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
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- ‘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