And just like that, a quarter of the year is gone.
Formula One and MotoGP are back. Sebring returned to its regular date. NASCAR ran a dirt race. IndyCar is still testing. Jenson Button pulled his team from the Deutsche Tourenwagen Masters before it had even run a race. It is finally springtime and pretty much everyone is observing Daylight Savings Time. A lot is going on.
April starts with a holiday, but we are soon going to be in the thick of the season.
Drive to Survive Season Four Storylines
Season three of Netflix's Formula One documentary series Drive to Survive was released in the middle of March ahead of the 2021 Formula One season opener from Bahrain.
Three seasons in and we know the formula. We know what the show is going to look like. As a Formula One season goes along, we know what stories are going to be featured and what has to be talked about. Instead of waiting another 12 months for season four to come out, let's just write the story now.
The storylines for 2021 are already out there. Some will come true, and others will not. We can see the situations that have arisen, who is going to be happy, who is going to be angry, and we are only one race into the season. Our expectations have been set and, in all likelihood, season four will look something like this.
1. Lewis Hamilton's Final Season
There has been no official word this will be Hamilton's final season, but the man is living on one-year deals and didn't sign his 2021 contract until February. Hamilton has accomplished all that needs to be accomplished in Formula One.
After his victory in Bahrain, he has 96 grand prix victories. He is at least tied for the most World Drivers' Championships. He has the most pole positions, most laps led, most podium finishes, most points... the man has nothing left to prove. He is 36 years old and can walk away right now.
One of my gripes with season three of Drive to Survive is it does not capture what Hamilton is doing right now in Formula One. He set the all-time victories record and it was treated just like another race. As I said before, what we are seeing is the equivalent of Babe Ruth obliterating the home run record. I don't think anyone imagined Michael Schumacher being challenge, let alone surpassed and now Hamilton will undoubtedly break the century mark.
And this could be it. This could be the final year we see Hamilton in a grand prix car. He could leave with 105 victories and an eighth championship, alone in both categories and just like after Schumacher's exit in 2006, no one appears close to touching either of those marks.
Netflix cannot give Hamilton a five-minute send off in the final episode. That's basically how it treated his 2020 season. We didn't see his drive at Istanbul, which is stuff of legend. His record-breaking victory was a blurb. It was resigned to the outcome of the season and couldn't make a story out of it.
If this is it for Hamilton, it has to be more than veni, vidi, vici.
2. An actual championship fight
Typically, Drive to Survive is a non-linear presentation. Other than starting at the beginning and finishing at the end, the eight episodes in the middle bounce around, because it goes team-by-team. You might go from the first round to the middle of July in episode two and then back to the middle of May in episode three before moving to August for episode four.
However, if we have a real championship fight between Hamilton and Max Verstappen, Drive to Survive might have to adopt a different framing device.
It is still going to bounce around and each team will get its moment, but if the championship is see-sawing race to race and possibly changing hands multiple times, a non-linear storyline isn't going to work. We can't go from Hamilton winning the first round to say Verstappen leading the championship entering his home race at Zandvoort in episode two back to Hamilton up by 20 points at Monaco or Baku in episode three.
A championship fight is a different wrinkle to the show. You cannot minimize it, especially when the last four seasons have been decided rather early and we haven't had a proper championship fight between multiple organizations in nine years. Formula One should want the championship struggle to be the main story of season four. It should be a season focused on Mercedes versus Red Bull. Competition is good.
3. What to do with Nikita Mazepin?
Let's get this one out of the way.
We cannot completely ignore Mazepin. We have to acknowledge everyone that is on the grid, warts and all, if we want a close to accurate depiction of the 2021 season.
It should be stated from the start that there is properly not a universally satisfying way Mazepin could be portrayed in this season.
If he gets any screen time at all, there is a segment of the audience that will not watch. Netflix knows this. It cannot have a 45-minute episode where Mazepin is the main focus for 75% of it. But it cannot act like he isn't there at all.
There is a good chance his story gets whitewashed. From his poor driving record to his inappropriate behavior groping a woman, there is a chance none of it is explicitly mentioned. It will all be coded as "off-track issues" and as for nearly getting suspended in Formula Two, that will be called "youthful aggression." I am not going to be happy about it either, but none of it would be surprising.
I will give Drive to Survive credit because it will touch upon the money side of the sport. It doesn't hide that Lance Stroll's father owns a team. It didn't hide Haas looking for money and a German company saying it wanted a German driver. I don't know how open Mazepin and his father will be to the process. They might just do the bare minimum, but you have to get comfortable now that you will likely see him in the show next year. You might not be happy about, and there is a chance it will all be tinted with rose-colored glasses, but you cannot be surprised about it.
4. Mick Schumacher attempting to live up to a legacy while handcuffed at the worst team
Moving to the other side of the Haas garage, Schumacher is a recognizable name, and the next generation is here.
Mick Schumacher has some mammoth expectations to live up to and arguably greater than any second-generation driver to come before him. Damon Hill debuted nearly two decades after his father Graham's final race. Michael Schumacher's final start was within the last ten years. In all respect to Graham Hill, Schumacher broke all the records. He was the guy for a decade.
Most second-generation drivers do not come close to matching their fathers, especially if their fathers were world champions. The Hills are it. You can point to the Unsers and Andrettis and Earnhardts and now Elliotts, but they are all exceptions.
Ferrari support is in young Schumacher's favor, but Ferrari already has a full driver lineup with two young drivers. There is no guarantee the opportunity will open up. Add to it Schumacher is starting the season with what is believed to be the worst team on the grid. Haas has already said it will not develop the car over the course of the 2021 season. People can be unfair and look at the results, ignoring the larger picture and all the details, and see Schumacher failing to come close to scoring points and say he is only there because of his last name, he isn't any good and so on. How does Schumacher handle that?
It is hard to sell Michael Schumacher's son is on the grid when he is competing for 16th or 17th at best and likely a lap down. It would be one thing if he was mixing it up for points and potentially making a late charge from 11th to eighth or from eighth into the top six. You cannot sell someone starting 19th, finishing a lap down and out of the points.
It is a test year in essence for him, but we have seen drivers get trapped at these teams. George Russell appears he will get out, but Lucas di Grassi never got a shot outside of Virgin Racing. Alexander Rossi never got a sniff outside of Manor. The Red Bull junior program is its own tangled web but Sébastien Buemi and Jean-Éric Vergne never got a look from another team and both have turned into champions elsewhere.
When would I like to see Schumacher showcased? Austria or Silverstone, right in the middle when it is clear the team has no hope of scoring points and we aren't halfway through the season yet. What is his demeanor like then? We have seen how Haas is run. We know what Guenther Steiner is going to be saying, but where is the mindset of a 22-year-old driver with the weight of the world on his shoulders?
5. No More Mr. Nice Guy at McLaren
I touched upon this in the season preview, but McLaren is positioned for the first time in a long time to be factor. It has brought in Daniel Ricciardo to pair with its homegrown Lando Norris. McLaren loves Norris as a son, but Ricciardo makes this team a threat.
Both Ricciardo and Norris are celebrated for their personalities. Ricciardo is the personable, funny loving Australian everyone wants to hang out with. Norris is the lovable dork. He plays video games. He isn't that threatening. You are glad to have him around.
Ricciardo has won races and been on a top organization. Norris has not. Bahrain was a good start for Norris, finishing fourth, three spots ahead of his teammate, as Ricciardo raced with a damaged floor from lap one onward. He has to do that a dozen times this season to win out the top spot. This is Norris' first major challenge in Formula One. He is in year three, McLaren has the engine it wants in the car and it is the first time in a long time this team could conceivably win a race on pace. Norris cannot afford for Ricciardo to be that guy.
Ricciardo has been at a cut-throat team before. We need to see if Norris is able to handle that. If things start slipping and Ricciardo is carrying the team, getting on the podium while Norris is sixth or seventh and not factoring in, we are going to see a change in demeanor. He has been the star the last two years, but it comes down to results. The love only lasts so long.
6. Ferrari... it sells itself
It's Ferrari. Sebastian Vettel is gone. How are Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz, Jr. doing together? Who is the scapegoat if things are going wrong? Have the problems been corrected?
Add to it that Leclerc is the team leader at 23 years old with a teammate three years his senior. How does that play out? Sainz, Jr. is on his fourth team in his seven-year career. He's been good, but I am not sure he has been Ferrari good. Sainz, Jr. is on a two-year deal. He has to produce and challenge his teammate. I am not sure where you go from Ferrari when you have already raced at McLaren, Renault and Toro Rosso. Unless you are winning a handful of races, Mercedes isn't calling. I doubt Red Bull would bring him back.
This generation of Formula One drivers fascinates me. They are chummy and slightly above mature. Most of these guys haven't experienced much hardship. I don't think many of these guys have felt true adversity, nor have they felt someone else breathing down their necks. Similar to Norris at McLaren, at some point you have to stop being a kid. Neither Leclerc nor Sainz, Jr., have shown a fire and ruthlessness we would have seen from a dozen drivers on the grid 15, 20 and 25 years ago.
How are they getting along after the summer break? Is Sainz, Jr. angry he cannot keep up? Is Leclerc worried his grasp on the number one role is already slipping? Have both gotten Ferrari back on track and the Scuderia is happy? Is the team still beleaguered?
It's Ferrari. People are going to watch.
7. Where does Gasly go?
It seems like Gasly cannot move back up to Red Bull no matter how much he succeeds at AlphaTauri. It doesn't sound like he minds that either.
Everyone thinks Gasly will be heading to Alpine. French driver, French team and Gasly is already a race winner. With AlphaTauri, Gasly is able to take that car to a higher level. Alpine can produce a good car and as we saw in 2020 it can get to the podium. Gasly could be the answer for the next ten years.
However, what if Gasly becomes more of a prime option? I don't think that will happen. Ferrari is set, Mercedes has its succession plan in place, McLaren isn't hiring, Aston Martin isn't interested, and we have covered Red Bull. It is really Alpine or bust for him. I can't see him staying at AlphaTauri, though I wouldn't rule it out.
The driver on the move for season four will be Gasly, even if we likely know where he is going. Not often does the Red Bull program lose a driver. Most of the time, it shuffles a driver out. This could be a different dynamic and it will be interesting to watch how it plays out when the driver has control.
8. Fernando Alonso's Return
If there is one man who loves the attention, it is Fernando Alonso.
From his Indianapolis 500 attempt, to his blowup with Honda, to his exit and sports car exploits, Alonso knows how create a headline. He spent two years out of Formula One, but always remained on the periphery. After his McLaren exit, it never felt like his Formula One career was over. Now he is back with a two-year deal with Alpine, his third stint with the Enstone-based organization.
His last trip in Formula One was tumultuous, upset with the car and power unit, publicly degrading others. Alonso didn't hide his displeasure. How is he now? Will we see a cranky Spaniard while running for seventh?
Alonso isn't in this to pad his stats. In his final race with McLaren, when the pit wall was encouraging him fight for tenth and get one point to put him on 1,900 points, Alonso retorted that he doesn't care about the milestone. Picking up two points or four points is not going to excite him. He is a double world champion. He has won 32 grand prix. Anything less than competing for those things is going to be a disappointment.
Alpine almost couldn't say no to Alonso. How is this relationship in the middle of the season? Will we see regret? No one believes Alpine is going to be a regular podium contender. It might crack the top five in the constructors' championship, but that will require stellar results. Fifth is not what Alonso came for.
I want to see this dynamic at Monza. At that point, we will know where everyone falls and what the limit is for each team. Frustration will have already set in if this season is heading in the wrong direction. Not to mention Monza is the third of three consecutive race weekends after the summer break. This is will be a real sign of what teams have been the right adjustments and which teams enter the final leg of the season on the wrong foot.
9. New name, different results?
It felt like Racing Point got a lot of attention in season three of Drive to Survive. If you asked me, "who won the season?" in terms of the show, it is Racing Point.
It presented Lawrence Stroll as a mover, the team as a pot-stirrer; it won a race, won a pole position and it was battling for top stops on a regular basis. It was ahead of world championship winnings teams Ferrari, Renault and Williams.
Talk about setting up the team as an outsider... that immediately rebranded as Aston Martin.
Sebastian Vettel is now in the mix and we are going to see where this organization goes when it has a recognizable name. The team has been pegged to take a step back. It had some issues in testing. The pace doesn't look to be at the same level. It is one thing to carry all that swagger when you are on the podium and fighting for third in the constructors' championship. Will it still be there if the team is stuck in sixth? Do heads start to roll?
10: The generational transition
Looking at the 2021 grid and I am not sure we have seen a greater gulf between the elder statesmen in the series and the relatively new drivers.
The numbers don't suggest that. The average age of the 2021 grid is 27.25 with a median of 25. The average number of starts for the 2021 grid is 117.8 with a median of 73.5. Verstappen has 120 starts at 23 years old, more than the next seven drivers that are older than him. Lance Stroll has more starts than six drivers that are older than him. This grid has experience, but the four oldest drivers on the grid are the only four drivers with world championships, Vettel, Hamilton, Alonso and Kimi Räikkönen, and maybe that is why it feels weird.
The 16 youngest drivers on the grid combine for zero championships. At the end of Schumacher's stint with Ferrari, at least Alonso had two championships and Jacques Villeneuve was still hanging around. You had a few young champions with Schumacher and Villeneuve. Mika Häkkinen won his first title at 30 years old. Damon Hill was 36 years old. Those were once normal ages for first-time champions.
Alonso has a two-year deal and I expect him to see that out, but there is a chance he could be the only past world champion on the grid in 2022 and his last championship will have been 16 years ago!
I am not sure Formula One has had a watershed moment like this one. IndyCar had the early 1990s where in a blink Johnny Rutherford, Gordon Johncock, Tom Sneva, Al Unser, A.J. Foyt, Mario Andretti and Rick Mears were all gone. Formula One has always had overlap Schumacher was there when Alain Prost left and Ayrton Senna perished. He wasn't champion yet, and that might be the closest match to the present. Prost, Nelson Piquet and Nigel Mansell overlapped with Niki Lauda and Emerson Fittipaldi. Senna entered right as Prost and Piquet entered their prime.
The void is going to be large if most of these drivers call it quits at the end of this season. Who is the face of the series? Nothing like ending a season with an identity crisis. There is your cliffhanger.
There is a lot going on in April, but April lacks a major event.
I am going to be doing enough IndyCar previewing over the next two weeks. We don't need to cover it now.
It is a different April as many championships are holding off until May or June to start their seasons. I get it. It will make the summer a little more crowded.
The one thing I will miss this year is no Easter Monday races, at least none that I can find. Easter Monday isn't a thing in the United States. Everyone gets back to work. But I have enjoyed turning on a race on Monday morning of some otherwise overlooked championship. Typically, you could count on the British GT Championship.
Also, apparently Extreme E starts this weekend in Saudi Arabia. For a series that has made a lot of noise, I don't know where it can be watched.
I am curious to see what it looks like with rounds in Saudi Arabia this weekend, Senegal at the end of May, Greenland at the end of August, the Amazon rainforest toward the end of October and Tierra del Fuego in the middle of December.
I don't think it is going to change the world, but the team owners are Michael Andretti, Zak Brown, Carlos Sainz, Chip Ganassi, Jenson Button, Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton.
Ganassi has a deal with General Motors. Button's team will have Lotus branding. Button, Mattias Ekström, Carlos Sainz, Laia Sanz, Johan Kristoffersson, Jamie Chadwick, Stéphane Sarrazin and Sébastien Loeb will all be competing as drivers. The series has some name power.
And that is the extent of my Extreme E preview. Enjoy it if you can find it.
Other events of note in April:
Formula E has a pair of doubleheaders, one at Rome and one at Valencia's Circuit Ricardo Tormo.
The Super GT season begins at Okayama.
European Le Mans Series opens in Barcelona.
GT World Challenge Europe Endurance Cup starts at Monza.
Formula One visits Imola
NASCAR has races at Martinsville, Richmond and Talladega.
The Supercross season has five races at two places remaining, Atlanta and Salt Lake City.