We have the best chance of a strong championship battle between multiple constructors since 2012. That year brought an exciting title fight between Red Bull, Ferrari, McLaren, and even Lotus. Just 157 points split the top 4 teams, compared to 594 points in 2019.
Since 2012, F1 has lacked in the department of providing a close championship battle across different teams. Red Bull went on to dominate in 2013, and then we all know the success of Mercedes up to date throughout the turbo-hybrid era. The strongest challenger to their reign (Ferrari across 2017-18) failed to prevent Mercedes from comfortably retaining their crown with multiple rounds to spare.
However, in 2021, we may well see the strongest Red Bull team since 2013- a team who can finally match the mighty Mercedes. This is due to 3 main reasons: favourable regulations, the signing of Sergio Perez, and the growing weakness of Bottas, alongside some other smaller factors which could help.
Firstly, the 2021 regulations favour Red Bull. They are largely consistent with the 2020 rules, meaning Red Bull's usual early season slump shouldn't be a problem, and that it won't just be the second half of the season where the team can challenge Merc, but the entirety of the year instead. Red Bull have announced that 60% of their 2020 car will be carried over to 2021, meaning the energy drinks outfit won't begin the season on the backfoot, facing the same performance deficit to Mercedes that it usually does in the opening rounds. As a result, Red Bull has a better chance of re-creating the end of season form it produced in 2019 and 2020 from the beginning, thus ensuring it is a worthy contender for the title.
Furthermore, the 2021 regulations ban DAS, and give Red Bull 2.5% more aero testing than Mercedes. These disadvantages for the Brackley outfit may not hurt them too much or even make a noticeable impact, but they are definitely additional aspects to the 2021 rules which will help Red Bull close the gap.
The second reason is the acquisition of Sergio Perez for that second seat. Albon and Gasly severely struggled to contribute to Red Bull's points tally across 2019 and 2020. This often left Verstappen strategically outnumbered at the front of the field against the Mercs, with the German team able to split their strategies to ensure success over the Dutchman.
However, Perez brings vast levels of experience and speed to Red Bull, as well as the ability to go long on tyres. This means he will do better to compliment Max's attempts to rival Mercedes. He will allow Red Bull to also split their strategies (perhaps with one driver on a one stop and the other on a two stop for example), and challenge the dominant silver arrows on two fronts, rather than just one.
He will also dramatically increase the likelihood of Red Bull 1-2s on days Mercedes face a difficult Sunday. Red Bull will be able to properly capitalise on Mercedes' troubles, and ensure Mercedes no longer enjoy an almost guarantee of a double podium result no matter what.
Perez will increase the chance of Red Bull lining up ahead of Mercedes on the grid, give them greater strategic options throughout the race, and prevent Hamilton easily gaining a minimum of 15 points from every outing, with Max and Valtteri no longer being the only viable challengers against Lewis.
Of course this all relies upon Perez getting a handle on the Red Bull, unlike Albon and Gasly. We cannot expect Sergio to match Verstappen throughout the season, but I do believe he will do a far better job of getting close than his two predecessors did. The Mexican has proven himself to be one of the best on the grid. He was undoubtedly the stand out performer of 2020, has been consistently the strongest driver in the midfield since at least 2016, and has outperformed his team-mates, including the highly regarded talents of Hulkenberg and Ocon, without fail from 2015 onwards.
Therefore, Red Bull are likely to have two fast drivers, in a car that starts the season closer than ever to the Mercedes.
Coupled with the likely strength of Red Bull for 2021 is a weakness of Mercedes: Bottas. Valtteri finished an impressive 58 points off Lewis in his first year at Mercedes, showing great potential, with 13 podiums and 3 wins. However, since his debut year in the team, he has grown ever weaker in comparison to his team-mate. In 2018, when the performance deficit from Mercedes to other teams was at its weakest in recent history, Valtteri dropped to 5th in the standings. This shows he is vulnerable to allowing the Red Bull drivers to surpass his point score in 2021, possibly helping the Austrian team to challenge for the constructors.
To be fair to Valtteri, he did show better in 2019, greatly reducing his points deficit to Hamilton compared to what we saw in 2018 (161 points). Nevertheless, Bottas returned to 2018 levels last season, being thrashed by 124 points to Lewis. He almost lost second place in the standings to Verstappen, who would have easily become vice-champion if it hadn't been for a series of unfortunate DNFs. A stronger Red Bull in 2021 will mean Max comfortably beats Bottas, and also gives Perez the opportunity to do the same. Both Red Bulls with the opportunity to out-pace Bottas will help them challenge for the constructors, as well as outnumber Hamilton strategically in races, hopefully allowing Verstappen the chance to make Lewis fight hard for his eighth title, at the very least. In short, Bottas' vulnerability could help Red Bull end Mercedes' dominance this season.
We also have the minor factor of track choice on the calendar, which could well aid Red Bull in their bid to challenge the Silver Arrows. We see Zandvoort and Suzuka back (hopefully) for 2021, giving Honda and Verstappen home races which will only help their momentum. Zandvoort is also a circuit which fits the stereotype for being a track Red Bull will be strong at, suggesting it will be a helpful venue for Red Bull to take points over Merc.
The same can be said for the return of Brazil, where Verstappen has been strong in the past few years, with a win there in 2019, and what should have been a win in 2018 (with a crash with a lapped Ocon preventing it). As well as this, the return of Singapore should be beneficial for Red Bull, who proved faster than Mercedes there in 2019, and were far closer to Mercedes at the street circuit in 2017 and 18 in comparison to most other tracks, earning a podium at both events.
Finally, China, a circuit which has seen Mercedes take wins at 5 of the last 6 races it has hosted, is currently off the calendar, meaning a Mercedes favourite may yet again fail to provide the opportunity for a strong Lewis-Valtteri points haul.
Therefore, the 2021 regulations, the likely strength of Perez and the likely weakness of Bottas, as well as the calendar for this season, could prove to be factors which allow for the best title fight across multiple teams since 2012. Even if Lewis is still the favourite for the title in my eyes, I like to think that Mercedes will be in no way dominant, and the fight for the title will be down to the wire in Abu Dhabi come the finale. Who knows- maybe the combo of 33+11 will equal 44!
If I may add a final point, which is definitely a long shot, a McLaren team on a continuous resurgence may play a minor role too in preventing Mercedes dominance. They have seen their deficit from pole position drop from 102.84% in 2017 to 101.35% in 2020, including being just 0.251 seconds off pole at Abu Dhabi, and have gone from scoring an average of 2.95 points a race in 2018 to 11.88 points in 2020. With their constant improvement, their signing of Ricciardo, and their all new Mercedes power unit, it is not impossible that McLaren will be within 1% of pole position's lap time every Saturday. They won't be a threat to Mercedes in the championship, but come weekends Mercedes slip up, they may well pay the price of losing out to McLaren as well as Red Bull.
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