It’s Time For F1 Rookie Mick Schumacher to Prove He’s Worth the Hype
With the start of the Formula 1 season fast approaching, here’s a look at some of the intriguing storylines and questions as the series races toward the March 28 opener at Bahrain:
Is Mick Schumacher overrated?
Mick Schumacher has come up through the ranks in Formula 1 with all the advantages of a man who carries the family name—seven time F1 champion Michael Schumacher.
Mick has never had to worry about sponsorship money on his road to F1, and he has been guided to the right teams and the right support network. Ferrari is very keen to have another Schumacher to revive the memories of its greatest racing era. But is the reigning Formula 2 champion good enough to make a mark in F1? This is the year we will find out.
Schumacher will have some advantages over Haas teammate and fellow rookie Nikita Mazepin in that he will be testing for Ferrari on occasion and will be running in the Ferrari simulator, while Mazepin will have to do the best he can.
Unlike Schumacher, Mazepin is not a Ferrari junior. And while his father is a billionaire and a sponsor on the Haas F1 Team though his Uralkali Russian potash fertilizer empire, Mazepin needs to show that he is not simply a pay driver.
A test with Mercedes a couple of years ago suggested that Mazepin is better than people think and the fact that he beat his experienced Formula 2 teammate Luca Ghiotto last year underlined that there is potential there. But he’s still a bit wild and, of course, has not made his own life easy with his adventures on social media.
Grappling With When to Pull the Plug on 2021
The battle for the World Championship in 2021 will be balanced by the need for teams to get ready for the big rule changes that are coming in 2022. The teams that start earliest on 2022 will gain an advantage, so this season is a balancing act between getting it right for 2021 and getting it right for next season.
In the overall scheme of things, the 2022 option is the best idea because the cars will be developed from then until the end of the current formula in December 2024. Thus, there are three seasons at stake.
Some teams have already decided that they are going to focus completely on the future, while others see an opportunity to win this year and so will only change their focus once it becomes clear what is going to happen this season. The bigger teams may try to do both, but with the new $145 million budget cap, teams have fewer resources to put full efforts into multiple seasons at the same time.
Mercedes is obviously keen to keep on winning—and Lewis Hamilton wants an eighth World Championship, even if he says it is not his priority. Once he has that and has beaten the all-time record (he’s tied with Michael Schumacher), it will mean that his choices for the future become a little easier. If he wants to go racing then he can do so, but if his primary passion really is to be a social campaigner then he can quit and focus on that new career path.
Red Bull’s big chance
Everyone wants to see how Sergio Perez does against Max Verstappen at Red Bull Racing.
We all know that Verstappen is a special driver and we have seen a string of teammates struggling against him. Will that same fate befall the Perez, who finished fourth in the F1 Drivers Championship last season with Racing Point, and if it does will that cause Red Bull to rethink its driver choices in the past?
We have seen Daniel Ricciardo leave. We have seen Daniil Kvyat, Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon all fail to thrive next to Verstappen. They did not have the experience that Perez can call upon, so if he fails to match or beat Verstappen it will reflect not only on his abilities but also on those who went before him.
We have already seen Pierre Gasly win a race with Scuderia AlphaTauri, proving that he is a quality driver. However, things did not gel when he was with Red Bull Racing. Is this a weakness of the team, or is because the second drivers have not been good enough?
The other storyline surrounding Red Bull in 2021 is what they want to do with their engines in the future. Are they really going to keep them as Red Bull engines or will they sell the badging rights to another manufacturer and might they also sell the intellectual property to others who want to have their own engines?
It is a great opportunity for Red Bull to cover what it will spend in the engine program and would benefit F1 as a whole as it would allow other manufacturers to get involved—without having to make the investment others have made.
No Time for Failure for Ferrari
Ferrari had a terrible time in 2020 as a result of the secret deal that was struck with the FIA regarding the Ferrari engine after the controversy in 2019. The penalty was never made public, but it must have been severe as Ferrari went from contender to back of the midpack overnight.
Has Ferrari managed to fix the problem and will that mean that the famous red cars will be competitive once again?
The sport is always healthier when its more famous team is doing well. There is another subplot that one must follow at Ferrari as the company is still looking for a new chief executive officer to replace Louis Camillieri, who resigned unexpectedly in December. For the moment we do not know who that will be, but it will be interesting to see if the new person will want to keep things as they are at Gestione Sportiva.
Mattia Binotto still leads the team as its principal, despite the fact that he led Ferrari into its worst season for 40 years. Perhaps a new management will have different views about Binotto. Perhaps not. We don’t know but it seems that for the moment Ferrari’s chairman John Elkann is supportive.
It is worth noting also that Elkann is in a slightly awkward position in that in addition to being the chairman of Ferrari he is also the chairman of Stellantis—a separate company to Ferrari—but one that runs Alfa Romeo. Elkann’s situation might be seen by some as being a conflict of interest.
An Alpine volcano?
Everyone is watching Fernando Alonso’s comeback with Alpine. Has the two-time World Champion still have what it takes to be competitive against the fast youngsters of today? Or will he find himself like Michael Schumacher did in his final years after making an F1 comeback with Mercedes between 2010 and 2012.
Schumacher was 41 when he made that comeback after three years away and he struggled to beat the young Nico Rosberg. Alonso is coming up to 40 and has been away for two seasons, but it should perhaps be added that he is racing this year with titanium implants in his jaw after a recent bicycle crash.
The fascinating thing will not only be whether Alonso can beat teammate Esteban Ocon, but how will he react if he doesn’t? He’s shown in the past that he can be quite fiery when he’s under pressure from his teammate (notably when he was getting challenged by a young Lewis Hamilton at McLaren in 2007) and that ended up with him falling out with the team and leaving after just one season.
Could the same thing happen again? And will the new team bosses Laurent Rossi, Marcin Budkowski and Davide Brivio be able to handle the sometimes emotional Alonso, or has he learned from previous mistakes and become a calmer individual? Or will we perhaps see Fernando going back to his ambition to win the Indy 500 and take the so-called Triple Crown earlier than expected?
Greener pastures for Vettel?
The last two years have been a tough time for Sebastian Vettel. The four-time World Champion, like Fernando Alonso before him, never managed to win a title with Ferrari and when Charles Leclerc arrived in the team in 2019, replacing the easy-going veteran Kimi Raikkonen, Vettel began to feel the pressure and began to make mistakes.
It seemed that Vettel had lost his mojo and by the start of the 2020 season, which delayed until July because of the COVID-19 pandemic, Ferrari had decided that it wanted Carlos Sainz to replace him. Vettel never even got an offer for 2021.
The switch to Aston Martin makes a lot of sense for all concerned. The newly-branded team wanted a big name in one of its cars to help the Aston Martin road car company turn things around. Vettel wanted a situation where he felt more comfortable. And although teammate Lance Stroll clearly has pace, Stroll is still not yet the full package.
Vettel should be able to deal with Stroll. For Stroll, the 2021 season is his big chance because beating Vettel will help him to shrug off the pay driver tag that he has been stuck with so far—hardly surprising when your father is the team owner.
There has been a lot of hype around the launch of the new team and hopes are high that they will be able to take up where Racing Point left off last season. In 2020, Sergio Perez was able to win in Bahrain, despite having been dumped by the team to make way for Vettel.
What will happen if Vettel is still making mistakes? Or if Vettel beats Stroll will Aston Martin have to face up to the fact that its driver line-up is still weak if one of the cars goes to the boss’s son?
The Bottas Question at Mercedes
Last year in Bahrain, when Lewis Hamilton was out of action with COVID-19, Mercedes took in George Russell from Williams. Russell did a terrific job and would possibly have won the race if the team had not messed up with tires and he had not then suffered a puncture.
Russell’s performance gave the impression, perhaps a little unfairly, that Valtteri Bottas was not going to beat him. We’ll never know. But we do know that Russell is a star waiting in the wings and that while he may one day replace Hamilton, in the interim he may want to move up to the Mercedes team, in place of Bottas. Russell has a three-year contract with Williams with 2021 being the final year and there is an argument that he is now ready to step up to the top team. But would that be at the expense of Bottas?
The team says that it will stick by its drivers and not shop around until things are decided between them. Bottas came very close to signing for Renault in 2020 before the surprise signing of Alonso torpedoed those talks. Moving to Renault would have gotten Bottas out from the shadow of Hamilton.
Having said that, Bottas has proven to be a perfect number two for Hamilton, never rocking the boat, always staying positive and able to go fast enough to keep Hamilton under just enough (but not too much) pressure. Putting Russell into the drive might not be the best move for the team.
Changes Coming at the FIA
Formula 1 decisions are made collectively between the different stakeholders but the commercial matters are handled by the Formula 1 group and regulatory matters and overall strategy for the World Championship are handled by the FIA.
With Jean Todt as FIA president and his former Ferrari colleagues Stefano Domenicali and Ross Brawn both working with the Formula 1 group, all seems to be nice and simple. They all seem to be getting along. But at the end of the year Todt has to stand down, having served three four-year terms as FIA president. He has reached his term limit.
One of the subplots of F1 in 2021 will be the election campaign at the FIA.
For the moment, it seems that there will be only two candidates for the job: Todt’s current deputy Graham Stoker is keen to get his chance of four years as the president. He turns 70 this year and promoting Stoker would be promoting the status quo.
There is a challenge in the form of Emirati Muhammed Ben Sulayem, who is 10 years younger but a more colourful and potentially controversial figure. Having a president from the Middle East would certainly make the FIA look more inclusive, rather than sticking with another European, but the federation doesn’t want to have any problems with Formula 1, which the primary source of revenues for the federation.
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