Formula One driver guide 2021
Twenty drivers will take to the grid to contest this year's Formula One Championship. We consider their chances at victory
Twenty racing drivers who are purported to be the best in the world. That’s not quite the case, as ever, but this is by our reckoning one of the most talented Formula 1 grids for a long time, with several future superstars and eight of the 10 teams having at least one very talented driver on its books.
There are many plots due to unfold this year ahead of the new technical regulations being introduced in 2022, not least the possibility of Britain’s finest breaking the record for the most world titles in F1 history. Here's who will line up on the grid over the next ten months, and what we think their chances are of taking home victory.
-Sir Lewis Hamilton - Mercedes-AMG-
Britain’s greatest ever F1 driver – perhaps the greatest ever F1 driver in general – has been so consistently brilliant since joining Mercedes in 2013 that he recently became the first to be knighted before retiring. He’s still with the best team in F1 history, so a record-breaking 100th grand prix victory and eighth world championship look to be all but nailed on. Characteristically faultless last year to win the title by miles, at 36 he’s aging like the finest of wines.
*Last year:* 1st | *Our rating:* 10/10
-Valtteri Bottas - Mercedes-AMG-
It’s probably more an indication of how supremely good Hamilton is, rather than an indictment of Bottas’s talent, that the Finn has in four seasons never looked like having a chance at the title, because we know that he’s far from a laggard. His ‘Valtteri 2.0’ efforts faded throughout 2019 and Valtteri 3.0 never showed up last year. He won just two races to Hamilton’s 11 and was outperformed by emergency stand-in Russell at the penultimate Sakhir Grand Prix. He simply has to really transform himself this year, otherwise…
*Last year:* 2nd | *Our rating:* 5/10
-Max Verstappen - Red Bull-Honda-
F1 fans would love nothing more than to see the Flying Dutchman as Hamilton’s team-mate. Viscerally exciting and blessed with an ability to drag a frightfully tricky car to marvellous results, Verstappen is widely regarded as the possessor of the fastest raw pace on the grid. Red Bull has centred around him, and he paid back that faith with 11 podiums, including two wins, from 17 races in 2020. He still occasionally lets his determination-slash-frustration get the better of his wiser judgement, but isn’t that burning passion exactly what fans want to see? If Hamilton loses the title this year, it will surely be to this man.
*Last year:* 3rd | *Our rating:* 9/10
-Sergio Pérez - Red Bull-Honda-
There was universal consternation throughout the latter half of last season that Pérez looked set to miss out on a seat for 2021, after losing his Aston Martin drive to Sebastian Vettel. It’s immensely gratifying that he has at last secured a drive for a top team, because if ever there was a chance for a midfield car to snatch a podium in the past decade, you knew who would be most likely to take it. A stunning first win in Bahrain last year after he had been spun into last on the first lap topped off a consistently immense season. With Pérez instead of Albon in the second car, expect Red Bull to be much better placed to fight for victories.
*Last year:* 4th | *Our rating:* 10/10
-Daniel Ricciardo - McLaren-Mercedes-
Ricciardo was the golden boy at Red Bull, the future star – until Verstappen came along, after which he jumped ship to Renault and a poor 2019 poured water on his hot reputation. The fun-loving fan favourite looked rejuvenated last year, however, despite the awkwardness of him announcing his departure for rival team McLaren before the season could even start. He consummately beat team-mate Esteban Ocon, always looked sharp and scored two highly impressive podiums in what was realistically only the fifth best car. Expect that smile to get even wider with a Mercedes engine behind it this year.
*Last year:* 5th | *Our rating:* 8/10
-Lando Norris - McLaren-Mercedes-
He loves a meme, does young Lando, but there’s much more to him than his humorous public persona: he’s also very handy behind the wheel. That was shown most evidently in the first race of last season, when he put in a scintillating fastest lap at the death to get within the five seconds due to be demoted from Hamilton’s time and thus scored his first podium. He was edged by Sainz across the season but consistently hauled bags of points back to Woking.
*Last year:* 8th | *Our rating:* 7/10
-Sebastian Vettel - Aston Martin-Mercedes-
If Hamilton has aged like the finest of wines, Vettel has aged like a bottle of Coke. No other multiple world champion has such doubts looming over his legacy. After a promising start at Ferrari, Vettel quickly slid into despondency, reaching a nadir last year as he was informed of his redundancy before the first race. He looked and sounded miserable while putting in one stellar performance and plenty of depressing ones. A new start at Aston Martin will answer the question around his legacy, and plenty of others ones too.
*Last year:* 13th | *Our rating:* 2/10
-Lance Stroll - Aston Martin-Mercedes-
‘Daddy’s boy’ is the fans’ label for Stroll, and it’s perfectly understandable: by all objective measures, it should have been Pérez racing alongside Vettel at Aston Martin. However, it’s also not entirely fair: the young Canadian scored not only a podium at Monza last year but also took a brilliant pole position in tricky conditions in Turkey. If he can show that kind of pace throughout the season, he will more than deserve his place, but consistency has thus far eluded him.
*Last year:* 11th | *Our rating:* 5/10
-Fernando Alonso - Alpine-Renault-
He’s 39, he’s been out of F1 for two seasons, his two titles came a decade-and-a-half ago and he recently suffered a jaw-shattering bicycle crash. But come on, he’s also Fernando Alonso, one of the finest racing drivers of all time. We fully expect him to be on the pace from the word go, and his desire to succeed has never been in question. Podiums for Alpine (formerly Renault) should be easily within his grasp – shouldn’t they?
*Last year:* None | *Our rating:* na
-Esteban Ocon - Alpine-Renault-
Ocon was Mercedes’ next champion in waiting, until the firm couldn’t find a 2019 seat for him and a young man called George Russell burst onto the F1 season. The Frenchman found a new home at Renault but has yet to truly re-emerge from the shadows. Ricciardo was the team’s better driver throughout 2020, understandably, although Ocon did give us a glimpse of his promise by finishing second in the penultimate race. He’s a dark horse for 2021, although it might be a very tall order for him to beat his new team-mate…
*Last year:* 12th | *Our rating:* 4/10
-Carlos Sainz Jr. - Ferrari-
Sainz has always been rated highly in F1 circles, and his stock has slowly but surely grown as he has gained experience. He ended 2019 with his first podium and continued his good form into 2020, reaching its zenith as he came within a lap of victory at Monza and charged into the lead as the rain started to fall in Portugal. This year will be a real challenge for him as he not only joins F1’s most famous team but also becomes team-mate to one of the top five drivers on the grid, in Charles Leclerc. Expect him to be a solid, if not spectacular, wingman.
*Last year:* 6th | *Our rating:* 7/10
-Charles Leclerc - Ferrari-
Second place in the first race of 2020 in a car that should barely have been troubling the points-scoring places was a sign of things to come from F1’s newest megastar, as he utterly embarrassed his four-time-champion team-mate Vettel. Leclerc showed in 2019 that he can take pole positions and victories in competitive machinery, and in 2020 he showed that he can skilfully flatter bad machinery. His only real mistake was a slide in the wet that lost him a podium – for which he savagely reprimanded himself. A young man ravenous for success.
*Last year:* 7th | *Our rating:* 9/10
-Pierre Gasly - AlphaTauri-Honda-
Even if you discount Pierre Gasly’s shock-of-all-shocks win at Monza, 2020 was a superb season for the Frenchman. He was sent back to Red Bull’s junior team in mid-2019 after falling well short of Verstappen, but he looked an entirely new man at AlphaTauri, usually qualifying with blistering pace and scoring more than twice as many points as experienced team-mate Daniil Kvyat. Strong, strong stuff.
*Last year:* 10th | *Our rating:* 9/10
-Yuki Tsunoda - AlphaTauri-Honda-
You might dismiss young Tsunoda as a marketing exercise: a Japanese driver who has been fast-tracked through the junior formulae by a Japanese manufacturer. But so far he looks to be more of a Kamui Kobayashi than a Kazuki Nakajima. He put in a number of sparkling performances, including three wins, and was consistent enough to finish third in Formula 2 last year, plus he recorded the second-fastest lap in F1 pre-season testing.
*Last year:* 3rd, Formula 2 | *Our rating:* 7/10
-Kimi Räikkönen - Alfa Romeo-Ferrari-
Even at 41 and having called F1 “more of a hobby for me,” the Iceman remains blisteringly quick. Sadly, though, as we saw in Monza, when he went backwards after restarting high up the grid after a red flag, his current machinery simply isn’t a match for his talent. Still, he had the better of 27-year-old Antonio Giovinazzi on the other side of the Alfa Romeo garage.
*Last year:* 16th | *Our rating:* 5/10
-Antonio Giovinazzi - Alfa Romeo-Ferrari-
You might well suspect that the Italian flag that appears next to Giovinazzi’s name is the main reason why he has retained the second Alfa Romeo seat for a third season. But that’s not being entirely fair to the man who finished second in GP2 in 2016: over the course of last season, he overtook more people on the first lap than any other driver, and by some margin.
*Last year:* 17th | *Our rating:* 6/10
-Mick Schumacher - Haas-Ferrari-
Schumacher – yes, Michael’s son – is yet another driver whom you could easily dismiss as in F1 for a reason other than purely his talent. We would have agreed with that, too, given his slow start in the junior formulae, but certainly not now that he has won the F2 title. The Haas is the slowest car and seemingly tricky to drive, so this year will be no more than a learning exercise for MSC the Second. His main task, then, will be beating his fellow rookie team-mate.
Last year: 1st, Formula 2 | *Our rating:* 8/10
-Nikita Mazepin - Haas-Ferrari-
Haas has a new livery that looks suspiciously like the Russian flag, which has been banned from international sport due to doping. Perhaps the colour scheme has something to do with one of its cars being driven by the son of an oligarch? As a result of many eye-widening defensive manouevres and some distasteful off-track behaviour, Mazepin is attracting controversy in F1 before he’s even turned a wheel. This could be interesting...
*Last year:* 5th, Formula 2 | *Our rating:* 2/10
-George Russell - Williams-Mercedes-
Russell has gone two seasons at Williams without scoring a top-ten finish, but that says more about how poor the car is than his talent. Everybody could see his potential through glimpses of brilliance and consistently stunning qualifying performances, earning him the nickname Mr Saturday. When he bagged a one-off drive for Mercedes after Hamilton caught Covid-19, he outperformed Bottas and would have won but for two screw-ups on the car. Only his dropping it behind the safety car in Imola when points were possible marks him down.
*Last year:* 18th | *Our rating:* 9/10
-Nicholas Latifi - Williams-Mercedes-
Oh, yes, there’s another Canadian in F1, isn’t there? It’s easy to forget, given how anonymous Latifi has been. Having a future megastar as a team-mate in one of the slowest cars makes Latifi look worse than he deserves, but even so, he has never once out-qualified Russell nor challenged him on a Sunday. At least he’s never a nuisance.
*Last year:* 19th | *Our rating:* 3/10
*F1 team guide: 2021 season*