Is this the year Red Bull finally take the fight to Mercedes?

After seven championships in a row, Mercedes are undoubtedly the favourites heading into F1 2021. But one thing they haven’t had since starting their title streak is a serious challenge from Red Bull, who so often start the season with too big a performance gap to their rivals.

At this year’s pre-season testing, however, Red Bull appeared to have a car that is not just closer to Mercedes’, but maybe even ahead. A title battle on its way?

Can Hamilton claim unprecedented eighth title?

With so many records broken last season, it’s easy to forget that Lewis Hamilton still has history to make. But his next goal is the biggest of all in F1; Hamilton can become the first driver to claim eight titles. After six in seven years, and four in a row, you’d be brave to bet against him.

Can McLaren build on 2020 success?

A rejuvenated McLaren continued their F1 momentum by claiming third last year, their best finish since 2012. It would say a lot about the strides McLaren are making if they could do so again this season, particularly with renewed fights from Ferrari, Aston Martin and Alpine in particular. And could they even close in on the top two with those new Mercedes engines?

Will we get a record-breaking season of races?

A calendar of 23 races, two more than F1 has ever had before, is an exciting prospect – but also an optimistic one given just how much last year’s schedule changed. Here’s hoping for a much smoother 2021.

Can Monaco deliver a classic?

Speaking of the calendar, Monaco – F1’s most glamorous and recognisable venue – was a huge miss last year. Thankfully, we should be returning for the fifth round of 2021 in May.

Can Verstappen clinch his first championship?

He’s got the speed, he’s got the consistency. Now, has he got the car? It would be great to see Verstappen, who is surely a champion in the making, finally battle for the title in the Red Bull.

Will we see qualifying ‘sprint’ races and will they boost excitement?

OK, so technically that’s two questions… but don’t blame us for sprint races not actually being confirmed for 2021 yet! It looks as though short Saturday races – which would count for points while also setting the grid for Sunday’s main event – will be agreed for three rounds in 2021, with a view to implementing more in the future. This is obviously an F1 idea with added entertainment in mind, so will they have the desired effect?

Will Ferrari rebound from worst season in 40 years?

It became apparent very early on in 2020 that Ferrari would not be challenging for the title. But sixth? That was a huge disappointment for a team with so much history and resources. Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz will hope to lift Ferrari closer towards the front this year, armed with a new engine and, seemingly, an improved chassis.

Is Alonso still one of F1’s best?

Back on the grid after two years away – and 15 years after his last title – Fernando Alonso, 39, insists he’s a better driver now than he ever was. That’s quite a statement. If that’s the case, expect Alonso to drag the absolute maximum out of that Alpine car and help the rebranded team battle for podiums this year.

How early will teams switch focus to 2022?

With a major rules overhaul on its way, teams are already diverting some of their attention to next year’s radically different car and upgrades may be few and far between this year. If teams sense there’s little more to gain out of 2021 – whether that’s them being out of the title race or the midfield battle – they may switch focus entirely early on.

Can Vettel rediscover his form at Aston Martin?

It was sad to see Sebastian Vettel, with all his talent and his four F1 titles, lose confidence at Ferrari – but Aston Martin believe they can get the best out of the German. Still just 33, Vettel insists he’s got a lot left to give.

How will Mercedes handle their expiring contracts?

Both Valtteri Bottas and Lewis Hamilton are out of contract at the end of the season, meaning Mercedes will certainly be keeping an eye on other drivers over the season. A big contender will be George Russell, who debuted superbly in Bahrain for Mercedes last year and is conveniently out of contract at Williams for 2022.

Can Perez solve Red Bull’s second driver problem?

It’s not that Red Bull necessarily want their second driver to beat Max Verstappen – and that’s no mean feat – but they would certainly want Sergio Perez to be closer to the front than Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon have managed in recent seasons.

Who will ace the new regulations?

While there is plenty of carry-over from last year’s cars, teams have suggested that the “subtle” regulation changes are also “significant”. Depending on who manages to make the most out of the aerodynamic tweaks, there could be a shake-up in the pecking order.

And will the rule changes lead to closer racing?

The grid always tends to close up when there are few car changes and that could very well be the case again in 2021, with testing suggesting the midfield have made gains towards the front. The loss in downforce on the cars could also make following cars – and therefore overtaking – a little easier.

Can Schumacher establish himself in F1?

It’s not going to be easy to prove himself in the Haas, who are expected to be back-runners, but Mick Schumacher will hope for a solid rookie season alongside Nikita Mazepin. Ferrari, no doubt, will be keeping a keen eye on their junior.

What will be the closest new team-mate battle?

There are seven new driver partnerships on the grid this season, with combinations such as race-winner Daniel Ricciardo and youngster Lando Norris, and multiple world champion Vettel with youngster Lance Stroll.

Can Honda sign off with a bang?

Not the engine bang, of course. This is Honda’s last season in the sport and the Japanese manufacturer have brought their Power Unit upgrades a year early with the hope of powering Red Bull to the title. Have they made enough progress to challenge Mercedes?

Can Williams fight their way back towards the midfield?

After finishing bottom of the standings for three years in a row, it is vital that Williams start to build some F1 momentum this year under new ownership. The early signs from the famous Grove team have been promising.

How will less practice time influence the race weekend?

Losing an hour of practice – with 30 mins taken off both P1 and P2 in 2021 – may not sound like a lot, but that is a third of the Friday running gone… and we’ve seen how less practice has influenced the race weekend in the past. It will certainly be crucial for teams not to have any issues in practice, now.

Will we finally have a title-decider in Abu Dhabi?

The championship hasn’t been on the line at the season-ender in Abu Dhabi since 2016, and not between drivers from two different teams since 2012. Can 2021 change that?

(c) Sky Sports 2021: Formula 1 2021: 21 questions that will be answered this season as F1 gets ready for big return

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