Reasons to be cheerful: 2021 Formula One season preview

Formula 1 is tedious these days, right? It’s always just a procession of cars that can’t overtake one another miles behind Sir Lewis Hamilton in his untouchable Mercedes-AMG. Actually, popular though that view may be, it’s not true.

Yes, Britain’s finest cruised to a seventh title, but last season also gave rise to some fantastic races, shock results and brilliant performances from exciting new talents, and there’s absolutely no reason why we shouldn’t enjoy more of that in 2021. To make things even better, there are scheduled to be six extra races and a much greater variety of tracks after last year’s pandemic disruption.

This isn’t just our view but also that of Jolyon Palmer and Jack Nicholls, who travel the world covering every grand prix for BBC Radio 5 Live. Palmer raced in F1 himself in 2016 and 2017 for Renault, while Nicholls is a lifelong motorsport obsessive. The two men have known each other for a decade now, so it’s no surprise that they’re absolutely candid when they sit down (virtually) with Autocar to discuss why you should be tuning in when the 2021 season starts this weekend.

Can anyone stop Hamilton from winning the title?

JN “This is the last year of the current rules, and Mercedes-AMG are so far ahead and have the best driver again, but you would like to think that having Sergio Pérez alongside Max Verstappen this year will allow Red Bull to challenge a bit more and win a few more races. They were impressive when they won the last race of 2020 and are quite bullish – although for four seasons they’ve finished strongly, then not been there at the start of the next.”

Will the updated cars and new budget cap significantly affect any of the teams?

JP “The changes to the cars are small. Maybe Mercedes won’t be able to find that much on the car and we’ll start the year with a really close Verstappen-Hamilton fight, but history tells us that they do keep finding things on the car.”

JN “The positive for Red Bull is that some of the circuits that suit them but weren’t on the calendar last year, due to the pandemic, are planned to return, such as Monaco and Singapore. And I would expect them to be closer to Mercedes than they were last year in terms of pure pace. Although being closer doesn’t mean you’re close…”

JP “That’s a fair point: there was also no Mexico or Brazil, where Red Bull are usually quickest, so maybe the picture looked worse than it could have been. And although Pérez isn’t a world-beater, he will be an upgrade on Alex Albon, so it shouldn’t be so easy for Mercedes to just pincer Verstappen.”

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“I’m confident that Hamilton will become the champion again, but along the way there will be a lot of interest and some cracking races.”

A jam-packed calendar

So long as Covid-19 doesn’t intervene again, F1 will host a record 23 grands prix this year, mixing classic tracks with modern ones and introducing two new events. Here are the dates for your diary.

Sakhir, Bahrain 28 March

Imola, Italy 18 April

Portimão, Portugal 2 May

Barcelona, Spain 9 May

Monte Carlo, Monaco 23 May

Baku, Azerbaijan 6 June

Montreal, Canada 13 June

Le Castellet, France 27 June

Spielberg, Austria 4 July

Silverstone, Great Britain 18 July

Mogyoród, Hungary 1 August

Spa-Francorchamps, Belgium 29 August

Zandvoort, Netherlands 5 September

Monza, Italy 12 September

Sochi, Russia 26 September

Marina Bay, Singapore 3 October

Suzuka, Japan 10 October

Austin, US 24 October

Mexico City, Mexico 31 October

São Paulo, Brazil 7 November

Melbourne, Australia 21 November

Jeddah, Saudi Arabia 5 December

Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi 12 December

All change for 2022

This season represents something of a holding pattern, with the 2020 cars updated rather than replaced like usual in order to save the teams money during the pandemic. The new rules will instead come in for 2022, and these are generating much excitement because the aerodynamic philosophy is being developed with a focus on enabling the cars to follow each other closely and thus promote better racing. Starting over should also change the pecking order, so there’s a strong chance that Hamilton’s hegemony will soon be challenged. F1’s attempt to level the playing field also extends off-track, where there will be a budget cap for teams, fairer distribution of prize money and weighted time allowances for wind-tunnel testing, giving the slower teams a better chance to make up lost ground.