Mercedes will once again start the season with a target on their back as the current unmovable benchmark in Formula 1, but can anyone challenge them in 2021? 

With 2020 cars largely being carried over from last season to this one as part of cost-saving measures implemented in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic, it would seem on the surface, at least, that F1 is set for another year of Mercedes domination. 

Despite development remaining relatively stable, teams faced added challenges in the shape of subtle technical changes aimed at cutting downforce levels, new financial restrictions, and an aerodynamic testing handicap. 

This has led Mercedes technical director James Allison to warn that people should not be “fooled” by suggestions that the quantity of mechanical carry-over will guarantee that the upcoming season will be a repeat of 2020. 

With the potential for some of Mercedes’ advantage to be reined in, let’s take a look at the contenders best-placed to capitalise…

Red Bull 

2020 didn’t go to plan for Red Bull as they missed out on another championship to Mercedes, but the way the team ended the season will provide plenty of optimism for the campaign ahead.

Red Bull has momentum heading into 2021 after taking a dominant victory at the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix in December, with Max Verstappen controlling proceedings to beat both Mercedes drivers on merit and convert pole position into the win to inflict Mercedes' first defeat at the venue since the start of the V6 turbo-charged hybrid era. 

While world champion Lewis Hamilton alone managed to score more points than both of Red Bull’s drivers combined, the Milton Keynes squad made some encouraging gains in the second half of the season as it closed the deficit, though Mercedes did stop developing its W11 after the Belgian GP in August. 

Red Bull won two races in a season it struggled to get on top of its tricky RB16 challenger, but the team is confident it has ironed out the issues it faced with its updated RB16B evolution. It is also set for a welcome power boost from Honda, with the Japanese manufacturer going all out in its bid to win the world championship by developing an all-new engine before it bows out of the sport at the end of 2021. 

With a new line-up boasting the capture of race-winner Sergio Perez - who finished fourth in the championship amid an outstanding 2020 campaign - alongside Verstappen, Red Bull will hope it can hit the ground running and mount its greatest challenge yet to Mercedes. 

McLaren 

McLaren is riding the crest of a wave amid an impressive upward trajectory in recent years that culminated with the team breaking into F1’s top three for the first time since 2012 last year. 

Despite not always boasting the third-quickest car, McLaren proved to be a well-oiled machine and was the most consistent runner in the midfield pack, with the strong combination of Carlos Sainz and Lando Norris steering the Woking squad to third place in the constructors’ championship, capped off with two visits to the podium. 

For 2021 the target is bold and clear: closing the gap to Mercedes. McLaren will be using Mercedes’ all-conquering power units this year after making the switch from Renault, while the team landed a major coup in prizing seven-time grand prix winner Daniel Ricciardo away from rivals Alpine to soften the blow of losing Sainz to Ferrari. 

With a proven race-winner in their line-up and the best engine on the grid, McLaren could emerge as a significant threat, even if the team acknowledged that a championship challenge in 2021 is an “unrealistic” goal to strive for. 

Aston Martin 

Following the rebranding of the Racing Point squad under the Aston Martin moniker over the winter, the team has big ambitions for its new era. 

The Silverstone-based outfit was left disappointed to miss out on third place in the constructors’ standings last year despite having by far the fastest car out of the midfield competitors, though it did earn the most impressive results compared to its rivals with its controversial RP20 car claiming the team’s maiden grand prix win at the Sakhir race in Bahrain. 

A headline-grabbing signing comes in the shape of four-time world champion Sebastian Vettel to partner Lance Stroll, who enjoyed his best F1 season to date last year having scored his first F1 pole position as well as making the podium on two occasions. 

Some question marks do remain over their driver line-up, however. Can Stroll shake off his inconsistent tendencies and realise his potential? And will Vettel rediscover his spark following a mistake-ridden final few years at Ferrari? If so, Aston Martin will have a formidable pairing. 

Alpine 

Alpine - or Renault as it was then known - enjoyed a much better 2020 season following the disappointment of its 2019 campaign, but progress has ultimately been too slow to muster a genuine challenge for the top three. 

While the initial ambitions outlined by the French manufacturer as part of a five-year plan to return to winning ways have failed to materialise, there was clear progress last season. The Enstone-based team ended the year with its car in a very competitive state across a number of different circuit types, something that will give Alpine confidence in its newly-rebranded status for 2021. 

There is a welcome return for two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, who can be depended on to rag every ounce of available performance out of the car, while Esteban Ocon recovered from a slow start to his comeback F1 season with a stronger tail-end to the campaign, capped off with a brilliant drive to second to take his maiden podium at the Sakhir GP. In total, Renault claimed three podiums as it ended its nine-year rostrum drought. 

It’s been a bit of a messy off-season, with Cyril Abiteboul’s shock departure being followed by the arrival of former MotoGP team boss Davide Brivio amid a leadership reshuffle that is yet to be clearly defined, while Alonso’s training programme was interrupted by a cycling crash that left him with a broken jaw, though he is expected to be fully fit in time for the season. Reliability is one area that needs clear improvement if Alpine is to have any hope of leapfrogging its chief rivals in 2021. 

Ferrari 

Ferrari is in desperate need of a better season after the bruising embarrassment of its 2020 campaign, which marked its result F1 season since 1980 as it endured woeful competitiveness and slumped to sixth place in the championship. 

The Scuderia is banking on a brand new power unit to help turn its fortunes around this year, and the upgraded engine is already said to be delivering some promising early figures on the dyno at Maranello, with customer team Alfa Romeo expecting it to recover a "large part" of its performance deficit. 

The team has also been bolstered by the smart signing of Carlos Sainz, giving Ferrari one of the strongest driver line-ups on the 2021 grid, though the Spaniard may require some time to adjust to his new team and get up to speed against the ever-improving Charles Leclerc

While Ferrari is extremely unlikely to find itself in a position to challenge Mercedes this year, team principal Mattia Binotto has made it clear that a return to the top three is the “minimum objective” for the Scuderia in 2021. 

 

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