The hopes and obstacles to a memorable Formula 1 championship battle in 2021

The 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix offered a taste of what many have been waiting for either since 2016 or longer. That being the prospect of a close, season long, championship battle between two competitors. This coming weekend’s Grand Prix in Imola will provide further clues as to exactly what sort of championship battle there is likely to be in 2021.

To many any sort of season long battle will be contested between the Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton and the Red Bull of Max Verstappen who fought for the race victory in the 2021 season opener. The two were separated by 0.7 seconds at the chequered flag in Bahrain.

Although Mercedes has dominated the sport since 2014, the result in Bahrain was perhaps slightly unexpected. This is due to the general feeling that Red Bull Racing’s car is currently a better overall package compared to Mercedes. The evidence of this comes from Mercedes having struggled during pre-season testing with rear end instability in contrast with Red Bull’s solid, trouble free, running. Further to pre-season testing is the fact that the Red Bull of Verstappen claimed pole position for the Bahrain Grand Prix with a 1:28.997, 0.388 seconds faster than Hamilton who qualified second.

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Despite the gap in qualifying and the general belief that Red Bull is currently ahead of Mercedes in terms of performance, there are fine margins that could make this season’s championship battle a very close contest. Things such as Verstappen’s differential issue during the race in Bahrain, the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas getting overtaken by Leclerc and then having a botched pit stop, and the other Red Bull of Sergio Perez having a poor qualifying and then having to nearly retire the car on the formation lap. These were all seen to have contributed to the ultimate outcome that saw Hamilton take what to some looked like an unlikely win ahead of Verstappen in Bahrain.

I’ve mentioned above the races of Bottas and Perez as having contributed to the outcome of who won out of Hamilton and Verstappen. This is in part due to many perhaps seeing any sort of championship fight in 2021 being between the Briton and Dutchman, with their respective teammates, Bottas and Perez, playing a support role. Yet it has been no secret that Bottas harbours hopes of challenging for, and winning, the championship while Perez is unlikely to have signed with Red Bull with the sole aim of supporting Verstappen’s championship bid.

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At the time of writing it is of course very early in the season and despite the issues that befell Bottas and Perez in Bahrain it doesn’t immediately knock them out of contention of the championship. There is also nothing to say that the roles in terms of fortune could be reversed with Hamilton and Verstappen having issues while Bottas and Perez have a trouble free weekend.

Personally it would be great to see Bottas and Perez be able to make any sort of 2021 championship a four-way fight. Although the standard set by Hamilton and Verstappen is incredibly high and means that neither Bottas or Perez can afford to have similar issues they encountered in Bahrain in the remaining Grand Prix of the season. Even if the Finn and Mexican don’t mount a championship challenge of their own, they are both likely to wield a major influence over who eventually becomes the 2021 Formula 1 world champion.

Aside from the influence that Bottas and Perez have over the championship, and some of the fine margins that influenced the outcome of the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix, there are other factors that could impact the championship fight this year. Yes there are vaccine roll outs happening across the world to fight against the COVID-19 virus, and its variants, but it is still not certain that any of the drivers in Mercedes or Red Bull will be forced to miss a race due to contracting the virus, or because they were in close proximity to someone else who subsequently tests positive, and are therefore forced to isolate and miss a race.

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There are also factors that impact any race such, as mentioned, pit stop errors, reliability issues or concerns, as well as strategy calls. There is, as was highlighted in Bahrain, the spectre of race penalties for offences such as not adhering to track limits to take into consideration as well.

The last championship challenge that Hamilton and Mercedes encountered from another team was in the form of Sebastian Vettel and Ferrari during the 2017 and 2018 seasons, yet on both occasions neither were a sustained challenge. Hamilton and Mercedes managed to gain enough of a control on both championships to win them with Grand Prix to spare.

The last time Hamilton faced a sustained season long championship challenge was back in 2016 when then teammate Nico Rosberg ultimately prevailed, to some partly through fortune. Yet any championship battles between 2014 through and up to 2016 were ultimately intra-team affairs. This season could offer that but also it could, and is perhaps more likely, to offer something more akin to 2017 and 2018. Ideally it would offer a mix of both.

4Q0A0960” by Jon Mould is licensed under CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The 2021 season therefore, in its very early stages, looks like it could become something similar to the 2012 season. In as much as there are two drivers, from two separate teams, challenging for the title. Yet considering Red Bull’s current car advantage there is a slight possibility that 2021 turns into 2013 where the Austrian team would go on to dominate. As mentioned in an ideal world the 2021 season would be something closer to the 2010 season where three to four drivers were in contention to win the championship.

Whether the 2021 season sees a two way, three way or four way championship fight, time will tell. Here’s hoping that the battle between Hamilton and Verstappen seen at the Bahrain Grand Prix was a glimpse of what the 2021 season should be, and not a brief glimpse of what the 2021 season could have been.

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