age 40.
Much like the unbalanced Ferrari-McLaren battle, Alpine versus AlphaTauri is a two-on-one affair, with the bulk of the latter’s points coming from Pierre Gasly while rookie Yuki Tsunoda tries to master what is a very good car-engine combination.
The Frenchman has qualified top ten in nine of eleven starts, set fast lap at Silverstone and stood on the podium at Baku, making him a hot commodity for 2022.
Meanwhile, the 21-year-old Japanese has crashed more often than he has reached Q3, and has yet to produce points in back-to-back races. They need his scoring in the fight for fifth place.
On an island twenty points behind lies Aston Martin-Mercedes, where the plan to bring in Sebastian Vettel appears to have backfired somewhat.
Rather than the former world champion providing veteran leadership and a mentorship for teammate Lance Stroll, Vettel has managed just a couple of podiums (and lost one for a technical infringement at Hungary) in what was arguably last year’s third-best car.
Meanwhile, Stroll has been up and down, with just three Q3 appearances and no finish higher than 8th.
If you follow the Netflix series “Drive To Survive” you know that Lance’s dad and team owner Lawrence Stroll is an intimidating presence who demands success. This could be a combustible situation going forward.
Then there are the tail-draggers: Williams-Mercedes, with a meager ten points at halftime, Alfa Romeo-Ferrari, with three, and Haas-Ferrari, the only team without a single championship point.
A new financial injection at once-proud Williams under new ownership is beginning to show results, thanks entirely to the driving of George Russell, who has punched well above the car’s potential, thus putting him in line to replace Bottas.
With just three points thus far, expect neither Kimi Räikkönen nor possibly Antonio Giovanazzi back at Alfa next season.
Ironically, Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin have already been confirmed for next season despite their complete lack of results. That can happen when one’s dad is a legend, and the other’s is a billionaire.
By now you may be wondering why I haven’t mentioned the debut of “Sprint Qualifying.”
In my defense, we have only one sample to go by, at Silverstone, won by Max Verstappen. His reward of three historic championship points make him the first driver ever to score points in a grand prix in which he never completed a lap, crashing out of the Sunday grand prix. Don’t get me started on that collision.
Enjoy the rest of the season.