If Formula 1 gets its way then there are still more races left in the 2021 season than we’ve had so far. Thank goodness we’ve just had a summer break…
The second half of the season, which could feature up to 12 races, begins this weekend in Belgium and there is much to anticipate as F1’s intense title fight between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen resumes.
There’s more to be resolved than ‘just’ the two world championships though. Here are four questions that needs as the season gets back under way.
Is Mercedes really on Red Bull’s level again?
Over the final two races before the break, Hamilton jumped back ahead of Verstappen in the championship. But that wasn’t down to Mercedes suddenly becoming a dominant force, it was because of their collision at Silverstone that sent Verstappen into the barriers and Verstappen suffering heavy damage because of Valtteri Bottas in Hungary.
Mercedes was clearly more competitive at those races than the Red Bull Ring double-header that Red Bull was well clear at. Hamilton scored pole in qualifying at both Silverstone and Budapest and while the Red Bull looked the faster race car in Britain it was a marginal difference and we never got to see how their pace shook out in Hungary.
Mercedes upgraded its car at Silverstone so there is an expectation that Mercedes is closer, but that Red Bull retains a fractional edge.
Two of the next three races are anomalies as they are low-downforce circuits with special low-drag packages, and in between Spa/Monza we have Zandvoort – which is an unknown.
It’ll take a while to establish exactly where the advantage (if one exists) lies in the title fight. Until then we can only expect the Hamilton/Verstappen fight to be very close and potentially swing between them race-to-race.
That’s exactly what we saw in Friday practice where there was nothing to choose between Verstappen and the two Mercedes drivers. It may even come down to picking the right aero configuration for Spa with its super-fast first and final sectors and the middle sector that’s packed with corners.
There’s no splitting them. So, basically, we’re where we left off in the first half of the year.
Will Ferrari’s engine upgrade give it an edge over McLaren?
One of the consequences of Aston Martin driver Sebastian Vettel’s disqualification in Hungary was that Carlos Sainz was promoted to third and those extra three points moved Ferrari level with McLaren in the constructors’ championship.
Ferrari holds third place for now on a countback as it has Sainz’s second place in Monaco as its best result while McLaren only has third-place finishes for Lando Norris.
It gives Ferrari a small edge in what is proving to be a seriously close battle – but another advantage may emerge later in the season.
Ferrari will introduce an upgrade within its energy recovery system at some point this year. That’s allowed because it did not homologate a new specification of component at the start of the year which means it is still free to upgrade that specific part of its power unit.
It’s yet to be revealed when that upgrade will emerge but when it does it should help offset part of Ferrari’s lingering power unit deficit. That could be very useful in its fight given the McLaren tends to have a straightline speed advantage.
And with Daniel Ricciardo still struggling to support Norris in the way that Sainz/Charles Leclerc are scoring points for Ferrari, that could be decisive in their championship fight.
What will the rest of the calendar look like?
The championship fights above will also be impacted by how many races there actually are remaining in 2021.
Presently the calendar is locked in up to Russia but then it gets a bit uncertain.
Turkey, the USA, Mexico and Brazil are all questionable based on those countries’ respective coronavirus situations and more importantly all of them except the USA are on the UK’s ‘red list’ which matters because seven teams are based in the UK.
F1 can’t have a race in a red list country then a gap because it would mean team personnel quarantining on return to the UK, or having to stay on the road for a long period of time.
One option is for a race like Sakhir to be added onto the back of Turkey and complete a triple-header in place of the cancelled Japan round.
Beyond that, who knows. Various options have been mooted including a race in Qatar. Who knows if F1 will have any races in the Americas for a second season in a row.
What’s the driver market latest?
Spa is traditionally quite fun for driver market speculation but it’s a little thin on the ground this year. There’s only one major seat to fill – at Mercedes – with the rest of the empty spaces at the back of the grid.
We thought we’d know the identity of Lewis Hamilton’s team-mate by now but that information is still not being disclosed by Mercedes. Maybe the decision hasn’t been made but Valtteri Bottas made it sound very much like it has, it’s just not being announced yet.
Expectations are that Bottas will lose his seat to George Russell and then Bottas will head to Alfa Romeo, even though swapping with Russell at his old teams Williams seemed like the obvious move at first.
Elsewhere Red Bull is to keep both Red Bull Racing and AlphaTauri line-ups the same, after confirming Sergio Perez for 2022 on Friday – that means Pierre Gasly/Yuki Tsunoda should be announced at AlphaTauri very soon.
So it’s just Alfa, Haas and Williams that need to be properly settled.
That’s not likely to change this weekend but it will probably be mostly resolved – if not set completely – by the end of the triple-header.