F1 2021: Hamilton chasing history but has Red Bull on his tail

By Sports Desk March 22, 2021

After an unpredictable 2020 Formula One campaign ended in wholly predictable fashion, the world's best drivers are back for more in 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic delayed the start to last season and prompted serious surgery to the planned race calendar.

At the end of it all, though, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes again walked away on top of the pile.

As so often in recent years, the task for the rest of the grid this coming year is simply to stop the reigning champion and his Silver Arrow.

While that is easier said than done, of course, the signs in pre-season are promising.

Will testing preparations derail Mercedes in the opening weeks? We are about to find out, as the Bahrain opener is just days away...

 

MORE HAMILTON AND MERCEDES DOMINANCE?

Hamilton's title in 2020 was his seventh, tying Michael Schumacher's competition record. A new benchmark is on the horizon if the Briton can repeat his success.

That is not the only landmark in Hamilton's sights, either: with 95 wins and 98 pole positions – both F1 highs – he can surely look forward to a pair of century celebrations this year.

But even if this is to be another sublime season for the 36-year-old, he surely will not find it as straightforward as last year.

Hamilton shut out the noise surrounding his future to claim 11 victories in 2020, yet the new contract he belatedly signed at the end of the campaign keeps him with Mercedes only until the end of 2021.

That spells another 12 months of uncertainty for the sport's premier driver, who also does not yet appear entirely at home in the new W12 car.

The Silver Arrows recorded only 304 test laps in pre-season – the fewest of any team – and may require Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to learn on the job if they are to extend their record-breaking streak of seven straight constructors' championships.

 

WHO CAN CHALLENGE THE DEFENDING CHAMP?

Mercedes team-mate Bottas has finished second to Hamilton in the past two seasons, but it would be a tough ask to expect him to outperform the 'GOAT' in the same car – even before considering potential issues with that machine.

No, if Hamilton is to be dethroned, Red Bull look the best bet.

Max Verstappen is undoubtedly the chief threat at the Austrian outfit, having qualified ahead of his team-mates on 36 of 38 occasions since Daniel Ricciardo departed (including a 17-0 record against Alex Albon in 2020).

Indeed, Verstappen – third last year – had the fastest lap time in testing, his effort of a minute and 28.960 seconds in Bahrain putting Red Bull on top in pre-season for the first time.

The Dutchman is pessimistic, though, saying: "[Testing] doesn't say anything about pure performance.

"I know people are excited and think we are just saying this, but Mercedes are still the favourites. How can they not be when they have won seven world championships in a row?"

Ferrari can never be counted out, but they are starting a season with two drivers yet to win a world championship (Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz) for the first time since 2007, when Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen lined up for the Scuderia. Of course, that year ended with Raikkonen being crowned champion.

 

ELSEWHERE...

There is no shortage of intrigue away from the top teams, with two big names returning to F1 – albeit only one of the two drivers having previously raced at this level.

Former champion Fernando Alonso is back, joining the rebranded Alpine team, formerly Renault – where the Spaniard won two titles.

Alonso's most recent race win came in Ferrari colours at the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix, since when he has gone 110 events without victory.

If Alpine can be competitive and Alonso belatedly returns to the top step of the podium later in the season, he could break Raikkonen's record of 114 grands prix between triumphs (2013 to 2018).

The 39-year-old needs only three podiums to reach 100 in F1.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mick Schumacher is the familiar name but new face at Haas, forming an all-rookie line-up alongside Nikita Mazepin, his F2 title rival last year.

Schumacher, who won that championship, will debut at Bahrain eight years, four months and three days after father Michael's final race in Brazil in 2012.

Michael was also 22 when he made his F1 bow, although Mick will be seven months and 16 days younger.

Ricciardo has joined McLaren, who are 12 podiums shy of 500, and Aston Martin are back for the first time since 1960, replacing Racing Point and bringing in Sebastian Vettel.

Meanwhile, there will be increased attention paid to Williams' George Russell, who impressed when given a chance with Mercedes at Sakhir 2020, qualifying second and finishing ninth.

Related items

  • Australian Open: Berrettini makes Italian tennis history again to set up Nadal semi-final Australian Open: Berrettini makes Italian tennis history again to set up Nadal semi-final

    Matteo Berrettini became the first Italian man to reach the Australian Open semi-finals after outlasting Gael Monfils on Tuesday.

    Berrettini had appeared to be on course for a dominant victory, and although Monfils fought back to make it tough, the 25-year-old got the job done 6-4 6-4 3-6 3-6 6-2 in a gruelling encounter.

    Monfils had an uphill struggle amid a sloppy start, with Berrettini breaking to love in the fifth game as the Frenchman committed two unforced errors and a double fault.

    That proved to be the only opportunity Berrettini needed, and he subsequently had few issues seeing out the set from there, though Monfils initially appeared sharper early in the second.

    An astonishing fourth game then left Monfils looking dejected as Berrettini somehow survived 10 deuces to hold serve after almost 20 minutes – the 25 points played here were almost half the first-set total (55).

    Berrettini sensed the mood and went for the kill, losing just two points on serve before going on to close out the set to love.

    A reaction did come, however. Monfils finally got his first break of serve as Berrettini's first double fault gifted him a lifeline, the 35-year-old then easing through the rest of the third set.

    He kept that up in the fourth as well, with two huge forehand winners helping Monfils go a break up to take charge before ultimately levelling the match, but Berrettini had too much in the decider as he broke in the first game.

    Berrettini raced into a 4-0 lead and, although Monfils did pull a couple of games back, the Italian was out of sight and clinched a deserved victory that saw him grab a slice of history.

    DATA SLAM: Berrettini holds his nerve at the crucial moment

    Having lost the previous two sets heading into the decider, it could have been very tempting for Berrettini to completely change up his game, but he remained very focused on accuracy and essentially letting Monfils shoot himself in the foot.

    Berrettini made no double faults and just four unforced errors in the final set, compared to Monfils' combined total of 11, 10 of which came during rallies. The Italian won 80 per cent of his points on serve in the fifth and that mentality was crucial in outlasting his opponent.

    WINNERS/UNFORCED ERRORS

    Berrettini – 51/50

    Monfils – 48/51

    ACES/DOUBLE FAULTS

    Berrettini – 12/2

    Monfils – 15/7

    BREAK POINTS WON

    Berrettini – 4/11

    Monfils – 3/14

  • Fati will not undergo surgery on hamstring injury Fati will not undergo surgery on hamstring injury

    Barcelona have confirmed that Ansu Fati will not undergo surgery on the hamstring injury he sustained against Athletic Bilbao last week.

    Fati was substituted during Thursday's Copa del Rey defeat to Athletic Bilbao, with the club later confirming he had suffered another injury setback.

    Rather than send Fati for surgery, Barca will instead let the 19-year-old's tendon heal naturally by following "a conservative recovery plan".

    The Catalan giants announced the news on their Twitter account on Tuesday, but no timeframe for the winger's lay-off was given.

    According to reports from Spain, Barca are set to be without Fati for several weeks, rather than months.

    However, it still marks another blow for Fati, who appeared to be in tears as he left the pitch against Athletic, with this the latest in a series of problematic injuries.

    Fati has featured in just 10 games across all competitions this season, and he had only recently returned from a two-month absence due to a previous hamstring problem.

    He previously spent 10 months out due to a serious knee injury, only returning to action in September.

    Despite his limited action, Fati is Barcelona's second-highest scorer in 2021-22 with five goals, three fewer than Memphis Depay, who has played 13 more times.

    Fati's goals have come in just 456 minutes of on-pitch action, while he has out-performed his expected goals (xG) of 1.92, suggesting his finishing has been well above standard.

    Writing on his official Instagram account on Sunday, Fati vowed to keep on fighting on his road back from another spell on the sidelines.

    "Unfortunately, I am having to live through the worst part of football," he posted. "But I will never give up! Thank you very much for your messages of support and love!"

  • Australian Open: Barty unsure of Federer backhand comparison: 'We aren't even on the same page' Australian Open: Barty unsure of Federer backhand comparison: 'We aren't even on the same page'

    Ash Barty was told how her backhand slice has been compared to that of Roger Federer, but the women's top seed at the Australian Open is not convinced.

    Barty produced a stellar display as she saw off Jessica Pegula in Tuesday's quarter-final, losing just two games over the entire duel as the American proved no match.

    Her victory sets up a semi-final clash with another American, Madison Keys, with Barty aiming to reach the final of her home grand slam for the first time.

    Barty was ruthless against Pegula, firing 17 winners to her opponent's seven, while she won five of the nine break points available to her.

    But it was her backhand slice – one of the most recognisable shots in the women's game today – that was particularly notable to four-time grand slam winner Jim Courier in commentary, who compared Barty in this respect to Federer.

    Not that Barty was having any of it.

    "That's very kind from Jim," Barty told reporters afterwards. "I think everyone's shots are unique.

    "I think obviously Roger has one of the most exceptional slice backhands in the game. Mine's a long way off that. Absolutely, no stretch of the imagination we are even on the same page at all.

    "But I love to use my slice, I love to get creative with it, to use it offensively and defensively. Over my career I've learnt it is a weapon for me.

    "I try and use it when I have to. Sometimes I try and use it when it's my choice and I can be really, really aggressive with it.

    "But being able to use it with variety and have different options has been a massive part of my game through this last couple of years of my career."

    When Barty faces Keys in the semi-final, she will have already matched her personal best at the Australian Open – she also reached the last four in 2020.

    But the combination of being world number one for over two years and having two grand slams under her belt is helping her maintain focus this time around.

    "[It's] a bit of both. I think the process hasn't changed, but obviously the familiarity of knowing what to expect or expect how my body feels and almost be able to deal with those emotions a little bit better has probably changed and grown as I've become more experienced," she continued.

    "But the processes for us haven't changed regardless of whether it's a first round of the tournament, latter stage of a grand slam, it doesn't actually matter the process before we walk out on court.

    "But it's exciting, and I think also being able to embrace the excitement of being in with a chance to play deep in your home slam, it's pretty cool. I think going out there and enjoying that and really embracing that experience helps for sure."

© 2022 SportsMaxTV All Rights Reserved.