The Formula 1 2021 circus kicks off in Bahrain this weekend. The FIA has confirmed 23 races for the calendar this season. Fans are accustomed to the season-opener in Australia, but the pandemic has changed the schedule. As teams await the start of the racing calendar, Red Bull will be eager to see if their strong pre-season form can translate to a race win on Sunday.
Bahrain Grand Prix Form Guide
Red Bull, AlphaTauri and McLaren had the best pre-season test of all teams in Bahrain. After suffering multiple reliability issues during last year's test, Red Bull were able to run their entire program without disruption this season.
AlphaTauri and McLaren also stood out amongst midfield teams with impressive lap times throughout the shortened pre-season test.
Out of Form
Mercedes stands out in this category. The reigning world champions suffered from multiple reliability issues. The car looked unstable at the rear which led to Lewis Hamilton beaching the Mercedes near Turn 13. It will be interesting to see if Mercedes have made any drastic changes to the car after gathering data from the pre-season test.
Aston Martin also struggled with reliability. The customer team shares a lot of components with the Mercedes, including the gearbox which caused several problems for both teams. Sebastian Vettel admitted the team haven't got a complete understanding of the car yet.
Key Formula 1 storylines to follow
Will Red Bull be faster than Mercedes?
The qualifying session on Saturday will be the first chance for teams to show the true pace of their cars. What makes the session even more fascinating is Red Bull's form. Mercedes have undeniably been the most dominant qualifying team in Formula 1 history, but Red Bull have the quicker car. If Max Verstappen or Sergio Perez can snatch pole at Bahrain, the season will well and truly be on.
Although it is foolish to count Mercedes and Hamilton out, their poor pre-season form suggests that the Bahrain Grand Prix will come too soon for the reigning champions. It is unlikely that they have made vast performance improvements between the test and now.
How will Fernando Alonso look on his return?
Karun Chandhok termed Fernando Alonso's return to Formula 1 and subsequent consistency on his lap times during the pre-season test as "metronomic."
Alonso is one of the oldest drivers on the grid and is coming off a two-year hiatus from the sport. Rust will play a factor for the Spaniard. But if his pre-season form is anything to go by, the two-time world champion will be just fine.
Just how close are McLaren and Alpha Tauri to the front of the grid?
McLaren and AlphaTauri looked like the leaders of the midfield pack at the pre-season test. However, the midfield is extremely competitive and the performance pendulum can swing from one track to another. With the entire grid now closer to each other than ever before during the turbo-hybrid era, can McLaren and AlphaTauri challenge the top teams?
If the midfield has truly closed the gap to the leaders, the 2021 Formula 1 season could see multiple race winners, which will make the fight for the championship even more exciting.
It is unlikely that Mercedes have fixed their stability and reliability issues since the pre-season test. Red Bull should enjoy a healthy advantage over the reigning champions, which makes Max Verstappen the favorite to win the race.
Surprise of the weekend
Team: AlphaTauri had a solid season in Formula 1 last year. But if the pre-season tests are anything to go by, the team should have a fast car at Bahrain and could comfortably be the fourth fastest team on the grid.
Driver: Yuki Tsunoda is a young bright prospect for AlphaTauri. His rise to Formula 1 has been fast and impressive by any standards. His ability to adapt to new environments and perform immediately resembles Max Verstappen. For his first career Formula 1 race, we expect Tsunoda to light up the midfield at Bahrain.
Disappointment of the weekend
Team: Aston Martin will take part in their first official race as a Formula 1 team. The team, however, have not hit the ground running. The car may be fast, but the team lacks the understanding to extract its true potential. It will not be a surprise to see Aston Martin struggling at Bahrain.
Driver: Valtteri Bottas heads into the 2021 Formula 1 season hoping to challenge Lewis Hamilton to the title. The Finn has been unable to match the reigning world champion since the former first joined Mercedes in 2017. This could be the season Bottas finally gives up on his dreams of winning the championship.
In the past, Valtteri has struggled if car and track conditions are not perfect. With Mercedes on the back foot, Bottas could get exposed at the Formula 1 2021 season-opener in Bahrain.