Formula One will undergo a seismic change at the end of the 2021 season, with owners Liberty Media tearing up the rule book in an effort to make the sport more sustainable and more equitable.
The changes were supposed to come in at the end of 2020, but the coronavirus pandemic saw them push the switch back a year because factory shutdowns would not give teams sufficient time to develop their new cars.
Instead, teams are furiously trying to position themselves in the best possible place for 2022, with several experienced drivers available in the market who could prove to be difference-makers when the brave new world of F1 becomes a reality.
Here is what we know about the 2021 line-up so far.
F1 2021 grid
(Confirmed drivers, current incumbents of seats due to be vacant in brackets)
Mercedes: Valtteri Bottas, vacant (Lewis Hamilton)
Success in F1 requires nerves of steel, so perhaps it should be no surprise that by far the most successful team of the hybrid era is showing no sign of discomfort over the fact that probably the greatest driver of all time is now out of contract.
“If an asteroid hits the world, anything can happen,” team boss Toto Wolff said after the Portuguese Grand Prix in which Lewis Hamilton broke Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of 91 race wins. “But at the moment there is no reason he wouldn’t want to be in the quickest car and we want him in the car so it’s a perfect match.”
It would be one of the most remarkable coups in sporting history if anyone were to lure Hamilton away from Mercedes, so it is safe to assume he will be Valtteri Bottas’ teammate next season.
There was a brief moment when it looked as though Mercedes might have a late change of heart and try to crowbar George Russell into their team sooner than expected, at the expense of Bottas.
The 22-year-old Russell very nearly delivered a fairytale debut at the Sakhir Grand Prix, arguably out-driving Bottas for large parts of the weekend, only for a botched Mercedes pit-stop and a puncture to dash his hopes of an unlikely victory.
Despite eventually finishing ninth, Russell made a big statement in Bahrain. “Hopefully I have given Toto a headache not just for 2022, maybe sooner,” he said.
However, the contractual gymnastics involved in removing Bottas, a long-time ally of Wolff’s, would probably be too difficult and expensive to contemplate.
Instead, Mercedes can dedicate all their power to bashing out a new deal with Hamilton, which could only be done after a restructuring of the team in December that saw Sir Jim Ratcliffe, owner of sponsor Ineos, take a 33 per cent stake in the team, while Wolff retained a third and the parent company Daimler reduced their stake to the same level. There remains no rush to do a deal with Hamilton, but most obstacles are out of the way.
Red Bull: Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez
© Provided by The i Albon has not been able to challenge teammate Verstappen on a regular basis (Photo: Reuters)
Time has run out for Alex Albon. Almost everybody was desperate for the British-born driver, who races on a Thai licence, the country of his mother, to do well but he simply did not make enough progress. Albon, who only had 12 races for Toro Rosso before being promoted mid-season last year to replace the ailing Pierre Gasly, remained half a second slower than Max Verstappen, a gap has never narrowed, and his position of seventh in the drivers’ championship was low given the machinery at his disposal.
Nico Hulkenberg, who has impressed in substitute appearances for Racing Point this year and out-qualified both Red Bulls at Silverstone, was being mooted as a potential replacement and mentioned that he was “waiting for a call from Helmut [Marko, Red Bull’s motorsport chief]”, but he lost out to Sergio Perez.
The Mexican could not have scripted a much better audition than the 2020 season as he drove his Mercedes-powered Racing Point to fourth in the drivers’ championship and picked up his first ever race win in Bahrain.
Albon will stay with the team as a test and reserve driver, but it is Perez who will now be the fifth man in F1 to try to match his teammate Verstappen.
Aston Martin (formerly Racing Point): Sebastian Vettel, Lance Stroll
It was the worst kept secret in the paddock that Sebastian Vettel would be heading to Racing Point for 2021 after being ditched by Ferrari without even the offer of a new contract. It was all but confirmed when he was seen getting into team principal Otmar Szafnauer’s car at Silverstone earlier this year, and he was subsequently announced as Perez’s replacement not long after.
Vettel is a statement signing for the team’s new owner Lawrence Stroll, who is expected to give his son Lance a new contract in the near future. The Canadian billionaire took over what was then Force India more than two years ago and now wants to make a splash by rebranding as Aston Martin, an iconic name in motoring. The German four-time world champion will certainly help him do that.
Ferrari: Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz
Vettel’s departure from Ferrari was triggered by their success in signing Carlos Sainz Jr from McLaren to replace him. The 26-year-old will be cheaper and, they hope, quicker than Vettel, who has struggled to lay a glove on teammate Charles Leclerc since the unofficial switch to make the Monegasque Ferrari’s No 1.
Sainz will very much be the No 2 to Leclerc, but has shown plenty of gusto for McLaren this year to suggest he will be a more racy teammate than Vettel.
McLaren: Lando Norris, Daniel Ricciardo
Ricciardo is set to race for his third team in four years after McLaren drafted him in to replace Sainz in a hasty twirling of the roundabout that took place rather incongruously during the coronavirus lockdown.
The Australian’s two-year spell at Renault has produced just one podium since his move from Red Bull where he achieved 29 podiums and seven race wins, but it has earned him an estimated £42million. Now he will join Lando Norris, regular winner of the ‘Best Social Media Contribution’ and ‘Funniest Team Radio’ awards on race weekend, and what is sure to be an exciting team to watch in 2021.
Alpine (formerly Renault): Fernando Alonso, Esteban Ocon
© Provided by The i Ricciardo has not the success at Renault he hoped he would enjoy (Photo: AFP)
On a grid that is packed with intrigue, Renault are no exception, having tempted Fernando Alonso back to the team for a third time. He won world titles there in 2005 and 2006, and few would have believed it if you had told them then that he would be racing for Renault in 2021 without another to his name.
Now he returns to a works team going into a rebrand and, just like Racing Point/Aston Martin, trying to make a statement.
AlphaTauri: Pierre Gasly, Yuki Tsunoda
Pierre Gasly was dropped after 12 races in 2019 by Red Bull but seems to be thriving for AlphaTauri where he claimed a maiden F1 victory at a memorable Italian Grand Prix.
The Frenchman will be kept where he is even though there is a vacancy at the parent team once again.
At his side, AlphaTauri have promoted Red Bull academy driver Yuki Tsunoda who has impressed in F2 this season and has now gained his super-licence.
The move means Daniil Kvyat misses out while Albon, in line for a demotion from Red Bull, looks set to be without a drive in 2021.
Alfa Romeo: Kimi Raikkonen, Antonio Giovinazzi
The rumours swirled for months around Kimi Raikkonen, and not Antonio Giovinazzi, because many assumed that the Italian’s race was already run. Ferrari have three members of their Driver Academy going well in F2 and wanted to promote at least one, if not two of them to F1, and their customer teams Alfa and Haas are not in much of a position to say no.© Provided by The i Schumacher will line up for Haas in 2021 but was given an aborted test for Alfa Romeo (Photo: Getty)
Mick Schumacher, son of the great Michael, was due to drive in free practice at the Nurburgring only for fog to halt his progress, suggesting he was being considered for a drive at Alfa next year, probably alongside the ageless Raikkonen, officially F1’s most experienced driver of all time. However, ahead of the race at Imola, Alfa Romeo confirmed an unchanged line-up for 2021, narrowing the options for the likes of Schumacher significantly. Which leads us nicely to…
Haas: Mick Schumacher, Nikita Mazepin
Haas have signed Schumacher Jr to a multi-year deal following his impressive season in F2.
The 21-year-old German said he was “speechless” at the news but his new team principal Guenther Steiner made clear that Haas have high expectations of their new driver and his arrival is not a mere gimmick.
“Mick has won races, collected podiums and excelled against some pretty exceptional talent in 2020.
“I firmly believe he’s earned the opportunity to graduate into Formula One based on his performances.”
Russian billionaire’s son Nikita Mazepin will join Schumacher next season after also impressing in the F2 feeder series.
Haas announced in October that French driver Romain Grosjean and Denmark’s Kevin Magnussen would leave at the end of the year.
Williams: Nicholas Latifi, George Russell
Williams have been bought out by Dorilton Captial, a US private investment firm, and they initially failed to deny rumours they were considering a change of direction in the cockpit.
The availability of Hulkenberg and Perez, both proven talents who would likely outdrive the two Williams incumbents, certainly did Latifi and Russell no favours in their efforts to hang on to their seats. However, the Williams hierarchy eventually confirmed in late October that the pair would be staying put… as long as Russell isn’t given a premature promotion to Mercedes (see above).