[Sport] F1: Six key questions ahead of the 2021 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix

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Jim Munro has been a sports journalist since joining The Sunday Times in 1991. Here he previews the Formula 1 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix by answering six key questions.

1. Are Red Bull a real threat to Mercedes?

The view from pre-season testing was that Red Bull were capable of loosening Mercedes’ vice-like grip on both the drivers’ and constructors’ championships this season. 

The opening race in Bahrain provided the evidence, with Max Verstappen qualifying on pole four tenths faster than Lewis Hamilton, a fraction of a second to most people but a considerable gap in Formula 1 terms. 

Verstappen continued to demonstrate strong pace in the race itself but a combination of an aggressive, quick-witted strategy from Mercedes and quite brilliant driving in the final few laps by Hamilton saw the 2020 champion get off to a winning start. 

Reliability was a more sensitive subject for Red Bull, with Sergio Perez having to make his debut from the pit lane after his car ground to a halt on the formation lap. 

But it was testament to the Mexican’s ability and the power of his RB16B that he managed to carve his way through the field to finish fifth.   

Mercedes do not need me to tell them they have a fight on their hands.

2. Is Valtteri Bottas a title contender?

Valtteri Bottas took third place in Bahrain but has eyes on Lewis Hamilton's Formula 1 title
Valtteri Bottas took third place in Bahrain but has eyes on Lewis Hamilton’s Formula 1 title

Do not be fooled by the fact Bottas crossed the finish line in Bahrain a full 37 seconds behind Hamilton. His race had been blighted by a 10.9 second pit stop after problems replacing his front-right tyre. 

He also lost a further 20 or so seconds late on after calling in for a further tyre change so he could target the extra point awarded for setting the fastest lap in the race. 

He is certainly not lacking confidence after declaring last month: “Absolutely I believe I can fight for the title and that’s of course my goal for the season.” 

Imola should provide us with a better idea of his title credentials, especially as Bottas was the man to beat here last season after claiming pole position for the 2020 Emilia Romagna Grand Prix.  

3. Can we expect a better performance from Sebastian Vettel?

Sebastian Vettel had a disappointing debut for Aston Martin in a car affected by new aerodynamic regulations
Sebastian Vettel had a disappointing debut for Aston Martin in a car affected by new aerodynamic regulations

Racing Point’s fourth-place finish in the constructors’ championship last year and a rebranding as Aston Martin pointed to good things to come, especially when four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel joined the party. But there were no celebrations in Bahrain. 

Vettel finished 15th and the only points he gained were five from the stewards for two separate incidents, leaving him just seven short of a one-race ban through the season. Team-mate Lance Stroll scraped a single point for finishing 10th. 

So what went wrong? Regulation changes for 2021 around aerodynamics appear to have affected the two low-rake teams, Aston and Mercedes, significantly more than the others. 

The rake of an F1 car is the difference in height between its front and back ends and it affects the downforce of the vehicle. 

It is clear tweaks are needed on the AMR21 but that would take valuable resource away from development work on next season’s car — not an easy conundrum for the Aston hierarchy to solve. 

For Vettel, it will have been hugely frustrating having moved from underperforming Ferrari only to be caught up in more drama. It makes qualifying in Imola a fascinating watch to see how Aston have responded. 

4. Can McLaren challenge for a podium in Imola?

Daniel Ricciardo's arrival at McLaren is a clear indication of the team's ambition to claim more podiums in 2021
Daniel Ricciardo’s arrival at McLaren is a clear indication of the team’s ambition to claim more podiums in 2021

The signs are good. McLaren are looking to build on finishing third in the constructors’ championship last season and although they lost their higher scoring driver Carlos Sainz to Ferrari, the arrival of seven-time GP winner Daniel Ricciardo confirmed their ambition. 

In Bahrain we witnessed 21-year-old Lando Norris, now in his third year as an F1 driver, take fourth for McLaren with Ricciardo not far back in seventh, despite picking up performance-affecting floor damage early on after being clipped by Alpha Tauri’s Pierre Gasly. 

The blend of experience with youthful promise can only mean good things for McLaren and Ricciardo will be looking forward to Imola having gained one of his two podium finishes last season at the Autodromo Enzo e Dino Ferrari. 

5. How good is Alpha Tauri newcomer Yuki Tsunoda?

Alpha Tauri rookie Yuki Tsunoda could prove to be the find of the new Formula 1 season
Alpha Tauri rookie Yuki Tsunoda could prove to be the find of the new Formula 1 season

There were signs in Bahrain that Alpha Tauri have produced a decent drive for 2021 and rookie Yuki Tsunoda was hugely impressive on his debut. 

The Japanese driver raised eyebrows in the first round of qualifying, finishing second, before Q2 settled him in a more realistic 13th place on the grid. 

While fellow rookie Nikita Mazepin crashed out in his Haas during the opening lap of the race, Tsunoda coolly set about improving his position. 

He did not disappoint, with the highlight of his day coming when he tore past two-time champion Fernando Alonso moving into turn one. 

Tsunoda said: “I got a bit emotional when I passed Fernando. Last time I saw him I think it was 12 years ago when I was seven or eight. In turn one I just trusted Fernando’s skills and just launched it like a rookie.”

He eventually finished ninth, gaining two world championship points and a lot of praise. 

There was also a lot of attention on social media where in-race clips of Tsunoda shouting on the team radio were shared. Proof, if it were needed, that he could be a big noise in 2021.  

6. Are Ferrari back to their best?

Ferrari's double points finish in Bahrain suggests they are on the road to recovery
Ferrari’s double points finish in Bahrain suggests they are on the road to recovery

No, let’s not get carried away. But having suffered their worst season for 40 years in 2020, the only way is up. 

We witnessed signs of some form of recovery when Ferrari finished one and two during the second qualifying session in Bahrain, albeit they were on soft tyres while the main contenders wore medium. 

Carlos Sainz showed he was already getting to grips with his new drive following a move from McLaren, starting and finishing the Bahrain Grand Prix in eighth. 

Charles Leclerc dropped from fourth on the grid to cross the line in sixth, confirming the team’s first double points finish since last season’s Turkish Grand Prix. 

It was evident there has been improvement with the engine that was so disappointing last season, particularly with straightline speed. 

There will also be tweaks as the drivers get more accustomed to the handling of the SF21. However, talk of regular podiums is way too premature.   

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