Max Verstappen fumed at "stupid idiot" Lewis Hamilton and aimed a middle-finger salute at his title rival in a heated United States Grand Prix session.

The fight for the Formula One title intensified when the pair came close to making contact during FP2 at the Circuit of The Americas on Friday.

Championship leader Verstappen snapped over the team radio after going wheel-to-wheel with Hamilton, saying: "Ha! Stupid idiot!" and making his feelings clear with a gesture to the Mercedes driver.

A Red Bull engineer told Verstappen to "ignore it" as the Dutchman endured a frustrating day, having been caught in traffic at the start of the mid-session short runs.

He could only finish down in eighth in the second session as Sergio Perez set the pace, with Hamilton third behind Lando Norris.

Valtteri Bottas topped the timesheets in the first session, but will take a five-place grid penalty in Austin after having a sixth engine of the season – with three being the limit – fitted and a sixth exhaust.

Silver Arrows team principal Toto Wolff says there is a risk that Hamilton, who trails Verstappen by only six points, could take another grid penalty this season

He added: "I can't say whether we will be taking one and what the percentage is, but obviously the risk is still there.

"What is difficult to evaluate is do you want to pre-empt the situation and take another penalty and take the hit or do you want to really run it and possibly risk a DNF, and that is a discussion that is happening as we speak, and we haven’t come to the right answers yet."

Williams driver George Russell, Bottas' replacement at Mercedes for 2022, and Aston Martin's Sebastian Vettel will start on the back row after they had multiple new engine parts fitted.

Valtteri Bottas, George Russell and Sebastian Vettel have taken grid penalties for the United States Grand Prix this weekend.

Bottas won in Turkey last time out, but a repeat would appear unlikely at the Circuit of The Americas on Sunday after the Mercedes driver had a sixth engine of the season – with three being the limit – fitted and a sixth exhaust.

The Finn, who sits third in the driver standings and was fastest in the first practice session on Friday, will take a five-place penalty for the race in Austin.

Silver Arrows team principal Toto Wolff said: "I think you see that we are suffering with reliability this year, we're going onto the sixth engine for Valtteri, and it is not something we choose to do, but on the contrary; we are trying to really get on top of the problems, and we haven't understood fully [what they are]."

Wolff says there is a risk that Lewis Hamilton could take another grid penalty this season as he battles for the title with Max Verstappen.

He added: "I can't say whether we will be taking one and what the percentage is, but obviously the risk is still there.

"What is difficult to evaluate is do you want to pre-empt the situation and take another penalty and take the hit or do you want to really run it and possibly risk a DNF, and that is a discussion that is happening as we speak, and we haven’t come to the right answers yet."

Williams driver Russell, Bottas' replacement at Mercedes for 2022, and Aston Martin's Vettel will start on the back row after they had multiple new engine parts fitted.

Hamilton was 0.045 seconds slower than his team-mate Bottas in FP1, with his championship rival Verstappen third-quickest – almost a second slower than Bottas.

Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll will remain with Aston Martin for the 2022 Formula One season, the team have announced.

Four-time world champion Vettel joined Aston Martin after leaving Ferrari at the end of last year.

The German has picked up 35 points in his first season with the team to sit 12th in the driver standings.

Aston Martin team principal Otmar Szafnauer had rubbished reports that Vettel's future was in doubt following talks and it was confirmed on Thursday that the 34-year-old is going nowhere.

Vettel said: "I am really looking forward to racing the new generation of Formula One cars.

"Their look is very different and the new technical regulations should give us cars that can race much more closely than recently.

"More exciting racing will be great for the drivers as well as for the fans. The changes are so big that every team will be starting from a new beginning, so it will be a great opportunity for us."

He added: "I believe in the strength of our new growing team, so I am already looking forward to 2022."

Stroll, who has secured 24 points this season, will also keep his seat as F1 moves into a new era of regulations next year.

The Canadian said: "We have not achieved what we set out to do this year, but that has only amplified our hunger and drive for success next season."

Sebastian Vettel has lost his second-place finish at the Hungarian Grand Prix off the four-time world champion, who was also reprimanded for wearing an LGBTQ+ T-shirt during the national anthem.

Esteban Ocon was the shock winner of a thrilling race on Sunday, with Vettel coming in second ahead of Lewis Hamilton, who fought back from last place to take third and leapfrog Max Verstappen at the top of the championship standings.

A dramatic grand prix started with a crash on Turn One, caused in wet conditions by Hamilton's Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas who, along with Charles Leclerc (Ferrari), Lance Stroll (Aston Martin), Sergio Perez (Red Bull) and Lando Norris (McLaren) was forced to retire from the race.

Hamilton, initially on pole, then dropped back to 14th after he chose not to change his tyres after the formation lap, with the track having dried off while the race had been suspended.

Though Hamilton hit back, overcoming Fernando Alonso in an epic 10-lap tussle before nipping ahead of Carlos Sainz, the seven-time world champion could not get close enough to Vettel.

However, the Briton now takes second place after all, with Vettel, who parked his car on the cool-down lap before heading back to the podium, retrospectively disqualified.

F1's technical regulations state that competitors must ensure a 1.0 litre sample of fuel can be taken from the car at any time.

However, FIA technical delegate Jo Bauer had to refer Vettel to the stewards after technicians only managed to retrieve a 0.3l sample.

"After the race it was checked on car number 05 whether a 1.0 litre sample of fuel could be taken from the car," read Bauer's statement. "It was possible to take only a 0.3 litre sample following the procedures laid out in Article 6.6.4 of the 2021 Formula One Technical Regulations.

"Therefore I am referring this matter to the stewards for their consideration, as this is not in compliance with Article 6.6.2 of the 2021 Formula One Technical Regulations."

Vettel's disqualification also means Sainz takes third place, while Hamilton gains a further two points in the championship standings, with Verstappen rising one place to ninth.

Before the race, Vettel wore a rainbow T-shirt bearing the slogan "same love" during the Hungarian national anthem.

Vettel showed support for the LGBTQ+ community throughout the weekend. The Hungarian government recently introduced fiercely criticised legislation, which has included banning gay people or items seen as promoting homosexuality from featuring in school educational materials or TV shows for under-18s. Last year, the country's government passed laws that prevent same-sex couples from adopting children and ended legal recognition for gender changes.

Vettel, along with Sainz, Bottas and Stroll, who were wearing "We Race As One" T-shirts, were all reprimanded for keeping the clothing on during the Hungarian national anthem.

FIA guidelines say drivers must "remove their T-shirts and move to their name card position for the national anthem, wearing their race suits".

All four drivers faced the stewards, with a statement confirming: "[Each] driver explained that he forgot to take off the WRAO t-shirt in time during the national anthem because of the onset of rain."

"I'm happy if they disqualify me. They can do whatever they want to me, I don't care," Vettel told Sky Sports prior to the FIA statement.

Lewis Hamilton believes even a "step up" on Sunday would see him merely competing for second after ruling out victory at the Austrian Grand Prix.

Seven-time Formula One champion Hamilton qualified in fourth behind Sergio Perez, surprise 2021 star Lando Norris and championship leader Max Verstappen, who has pole.

Verstappen, who is 18 points clear, won at the Red Bull Ring last week and is the only F1 driver with three victories at his team's home circuit.

Fourth place (Verstappen in 2018) is the furthest back a race winner has triumphed from since Spielberg returned to the calendar in 2014, but Hamilton does not believe such a recovery is possible.

On the weekend he committed to Mercedes until 2023, the Briton believes he is set to tie his longest winless run over a single season (five races – also twice in 2016).

"I don't," Hamilton replied when asked if he thought he could steal a strategic win. "We definitely can't take it to the Red Bulls, obviously. They're just too fast.

"But maybe we can step up, I guess my race now is with the two guys ahead of me – trying to get past them."

He added: "On pure pace, [winning] is definitely out of the question.

"Those guys have got two cars to get through in front, and they've got three-tenths on us. I think they've improved their car again for this weekend.

"So, I would say that's an easy cruise win for Max. I think for us it's to try to see if we can get ahead of Perez and try to limit the damage this weekend."

 

Hamilton at least fared better than two of his former title rivals, with Sebastian Vettel handed a grid penalty for impeding Fernando Alonso in Q2.

Vettel will start from 11th, having qualified in eighth, while Alonso is back in 14th.

"I guess the weekend is over now for us, but nothing we can do," Alonso said.

Ahead of Vettel's expected punishment, which was later confirmed, the Spaniard added: "It will change something for them, but for us it will change everything on the weekend.

"I don't think that Seb could do much more because, inside the car, we are just relying on our engineers, so I guess it was more the team than Seb himself."

Remarkable late drama at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix saw Sergio Perez handed victory after Max Verstappen crashed out and title rival Lewis Hamilton incredibly finished outside the points.

Verstappen looked to be coasting to a second consecutive Formula One win and seventh straight podium – both career firsts.

The Red Bull driver, four points ahead of Hamilton in the standings prior to the race, was well in the clear after earlier benefitting from a slow Hamilton pit stop.

But Verstappen's left-rear tyre blew out and ended his race, prompting the furious Dutchman to kick his car in anger.

Lance Stroll had encountered the same issue with the hard Pirelli tyres, swerving out of control when he had been fourth, albeit without pitting.

A red flag – requested by a concerned Red Bull team – followed Verstappen's crash with just three laps remaining, meaning a standing start with Perez ahead of Hamilton on the front row of the grid following the delay.

In another twist, Hamilton and his smoking brakes careered off the circuit from the restart and Perez raced away to lift Red Bull spirits.

With Hamilton way back in 15th, it meant a positive end to the day for Verstappen's team, even if the season leader will continue to rue his misfortune.

Both Verstappen and Perez jumped ahead of Hamilton when he was delayed in the pit lane by Pierre Gasly, having quickly caught pole-sitter Charles Leclerc.

Stroll's mishap threw a spanner in the works, yet Verstappen pulled ahead clear from the restart following the safety car, with Perez again getting the better of Hamilton.

Sebastian Vettel's climb to fourth and attempt to reel in old foe Hamilton looked the most likely source of intrigue in the closing stages, only for Verstappen's blow to bring the race to a standstill.

Hamilton admitted his error when his restart sensationally failed, though, and Perez hung on, his car breaking down moments after crossing the line before Vettel – who achieved a first Aston Martin podium.

Max Verstappen roared to victory at the Monaco Grand Prix and jumped above reigning Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton at the top of the drivers' standings.

The Red Bull driver benefited from the shock withdrawal of pole-sitter Charles Leclerc ahead of the race, producing an immaculate drive to stay out of trouble and finish ahead of the Ferrari of Carlos Sainz.

McLaren's Lando Norris completed the podium, securing his second third place of the season, with Sergio Perez, Sebastian Vettel and Pierre Gasly all coming home ahead of Hamilton, who trailed in a distant seventh.

The outcome saw Verstappen, thanks to his first Monaco triumph, move four points in front of Hamilton after five rounds of the 23-race championship. He leads the championship for the first time in his career, a further sign that Hamilton could face a major battle to cling to his crown as he chases a record-breaking eighth title.

Just 20 minutes before the race began, Ferrari dropped the bombshell that Leclerc had been ruled out due to a driveshaft problem.

It was a crushing blow for the Monegasque driver, whose pole was secured in dramatic fashion on Saturday when he crashed his Ferrari in the final minute of qualifying, denying his rivals a clear track and the chance to set a faster time. Leclerc feared gearbox trouble but was initially given the all-clear to race, until he was pulled from the line-up.

What it meant was that Verstappen, second on the grid, had the chance to gain the early ascendancy on the tight circuit where he had never previously achieved a podium finish, and he demonstrated his prowess as a front-runner.

Valtteri Bottas was sitting second when the Finn pitted on the 31st lap, and he joined Leclerc in the bad-luck club when Mercedes were unable to remove his front-right wheel. After a desperate minute of waiting, Bottas climbed out of his car, his race over.

Sebastian Vettel managed to get ahead of Pierre Gasly and Hamilton when the three pitted, the Aston Martin going almost wheel to wheel with Gasly's Alpha Tauri as he completed a stunning overcut.

That moment imperilled Hamilton's leadership of the championship, putting him down in seventh place, as Mercedes suffered a miserable couple of minutes. 

It proved the last major twist of the race, with Hamilton securing a bonus point for a late fastest lap. Small consolation on a dismal day for Mercedes, as Verstappen and Perez's performance also saw Red Bull go ahead of the Silver Arrows in the constructors' standings.

Lance Stroll acknowledged Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton has proven his talent in tussles with team-mate Valtteri Bottas, even if his Mercedes gives him an advantage over the rest of the grid.

Hamilton has won a record-equalling seven drivers' championships, including six of the past seven with Mercedes.

Former team-mate Nico Rosberg won the title in 2016 when Hamilton faltered, meaning the Silver Arrows have accounted for seven straight triumphs, matching that streak in the constructors' championship.

Mercedes' advantage with a consistently excellent car is clear, as Stroll highlighted this season when he said: "If you put Lewis Hamilton in a McLaren, he won't win the race."

However, speaking to Stats Perform, the Aston Martin driver explained there is still no doubting Hamilton's ability.

Besides Rosberg's five-point 2016 triumph, the Briton has beaten his Mercedes team-mate in every season since he joined the team in 2013.

"You still have to beat your team-mate," Stroll told Stats Perform. "For example, in Mercedes, Lewis has Valtteri and he managed to win the title for so many years.

"You've still got to deliver every weekend and fight up in the front. He has been able to do that.

"But there is no doubt that having a good car makes the difference in the way you finish. This is the story of F1, that's how it has been for a long time and it still is."

Aston Martin, backed by Stroll's father Lawrence, earned only five points in the first four races in 2021 – none of them supplied by new signing Sebastian Vettel – following changes to car regulations that Hamilton has suggested were "done to peg [Mercedes] back".

Stroll, whose low-rake car uses a Mercedes power unit, said: "Last year, at the beginning, we were more competitive, but now, with new regulations, things are a bit different."

He does, however, enjoy being paired with four-time champion Vettel, adding: "It is great working with Seb.

"He is an incredible talent with great experience. He is a great team-mate I and look forward to working with him for the rest of the season."

Sebastian Vettel will start his first race for Aston Martin at the back of the grid after being hit with a penalty at the Bahrain Grand Prix.

Vettel has been penalised for ignoring yellow flags in qualifying at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir on Saturday.

The four-time Formula One world champion breached the rules when Haas driver Nikita Mazepin spun at Turn 1 during Q1, resulting in double waving of yellow flags - which Vettel failed to respect.

Vettel qualified in 18th but was given a five-place penalty and hit with three penalty points after being summoned to the stewards ahead of Sunday's race.

The stewards said in their verdict: "[Valtteri] Bottas, Vettel, [Sergio] Perez and [George] Russell approached the scene and drove past Mazepin. Bottas, was immediately instructed by his team to abort his lap in accordance with the Race Director's Event Notes.

"Perez and Russell had received the chequered flag, and were instructed to slow, with Russell receiving the additional information that it had been a double yellow sector.

"Vettel did not abandon his lap. He explained to the stewards that he saw the smoke ahead of him, but was unsure if it was a lock-up or a stopped car until he was quite close to the car and the smoke was lifting.

"The stewards observed that he had already passed the signal panel when it illuminated as he approached the scene, and that the marshals in that turn had not yet reacted with a yellow flag. Nevertheless, Vettel was approaching a car that was stopped sideways on the track and by the rule this would necessitate a double yellow flag."

Vettel said: "We were already quite far back so it doesn't make a difference.

"Hopefully we will come up with something clever with strategy so we can move up and enjoy it along the way."

Lewis Hamilton claims it is "no secret" the new Formula One regulations have been introduced to slow Mercedes, but he was encouraged by their opening qualifying session of the season.

Changes to aerodynamic regulations for 2021 have had a great impact on the reigning champions' low-rake chassis, the Silver Arrows say.

Mercedes have won the past seven constructors' championships, yet Red Bull led the way in pre-season testing.

The fastest lap belonged to Max Verstappen and the same man took pole on Saturday at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix.

But Hamilton was only 0.388 seconds back in second and that performance spells good news for the Briton, with all 16 Bahrain winners coming from the first two rows of the grid but only seven of them qualifying on pole.

Meanwhile, Verstappen has retired three times at this event and four times at the Sakhir track.

Hamilton remains very much in contention, despite feeling the rules have been designed to hurt his team.

"It's no secret. The changes, of course they've been done to peg us back," he said. "We've had the changes last year to our engine to do the same thing.

"That's okay. We love a challenge, we don't look down on these things. We just work hard to do the best that we can, and that's what we'll do."

But Hamilton was not amused by a request for him to analyse where Red Bull are now better, as Verstappen - having ended last year with a win - targets back-to-back triumphs for the first time in his career.

"Really? I don't want to tell you what our problem is," Hamilton said. "They're just faster."

With Silver Arrows team-mate Valtteri Bottas qualifying third, the top three - Verstappen, Hamilton, Bottas - are on course to become the first trio to appear on 15 podiums together.

Although Verstappen is still in the lead, this Mercedes challenge seemed improbable for Hamilton just days ago.

"I think this is a really good step forward for us coming this weekend," he said.

"We thought it was double the gap that you see today. That's down to some really fantastic work from the men and women back at the factory.

"Of course we want to be first, but we knew that it was going to be a challenge, we knew from day one on track really that Red Bull was going to be faster than us.

"We knew we had a bit of an uphill slope to climb. I'm just proud of everyone's efforts."

Elsewhere, two former champions had vastly contrasting fortunes after offseason moves.

Three-time Bahrain winner Fernando Alonso is back in F1 with Alpine Team, formerly Renault, where he won two world titles.

And his second debut was a success as he reached Q3 for the first time since Monaco 2018 and claimed ninth on the grid.

"It was good," said Alonso, who won this event on the previous two occasions it opened a season. "I think we have to be pleased with the qualifying.

"I was not confident in any of the sessions so far in the weekend - I was struggling a little bit to feel the rear of the car in windy conditions - and now in the qualifying everything was calmer.

"The night situation I think helped us with the cooler temperatures, so I was able to attack and feel the car a little bit better and it was fun."

On the other hand, Sebastian Vettel was eliminated in Q1 as his second run was hampered by yellow flags prompted by Haas rookie Nikita Mazepin's spin.

No driver has more wins (four) or poles (three) in Bahrain than the former Ferrari man, but his Aston Martin bow did not go to plan.

Vettel will start from 18th and said: "If I panicked now, would it help? If I was really upset?

"For sure, I am upset and angry that it wasn't our fault in a way not to make it through, but we have to take it and do what we can, preparing tomorrow."

Matters could yet get worse for the German, who will appear before the stewards on Sunday for failing to respect the flags, potentially meaning a five-place penalty.

Lewis Hamilton returns to Bahrain four months on from winning an 11th race of a dominant 2020 season knowing Mercedes have plenty of questions to answer from an exciting-looking Red Bull.

It was another season to remember for Hamilton in a campaign disrupted heavily by the coronavirus pandemic, the Briton himself contracting the virus late in the season and missing the second leg of a Sakhir double-header a week later.

By winning a seventh Formula One world title, Hamilton levelled Michael Schumacher's all-time record and also surpassed the legendary German for overall race wins (now 95), and he is now going in search of history.

But the evidence in pre-season suggests Mercedes are set for a titanic tussle with Red Bull, whose exciting line-up of Max Verstappen – the 23-year-old many are tipping to finally go toe-to-toe-with Hamilton – and Sergio Perez will be out to lay down a marker at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir.

Many have suggested that F1's technical 2021 changes have redressed the competitive balance and certainly there was evidence to suggest as such at pre-season testing where Mercedes posted the lowest lap count of any team and Red Bull set the pace on two out of the three days.

We have been here before with Mercedes, though, where some have questioned whether their period of dominance – the Silver Arrows winning the constructors' championship seven years running – is finally over, only for the German manufacturers to turn it on when it matters.

This weekend should give us a clearer indication as to the strength of both teams, but that is by no means the only talking point on the grid...

LAST TIME OUT

Red Bull can certainly take heart from a strong end to the 2020 campaign, which saw Verstappen coast to victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, a race in which Hamilton finished third after returning from his absence due to COVID-19.

In that race, Red Bull were not necessarily favourites but beat Mercedes in a straight-line fight for Verstappen's second triumph of the season – his first coming in round five at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix.

Perez can also take plenty of confidence from the fact he triumphed at this circuit for the Sakhir Grand Prix a week after Hamilton's last win of 2020, with a power issue in Abu Dhabi meaning his final outing with Racing Point ended in a whimper.

Valtteri Bottas finished second ahead of Hamilton on that occasion and the Finn knows he has a lot to prove against a strong-looking Red Bull line-up, while McLaren cars finished in fifth and sixth and are fancied for another strong campaign after finished third in the constructors' championship.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR IN SAKHIR

There are plenty of sub-plots in play this weekend after a close-season of change in F1.

Most notable is the return of a legend and the arrival of a rookie aiming to emulate his great father.

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso is back, racing for the rebranded Alpine Team – formerly Renault where the brilliant Spaniard won his two titles.

Mick Schumacher, son of Michael, has sizeable shoes to fill and will start his career on the biggest stage with Haas alongside fellow F1 rookie Nikita Mazepin.

Sebastian Vettel has a new home after ending his association with Ferrari and will race for Aston Martin, who are back in F1 for the first time since 1960, while the Scuderia signed Carlos Sainz Jr from McLaren to line-up alongside Charles Leclerc for 2021.

McLaren consequently turned to amiable Australian Daniel Ricciardo to partner Lando Norris, with the team starting 2021 12 podiums shy of 500.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

- Vettel and Hamilton are the drivers to have won the most races at the Bahrain GP (four), and have taken the most pole positions (three).

- In 2014, Mercedes recorded the first out of their 70 one-twos in hybrid-era qualifying in Bahrain (Nico Rosberg first, Hamilton second). The Germans have achieved 78 one-twos; they are two wins away from reaching Ferrari as the team to have secured one-twos in qualifying most often (80).

- Mick Schumacher will race his maiden grand prix in Bahrain eight years, four months and three days after father Michael's final appearance in Brazil 2012. Both will have started in F1 aged 22 years old, but the younger Schumacher will have done so seven months and 16 days earlier than his dad.

- Sainz will be the third Spanish driver to race for Ferrari. In his maiden race for the Scudería, Alfonso de Portago failed to finish in France (1956), but Alonso won in Bahrain (2010).

- Verstappen has retired three times at the Bahrain Grand Prix (four in Sakhir), more than any other race in his F1 career. The Dutchman has the chance to win back-to-back grands prix in F1 for the first time after 120 races.

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.


Sebastian Vettel is excited to get the 2021 Formula One season underway with Aston Martin, with the former world champion seeing plenty of potential at his new team.

Vettel, a four-time F1 champion, left Ferrari at the end of the 2020 campaign, bringing an end to a six-season stint with the Italian manufacturers.

Charles Leclerc had usurped him as Ferrari's number one driver, and Vettel slumped to a 13th-placed finish in last year's drivers' standings, claiming just one podium finish.

Vettel has now switched to Aston Martin, who have rebranded the Racing Point team to make their F1 return after a 61-year break from the competition. 

The German made no secret of his disappointment at how his final season at Ferrari panned out but is anticipating an exciting debut year with Aston Martin.

"I am not happy with last year in terms of performance – partly my performance – but I accepted it," said Vettel at the unveiling of the AMR21 car on Wednesday, which also featured NFL great Tom Brady and Hollywood star Daniel Craig.

"There are things that didn't go well, but I am looking forward to this year.

"I go racing to win and obviously it's a very exciting project, a new start and a new chapter for the entire team. I'm very much looking forward to it.

"Winning is maybe a bit ambitious straight away, but it's everybody's goal, it's why we go racing.

"Even though I have raced for four Formula One teams and for many years, starting a new season with a new team still gives me a sense of excitement.

"I see potential. I think the team has always been very successful in the past with limited resources, now the regulations in F1 are changing, and with the new launch of Aston Martin coming back, a lot of talented people joining and coming together to this already good group already, I think it's [his arrival is] only an addition.

"So I hope that I can contribute as well, and I think if we keep sharing that joy and passion then good things will follow."

Vettel's Ferrari future was decided before the 2020 season – which was derailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic – had started, yet he claims to have had no doubt that Aston Martin was the right move. 

"As a driver, I have always kept my eye on the competition and this team has consistently impressed me with what they have been able to do without the biggest of budgets," he added.

"So, when Lawrence [Stroll] and Otmar [Szafnauer] approached me last year, and explained what their ambitions were, I was immediately very motivated to join the team.
 
"I love the history of motor racing and Aston Martin is one of the great names of the past, so it is fun to be part of their return to Formula One after an absence of 61 years.  
 
"I have not driven the car yet but I think it looks great. I am really looking forward to getting it out on the track. I am also looking forward to working with and getting to know better everyone in the team, including my team-mate Lance [Stroll]. We will certainly make a big effort to deliver some good results together and have fun doing it."

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