The first Formula One (F1) race in the 2021 season took place in Bahrain on March 28. Even though the grandstands were empty, the new F1 cars’ engines revving reverberated through the racecourse and could be heard for miles. The numerous 2021 F1 regulation changes did little to change the race’s result: The seven-time world champion Lewis Hamilton finished first, followed by Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas.
F1 can be difficult to appreciate without understanding the team dynamics, politics and feuds between drivers — some even within the same team. A week before the race, Netflix aired the third season of Drive to Survive, a docuseries that aims to “immerse the audience inside the cockpits, the paddock, and the lives of the key players in Formula 1.” The show’s fly-on-the-wall style not only provides an authentic perspective of the sport but also reveals the tenacity of the drivers.
The episode called “The Comeback Kid” focuses on AlphaTauri driver Pierre Gasly, who in the span of a week during the 2019 season was dropped from Red Bull, his first-choice team, and then lost his best friend and Formula Two (F2) racer Anthoine Hubert in a brutal crash.
“After I got moved from Red Bull, Antoine sent me a message: ‘Prove everybody wrong and show them your skills and talent,’” Gasly said in the episode. “I know, in life, you have many obstacles. After the Red Bull demotion, I had to face a big challenge. I had to rebuild myself. But it’s only my third season in F1, so I’m better than last year.”
In the following season, Gasly consistently performed well in the races and went on to win the 2020 Italian Grand Prix.
However, it would be a mistake to consider F1 an individual sport: While the drivers do play a crucial role in the team’s success, they bank on their team’s strategies and mechanical prowess to reach the podium.
The 2021 F1 season witnessed several regulatory and driver changes that were expected to increase competition.
The cost cap was reduced this season in response to the COVID-19 pandemic, which impacted the teams’ finances. Each team is now required to spend a maximum of $145 million aside from the additional spending leeway for each race. The cap will be reduced to $140 million and $135 million in the following two seasons.
This season also had seven out of the 10 teams change their driver lineup. Sebastian Vettel, a four-time champion, left Ferrari to join Aston Martin and subsequently booted one of the incumbent drivers, Sergio Pérez (the other driver, Lance Stroll, is the son of the team owner Lawrence Stroll). Pérez eventually joined Red Bull, replacing Alex Albon.
Haas, the only American team on the grid and one known for a low personnel churn, replaced both its seasoned drivers with two rookies, Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin. Mick Schumacher, the son of seven-time F1 world champion Michael Schumacher, won the 2020 F2 Championship last year. Mazepin, a Russian driver who also competed in F2, has had a rocky preseason after posting a controversial video on Instagram.
The day before the 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix, the drivers competed in the qualifying round where each of them attempted to get the fastest lap around the circuit to begin at the best starting position for the race. Red Bull’s Verstappen took pole position, followed by Mercedes’ Hamilton and Bottas. The new Red Bull driver Pérez finished an unimpressive 11th place.
On race day, Pérez faced problems with his car during the formation lap when drivers go around the track to get to their appropriate starting position and warm up their tires for increased traction. As a result, he had to start at the back of the grid.
The first race of 2021 started with new driver Mazepin spinning and crashing on the third turn of the first lap. Twitter nicknamed the event Mazespin.
The race picked up interest towards the end when there was an intense battle for first place between Verstappen and Hamilton. Verstappen had caught up and was trailing Hamilton by under a second in the last few laps; however, Hamilton was able to hold him off and claim another win.
In the post-race interview, Hamilton remarked on the difficulty of holding the position from Verstappen.
“It was so tough for the first race. I was not expecting to be in that position,” he said.
Pérez climbed back up to the top of the race and finished an impressive fifth. He was subsequently awarded Driver of the Day by race viewers.
With 22 races left, it is difficult to predict where the drivers and constructors would end up in the championship. Even though Red Bull’s strong first race finish shows that they have become a more serious contender for the Constructors’ Championship, they need to maintain that consistency throughout the season — a characteristic the Mercedes team triumphs at.
The exciting battle will be for third place in the Constructors’ Championship. Last season, McLaren narrowly clinched the title from Racing Point (now renamed Aston Martin) in the final race. It looks like there’s a four-way battle between McLaren, Ferrari, AlphaTauri and Aston Martin for third place.
Despite the empty stadiums, F1 fans from around the world are tuning into the races, fully geared up.