The F1 title race has not been the most dynamic of markets in recent years, with Lewis Hamilton winning in six of the last seven seasons and clinching the crown with at least two races to spare in each of the last four campaigns.
But things look set to be more competitive in 2021 with hints that Mercedes may no longer have the dominant package that propelled them to the last seven Constructors’ titles.
This weekend’s opening race will give a better indication of whether the Silver Arrows’ problems are likely to be long-running or merely teething troubles exacerbated by the minimal nature of this year’s pre-season testing.
But for now the stage looks set for a title battle between teams, rather than between team-mates for once, and it’s no surprise that the odds of Red Bull’s Max Verstappen winning his first world crown have come crashing down to
5/2 with Hamilton
1/2 to become F1’s all-time record holder by winning his eighth championship.
Unhappy Bottas Still No Threat to Hamilton
Valtteri Bottas was the world championship runner-up in the last two seasons, having managed only third and fifth in his first two seasons as Hamilton’s teammate.
But the Finnish driver was not really in the title race for long after finishing first and second in the two season-opening races in Austria, winning only one more all season and finishing 124 points behind Hamilton despite taking part in one more race.
Indeed, Bottas’s future with the team was put in doubt when he was outshone for most of the weekend by super-sub George Russell when Hamilton had to miss the Sakhir Grand Prix.
He is desperate to show he is more than just a competent second driver but the evidence suggests he is no threat to Hamilton over a full season and is one to avoid at
14/1 for the title.
Red Bull Set for a Fast Start
Verstappen looks to have a genuine chance to land his first world title after Red Bull impressed in pre-season testing. The daredevil Dutchman was top of the timesheets on the first and third days in Bahrain and the Anglo-Austrian team suffered no technical problems.
They look good to go for the opener and Verstappen’s hand is strengthened this season by an upgrade of his team-mate, with Sergio Perez replacing the disappointing Alex Albon.
The experienced Perez is a race winner after his success in the Sakhir Grand Prix last season, which helped him take fourth place in the championship for Racing Point.
The Mexican is quite capable of getting in the mix at the front and gives Red Bull added tactical flexibility to allow them to split strategies and give Hamilton a tougher time in general.
While Verstappen is the more likely to snatch Hamilton’s crown, Perez is an interesting each-way option at
16/1 if Mercedes’ early issues turn into a long-term problem.
McLaren in Hunt to be Best of the Rest
Aston Martin, the renamed Racing Point team, have the potential to run at the front through Sebastian Vettel and Lance Stroll, although their pre-season did not go smoothly, and McLaren, third last season, caught the eye. Daniel Ricciardo looks to have the pace to score his first race win since his Red Bull days in 2018 after moving from Renault and his British team-mate Lando Norris could also be in the hunt for regular top-six finishes.
Ferrari should be better, if not podium contenders, while Alpine (the new name for Renault), are likely to be in the middle of the pack, under pressure from the improving Williams, with Alfa Romeo and Haas bringing up the rear.
Alpha Tauri Look a Team to Watch
The second Honda-powered team on the grid, Alpha Tauri, also gave the impression in testing that they are in for a strong season.
Pierre Gasly, who won the Italian Grand Prix last season, has the talent to deliver results if the car is as fast as it looked and his diminutive rookie team-mate Yuki Tsunoda looked a top-notch prospect in F2 last season.
*All odds correct at time of writing