Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes relishing anticipated Formula 1 challenge from Red Bull and McLaren rivals

LEWIS Hamilton must overcome one of the biggest challenges of his career if he is to lift this year’s Formula 1 world championship and clinch a record-breaking eighth drivers’ crown.

WINNER: Lewis Hamilton celebrates after winning the Turkish Grand Prix to secure his seventh world championship at Istanbul. Picture: PA Wire

After last season’s dominant display which saw the Mercedes driver clinch the title by a massive margin of 87 points, everything looked to be pointing towards a repeat show in 2021 going into pre-season testing with only minor rule changes being made ahead of a major revamp in 2022.

However, the three-day test held in Bahrain a fortnight ago certainly proved it could be far from the one-sided championship predicted by many, but quite possibly, tomorrow’s season-opening race at Bahrain could herald one of the most exciting and eagerly-anticipated seasons for years.

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Red Bull enjoyed arguably their most successful testing campaign since Mercedes’ world championship-winning streak began in 2014 with Max Verstappen topping the time sheets on two of the three days, while Mercedes finished up as only the fifth fastest team overall.

Graphic: Graeme Bandeira.

While it has to be noted that Mercedes do not always light up the time sheets at pre-season testing – spending much of their time on long runs with a heavy fuel load – the renewed challenge from Red Bull’s Verstappen and new team-mate Sergio Perez could make this season’s championship quite a tussle between the two teams.

“We’ve got lots of work to do, it’s going to be tough,” admitted Hamilton after testing. “It does appear we are perhaps not quick enough at the moment, but I have every faith in the team. We love challenges and this definitely is a challenge for us.

“I had a couple of spins which are rare for me, but generally have been unhappy with the balance of the car and struggled with it. But nonetheless the car is still in one piece and we still got through the programme.

“We are going to have a great battle and that is what I have always loved,” added Hamilton. “It is massively exciting for us as a team. I am so excited of that challenge and seeing the other teams closer is going to be great for fans.”

UNDER PRESSURE: Lewis Hamilton could find himself pushed a lot closer this season. Picture: Peter Fox/Getty Images

While Mercedes have certainly had their struggles in pre-season, Verstappen has no doubt as to which team should still be considered top dogs this year.

“Mercedes are the favourites,” he said. “How can they not be when they have won seven world championships in a row?

“I’m sure Mercedes also want people to think we are the favourites and put the pressure on us.”

Another team that could be running at the top end of the grid this season is McLaren.

GRID RIVAL: Red Bull driver Max Verstappen. Picture: AP/Jens Meyer

The Woking-based outfit made the switch from Renault to Mercedes power over the winter and have developed a radical new floor and diffuser design to take advantage of some technical changes brought in this year to reduce downforce.

The new car certainly displayed promising speed on all three days of testing with Britain’s Lando Norris and new team-mate Daniel Ricciardo impressing.

However, Norris was quick to play down the team’s much-talked about new design and their chances of challenging for honours this year.

“The guys and girls have been working hard to make improvements – the floor that everyone’s been talking about,” said Norris.

GRID RIVAL: McLaren's Lando Norris. Picture: David Davies/PA

“I didn’t even know that was special, how everyone has been going on about how innovative and different it is to the rest of the teams.

“It’s not loads better, just that small step forward which we hope will make us a bit more competitive. But I’m sure everyone else has taken a step forward, too, so we’ll see where we are at.”

Double champion Fernando Alonso will also return to the grid this year at the age of 39 with Renault’s rebranded team Alpine, while five-time champion Sebastian Vettel switches to Aston Martin.

There will also be a Schumacher on the grid again as Michael’s son Mick will make his Formula 1 debut for Haas.

While a major overhaul of rule changes will come into force next season, there are a few significant ones brought in for 2021 away from the downforce changes.

Top of the list is the governing body’s plans to experiment with Saturday sprint qualifying at three events this season – Silverstone, Monza and Interlagos – in a bid to see if it is something that could become a more regular feature in the coming seasons.

Under the new plans, a 100km qualifying sprint race on a Saturday would decide the grid for the following day’s race.

The sprint race would also offer a small number of world championship points, too, with three on offer for the winner, two for second place and one for third.

Teams are still to agree on how to resolve the potential financial consequences – such as cars suffering damage due to the extra race – but the radical trial is expected to go ahead.

Other changes will see Friday practices cut from 90 to 60 minutes and races reverting to starting at the top of the hour on Sundays, instead of ten past the hour.

Formula 1 will also be governed by financial regulations this season with teams set a maximum spending limit or ‘budget cap’ of £114m a year to try and make the series more competitive, although drivers’ salaries will be excluded from this.

All in all, after years of one-car dominance in Formula 1, we might just see a genuine title battle between two drivers from different teams in 2021 – something the sport desperately needs.

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