Mercedes vs Red Bull: Will F1 have a two-team title battle?

During Mercedes’ historic run of seven consecutive titles, one thing that has been missing is a serious title challenge from Red Bull. But a very strong pre-season test in Bahrain for Red Bull – with Mercedes struggling somewhat – has led to optimism about a close fight…

Karun Chandhok

“By the time we got to the end of testing the Mercedes started to look more like the Mercedes we know. They are a very high-quality operation and haven’t forgotten how to build a good car.

“But what is clear that for the first time in a long time, Red Bull will head to the first Grand Prix being a genuine contender for wins. It doesn’t mean they’re going to win it and they are the dominant force, but it means at least they’re in the fight. That’s what we want, we want the championship fight to go from round one to the last race between two teams.”

Martin Brundle

“You can be sure Mercedes haven’t created a pup, but clearly the car wasn’t sticking at the backend as well as they would have liked at pre-season testing. I’m sure they’ll sort that out.

“But it does appear that Red Bull have really got it together. We came away from the test really excited about the season ahead. It does look close.”

Ted Kravitz

“Mercedes have proved that they can win through a regulation change, they’ve done it twice. But it seems that this regulation change may have worked in its essence for Red Bull and against Mercedes.

“Whoever came up with this regulation change has either lucked into potentially ending Mercedes’ dominance, or it’s just been a fortuitous side effect for the neutral… because we are going to have a titanic battle.

“Mercedes are on their back foot, the regulation change has worked against them and it’s going to be fascinating to see.”

David Croft

“I don’t think Mercedes are in as bad a shape as some headlines will lead you to believe.

“I think we are in for a very tight battle but I do believe Mercedes will just edge it in the end, although Red Bull do now have a stronger driver pairing with which to take the fight to Mercedes this year. That’s why I think we’ve got an incredible battle ahead.”

Will Hamilton and Verstappen finally go head to head?

A by-product of Red Bull not being close enough to Mercedes in recent years is that we have been denied a genuine fight on equal terms between F1’s star drivers, Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen. Will it be seven-time world champion vs rising superstar in 2021 – and who will come out on top?

Jenson Button

“It’s exactly what we want, to have Lewis up against Max. They are both extraordinary drivers. It’s really exciting.

“Max, as always, is giving it his all, is at the top of his game, and I think he’s really going to take the fight to Lewis. Team-mates fighting for a championship is great but when it’s drivers from different teams, it’s the best. It’s exactly what Formula 1 needs right now.”

Simon Lazenby

“It’s not Senna-Prost, it’s Senna-Senna – you could look at it like that. This is box office! When Formula 1’s at its best you have two once-in-a-generation drivers potentially up against each other in equal machinery. That’s what 2021 looks like it might be offering.”

Anthony Davidson

“At the end of the day this is why you get into racing, as drivers or as teams: To have competition. It’s what it’s always been about, and that’s what we see from Hamilton’s comments – he wants the fight.

“I think this year he’s going to get that. Verstappen is hungry, more desperate than ever before and I think this is the first year they’re going to start on an equal footing.”

Nico Rosberg

“The money would still have to go on Lewis [to win the title] because nobody can fathom someone actually beating Lewis throughout the entire season on points. But Verstappen, in particular, is as close as ever before in pre-season in terms of the odds to beat Lewis to the championship. I don’t think anyone’s been that close for many, many years.”

Johnny Herbert

“I think motivation is always a big part from a racing driver’s perspective and I think that motivation is there at the present time for Lewis to be able to deliver. One thing I know he’s very excited about is a challenge from Max – one which he would be more than ready for.”

A champion returns: What to expect from Alonso?

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso – at the age of 39 and after two years away – is back on the grid with Renault’s rebranded team Alpine in 2021. While he will likely be battling in the midfield, the return of one of the greatest drivers ever is another major talking point.

Rachel Brookes

“He says he’s better now than he’s ever been so maybe those titanium plates in his jaw have done something special!

“He did an incredible amount of laps at F1 testing and every single corner was turned in on with pinpoint accuracy. He’s in great shape, he’s lost none of that skill which helped him win those world titles in the first place.

“Two years out may seem like a long time but he kept his eye in racing in other series and he’s back and as good as he’s ever been.

“Unfortunately, the car looks like it’s going to be a little bit tricky, he’s already been quoted as saying they may struggle to get to Q3. We’ll wait to see the best of him but he’s back and firing on all cylinders. He’s really up for it.”

Paul Di Resta

“I’m not so sure the best is to come from him but he definitely deserves a space. I think Fernando Alonso is as good as Lewis Hamilton, having raced him and having watched the onboards from last week with him in the car again.

“He has got that pinpoint accuracy and he’s got the talent. Fernando fighting at the front would be absolutely box-office.”

Damon Hill

“He’s a great racer. He’s got the speed and he’s a fantastic competitor when he’s on the track. I always have admired his tenacity.

“The question is going to be whether Enstone can keep him applicated. I know that he doesn’t want to be controversial and he wants to help the team but I think if it doesn’t go well… watch out, that’ll be trouble with Fernando!”

Vettel and Aston Martin: A match made in heaven?

How about this for a new partnership. Sebastian Vettel has a new team with the aim of rediscovering the quadruple title-winning form that seemed to evade him at Ferrari, while Aston Martin are back in F1 with the aim of building on Racing Point’s midfield success. What can we expect?

Damon Hill

“I think sometimes with Ferrari it looked like Sebastian was destabilised. I think there were political things that maybe knocked his confidence, and that can have an effect on your driving.

“But there were also some great performances so it’s still there, and I think if he gets a whiff of being competitive and going for podiums, then you’ll see the best of Sebastian. I hope he’s had a chance to rebuild his confidence.

“It’s whether or not Aston Martin live up to the expectation because there’s a whole lot of expectation there – I’m sure that’s why Sebastian went there in the first place. He thought there was a good chance that this team could repeat what it was able to do last year, which was win a race.”

Paul Di Resta

“I always remember Lawrence Stroll [team owner] telling us that the team needed funding, it needed direction. That was always what was missing when I was a driver there. The impact of the rebrand has been incredible. He’s kept the foundations of that Silverstone team and I think that’s the key thing, he’s strengthening each part of it.

“I guess the only question mark for me is the driver line-up, Vettel was not on his A-game last year, but it’s just whether this new adventure is going to give him the passion to get back where he was when he was in his dominant Red Bull era. And then where does Lance [Stroll] fit into that? Because [Sergio] Perez always had that upper edge.

Rachel Brookes

“I’d like to think Vettel would give Aston more [than one year]. This year obviously they’ve got the hangover car from last year which won the penultimate race so it’s not that bad. But it does look like at the start of the season they may be behind AlphaTauri in the pecking order, so they’ve got some work to do.

“I see Sebastian hanging around for more than a year in this team – I think he sees 2022 as a fantastic opportunity.”

Can Ferrari bounce back? What to expect from F1’s giant

Ferrari endured their worst season in four decades last year, with the sport’s most successful team slipping from title challengers to sixth out of 10 teams. With a new engine, new car design, and new driver line-up with Carlos Sainz joining Charles Leclerc, can the Scuderia recover?

Anthony Davidson

“Ferrari have got a mountain to climb, they really do. It’s a far cry from where they were a few years ago. The car to me looked to be a bit better at testing but a bit isn’t good enough… they need so much more than that.

“I think biding their time before that big regulation change comes next year – that is on everyone’s minds right now, they’re all working flat-out for 2022. Someone’s going to get it very right, and others very wrong.”

Ted Kravitz

“All we’re hearing from Ferrari is that the new engine is a medium-sized upgrade, I think the rumour coming out of Italy is that it’s a 40bhp boost.

“I remember Charles Leclerc saying they’ve improved a bit – and I don’t want to hear that, I want to hear that Ferrari have improved a lot!

“While they’re still reorganising their technical organisation, it seems that all we can really hope for is that they’ll be fighting with the Alpines, whether they can get up to the likes of Aston Martin and McLaren we’ll have to see.”

Natalie Pinkham

“I’m fascinated to see what will happen between Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc. Leclerc came out of the box flying last year and comprehensively beat his team-mate. Now, Carlos is no slouch and he won’t want to play second fiddle to Charles – so it’ll be fascinating to see how that plays out.”

(c) Sky Sports 2021: Formula 1 2021: Sky F1’s big preview as pundits discuss major talking points ahead of new season

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