By Robert Haile
The first of 23 Grand Prix is here with a return to Bahrain International Circuit for three days of competition and intrigue.
Ten teams and 20 drivers will tackle 57 laps on Sunday March 28 as the race to crown the 2021 Drivers and Constructors Champion begins.
After the COVID-19 shortened the 2020 ended with Lewis Hamilton wining his seventh Drivers Title while Mercedes won there 12 overall and seventh in a row.
This year could be potentially one of the most interesting after the changes brought in to start leveling the field and if testing proves close to how the teams will start Red Bull could be about to halt Mercedes run and lift their first title since Sebastian Vettel in 2014 with Max Verstappen.
There are two new teams in the paddock as Renault have changed to Alpine and Aston Martin return after over 60 years away to replace Racing Point.
While Alfa Romeo, Mercedes and Williams have stayed with the same driver line up for 2021 there are three new (rookie) drivers as AlphaTauri look to produce the next Red Bull driver with Yuki Tsunoda.
Haas have a familiar name with Mick Schumacher, son of seven time champion Michael, and Nikita Mazepin making there debuts.
Seen as the one of the best drivers around Fernando Alonso returns to Alpine after two years away as Daniel Ricciardo heads to McLaren.
Four time champion Vettel has joined Aston Martin as Carlos Sainz moves to the pressure-cooker at Ferrari and Sergio Perez has moved into what could be a cursed seat at Red Bull.
Hamilton beat Verstappen around the International Circuit last year but the Red Bull driver out paced everyone in testing with the Mercedes team outside the top three that included Tsunoda.
In preparation for their return to Bahrain Mercedes Team Principle Toto Wolff talked about testing and the rule changes.
“It feels like we have spent quite some time in Bahrain recently, and with mixed fortunes,” he said.
“Overall, it was a tricky three days of testing for us. The W12 wasn’t as stable, predictable or planted as some of our rivals. Red Bull looked strong on both the long and the short runs, but as always with testing, it’s difficult to be certain of true performance.
“The only thing we know for sure is that we must prove our ability to react. From the moment the third day of testing finished, we got our heads down and started to figure out how we can return to Bahrain in stronger form in just a few days’ time.
“While these cars share some parts from their predecessors, there have also been significant rule changes to interpret and overcome,” he added. “We have also had to change the way we work in response to the cost cap. But as we have found before, it’s from the difficult moments that we learn the most.
“This team’s biggest strengths are our people and our values, and after a tough test, I know that we can fight back stronger. I’m looking forward to getting this new and exciting season underway, seeing the progress we can make and how we fare in Bahrain.”
The race weekend starts today, Friday March 26, with two rounds of practice with one practice session on Saturday before the all important qualifying in the afternoon into evening.
Then the 57 laps of combat on Sunday evening where we will find out if Lewis Hamilton can start his title defence with a win or will Red Bull be celebrating.