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Thursday, February 25, 2021

Lewis Hamilton’s Max Verstappen threat, George Russell hope – F1’s biggest 2021 storylines | F1 | Sport – WebMag

F1: Hamilton reflects on ‘unbelievable’ achievements

The 2020 Formula One season isn’t long finished but attention has already turned to the 2021 campaign, with a multitude of new-look driver line-ups with the likes of Daniel Ricciardo, Sergio Perez, Carlos Sainz and Sebastian Vettel having moved teams while Yuki Tsunoda, Nikita Mazepin and Mick Schumacher will all make their F1 debuts. So what are the biggest talking points across the paddock looking ahead to 2021? Express Sport takes a look.

Max Verstappen’s title chase

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the end of 2020 represented Max Verstappen’s first and only pole position and race win of the season, the 23-year-old producing a wonderful drive at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Despite finishing 133 points behind Lewis Hamilton in the final standings, the Dutchman was as impressive as any other driver on the grid outside of the world champion, achieving podium finishes in 11 of the 12 races in which he reached the finish line.

So can Red Bull provide him with a car capable of rivalling the Mercedes of Hamilton more consistently in 2021?

DON’T MISS: Hamilton appears to confirm Mercedes contract with Wolff comments

Verstappen sent a clear message to Honda post-Abu Dhabi, saying: “We know that we still have to improve the car a lot, and we know it’s some areas we have to really work on, and that’s not only on the car but also power-wise – we need more!”

Hamilton meanwhile predicted: “We’ve got a fight on our hands next year. Without a doubt these guys [Red Bull] are going to be strong as this car he’s driving now is next year’s car pretty much, and the same for us. So, I’m excited for that challenge and that battle that we hopefully will get.”

Can Verstappen stop Hamilton from clinching a record-breaking eighth driver’s title? It’ll be an almighty task, but it’s not completely improbable. A lot relies on the machinery given to him and he certainly can’t afford five DNFs again, but with Sergio Perez in the other Red Bull, he should have greater support than Alex Albon was able to offer.

Lewis Hamilton’s Max Verstappen threat, George Russell hope – F1’s biggest 2021 storylines (Image: GETTY)

George Russell’s Valtteri Bottas bid

Mercedes have made it obvious that Valtteri Bottas is going nowhere in 2021 amid pressure for his seat from George Russell. The Finn ended up well behind Hamilton in 2020 despite matching him for pace in various qualifying sessions and races.

Despite 11 podiums, his two race wins – compared to the Brit’s 11 – left him well behind in the final standings. Bottas had a chance to prove his quality when Hamilton missed the Sakhir GP with coronavirus but was outshone by Russell.

The Williams ace deputised brilliantly despite not even properly fitting into the W11 and ‘Mr Saturday’ backed up his qualifying displays to indicate that in the right car, he can be one of the best drivers on the grid.

That means the pressure is very much on Bottas next season, with his contract with the Silver Arrows up at the end of the year, when Russell’s three-year Williams agreement will also come to an end.

The Mercedes junior driver says he has to stay on the “straight and narrow” in 2021 and more of the same of his 2020 form will mean it is down to Bottas to convince Toto Wolff and co. he’s the man for the seat alongside Hamilton.

A repeat of 2020, however, and despite some excellent qualifying showings and strong drives, Mercedes would face a massive call in 12 months’ time.

ON THIS TOPIC: Russell smashes Bottas in F1 drivers’ poll as Hamilton wins

Lewis Hamilton's Max Verstappen threat, George Russell hope - F1's biggest 2021 storylines

Lewis Hamilton’s Max Verstappen threat, George Russell hope – F1’s biggest 2021 storylines (Image: GETTY)

McLaren’s Mercedes power

After finishing only behind Red Bull and Mercedes last season, McLaren may hold even loftier ambitions for 2021 given that they are ditching Honda for Mercedes power units.

With Daniel Ricciardo and Lando Norris in the garage, the Woking-based British outfit have an incredibly talented pairing who will make headlines for their antics on and off the track, the two as likeable as any driver on the grid.

And the switch to Merc-powered machinery may allow McLaren to make another step following their recent progress, with the team far superior to what they were with Fernando Alonso in the cockpit two or three years ago.

How thrilling it would be not just to have Verstappen and Perez rivalling Mercedes but to have Ricciardo and Norris sat in cars with genuine race-winning potential.

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Fernando Alonso hope

The much-loved Spaniard is back. After a two-year absence, Alonso – winner of 32 F1 races and a 97-time podium-place finisher – will race for Alpine next year.

Alpine will replace Renault but continue to serve as the French manufacturer’s works team with Esteban Ocon staying to race alongside Alonso.

So just what can the 39-year-old do after his time away from the sport? The two-time world champion and ex-Ferrari racer went fasted in Abu Dhabi’s ‘young driver test’ after being given special dispensation to get back on track.

Will that translate into the 2021 season? We can hope so, and he said afterwards: “It ignited a little bit the competitive spirit.

He scored just 132 points in his final four years in F1 with McLaren, having won 161 alone in his last year with Ferrari in 2014, and will hope to at least be battling in the midfield this season.

But the back-to-back Le Mans 24 Hours winner may find it tricky after a few years away. The sight of the rapid Alonso we all remember would be more than welcome, though.

Lewis Hamilton's Max Verstappen threat, George Russell hope - F1's biggest 2021 storylines

Lewis Hamilton’s Max Verstappen threat, George Russell hope – F1’s biggest 2021 storylines (Image: GETTY)

Lewis Hamilton's Max Verstappen threat, George Russell hope - F1's biggest 2021 storylines

Lewis Hamilton’s Max Verstappen threat, George Russell hope – F1’s biggest 2021 storylines (Image: EXPRESS SPORT)

Mick Schumacher debut

The iconic Schumacher name is back on the grid with Michael Schumacher’s son Mick – the F2 champion – lining up in the Haas.

The popular young German will hope for a better car than Kevin Magnussen and Romain Grosjean got in 2020 and Schumi Jr will be looking to prove he can race for Ferrari in the future.

Amid the controversy surrounding his team-mate Nikita Mazepin, who will continue to race in 2021 despite admitting he was guilty of “inappropriate behaviour” while touching a woman in a car, plenty will be hoping Schumacher can be a success and go on to bigger and better things.

Given the reputation of his father, there are fery vew who do not want to see the 21-year-old do well in his first year in F1.

Just how well can he do? His post-season young driver’s test saw him the slowest of 15 drivers but he’ll hope to be capable of a few points finishes in 2021, with the American outfit picking up just three points throughout last season.

Ferrari chief Mattia Binotto has said of Ferrari Academy driver Schumacher: “I’m really expecting him to prove how fast he is in an F1 context, both qualifying and the race, to prove that he is very strong in race pace and consistent in terms of bringing the car home in a good position.

I think it will be very difficult for him at the start. If I look at his past experience in both F2 and F3, normally he is delivering his best in the second season and not the first.

“I think Mick, the way he has developed himself, is learning a lot on the first season and becomes very strong in the second half of the second season. That’s why I think two seasons will be important for him. But already on the second I’m expecting to see progress compared to the first one.”

Lewis Hamilton's Max Verstappen threat, George Russell hope - F1's biggest 2021 storylines

Lewis Hamilton’s Max Verstappen threat, George Russell hope – F1’s biggest 2021 storylines (Image: GETTY)

Return of the real Sebastian Vettel?

Headed to Racing Point, who will be renamed Aston Martin next season, Sebastian Vettel has repeatedly spoken of his excitement for a fresh challenge.

His final years with Ferrari saw the four-time world champion’s performance levels significantly drop and it was clear he needed to move on.

But will the German be able to rediscover his best form? Racing Point enjoyed a mixed 2020 and gave up third place in the constructors’ standings to McLaren at the final weekend despite some brilliant weekends across the season.

Vettel, though, will hope the Aston Martin works squad can supply him with a car able not just to clinch third in the constructors but to get regular podiums and to test his racecraft as he looks to rediscover his levels of old. 

MORE F1 NEWS…
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Ricciardo tipped to join Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes in Verstappen snub

Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc challenge

While Vettel laboured for Ferrari in 2020, Charles Leclerc was superb – even though he only finished eighth in the drivers’ championship.

Working with a car well below-par and frankly far too slow, the Monegasque clinched two podiums early in the season and added three fourth-placed finishes too.

The 23-year-old, billed as a future world champion, labelled himself “very happy” with his 2020 performances and rightly so given he spared Ferrari’s blushes despite their sluggish SF1000 motor.

Leclerc crashed out several times and needs to iron out some mistakes but has shown he can be Ferrari’s go-to man in the years to come, just as the iconic Italian manufacturer hopes he will, so can the Scuderia supply him with a car befitting of his quality as early as next season?

Lewis Hamilton's Max Verstappen threat, George Russell hope - F1's biggest 2021 storylines

Lewis Hamilton’s Max Verstappen threat, George Russell hope – F1’s biggest 2021 storylines (Image: GETTY)

Calendar coronavirus complications

How many races will we get? Thirteen races in 2020 had to be cancelled, with F1 having to hold multiple events where they had back-to-back races at the same circuit, such as the British Grand Prix and the one-off 70th Anniversary Grand Prix both taking place at Silverstone.

As it stands, the 2021 F1 season begins on March 21 and will incorporate 23 races, ending as is now tradition in Abu Dhabi on December 5.

But with new variant strains of COVID-19 emerging, it would not be a surprise to see a number of races having to be postponed or completely cancelled next season.

Let’s hope not though, and our fingers are crossed that we can also have fans at most of the events given how much they were missed in 2020 at circuits such as Silverstone and Monza.


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