Ferrari have been on a decline of sorts ever since Sebastian Vettel's failed title campaign in 2018.
In 2019, the team built a car that was a rocket on the straights but suffered heavily with a lack of downforce for most of the season. As a result, Mercedes romped home unchallenged to the title.
In 2020, Ferrari suffered because of FIA's engine ruling that left them with a sub-par car for the season and their drivers stranded in midfield. That season also marked the departure of 4-time world champion Sebastian Vettel, who failed to win the title with Ferrari.
The 2021 season will mark the first since 2007 that Ferrari will not have a world champion in their ranks. That's because, in Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, Ferrari have backed youth instead of experience for the first time in a while. Charles Leclerc is a superstar in the making, while Sainz has been brought in to keep things steady at Scuderia.
In 2021, Ferrari are not expected to win the title because of the restrictions imposed on the extent to which the cars can be developed from the previous season. However, this season, they will look to take a few key steps back towards the front of the grid.
On that note, let's have a look at three factors that could determine if the 2021 season will be regarded as a success or failure for Ferrari.
#1 The improvements in the Ferrari power unit
One of the biggest reasons behind Ferrari's drastic fall from grace has been the performance loss on the engine side. From having an engine that was by far the class of the field, Ferrari ended up with one that was several notches below the best on the grid.
With the new regulations not allowing the team to work on the engine, Ferrari finished a lowly sixth in the standings last season.
Mattia Binotto, Ferrari team principal, has suggested that the Italian unit has been able to recover most of the performance on the engine side during the team launch this campaign.
But like anything else in life, the proof will be in the pudding. The first pre-season test would give some indication of where the Ferrari engine stands in terms of performance. Ferrari have the biggest scope in terms of the gains it can make on the engine side.
If the team can recover their lost engine performance, that could be the first and the most crucial step in getting back to the front, especially considering the looming engine freeze that could be in place by the end of the year.
#2 The performance of Carlos Sainz Jr. in his debut year
It's not a surprise why Carlos Sainz Jr. was picked up by Ferrari even though drivers like Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg were available in the market.
That was because Ferrari were not looking for a new team leader. They were looking for a supporting cast for Charles Leclerc - an effective no. 2 that would be close to Leclerc in terms of pace but not faster than him.
They wanted someone in the mould of Valtteri Bottas, who is very close to Hamilton in qualifying, but there's a clear gulf between the two in races.
When Ferrari hired Sainz, they hired a driver that would be fast, consistent and pick up the pieces when Leclerc falters. In theory, Sainz fits the role admirably. The question, though, is whether Sainz knows his role?
And if he doesn't, how will Sainz react when he finds out that the team is not focused on winning the Championship with him? A driver performs entirely differently when he knows he's trying to win the title as compared to when he's just supposed to be the bridesmaid to the lead driver.
Kimi Raikkonen and Rubens Barrichello were able to do a good job despite clearly knowing they weren't the favoured driver in the Ferrari scheme of things. Felipe Massa, however, suffered massively because of this, and there is a clear difference one could see between Felipe Massa before Hockenheim 2010 and after.
Ferrari, on their part, can't afford Carlos Sainz to underperform, especially when they're stuck in midfield. They need their drivers to extract as many points as they can and drive the team forward.
Carlos Sainz's performance in his debut year at Ferrari could be crucial for the team's success. If Sainz can stay there or thereabouts with respect to Charles Leclerc, Ferrari could have a potent partnership for the future.
#3 Stability at the top
At Ferrari, there is always a power struggle at play; there's always something distracting the team from focussing all their resources on the task at hand. One such distraction is the possible sacking of their team principal Mattia Binotto.
Under his leadership, Ferrari have suffered an uncharacteristic slump from being championship contenders to driving in midfield. But if Ferrari wanted to get rid of him, they should have done that last year.
Binotto has the responsibility of bringing Ferrari back to the front of the grid - something that is unlikely to materialise in one season. So Ferrari's top management needs to realise that and give Binotto the time he needs to build the team and the car back to championship-winning levels.
If Binotto gets the axe, Ferrari would kill the morale of the team even before the season has begun. For Ferrari to get back to the front, they will need to be patient and give things time to unravel.
The 2021 season is pivotal for Ferrari in many ways; they need to stop the slide they're in right now and need to have a framework in place for the new Formula 1 regulations in 2022.
Ferrari's success or failure in 2021 will depend massively on these factors and how they're able to address them.