More races in a season than ever before, 10 Grand Prix winners on the grid, a crazy driver-market shakeup of the teams, new team names and new tracks. Ahead of the 2021 F1 season, it looked tantalising. But like everything in life, high expectations often lead to disappointment.
A quarter of the way through the season though, the races have lived up to the hype. We have had wet/dry races, safety cars galore, unforgettable turns of events and what seems to be a mouth-watering championship battle. At this rate, 2021 may go down as a classic in F1 history.
At this stage last year, Lewis Hamilton was leading the World Championship by 37 points – that is a lead margin of around 1 and a half race wins. Today, Max Verstappen leads by just 4 points. That is a major reversal in just 12 months.
Key to this, and the whole field being closer and more competitive, were off-season regulation changes that seriously hampered Mercedes. It eradicated their enormous pace advantage from last year and has brought teams like Verstappen’s Red Bull into the mix.
Excitingly, the rule change has also bunched up the field far more. By the end of the 3 day pre-season test in early March in Bahrain, the top 8 teams were all running within a second of each other. That is something completely unseen for at least 7 to 8 years. For context, Mercedes were around a second quicker than everyone else at some races last year.
We got our first sense of just how close the championship could be in the first race of the year in Bahrain. Verstappen managed to put his car on pole by a deeply surprising 4 tenths. The race witnessed a titanic battle for victory. Verstappen chased down Hamilton for the last 15 laps, overtaking him with a just a couple of laps to go with a spectacular around-the outside pass, only for him to be forced to give the place back, after slightly going off the track in making the move.
Next, the circus moved on to Imola. A fast and deeply historic classic track in Italy. As it always does, rain made the race enthralling. Halfway through, the race pulsed into life. Hamilton, running in 2nd, in a stunning and uncharacteristic error, slid off into the gravel, and emerged P8 and a lap down.
But he found luck, as world champions do, when his teammate Valterri Bottas and Williams driver George Russell sustained an enormous 170mph crash at the end of the straight. The ensuing red flag ensured Hamilton could unlap himself and could charge back up to p2 and rescue points after the restart, retaining the lead in the championship.
The, rolling hills of the Algarve were dourer but did see passes at the front including two by Lewis Hamilton on his way to victory, and a stellar performance by Lando Norris for Mclaren led to a P5 finish after a third place in Imola.
Spain saw the perfect example of why strategists are so important in F1. Hamilton won after pitting twice, once more than second placed Verstappen, who was following what was by the general consensus the quickest plan. However, Hamilton executed the stop at the exact right time and lap to make use of his fresh tyres enough to go on and win the race.
Monaco has the glamour, scenery and history but it does not have much overtaking. Just 2 overtakes happened in all 78 laps. But it was not short of drama. Ferrari found form at the street circuit, and for the time this year, had a potentially race-winning car.
In qualifying, the home favourite and Monegasque Charles Leclerc put his Ferrari on pole, and then smashed into the barriers on his next flying lap to bring out the red flag and end the session. His penalty and karma was cruel. Damage likely from the incident meant he could not start the race.
With Leclerc out the picture, Verstappen drove away to a simple win. Four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, of Aston Martin, thanks to excellent driving and clever strategy, managed to take his underpowered car from P8 to P5 in a consummate display.
Most recently, we had the best race so far of the season, in Baku, Azerbaijan. The sensationally-fast street circuit has a unique ability for providing utterly crazy races. It will be perhaps best remembered for a duo of failures for Pirelli, the manufacturer who produces all the team's tyres. Twice in the race, at the fastest part of the track, tyres gave way leading to enormous crashes.
Aston Martin driver Lance Stroll’s incident bunched up the field with a safety car, and then just a handful of laps from the end, race-leader Max Verstappen had the same demise as Stroll. This set up a huge, potentially critical opportunity for Hamilton. On the restart, though, he blew his chances to gain big points over Verstappen by locking up into turn one and going to the back.
Verstappen’s teammate Sergio Perez would win after an excellent drive, but the standout driver was Vettel. He continued his Monaco heroics by climbing a deeply impressive 9 places in a midfield car, going from P11 at the start for P2 by the chequered flag.
If Vettel can continue his fine form, he will be revitalised after a difficult two years. On his day, and with the car beneath him, he can be in a class of his own. The battle for the best of the rest behind Red Bull and Mercedes will rage on between Ferrari and McLaren, with potentially Aston Martin sneaking in to the fight.
The championship battle could go on and on, potentially to the last race. That has not happened for 5 years. The season so far has been gripping, and if the races to continue are even slightly like Baku, we are in for a serious treat. I can’t wait for the season to continue, even if the next race is the typically dry France.