New driver pairings, new liveries, new team names… new start. Formula 1 launch season is always an exciting time as teams present themselves full of hope and optimism for what lies ahead – without ever really revealing too much. But despite their best efforts, there’s still plenty we can take away from the launches of the past few weeks ahead of the single three-day pre-season test in Bahrain that begins this coming Friday, before the 23-race season kicks off at the same venue on 28th March.
What we know from the new F1 car launches
Mercedes-AMG: back in black
Inevitably, focus largely fell on Lewis Hamilton when Mercedes took the wraps off its ‘Black Arrow’ W12 on 2nd March, the team retaining its special livery to push its ongoing campaign for diversity and intolerance to racism. Hamilton’s late-braking one-year deal means speculation over his future beyond 2021 has only intensified, although team boss Toto Wolff promised to avoid a repeat of the recent drawn-out saga. Hamilton appeared his usual assured, confident self as he prepares to bid for a record eighth title – although subsequent news that he has parted company with long-time business advisor and ex-British Formula 3 champion Marc Hynes is a major change in his life.
On the car itself, tech director James Allison predictably offered only snippets and admitted Mercedes is hiding the W12’s new floor, the design of which will be key to pulling back the downforce lost from the aerodynamic rule changes introduced for this final season with the current cars. He also alluded to a “sexy bulge” in the engine cover as a sign of power unit development work that includes a new alloy engine block and developments to the energy recovery system to squeeze out more power and improve reliability. The black cars remain the ones every other team will be shooting at this season.
Red Bull: Perez ready to fire
The arrival of Sergio Perez as replacement for Alexander Albon beside Max Verstappen has injected new energy into Mercedes’ most potent threat. Red Bull showed off its RB16B on 23rd February and the Mexican revealed a winter holiday had not been an option as he prepares for his big chance in a front-running car.
As for Verstappen, he played it low-key as speculation swirls about his future. Team boss Christian Horner is no fool and openly admitted Max will be “top of the list” for Mercedes, if Hamilton does choose to retire. But in the meantime, there’s a season to be tackled and in Red Bull’s ranks there’s genuine optimism the team has a shot at Merc’s crown in Honda’s closing year as engine supplier. Early last season the RB16 was a handful even for Verstappen, but now in evolution form there’s talk that the team’s long-term commitment to a ‘high-rake’ concept could be about to pay off. For F1’s sake, let’s hope they are right.
McLaren: Ricciardo’s power of three
Another new arrival here, as Daniel Ricciardo’s infectious enthusiasm gave McLaren plenty to smile about at the launch of the newly Mercedes-powered MCL35M on 15th February. The Australian revealed he’s signed a three-year deal for what might well be his final F1 team, highlighting his belief that McLaren has what it takes to fight for world titles just as it used to long ago. Also, the man who carries the number three on his car in deference to the great Dale Earnhardt Sr. said he has an eye on team boss Zak Brown’s famed historic car collection. Expect Daniel to get a run in Brown’s Wrangler-backed Chevrolet NASCAR at some point. It would look great on Goodwood’s Hill at the Festival of Speed presented by Mastercard…
In the other McLaren, Lando Norris heads into his third season knowing he’s facing a crucial test against the seven-time grand prix winner, if he is to be considered among F1’s elite. There was plenty of good humour at the McLaren launch (no surprise on that), but still there’s an unmistakable edge between this pair for what promises to be one of the most fascinating intra-team duels of 2021.
Aston Martin: new green monster
The most anticipated launch of this pre-season took place on 3rd March, as the car formerly known as the ‘Pink Mercedes’ became the ‘green Mercedes’… aka, the AMR21. Yes, Aston Martin is now officially back as an F1 entrant for the first time since 1960.
Sure, the livery hits the marks and the celebrity quota was high thanks to Gemma Arterton, ‘James Bond’ (Daniel Craig) and NFL football star Tom Brady, but what really mattered was seeing Sebastian Vettel put on a convincing brave face to the world for what he hopes will be a career reboot after his Ferrari horrors.
Lawrence Stroll’s millions will be spent on a new factory and infrastructure, with a target for Aston to become a title challenge in three to five years. As the car subsequently took its first spin in green around Silverstone, the old cliche about this team ‘punching above its weight’ became well and truly redundant. This is a proper works team now, carrying all the expectation that comes with such status.
Alpine: Alonso’s no-show
Another fresh paint job and shiny new name here, as Renault regenerates into Alpine. The A521 was revealed in the brand’s smart blue colours on 2nd March – with a gaping hole where there was supposed to be Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard missed the launch as he recovers from the fractured jaw incurred in a recent cycling accident – but the team was at pains to assure everyone the 39-year-old will be fit to drive in the Bahrain tests. We’ll see. But it’s hardly the start the two-time champion needs as he makes his much-vaunted F1 return.
Aside from Alonso’s absence, the most intriguing aspect of the Alpine reveal was the admission that the team won’t have a team principal this year. In the wake of Cyril Abiteboul leaving the company, the Enstone outfit has found itself with two senior figures who will share out responsibilities: executive director Marcin Budkowski and new racing director Davide Brivio, formerly boss of the championship-winning Suzuki MotoGP team. Two chiefs calling the shots? It’s hard to think of too many occasions in the past that such a structure has worked in F1 and we can’t help wondering: what does Alonso make of it?
Haas: flying the flag for Russia
AlphaTauri ushered in a smart livery change on 19th February as promising Japanese Yuki Tsunoda had a maiden run in the AT02 at Imola, while Alfa Romeo followed on 22nd February with its C41 launch. Another reveal that caught the eye was the new-look Haas on 4th March, with a livery that now features the Russian flag, in deference to fresh title sponsor Uralkali, the backer for well-heeled rookie who joins the team.
The Haas story should be focused on Mick Schumacher, son of Michael, making his F1 debut in a team that has already admitted it’s up against it once again. Instead, Haas’ second driver came under a glaring spotlight as he was forced into humility mode over his distasteful behaviour on social media late last year. Then to really rub in a tricky launch week, the World Anti-Doping Agency (WADA) began asking awkward questions about the use of the Russian flag on the car for a country that is banned from international sport – including motor racing. Nothing is ever simple at this team!
Williams: false start for revival
Just last Friday, 5th March, Williams revealed an eye-catching new livery (featuring very few actual sponsors) on its FW43B. But it didn’t exactly go to plan. The first launch under new owner Dorilton Capital was supposed to happen ‘virtually’ via a bespoke app – only for the app to be hacked and the images leaked… Let’s hope it’s not a sign of things to come for the beleaguered team.
New CEO Jost Capito, formerly boss of VW Motorsport, was on hand to explain how the new colours hark back to the good old days of the 1980s for this once-great team and waffled something about how the new livery “signposts our long-term ambition to return to the front of the grid”. All fairly meaningless.
Ferrari will be the last team to reveal its car on Wednesday 10th March before the Bahrain tests begin. Finally, the talk is about to stop and what really counts is about to begin.
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