Things to know ahead of the 2021 F1 season

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The 2021 FIA Formula One World Championship is just around the corner with this weekend’s Bahrain Grand Prix set to kickstart the sport’s 72th season. F1Technical’s Balázs Szabó analyses what changes the upcoming season is set to excite us with.

Although the 2020 season ended just before Christmas, the short nature of pre-season testing and the late car launches meant that the winter break felt longer than usually. However, Formula One is slowly but surely back to deliver another year full of excitement and drama.

The key question will be whether Red Bull Racing have found the magic power to finally pose a challenge to the all-conquering, field-leading and dominating powerhouse of Formula One, the Mercedes AMG Petronas Team.

If winter testing is anything to go by, then the Milton Keynes-based team is on the right path, but we all know the excellent capabilities of the reigning world champion team that often can bounce back from a difficult situation. And Mercedes is sure that they have the downforce levels on their 2021 F1 car, the W12 after conducting a series of measurements in Bahrain, but they are well aware they need to sort the balance issues ahead of the season-opener in Manama.

The sport’s most successful team Ferrari is another key question. The team lost its way following the late 2019 technical directives that affected the performance of their power unit, but the Scuderia is eager to improve on its disastrous 2020 result that has been its worst showing since 1980. However, there is no instant remedy for the Italian team's severe lack of pace, especially with the huge amount of carryover into 2021, and the team from Maranello is very well aware of that.

Ferrari is confident that that have successfully addressed their weak points regarding the draggy nature of the SF1000 and the Enrico Gualteri-led team was also not shy of reworking the power unit, improving mainly the thermal efficiency of the heart of their car. However, the Bahrain pre-season testing showed that Ferrari, in the process, lost the cornering speed with which it excelled through 2020. It seems that the fabled Italian team still has some work to do if it really intends to take on the fight against the likes of Alpine, McLaren, Aston Martin and AlphaTauri.

New race time – For the 2021 F1 season, the FIA has amended the Sporting Regulations to reduce the window in which a Formula 1 race can take place from four to three hours. Previously, races had a maximum length of four hours of which the race could have lasted two hours and the suspension another two hours. The updated rule claims that “should the race be suspended the length of suspension will be added to this [race] period up to a maximum total race time of three hours.”

New race start time – In January, Formula 1 has announced that the grand prix start times have been amended with changes included a return to on-the-hour starts. This latest modification reverses a change made in 2018, when start times were shifted back to 10 past the hour.

Four newcomers – Following the departure of Romain Grosjean, Kevin Magnussen, Daniil Kvyat and Alexander Albon, the 2021 F1 driver field will feature four new faces. Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso will make his sensational comeback with the rebranded Alpine outfit while the sport will be strengthened by the arrival of three rookie drivers. Yuki Tsunoda will join the AlphaTauri team while the American outfit Haas will sport a fresh driver line-up with Nikita Mazepin and reigning F2 champion Mick Schumacher.

Two new names – Two teams have been rebranded over the winter. Racing Point’s owner Lawrence Stroll was eager to bring the Aston Martin name back to the sport which will see the British car manufacturer make its comeback to the pinnacle of motorsport after a 61-year-long absence. The company first participated in Formula One during the 1959 season, where they debuted the DBR4 chassis with their own engine, but it failed to score any points. In 1959, Aston Martin completed a total of four races while they only competed in a single race in the following year.

The former Renault F1 team was rebranded for 2021 to promote Renault's sports car brand, but the Enstone / Viry – based outfit will continue to serve as Renault's works team. Alpine which will be managed by Laurent Rossi will also participate in WEC in 2021 with the team set to enter an Alpine A480 Gibson in this year's Hypercar category.

Young driver field – The actual driver field is one of the youngest in the sport. The average age of the twenty drivers will be 27.25 years while it was 27.43 in the previous season. Over half of the field is younger than 25 years with Kimi Räikkönen, Fernando Alonso and Lewis Hamilton representing the oldest drivers in the field.

Ferrari’s fresh driver pairing – The 2021 F1 season will see Carlos Sainz drive for Ferrari alongside Charles Leclerc after having been drafted in place of Sebastian Vettel. The duo will be Ferrari’s youngest driver pairing in the last 50 years.

13 nationalities – The 2021 F1 driver field will feature 13 different nationalities with Spain, Finland, England, France, Germany, Italy, Russia, Mexico, Japan, the Netherlands, Monaco, Canada and Australia fielding drivers on the grid in the 72th running of the FIA Formula One World Championship.

Record long calendar – Although the 2020 F1 season was expected to set a new record in terms of number of races, last year’s schedule was heavily updated due to the coronavirus pandemic. However, the sport is eager to stick to the 23-race calendar in 2021 with 259 days separating the season-opener in Bahrain and the season finale in Abu Dhabi. The schedule sees the Dutch Grand Prix make its comeback with the race in Zandvoort while Saudi Arabia will host its inaugural race in Jeddah.

The inaugural Saudi Arabian Grand Prix - Located in the Corniche area on the Red Sea, approximately 12km geographically north of Jeddah's centre, the circuit will be 6.175km long, the second longest on the Formula 1 calendar, after Spa Francorchamps at 7.004km. The big difference is that, unlike Spa, the Jeddah Street Circuit has very few changes in gradient, lying largely flat as it skirts the coast.

The track is set to become the second fastest circuit on the F1 calendar with an estimated average speed of 252.8km/h. Currently, Italy’s Monza is the fastest track with an average speed of with Great Britain’s Silverstone circuit occupying the second spot with 251.6km/h. The circuit will have 27 corners and has the potential for 3 DRS detections zones, increasing the ability to overtake and close-up on cars in front.

Cost ceiling – Without any doubt the biggest change coming in 2021 is the introduction of Formula 1’s first ever cost cap. The upcoming season will see the introduction of the financial ceiling at $147.4m, while that baseline is set to be reduced to $140m in 2022, and $135m for 2023. The notable exceptions are marketing costs, driver salaries and the salaries of the three highest earners in the team aren’t included. Neither are the costs of employees’ maternity, paternity and sick leave, as well as the cost of medical benefits for team personnel and redundancy packages.

No freedom in terms of tyre allocation – Due to the uncertainty around the coronavirus pandemic, Pirelli abandoned the free tyre choice for 2021. As was the case last year, there will be a fixed allocation for each driver of two hard sets, three medium sets, and eight soft sets at each race.

New tyres – Although the introduction of the brand-new 18-inch Pirelli tyres has been pushed back by a year due to the coronavirus, the Milan-based manufacturers have updated their tyres for 2021. While the cars’ downforce levels have also been cut back by around 10 per cent to trim back on the huge loads measured during the 2020 F1 season, Pirelli wanted to make sure that their tyres can cope with the loads. Teams were able to sample the new tyres in three free practice sessions in 2020 and in the Bahrain pre-season testing. The new tyres are 2.8kg heavier than their predecessor.

Three regulations – the 2021 FIA Formula One World Championship will be regulated with the help of three regulations books. While the Technical Regulation is a 133-page document, the Sporting Regulation features 89 pages. The revolutionary Financial Regulation is made up by 46 pages.

Aerodynamic testing – Although the introduction of the cost cap is undoubtedly the biggest change that the sport has seen for long years, the new sliding scale for aerodynamic testing can also have a certain influence on the pecking order. It means that teams will be granted different time for their wind tunnel or with their Computational Fluid Dynamics (CFD) simulations. The highest-placed team from 2020 will have the shortest available time for its aerodynamic development while the team that finished at the bottom of the 2020 Constructors’ Championship will be allocated with the most available time.

Mercedes will get 90 per cent of the maximum allowed aerodynamic development time,, followed by Red Bull (92.5 %), McLaren (95 %), Aston Martin (97.5 %), Renault (100%), Ferrari (102,5%), AlphaTauri (105%), Alfa Romeo (107,5%), Haas (110%) with Williams set to get the most with 112.5 per cent. Those percentages will be even more pronounced in the period of 2022-2025

DAS outlawed – Mercedes’ controversial Dual-Axis Steering System has been banned for 2021. The Anglo-German team introduced it last year during pre-season testing at Barcelona. Their drivers were able to push and pull their steering wheels to change to toe angles of the front tyres with the system thought to help the team with tyre warm-up during safety car periods and out laps.

Less engine development time – The time that is available for engine testing will also be decreased for 2021. Engine manufacturers will be able to run their engines on the dyno for a maximum of 800 hours when using them over 7500 rpm. The hybrid components can be tested for a maximum of 400 hours.

New minimum weight – The minimum weight of the cars has been increased for 2021. While the weight of cars in their unfuelled state used to be 746kg previously, it will be 752kg in 2021 while the minimum weight of the power units have also increased from 145kg to 150kg in 2021. The sport explained the latest increase of weight as it intends to discourage teams from using exotic materials that are highly expensive.

Exhaust systems – Up until now, power units were made up by six different components – internal combustion engines, motor generator units - heat, turbochargers, energy stores, control electronics and motor generator units – kinetic. From 2021, exhaust systems will be added to this list of PU components with drivers allowed to use no more than eight per season. They will have an access to three ICEs, MGU-Hs, TCs, MGU-Ks and two ESs and CEs.

2020 tyre testing – While the 2021 F1 season is yet to get underway, teams are very much looking at the 2022 Technical Regulation which will result in the design of totally new cars. Tyres will also be different with Pirelli set to introduce 18-inch tyres in the upcoming year. The Italian tyre manufacturer will conduct an extensive testing programme throughout 2021 in order to iron out any issues with its brand-new product.

The test schedule kicked off with Ferrari notching up high mileage on both the dry and wet weather 18-inch tyres at Jerez on 22-24 February. The coming months will see Ferrari work again with Pirelli in Bahrain and Budapest while Alpine, Mercedes, Alfa Romeo, AlphaTauri, Red Bull, Haas, Aston Martin and McLaren are also set to conduct tyre testing. Only Williams F1 Team decided against a test session with the 18-inch tyres.

Limited crew - Formula 1's races behind closed doors have been officially referred to as “Closed Events” with this label having been introduced when the sport returned to racing in Austria on 5 July. The first part of the season is set to run according to these rules with only 90 members allowed per team of which only 60 members’ work can be associated with the performance of the car. In normal times, this number is the same, but there are no restrictions regarding the number of other team members like press officers and those who work at the team’s hospitality or the marketing department.

Shorter practice sessions – Teams and drivers have to get used to shorter Friday practice times. The opening two sessions of weekends will be 60 minutes each instead of 90 minutes, forcing teams to cram in more on-track action. The third and final practice session will remain at 60 minutes as previously.