Jim Munro has been a sports journalist since joining The Sunday Times in 1991. Here he previews the 2021 Formula 1 season by answering seven key questions.
1. Can Lewis Hamilton win a record eighth world drivers’ championship?
There is no question that Lewis Hamilton is the man to beat.
After securing four successive drivers’ championships to match Michael Schumacher’s record of seven titles overall, Hamilton is a strong favourite to become the first driver to collect eight.
Red Bull’s Max Verstappen is geared up to be his main rival in 2021, having ended last season with a win and then posting the fastest time on the final day of pre-season testing two weeks ago.
But Hamilton, 36, should also keep a close eye on what is happening across the garage.
Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas has made no secret of the fact he is ready to step out of the Brit’s shadow and claim the crown himself.
Verdict: Verstappen to make it a close contest but Hamilton to prove he is the greatest of all time.
2. Will both of Red Bull’s cars take the fight to Mercedes?
Verstappen shared the podium with both Mercedes drivers an incredible eight times in 17 races last season, twice as the winner.
New team-mate Sergio Perez celebrated a maiden grand prix win in Sakhir in December and after finishing fourth in the championship, he has been given a well-earned opportunity to put a Red Bull through its paces.
The RB16B looked very impressive in pre-season testing and if Perez can quickly adapt to handling one of the best cars on the circuit, we could see our closest constructors’ championship in years.
Added to that, Red Bull team principal Christian Horner is one of the shrewdest operators in F1 and will contest every rule, regulation and decision that does not favour his outfit.
Verdict: Since 2010, the drivers’ champion has either been sat in a Red Bull (2010 to 2013) or a Mercedes (2014 to 2020). That will not change but Mercedes’ seven-year grip on the constructors’ championship could be weakened seriously if Perez can match Verstappen’s pace from day one.
3. Will Daniel Ricciardo’s move from Renault to McLaren bring him the success he craves?
McLaren are making a strong bid to break the Mercedes-Red Bull stranglehold on the constructors’ championship.
It is a little early for making bold predictions on that front. But bringing ever-smiling Aussie racer Daniel Ricciardo, 31, on board from Renault shows a determination to compete with the best.
The seven-time grand prix winner should also be able to pass on some good habits — and perhaps a few bad ones — to young British team-mate Lando Norris, 21.
Revealing how Mclaren have been getting him ready for his new role since the turn of the year, Ricciardo said: “All the things the team got me to study to help me with preparation was impressive.
“Their progress over the past couple of years shows they have a serious work ethic. I’m sure I’ll teach them a thing or two over time but I’m certainly taking a lot from them as well.”
Verdict: Ricciardo to get the best out of his new McLaren MCL35M and improve on his two third-place podium finishes of last term.
4. Can Sebastian Vettel launch a title challenge with Aston Martin?
You would have thought the early question being whispered around Sebastian Vettel would be whether the four-time world champion can regain his mojo after a frustrating final season at Ferrari.
But there has been just as much interest in what nickname he was going to give to his Aston Martin AMR21. The answer? Honey Rider, an homage to the first female character to appear in a James Bond film.
Vettel has a real chance of getting his career back on track in a winning way. He has taken a seat at the rebranded Racing Point team, which is part-owned by Canadian billionaire businessman Lawrence Stroll, father of Vettel’s 22-year-old team-mate Lance.
Verdict: The team is upwardly mobile, finishing just seven points behind third-placed McLaren last season. A positive environment where his interests are being respected should bring the best out of Vettel once again.
5. Can Ferrari recover from their worst season in 40 years?
There were blank looks at Ferrari last season as they failed to win a single race for the first time since 2016 and plummeted to sixth in the constructors’ championship, the team’s worst finish since 1980.
The frustration was evident in Charles Leclerc, a thriving young talent now entering his third season with the famous red marque.
Monegasque driver Leclerc, 23, has admitted that he tried to compensate for the car’s failings by being overly aggressive at the start or races, which led to a few unnecessary scrapes.
Speaking in the build-up to Bahrain, Leclerc said: “I was extremely motivated to do something special — and that motivation sometimes translated into crashes on the track, which was not great.”
There were encouraging signs in pre-season testing that the new SF21 Ferrari has more power and less drag than its predecessor.
The arrival of Spaniard Carlos Sainz, 26, from McLaren as a replacement for Vettel brings a fresh impetus and knowledge gained from time spent at three other F1 teams, although he has had little time to get to grips with the handling of his new drive.
Verdict: It would be hard to repeat the spectacular failings of last season. With a talented new driver pairing and a more powerful drive, we should expect improvement — but not to the point where the Prancing Horse is chasing championships in 2021.
6. Can Fernando Alonso make a winning return to F1?
There is no doubting the brilliance of Fernando Alonso as a driver but two years away from F1 for Alpine’s star recruit is almost a lifetime in racing.
And it is asking a lot to expect the two-time world champion, 39, to return to the track with a brand new team and perform as if he had never left.
Alonso has also just recovered from corrective surgery on a broken jaw, which he suffered last month after his bike collided with a car while on a training ride. Yet that has not slowed him down in any way and neither have his advancing years.
Speaking in Bahrain, Alonso said: “My age is a big question but I am a little bit surprised by that. I am not that old. The guy who is dominating the sport is 36. I am not 20 years older.”
Verdict: A first season back driving for Alpine, formerly Renault, may take some reacclimatising. Having signed a two-year deal, this may be more a season for building something much bigger and better next term.
7. How will the rookies handle life in F1?
Mick Schumacher is the reigning Formula 2 champion and part of the Ferrari Driver Academy.
Scuderia boss Mattia Binotto has confirmed they have placed the 22-year-old at customer team Haas to assess his progress.
Schumacher’s biggest battle at the start of the new season will be swerving constant comparisons with dad Michael, Germany’s seven-time world champion.
As with all the rookies, however, bear in mind that none of them are occupying a prime seat.
Schumacher is making his debut with Haas alongside another newcomer, Nikita Mazepin. The Russian has ridden the storm of a recent social media controversy and has an aggressive driving style that may need to be reined in on the big stage.
Japan’s Yuki Tsunoda, 20, completes the line-up of new boys at the Red-Bull owned Alpha Tauri, after just one season in F2 where he finished third in the championship.
Verdict: It would be unreasonable to expect to see the new faces appearing near the front of the starting grid. But it will be exciting to monitor Schumacher’s progress.