Seven drivers to look out for in F1 this season
Seven drivers tipped for great things this season. Don't say I didn't warn you!
As we close out the month of February and get ready to enter the fresh month of March, it only means one thing for us F1 fanatics. It means of course, the dawn of a new season will be upon us. With testing set to kick off in Bahrain on March 12th and the first race of the season to follow on March 28th, this season is arguably one that definitely has the potential to be amazing. Drivers with new teams, cars mostly carried over from what was learned last year and even some new names entering the sport. So, with so many changes in the space of three months, who's going to be worth keeping an eye on?
1. Sergio Perez
(Red Bull Content Pool.)
Admittedly, this driver switch has me most excited for 2021. Red Bull of course confirmed Sergio Perez would make the switch from Racing Point (now Aston Martin) to Red Bull Racing in place of the struggling Alexander Albon, giving the Mexican a second shot to properly prove his potential off the back of his debut win at last December's Sakhir Grand Prix. Perez, who has been looking for a top drive as a means of sourcing redemption after a poor season with McLaren in 2013, will no doubt grab this opportunity by both hands and bluntly refuse to let go.
After ten seasons full-time in F1, Checo has presented himself as a very strong and dependable driver, with an awesome knack for preserving tyres during a Grand Prix while still being fast enough to hold position and move up the order, often putting his car into podium positions it didn't deserve. The move to McLaren was a mix of inexperience on Checo's behalf as well as the start of McLaren's downfall that now, the team is only coming out of. If Sergio can bring all his talent and speed to Red Bull as well as the determination not to allow what happened at McLaren, he will no doubt finally prove that he is one of the sport's most promising talents.
He may struggle compared to new teammate Max Verstappen in qualifying, but be sure he can strike back in the race, using that tyre management to push Mercedes into longer strategies or even himself into a potentially race-winning position.
2. Daniel Ricciardo
(McLaren Media Centre.)
Two years on from his move from Red Bull to Renault, Danny Ric has finally gotten his hands on the car he initially wanted, a McLaren, and couldn't have made the switch at a better time. For the first time since 2014, McLaren now has the dominant Mercedes power unit under their cars, as well as an evolution of the chassis that showed good promise throughout 2020, this season could finally be the year that the Woking team makes the long-anticipated transition back to the front of F1.
Ricciardo, who was not convinced enough of the performance of Renault in the last two seasons to stay for a third, has already tested the new McLaren MCL35M and has reported very positive things about his initial laps out in the car at Silverstone last week. It is a possibility that, due to the team working with a new layout of a power unit that the opening races may be a bit slow, but I am convinced that things will get up to speed for both Ricciardo and teammate Lando Norris rather quickly. Ricciardo is as determined and as hungry as ever for success, while Norris is set on not allowing his new teammate to take over the leadership from him. As Ricciardo brings experience to a rather new team in terms of staff, I hope that his arrival will bring out more in Lando, which will hopefully in turn push the team even more forward than the heights achieved in 2020.
One thing McLaren has held onto in recent years, and even during the turmoil of the Honda partnership, is the chassis, often out-performing the deficit from the power unit. Now that the team has a proven power unit in the back of their car, expect Ricciardo and Norris to be both up there fighting and dare I say, even be challenging Red Bull and Mercedes by the end of the year? It's very possible, and is the next step the team are ready to take with the arrival of Ricciardo, a proven race winner. Ricciardo is giving the team three years to achieve the goal of being contenders once again, a goal which I think is very realistic and indeed achievable given the recent improvements made with the papaya team.
3. Sebastian Vettel
(Sky Sports F1.)
It is still a shock to think back to that fateful day last May when Ferrari announced that Sebastian would no longer be driving for the team after 2020. Almost instantly, rumours swirled of Vettel being in cahoots with Lawrence Stroll and Racing Point over a potential drive as the team readied itself to become Aston Martin this season, and as the months passed, the news was finally confirmed.
Without even putting a car to track, the team at Aston Martin seem very excited and rather astonished to have a four-time champion such as Vettel amongst its ranks, and are very eager to get to work with the German. In return, much like Ricciardo and McLaren, Vettel is getting the one thing he has not had in his F1 career so far, a Mercedes-powered car. Given the fact that teams are required to use the majority of its 2020 chassis in 2021, expect to see a revised version of the RP20 come the team's reveal on March 3rd, and if that's the case, then it is not a bad reference point for Aston Martin's return to the sport, the car giving Sergio Perez his first F1 win last December. No doubt, Vettel will acknowledge the faith and admiration within the team for him and will use this to his advantage, expect him to be back to old ways and being stupidly quick on track this year.
It was clear to see how deflated he was left after his six seasons at the Scuderia, a fresh change and into a team that is excited and ready to hand him the keys to the team in terms of leadership, he will hopefully find himself and rekindle some of the Red Bull form. I have a feeling that the best of Sebastian is yet to come, and his recent years at Ferrari were not representative of just what he is still capable of in an F1 car, I hope he comes out all guns blazing in 2021.
4. Fernando Alonso
When Fernando Alonso announced his return with Alpine last year, I was not surprised. The return will mark the third time Alonso has driven for the team, after his championship success when the team was under the Renault name in 2005 and 2006 and then again in 2007 to 2009 after his fallout with McLaren. Renault, much like rivals McLaren and Racing Point, showed visible improvements last year, so to bring in a driver with such experience and talent such as Alonso will only drive the team forward.
On top of that, it also looks as if Renault has finally gotten on top of its power unit reliability, delivering a power unit in 2020 that was both durable and very quick on circuits such as Monza and Spa. Given his recent cycling accident and the fact he has sat out of F1 since 2018, it may take Fernando a few races to return to form, but those around will need to watch out when he eventually does. Recent photos of his training sessions are concrete proof that despite his woes so far this year, he has definitely not been physically put off the challenge of returning to F1.
We all know by now to never count Fernando out of an unbelievable performance on-track, and despite turning 40 this year, he more than proved after competing in series such as WEC and the Dakar the last few years that he is just as good as adapting to the situation behind the wheel and being astonishingly fast in any race car. If Alpine can churn out a good race car that continues to improve on the R.S20 of last season, then Fernando will definitely be out for blood, before setting his sights on the 2022 regulations.
5. Carlos Sainz
Choosing a dependable replacement for Sebastian Vettel was never going to be an easy task for Ferrari, but one can definitely see why they chose Spaniard Carlos Sainz. In his last two seasons with McLaren, he's proven himself to be a full-on hardcore racer, one that can mix it up with the very best on a good day. His father's skill on the rally scene has definitely rubbed off Sainz junior, and his drives to podiums in Brazil in 2019 and Monza in 2020 has shown that when he goes for it, he is really unstoppable.
It is great to see him get a chance with Ferrari, alongside Charles Leclerc for 2021. Often with Ferrari, as we saw through 2014 and into 2015, when the team have a poor year, they bounce back twice as good the following year, so do not be surprised if the Scuderia are miraculously back at the front again this season. Talk of a reworked power unit and chassis for 2021 coming from Maranello is enough to be convinced that some positive change is coming the team's way.
I'm very confident that Sainz will not scupper his chance at F1's most successful team, but what I do worry about is that Sainz is merely being used as a filler until the next Charles Leclerc comes through the driver academy. I have a feeling that Sainz, despite how good or bad his performance is, could be on borrowed time at Ferrari, but maybe that is me being just sceptical. The future is Leclerc at Ferrari of course, but Sainz needs to stand up, show all his skill and prove to Ferrari that car 55 can be just as good, if not better, than car 16. Experience over youth was often his hand at McLaren, let's see if it works at Ferrari.
6. Mick Schumacher
Ah, the iconic name is back once again in Formula 1. Mick, son of the legendary Michael, barely needs an introduction at this stage and has already proved his merit in a racing car, carrying on the raw talent that made his father such an icon of the sport. From taking the Euro F3 title in 2018 after a domination of the second half of the season to coming out on top after a tense battle for the F2 championship last season against fellow Ferrari academy drivers Callum Ilott and Robert Shwartzman, Mick will make his much anticipated F1 debut with Haas in the coming season.
Haas has suffered at the tail end of the grid in recent years, with a car that has been showing promise in qualifying but chewing through tyres quicker than Kimi Raikkonen in Portugal last year. However, with Ferrari setting up a base devoted to the team at Maranello as well as the substantial backing brought in by teammate Nikita Mazepin (let's not debate if that's a good or bad thing.), subtle changes in 2021 could set up for a much improved season come the new regulations in 2022.
Haas is definitely a good place to start for young Schumi and although he may be limited to what he can do with such a car, I would expect him to be the lead driver over Mazepin through the season. Often you see promising stars, such as Max Verstappen and Sebastian Vettel in the past with Toro Rosso, or Charles Leclerc with Sauber, drag a mediocre car up the order and Schumacher could possibly bring some good results to the team. If anything, it will be a good learning experience I am sure he will not waste if he wants to bring the iconic surname back to a Ferrari in the future.
7. Yuki Tsunoda
(Red Bull Content Pool.)
Seeing someone enter F1 that was born in the year 2000 makes even 23-year-old me feel quite elderly, but young Japanese man Yuki Tsunoda is definitely worthy of the second seat at AlphaTauri. With Honda departing F1 at the end of the year, it was borderline desperation for the Japanese manufacturer to get at least one of its drivers from its junior programme to F1, but throughout his career in F2 at least showed that Yuki is indeed more than capable.
Three wins, four pole positions and third in the 2020 F2 championship commended the speed and daring talent Tsunoda has at his disposal and I would expect him to be right up to speed once the lights go out in Bahrain, possibly even putting Pierre Gasly under pressure over the course of the season. There is no denying he is awesomely quick, and the recent testing with AlphaTauri at Imola will stand to make sure he is ready for his F1 debut, maybe even throwing up the odd surprising result or two over the course of the season.
Despite Honda pulling out of F1, Tsunoda might not be putting himself in a dead-end in F1 as I initially thought. Also part of the Red Bull driver programme that is now in tatters compared to the talent it held ten years ago, both Honda and Red Bull will be pushing Tsunoda to succeed, and if his F2 career said anything, it's that he can more than handle the pressure. A solid driver that can work alongside Gasly to really take AlphaTauri out of the 'sister team' status and push forward in 2021, while Red Bull could be eagerly keeping an eye on him as a possible future Verstappen/Perez replacement should there be need for him. A guy to watch for sure.