The anticipation before “lights out”

Pre-season testing came to an end on Sunday and the teams had the chance to see where they stand in terms of performance ahead of the first race of the 2021 F1 campaign in Bahrain. 

Photo credits: Getty Images / Video credits: F1 & Liberty Media

By Daphne Seberich

Only two weeks separate us from the first race of the year. As the pre-season testing in Bahrain wrapped up on Sunday, teams have a much clearer picture of where they stand in terms of pace. What exactly can we expect on the first day back racing? Pre-season testing doesn’t tell the whole story, but it seems like the battle to the top won’t be as predictable as it was the last seven years. 

Red Bull’s RB16B proved to be a real contender this time. Although Max Verstappen seemed to struggle with the stability of the car on day one of testing (a known issue of the past RB challengers), he topped the standings on Sunday, setting the fastest lap of all sessions combined. This result counts as his best ever pre-season testing outcome and certainly brings a boost of confidence coming into the first race of the year.

The new addition to the team, Checo Perez stunned everybody as well. His ability to adapt so quickly to a new machine impressed everyone in Bahrain and at home. The gamble Helmut Marko took in December by signing the Mexican speedster seemed to pay off for Red Bull.  

Video rights: F1 & Liberty Media

“The vibe inside of the team is one of excitement,” says Lawrence Barretto, senior writer at Formula1.com. “Their Honda power-unit looks to be in great shape too, with promising signs of a good step in terms of performance.”

They have the right lineup and a good car. Is this the year of Red Bull bringing the Mercedes’ era to an end?

On the other hand, the Silver Arrows haven’t had the best pre-season testing sessions, as most were characterized by reliability issues. Valtteri Bottas had to sit out the Friday morning practice; his W12 suffered from gearbox difficulties. Lewis Hamilton’s challenger seemed untamable, as he spun on Saturday and Sunday’s sessions. A never-before-seen characteristic of the Mercedes car, known for its maneuverability and handling on all sections of every track they competed at.

Video rights: F1 & Liberty Media

The W12 on soft tires seemed to be 0.56s behind the fastest time set by their Austrian rivals on a flying lap. The German team has its work cut-off in the next two weeks ahead of the first race in Bahrain. Even Lewis Hamilton admitted that the Silver Arrows challenger is “just not quick enough”, anticipating a “great battle” between Verstappen and Perez in the 23-race campaign. 

Graphic credits: Formula 1

Nevertheless, Valtteri Bottas seems confident in his crew and his W12: “I absolutely believe the car and the team, it has the potential [to take the title]. I don’t think it’s yet there as a package in terms of performance, but I’ve no doubt that we will work hard to find it somehow.”

Mercedes is notorious for “sandbagging”, meaning that they like to hide their actual performance ahead of the first race of the season. Is this the case this year as well?

Photo credits: Clive Mason for Getty Images

Finishing off on a good note, the third top-team Ferrari saw some progress between the SF1000 and their new SF21. The Prancing Horse ended their 2020 F1 campaign in sixth place. Their worst result in Formula 1 since 1980.  

This season, the music — or better — the engine noise seems to be different, as the Scuderia based in Maranello debuts a completely new power-unit after their 2020 engine fiasco. Team Principal Mattia Binotto said the team’s straight-line speed is “not anymore a disadvantage,” with the data collected on the track backing up the dyno results encountered back at their facility in Italy. 

Photo credits: Motor.es

Over the winter, Ferrari admitted of having “massively improved” their power-unit, which was at the top of the pyramid of reasons why Ferrari had such a terrible season in 2020.

After the FIA decided to investigate the Prancing Horse’s 2019 challengers amid  allegations of Ferrari breaching the fuel-flow regulations, the two parties reached an agreement, which still hasn’t been made public to this day. But as testing began in Barcelona and the SF1000 lacked in pace, it was clear to everyone that the Italian team had a massive setback in terms of performance compared to the previous year. 

Photo credits: Getty Images

Everyone at Ferrari wants to put the 2020 F1 season behind their backs, especially the Monegasque star driver Charles Leclerc, whose 2020 campaign was sub-par to his 2019 breakthrough season. With Carlos Sainz now in the second seat of the SF21, the Scuderia has a much brighter future ahead. The Spaniard managed to put the red, green and burgundy car up in third in the classification on Sunday, 0.651s off the pace on Pirelli’s C4 compound (the second softest of the range).

The excitement towards the new F1 2021 season is through the roof, with the Silver Arrows set to battle it out with Red Bull for the title. Will Lewis Hamilton become the most successful F1 driver ever with eight Driver’s Championships? Does Red Bull actually have a chance to end the Mercedes domination? Ferrari is set to make a comeback, but will they be able to win some races again? All these questions will be answered in Bahrain on the weekend of March 26th-28th when we’ll finally hear the engines roar and Martin Brundle say: “Lights out and away we go!”.

Photo credits: Musco Sports Lighting

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