F1 driver shake-up signals a changing of the guard in 2021

Sebastian Vettel Ferrari

The Formula 1 season has yet to begin but already attention has turned to 2021 following the announcement that Sebastian Vettel will not be renewing his contract with Ferrari. A breakdown in contract negotiations has led to Ferrari securing the services of Carlos Sainz as a replacement for 2021. In turn, McLaren have announced that Daniel Ricciardo will be taking the seat vacated by Sainz. These radical changes may suggest a new dawn awaits for F1 in 2021.

The best drive available to the outgoing Vettel, should he decide to continue in F1, appears to be at Renault. Although the team is improving, they still finished a distant fifth in last year’s constructor’s championship with 91 points; by way of comparison Ferrari finished with 504 and Mercedes with 739. With a weaker car and his 34th birthday approaching in the summer of 2021, Vettel may feel his chances of adding to his four world titles appear slim. 

Indeed, Vettel’s standing at the top of the sport was already placed under threat by the outstanding performances of his team-mate Charles Leclerc. At just 22 years old, Leclerc finished above Vettel in the 2019 driver’s standings after delivering a consistency of performance which belied his young age. Prior to the postponement of the 2020 season, Leclerc was clearly favored in the latest F1 odds to finish above Vettel for the second time. Although Carlos Sainz is a very capable driver, Ferrari’s decision not to chase a ‘big-name’ to replace Vettel is a clear indication that the team have placed their faith in Leclerc to lead the team from 2021.

Meanwhile, Max Verstappen, a relative veteran with 102 race starts, continues to improve and at the tender age of 22 appears ready to mount a serious challenge for the driver’s championship. Max Verstappen finished third in the driver’s championship last season, only trailing behind the ever-dominant Mercedes drivers, in what was arguably a weaker car than the Ferrari. The former F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone believes that Verstappen is ready to win a title having shown great consistency in a season in which he claimed six consecutive podium finishes. Verstappen himself certainly doesn’t lack self-confidence and will fancy his chances to challenge for the title as early as this season.

Of course, there can be no true changing of the guard until the sport’s dominant force has been dethroned: Lewis Hamilton. Having won 5 of the last 6 championships, Hamilton is now only one title away from matching the legendary Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of 7 championship titles. Although it may appear that Hamilton’s supremacy shows no sign of abating, he has still yet to extend his contract beyond the current season. The impending exit of team boss Toto Wolff, with whom he has had a close working relationship, also casts doubt over Hamilton’s future.

Hamilton remains the favorite going into the new season, however the knowledge that he will be 36 years old by the start of the 2021 season coupled with persistent rumours about his F1 future offers the likes of Leclerc and Verstappen room for hope. The 2021 season may mark the start of a new era in which F1’s future becomes its present.

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