The 2021 Formula One season is officially underway. Please tell me you got up Sunday morning to watch the Bahrain GP on ESPN2! If not, you should have. I did — though to quote old Obi-Wan Kenobi, it was from a certain point of view.
That POV was from behind the wheel of an Aston Martin Vantage, sitting in a parking lot-turned-drive-in theater atop a Los Angeles parking deck. Marty Smith and I were surrounded by a panoramic view of the Hollywood Hills and a power-packed view of Ferraris, Bugattis, Lamborghinis, and all sorts of other supercars ending in i’s that neither you nor I can afford.
As we watched the race alongside the owners of multimillion dollar supercars and Southern California social media influencers there to post about those supercars (let’s just say there were a lot of young people in tight jeans and sparkly tops with their own photographers in tow), we weren’t simply witnessing the 96th career win for Lewis Hamilton. We were also peering into a portal of what to expect from F1 all season long, from Bahrain to Abu Dhabi. It’s the longest season in F1 history, with 23 races spanning 10 months and traveling to every continent not named Antarctica. The season includes the return of the Dutch GP, gone since 1985, and a first-ever event in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia.
So what should you be keeping an eye on in 2021? What might catch us off guard? Did the happenings in Bahrain alter our mindset about any of that? And what kind of car does $2 million buy you? Read ahead as I try to type this story riding shotgun while Marty swerves our Aston Martin like James Bond through the 405 so we can make our flight home out of LAX.
OK, you should already know this one, even if you don’t know a Mercedes W12 from a Yugo. Believe it or not, there were some questions whether the 36-year-old Brit would return for 2021 to break his tie with Michael Schumacher for most world championships. And after a 2020 season in which he tied Schumacher for titles and bested him for career wins, Hamilton also overcame a COVID-19 diagnosis and has been one of the sports’ biggest voices in raising awareness to social and racial injustice.
He didn’t sign his one-year extension with Mercedes until last month and has said the process was slowed because of his desired assurances from the team that it would aid him in furthering the causes of social justice, as well as environmental awareness. Those negotiations might have been slow going, but as we learned Sunday morning in Bahrain, Hamilton’s race car is not.
Like, literally closer, within inches. Max Verstappen appeared to make a race-winning pass in the closing laps Sunday, only to be told to surrender the top spot back to Hamilton because officials said he’d completed the overtake by going too far off the track. Even still, he lost to Hamilton by a scant .745 seconds.
Even in the heartbreaking loss, Red Bull knows they have served notice that they will be on Hamilton’s rear wing all season long. Whenever Red Bull Racing team principal Christian Horner speaks of rival Mercedes and its current streak of seven straight championships, he is careful to say, “Yes, they are dominant team right now, but it won’t last forever.” He knows that to be true because it was his team that won four straight titles before this Mercedes run.
Current RBR drivers Checo Pérez and Verstappen looked wicked fast in preseason testing at Bahrain two weeks ago, were fastest in Bahrain practice Friday, qualified first and 11th at Bahrain on Saturday, and carried that on through to finish second and fifth at Bahrain on Sunday, even after an electrical failure during the warmup sent Perez to the rear of the field. Now they need to carry that on to places not named Bahrain. By the way, did I mention that Horner is married to Ginger Spice? I yelled that at one of the influencers on Sunday morning, and he just gave me a thumbs up like, “OK, cool, old man.”
In addition to Hamilton, there will be three former world champs on the grid each weekend. Kimi Raikkonen will be behind the wheel of an Alfa Romeo, aka little brother of Ferrari, the team with whom he won the 2007 F1 title. At least, I think it’s Raikkonen. It could be a cardboard cutout of the former NASCAR Truck Series driver. It’s hard to tell.
Sebastian Vettel, the man who won those four world titles working for Ginger Spice’s husband, will be just like Marty & McGee, driving an Aston Martin for the team formerly known as Racing Point. His boss is Canadian billionaire Lawrence Stroll and his teammate is Stroll’s 22-year-old son, Lance. Sunday, Lance Stroll finished 10th while Vettel failed to recover from a penalty and finished 15th, so keep an eye on that always fun “veteran vs. the boss’ son” teammate situation.
But the former champ headliner is the return of 39-year-old Fernando Alonso, who announced his presence with authority over the weekend when he was asked Thursday if he was as good as Hamilton, Kimi and Seb. The Spaniard replied, “No, I’m better,” and did beat two of them at Bahrain, though he finished 10th. He’s back after a two-year absence to drive for Alpine Racing, formerly Renault, aka the team with the red, white and blue cars that look like those Firecracker popsicles you used to have at your neighborhood pool back in the day.
Ferrari is F1’s version of the Yankees. Love them or hate them, when they are good, their sport unquestionably has a higher global profile. But even when they are bad, they are still the lead story. And oh, mio Dio, have they been bad. The Prancing Horse hasn’t won a world title since Raikkonen in ’07, hasn’t won a race since Vettel’s victory in Singapore on Sept. 22, 2019, and had to fight for sixth in the constructors’ title fight last year. They also had an awkward “We won’t need you next year” conversation with Vettel early last season and brought in Carlos Sainz from McLaren to join Charles Leclerc.
On Sunday, Leclerc finished a spirited fourth, and Sainz battled his hero Alonso to finish eighth. Even with a promising all-new engine, team principal Mattia Binotto admits they are likely to still be in rebuilding mode this season. Also, if you’ve never seen Mattia Binotto, just close your eyes and imagine what you think a guy named Mattia Binotto who builds Ferraris for a living would look like. That’s totally what he looks like.
The very Aston Martin Vantage loaned to Marty & McGee for F1 Drive-In L.A. was recently featured in Car and Driver and listed at $150,086, making it the only 150K car to have its front valence dragged over the curb at an In-N-Out, as we did Saturday (don’t tell anyone in Gaydon, England). But parked on either end of our row in front of the big screen Sunday morning were a McLaren Elva, listed at $1.7 million, and a Ferrari Monza SP2, which you can pick up for an even $2 million. So, what does that buy you? Coolness, for sure.
But it doesn’t buy you a windshield. After all, NASCAR fans have been telling me Cup cars shouldn’t have windshields on the Bristol (Tennessee) Motor Speedway dirt track. I shouted through the wall of Instagramming influencers to ask the owner of the Monza, who was wearing a helmet, if he’d donate his car for someone to run at Bristol on Monday. He was not influenced.