Formula 1’s new competitive order didn’t quite emerge from the dark at the 2021 season opener last month in Bahrain. But it’s clear where to look for the action as the paddock returns to Europe this weekend for the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix.
McLaren versus Ferrari
In Bahrain Ferrari started with the upper hand after Charles Leclerc qualified fourth, two places ahead of the fastest McLaren. But the advantage went the other way on long-run pace in the race as Lando Norris finished fourth and with a 12-second margin over the first Ferrari home, which was Leclerc in sixth place.
According to Norris, a stronger relative performance in the race compared to qualifying is a trait of recent McLaren cars. But both Leclerc and his team mate Carlos Sainz Jnr have admitted they weren’t driving at 100% all of the time in Bahrain as Leclerc sought to avoid clashes and Sainz got used to his new team.
If Ferrari maintains its qualifying advantage into Imola then it will have a greater chance of continuing it in the race as overtaking is difficult at the track. What’s more, while the top two teams have strategy freedom when they can pull away, the Ferrari and McLaren drivers almost always drop back into traffic with their pit stops, which makes ‘undercutting’ a risky strategy for them.
Alpine arrive in Italy with a “decent upgrade package” but there’s no guarantee the parts that debut on the car in Friday practice will still be on the A521 by Sunday.
The rear of the car, particularly the area of the floor affected by the 2021 rule changes, is the main focus of the upgrades as the team seeks to reclaim lost downforce. They’re expecting the cooler temperatures of Italy to favour them far better than Bahrain’s desert heat.
It’s not only the upgrades that have got the drivers feeling optimistic after a point-less start to the season, as Fernando Alonso is looking forward to racing on the current configuration of Imola after last racing there in 2006.
But the success rate of aerodynamic upgrades when the team was known as Renault over the past five seasons wasn’t the greatest, with new parts often disappearing from the car after being introduced. With such limited testing, the team will be anxious to discover their new parts work out of the box.
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Aston Martin targeting a turnaround
The other new sportscar brand on the grid this year did little better in Bahrain. Lance Stroll scored a point in 10th, but world champion signing Sebastian Vettel had a disastrous weekend including one of the worst starting positions of his 258-race career and a pair of incidents which left him with five penalty points on his licence.
The crux of Aston’s pace deficit at Bahrain, where it was seventh fastest and 2.279s down on its 2020 pace at the same track, was pinned to its low-rake design philosophy and a loss of mileage from reliability problems during pre-season testing.
Development tokens would have to be spent on the homologation of parts to make the kind of changes that would bring Aston closer to the rake of Bahrain pacesetter Red Bull, but as those tokens had to be saved for major component changes it means the team is looking elsewhere to develop the car and recover lost ground.
Mark Webber told RaceFans about how his former Red Bull team mate Vettel’s self-critical reaction might not be the most efficient way of improving his fortunes. “He’s his toughest critic,” Webber reflected. “He’s going to be really hard on himself. It’s easy for this stuff to snowball out of control.”
Gasly’s return to the podium?
Gasly may have two retirements from his last two races in Italy, but he was one of the fastest in F1’s three visits to the country in 2020 and nowhere was that proven better than when he emotionally claimed his first grand prix win at Monza.
He started his AlphaTauri car from fourth place at Imola last year, his best ever qualifying result with the team, and was on course for a solid haul of points before a radiator seal failure forced him to retire.
Now he returns to the track off the back of another top-five qualifying result in Bahrain, and test mileage at Imola with AlphaTauri as part of the team’s pre-season preparations. If Gasly makes Q3, he will then likely be starting the grand prix on the same compound tyre as the expected victory contenders Mercedes and Red Bull. That kind of tactical advantage could leave him in podium contention if something goes wrong for the front-runners, or even just on pure pace alone as he’s “keen to get back there and make up for last year’s disappointment”.
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The policing of track limits was a topic of scrutiny in Bahrain due to multiple changes in the enforcement of the rules over the grand prix weekend, and arguably even during the race. Different sessions had different rules for how much run-off could be used exiting turn four, and it ended up being a race-deciding factor as Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton reclaimed the lead from Red Bull’s Max Verstappen after he was overtaken off-track at the disputed corner.
Verstappen gave the place back after an immediate recommendation from the race director to do so. But it followed repeated off-track excursions by Hamilton at the corner which eventually led to him being given a warning. A puzzled Hamilton believed race control had “changed their minds” mid-race about their policy.
Track limits will likely be a focus of debate again at Imola, as lap times were frequently deleted when the circuit returned to the F1 calendar last year. Having a better knowledge of the track this time around should mean drivers know where the limits are, but any inch of freedom they are given to make use of the surface outside the circuit’s white lines could lead to a messy conclusion again if the directive changes mid-weekend on what is and isn’t allowed.
An alarming moment occured in last year’s race when several drivers had a near-miss with a group of marshals on the track. Sebastian Vettel and others warned about the “dangerous” situation, and Lance Stroll came particularly close to the circuit workers.
Thankfully no one was hit or hurt. However it was one of several such worrying moments last season, including others at Istanbul and Bahrain. The FIA said it was “evaluating changes” after the incident, which hopefully will not be repeated this weekend.
The second bout in the title battle
It only took one qualifying session for it to become clear that the fight for the 2021 title will be between Hamilton and Verstappen.
Verstappen struck first by topping Q1 in Bahrain, and Hamilton was faster on the medium compound tyre in Q2. When it came to Q3 he couldn’t match Verstappen though, beating beaten to pole by 0.388s and well aware that Verstappen had more pace to hand after damaging his car earlier on.
Their battle in the grand prix ebbed and flowed between the pit stops, and it came down to the final laps with Verstappen chasing Hamilton after pitting later. His strategy didn’t quite work out after his overtake for the lead was ruled out because of track limits, and his tyre advantage wasn’t enough to try again and stop a Hamilton victory.
At Imola last year Mercedes had the one-lap pace advantage, but Verstappen was in victory contention before a tyre blow-out took him out of the race. It may be a similar fight again this weekend, despite Red Bull’s Bahrain pace advantage, as the peakier downforce of the Mercedes car won’t necessarily lead to the same balance problems as before on such a high-speed track.
Whoever does qualify ahead will have the crucial track position advantage, and each team’s second driver may play a big part in how that battle plays out. Red Bull will be looking to Sergio Perez to accompany his team mate into Q3 and get in among the Mercedes drivers.
2021 F1 season
- Red Bull Racing spent £230m during Verstappen’s title-winning 2021 campaign
- ‘I can’t box?’: Hamilton and Verstappen’s 2021 Abu Dhabi GP radio transcript
- Abu Dhabi’s legacy one year on: How the controversial 2021 finale changed F1
- The case for changing F1’s penalty points system as Gasly nears ban
- Aston Martin fined $450,000 for F1 budget cap violation
21 comments on “The classic rivalry for ‘best of the rest’ and six more Imola talking points”
14th April 2021, 8:49
I do hope we get an interesting weekend. Would be nice to see the grid sublty shuffled with a different track and different weekend.
14th April 2021, 8:52
Should be an exciting weekend for all the reasons mentioned by Elliot.
In particular, I’m looking forward to the Mclaren and Ferrari battle for 3rd in the WCC. As an F1 fan, just seeing them both in relatively even machinery should be exciting to watch. Feels a little nostalgic and reminiscent of their battles from 2001 to 2012 (even though they’re fighting for 3rd and not the championship)
Regarding Alpine, I don’t expect much of them this weekend. As mentioned, Renault probably have some of the worst in season development, with high failure rates on in season upgrades. I’d expect them to fall back this weekend, maybe behind Aston Martin. They should have an interesting battle with Alfa though.. with Kimi and Fernando fighting for P12/P13. Alpine’s season seemed like a write off before pre season testing, which was only confirmed as a write off after race 1.
Gasly and Tsonuda should also be exciting to watch. I reckon they’ll be mixing it up with the Mclarens and Ferraris on raceday.
14th April 2021, 11:03
Probably based more on wishful thinking than facts, but I expect Alpine and Alpha Tauri to be pretty close this weekend.
And maybe even Aston Martin Racing.
14th April 2021, 16:35
I would also say that the Alfa’s could be in the mix between Aston and Alpine, they did well there last year and this year car is looking quick too. Pretty exciting midfield battle
juan fanger (@juan-fanger)
15th April 2021, 23:19
The Alfas come before the Alphas before the Alpines and then the Astons.
14th April 2021, 12:59
Well, if we’re talking ferrari vs mclaren battles, you can’t start from 2001, there’s great battles for the lead between 1998 and 2000.
15th April 2021, 4:41
You’re right. 1998 to 2001 was the real battle between them.
14th April 2021, 9:01
I wonder if we’ll see the pecking order significantly mixed up this weekend. We’re in a very unusual situation where all the 2021 running so far has been conducted at one circuit (filming days aside) which has the fairly specific characteristics of being a) hot and b) a power circuit.
I don’t know Imola too well but I think it’s more of a fast, aero circuit which means we may well see the high rake cars (Merc, AML) suffering more than at Bahrain and RBR, AT and McLaren coming to the fore.
Either way, if last year’s race is anything to go by it ought to be a thriller and I’m looking forward to it.
14th April 2021, 9:26
Didn’t Sainz also ‘sought to avoid clashes’ by being cautious on lap one?
Gasly definitely wouldn’t finish in the top three on pure pace. As for the tyre strategy, too early for judgments.
I don’t expect much from Alpine and AM, but overall pretty much the same pecking order throughout.
Re track limits, the same two corner exits (Piratella and Variante Alta chicane) will probably be the targets again, albeit I hope the latter would have a physical deterrent instead as it isn’t high-speed.
14th April 2021, 9:50
And one more thing: Mocking the name of the Grand Prix.
Red Andy (@red-andy)
14th April 2021, 13:23
The Pirelli Grand Prix of Emilia-Romagna Welcome To Italy Grand Prix Italian Pirelli Fast Cars Go Vroooom Made in Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix? I don’t see the problem to be honest.
Adrian Hancox (@ahxshades)
14th April 2021, 16:25
@red-andy – priceless
14th April 2021, 11:29
I think Ferrari and McLaren are underestimating Alpha Tauri for ‘best of the rest’, Bahrain wasn’t really representative of the performance of the car in the race. Gasly had an ugly start that ruined his car and race. Tsunoda started way too far on the grid to really be able to attack the top 8.
14th April 2021, 12:22
I think the season is going to go down as follows. If Perez is capable of regularly qualifying in the top four, and therefore being a good rear-gunner to Verstappen, then no matter how many clever tactical tricks Merc can play, if the RB is faster or as fast, Verstappen will match or beat Hamilton.
If however Perez is not always there to help, I can see a season of Merc outfoxing Red Bull at tracks where overtaking is very hard. Those are quite a lot of the tracks on the calender (at least half, including Imola). The pace advantage isn’t big enough for Verstappen to overtake at an overtaking-friendly circuit like Bahrein (albeit Hamilton was aided by circumstances, like the differential, track limits and the back-marker), so I think the more tight circuits will be Hamilton wins. Including Imola this weekend.
14th April 2021, 20:28
@hahostolze I can envision the same scenarios.
14th April 2021, 12:28
Don’t say Gasly qualified 4th last season, we are supposed to believe everything changed from last season.
14th April 2021, 13:02
But what about the name of the Grand Prix?
Keith, Elliot, you are still calling it Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix. Shouldn’t it be “Made in Italy and Emilia-Romagna” grand prix?
Red Andy (@red-andy)
14th April 2021, 13:25
Everywhere, including F1’s official website, is calling this weekend’s event the Emilia-Romagna Grand Prix.
14th April 2021, 14:37
Slight correction. Max was never challenging for the lead once Lewis overcut Bottas. He was stalking a stricken Mercedes driven by Bottas at the start but was only challenging him for second not first after the pit stop. The Redbull didn’t have the pace back then to deal with a fully working Mercedes.
As to this weekend, quali is king. It’ll be interesting to see. No temp issues for the Honda as it’ll be way cooler, a diff problem fixed, but Mercedes were not optimised in Bahrain either and sure as IF is F1 spelled backwards they will have brought at least some solutions to the car this weekend. Should be a tighter fight and Bottas was quick in quali last year. I would say it’ll be the closing stages where tyre wear and relative driver performance will make the difference.
That is unless Merc get smashed in quali again. Max will just do a Vettel and bolt.
14th April 2021, 15:23
Will be interesting to see if Alpine’s updates fixes whatever the issue is, and how much they benefit from the much cooler temps. I really want Alonso to be in the mix for 5th and not scrapping for 10th or worse.
15th April 2021, 9:48
@balue I agree FA fighting up around the area of 5th would be awesome to watch.
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