Wednesday, March 31, 2021

Best of the Month: March 2021

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. 

April Preview
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.

Monday, March 29, 2021

Musings From the Weekend: From Fandom to Fandom

Lewis Hamilton opened the season with a victory after a thrilling battle with Max Verstappen in Bahrain. Of course, track limits were a topic of conversation. IndyCar did some testing. Conor Daly isn't happy about a video game. Sébastien Bourdais has a new sponsor. Valencia and Rome have become doubleheaders for Formula E. NASCAR's dirt races from Bristol have been delayed and there have already been many concerns about this event. MotoGP began its season in Qatar. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

From Fandom to Fandom
The Formula One season got started prematurely, not at the Bahrain Grand Prix, nor at preseason testing two weeks prior. The first spike in interest came with the season three release of Netflix's Drive to Survive series. 

The streaming service's documentary series of a Formula One season has been a big hit not only with motorsports fan but with general users of the platform. Over the last three years, Drive to Survive has brought Formula One to people who otherwise would not have interacted with the series. After years of losing viewers, Drive to Survive has revived interest in the global motorsports series. 

Races are still hard to find as they are regularly on cable or pay TV channels. We live in a more fragmented television world and what was common ten years ago has become outdated. People don't stumble into races anymore. We don't flip through channels and have something catch our eye. There needs to be new ways to attract viewers. With a service like Netflix become the main source of television consumption, it makes sense to be available on that platform. Formula One is not going to put races there, and Netflix doesn't show any interest on spending money on live sporting events, but Drive to Survive is a suitable option to showcase the series. 

Each season is not going to be a complete picture of a full race calendar. There are ten episodes and in 2020 there were 17 races. This year there could be 23 races. Despite this time restriction, season three does capture the nature of the 2020 Formula One season. There were a lot of lame-duck drivers with their 2021 plans made long before the 2020 season concluded. Those parameters flip any relationship and we saw the strains between a team who didn't want to see its driver leave (Renault and Daniel Ricciardo) and the awkward tolerance of two parties who were ready to part (Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel).  

Season three does fall guilty of oversimplifying the 2020 season. In a year where a lot of the drivers were already looking to the future, Drive to Survive's attempt to capture that misses out on some of the drama on track. After all, Formula One is a motorsports series. None of the backroom drama exists without the races occurring on Sunday. We get a glimpse of the British Grand Prix's frenetic final laps with a handful of tire failures, but we miss Lewis Hamilton skillfully skating across the line on three wheels after a breathtaking lap. We see none of Max Verstappen's suspension failing at Imola and, other than Lance Stroll's pole position and Vettel hopping up and down on the podium, we see none of the incredible Turkish Grand Prix. 

Even the Sakhir Grand Prix was oversimplified. While the show focuses on Sergio Pérez maiden victory, coming as the Mexican driver was set to be ushered out of Formula One when his heart wasn't ready to move on, it briefly mentions Hamilton's absence and George Russell's deputization of the Mercedes. 

Yes, Pérez came from behind to win the race, but the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix was a dichotomy of two drivers racing for their careers. Pérez was fighting for another day. Russell was fighting to setup what could be a decade of dominance. For Pérez, victory was a long-awaited breakthrough in a respectable Formula One career, a victory that saved his career. For Russell, this race was an audition, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to step into the best car on the grid. A victory would have cemented himself as the leader of the next generation of drivers. It would have made waves among the drivers. Difficult decisions would have to be made. Russell fell short of that, but none of it was down to him making a mistake. The team mixed up the tires and a tire puncture was force majeure happening at the worst possible time. 

We didn't see Nico Hülkenberg, whose role of super-sub brought some life to the season. The makeshift and historic nature of the calendar was missed. We didn't know we were going to Imola, Portimão, Nürburgring or Istanbul when the season began in July. What did the drivers make of how the calendar was pieced together? Was there excitement? Fear? Anger? We don't know. We didn't see it. 

This is where Drive to Survive breaks into two factions of Formula One. You have fandom of the show, the ten-episode series you can watch in three days, and you have fandom of Formula One, the ten-month, 23-race calendar with weeks between each round. For fandom of the show, I highly recommend reading The Ringer's article on the show by Kevin Clark.

Drive to Survive is digestible and it boils Formula One down to the intra-team conflict. Drivers fighting to be competitive and stay in the series. Team principals unhappy when a driver can't get the most out of the car and the results are dismal. It makes the pinnacle of motorsports relatable because we see the drivers having the same conversations we all have about the boss being an idiot and wanting out. We see the bosses calling the drivers worthless. Some days are great, but many are frustrating. 

We get to see the dysfunction that exists in Formula One, which at times is just general unhappiness, not some toxic work environment with everyone at each other's throats. Most sports want to hide that. In other sports, we get to hear the robotic lines about teamwork and how a locker room is unified, but we know those real conversations are happening. The closest we have gotten to that is when an Uber driver shared a video of Ottawa Senators players expressing disgust about its coach and that was viewed as sacrilege in the hockey world. We get to see the humanity of athletes and competitors in Drive to Survive. They are us. 

However, how long can it be this be a fetish item for the viewers? When do these viewers go from fandom of the show to fandom of the series? It is one thing to fall in love with the ten-episode series, but Formula One is a long game. These stories play out in real-time. Does the show have to evolve from backroom drama and win people over with what happens over the course of each grand prix? 

If every Drive to Survive season is just a set of drivers wanting to quit their jobs and Haas being woeful in last place, why should people keep watching? We need to see competition, but not just the competition in the middle. It has to be at the very top where it matters most. Of course, this is a problem that can only be figured out on the track and not in a Netflix edit suite. The Wide World of Sports tagline remains true even into the 2020s. It is the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat. We need to see someone's life fulfilled and another life completely devastated simultaneously. 

We haven't had a wire-to-wire championship fight during the Drive to Survive era. We need people to fall in love with that. You can only watch Carlos Sainz, Jr. play recreational games with his father and have Daniel Ricciardo talk about tattoos so much. We need a season where it is a dogfight in each race with two or three or four drivers constantly going at each other, all fighting to plant themselves in Formula One lore with the likes of Juan Manuel Fangio, Jackie Stewart, Alain Prost, Ayrton Senna and Michael Schumacher. 

I fawn over what a Drive to Survive season from 2006-2012 would have looked like, when you had the end of Schumacher against the rise of Fernando Alonso, the McLaren-Ferrari scandal, the Hamilton-Alonso feud, Hamilton's first title ripped from the hands of Felipe Massa and heart of Brazil, the emergence of Brawn, Renault's Crashgate, Schumacher's return and Vettel's dominance. 

We need to see who is on top. I understand why the show isn't a string of Hamilton victories because that would be boring, but Drive to Survive is missing the history being made. Hamilton's success is akin to Babe Ruth obliterating the home run record or Wilt Chamberlain scoring 100 points in a game. That is as great as any other reason to watch. We might not see this again, someone truly re-writing the history book. We should not make winning lame because few taste such success and petty conflicts are more relatable. 

There is nothing wrong with aspiring for greatness. It is happening in front of us each race, especially as this could be Hamilton's final season. We don't know when we will see a driver like him again. This time should be treasured. Drive to Survive has a chance to properly capture that.

The good news for Formula One is through three seasons of Drive to Survive, it has found something that people genuinely look forward to watching each year. The bad news is we are not sure if that has turned into sustained fandom who will turn on each grand prix over a season. We are not even sure this section of fandom likes what Formula One is after all. We know they like the drama, but drama can be found anywhere and there will be another new show debuting in 15 minutes attracting our worst impulses. 

This is the reckoning Formula One has to face. Does it feed the impulses, or can it turn people into genuine followers?

Winners From the Weekend
You know about Lewis Hamilton, but did you know...

Maverick Viñales won MotoGP's Qatar Grand Prix. Sam Lowes won the Moto2 race. Jaume Masiá won the Moto3 race.

Liam Lawson and Oscar Piastri split the Formula Two sprint races from Bahrain. Guanyu Zhou won the feature race. 

Sage Karam won the IndyCar iRacing event from Homestead.

William Byron won NASAR's iRacing event at Bristol.

Coming Up This Weekend
MotoGP remains in Qatar for another round, the Doha Grand Prix.
Super Formula season opener from Fuji. 
IndyCar wraps up its three-race iRacing series with a round at Sebring.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Greatest by Number: #49-40

The second half of this series begins with a set of names that include some of the biggest names in motorsports history. You have probably guessed half these already. They are stone cold obvious. But the 40s include a few mysteries. While some of their brothers have become iconic, a few numbers are relatively forgotten and are hard to award.

We will do our best. 

#49: Brad Sweet
Sweet has won the last two World of Outlaws championships, and while that doesn't seem like much it is important to point out that Sweet is one of only six drivers with multiple World of Outlaws championships. 

Steve Kinser, Sammy Swindell, Mark Kinser, Donny Schatz and Jason Meyers are the only five multi-time champions. Sweet ranks 14th all-time in A-Main victories, but he sits on 59 victories and in his last three seasons he has won nine, 16 and eight races respective. If he has an average 11-victory season, he will become just the 12th driver with 70 victories.

His 2019 title came by four points over Schatz, who had won five consecutive championships and ten of the previous 13. It is the closest championship finish in series history. He won the title last year by 46 points. Sweet also won the 2018 Knoxville Nationals.

Honorable Mentions:
Parker Johnstone (Johnstone won three consecutive IMSA GT Lights class championships from 1991-93 driving for Comptech. Most of the 1991 season was in the #48 Spice-Acura, but he won the 1991 finale in the #49 Spice-Acura, five of his six victories in 1992 came in the #49 Spice-Acura, including at Daytona and Sebring, and all seven of his victories in 1993 were in the #49 Spice-Acura).

Jack McGrath (Responsible for the only victories for car #49 in IndyCar history. He won at Langhorne and Syracuse in 1950).

Calvin Fish (Fish drove the #49 Ralt-Ford in the 1986 and 1987 Formula Atlantic championship seasons. All seven of his Atlantic victories and his 1987 championship came with that number. In 1987, h was on the podium in eight of nine starts with his worst finish being fourth).

#48: Jimmie Johnson
Who else could it be? A seven-time NASCAR Cup Series champion, Johnson is one of three drivers tied for the most championships in Cup Series history. He won five consecutive championships from 2006 to 2010, the longest championship reign in series history. 

The championships alone are impressive, but dive into his 83 career victories and you get a true sense of his career. Two-time Daytona 500 winner. Four-time Coca-Cola 600 winner. Two-time Southern 500 winner. Four-time Brickyard 400 winner. 

He has 11 victories at Dover, the most all-time at the one-mile oval. He won nine times at Martinsville, tied for third all-time with Jeff Gordon and only behind Richard Petty and Darrell Waltrip. His eight victories at Charlotte are a record. His seven victories at Texas are a record. In the modern-era, Johnson ranks third all-time in victories behind only Gordon and Waltrip. 

He was the 2009 Associated Press Male Athlete of the Year, the only motorsports competitor to take that award. To get a sense of how incredible that honor is, Johnson's award is sandwiched between Michael Phelps and Drew Brees. 

Johnson's winning percentage of 12.1% has him ranked 13th all-time among drivers with at least 100 starts. In 686 Cup starts, he had 232 top five finishes and 374 top ten finishes, those are batting averages of 33.81% and 54.51% respectively. He ranks ninth all-time in laps led with 18,941.

Every one of his Cup starts came in the #48. Prior to Johnson, the #48 had three victories. The number is his.

Honorable Mentions:
Dan Gurney (All seven of Gurney's IndyCar victories were in car #48. He won at Riverside twice, swept a doubleheader at Mosport, and won at Indianapolis Raceway Park, Brainerd and Sears Point).

Bobby Unser (In 1974, Uncle Bobby adopted the #48 Eagle, and he only won five times in that car, but that included the 1975 Indianapolis 500).

#47: Jack Smith
I will admit, the #47 was a toss-up and none of the drivers stood clearly above the rest, but I will go with Jack Smith, a forgotten driver from NASCAR's early days. 

Smith won 21 Cup races in his career and 18 of those were in car #47. Notable victories included one in a 1960 Daytona 500 qualifying race and the 1960 Firecracker 250. He was fifth in the Cup championship in 1957 and 1958. In 1962, he picked up a personal best five victories, 27 top five finishes and 35 top ten finishes on his way to finishing fourth in that championship.

Smith's winning percentage of 7.95% is 29th all-time among drivers with at least of 100 starts, directly ahead of Tony Stewart, Marvin Panch, Rusty Wallace and Buck Baker.

Honorable Mentions:
Brad Frisselle (1976 IMSA GTU champion)

Charles Morgan (1993 IMSA GTO champion)

Ron Bouchard (Bouchard took a famous NASCAR Cup victory at Talladega in 1981. It was only his 11th career start and Bouchard beat Darrell Waltrip and Terry Labonte in a three-wide battle across the line. It was his only Cup victory. He did sweep the NASCAR Grand National Series races at Darlington in 1984, both in the #47 Pontiac).

#46: Valentino Rossi
Who other than the doctor? 

Rossi has used the #46 since he made his 125cc debut on an Aprilia in 1996. Since then, he has made 414 grand prix starts, won 115 grand prix and finished on 235 podiums. He is a nine-time champion, third most all-time in grand prix motorcycle history behind only Giacomo Agostini and Ángel Nieto. 

From 1997 to 2010, Rossi was in the top three of the championship in every season. He won five consecutive 500cc/MotoGP championships from 2001 to 2005. Rossi has the most premier class victories at 89, the most premier class podium finishes at 199 and he holds the record for most premier class victories at Assen, Mugello, Jerez, Barcelona, Sepang, Donington Park, Estoril, Brno and he holds a share of the record at Phillip Island.

He is the only rider to win the premier class championship at three different engine displacements, with titles at 500cc, 800cc and 990cc. He is the only rider to win a race with four different engine displacements, the three mentioned before and 1000cc. 

His record of 23 consecutive podium finishes from Portugal in 2002 to South Africa in 2004 still stands. 

At 42 years old, Rossi keeps going. He is the only rider to start in over 400 grand prix. That record will get extended a little further in 2021. 

Honorable Mentions:
Frank Kimmel (Ten-time ARCA champion, Kimmel was in the top five of the ARCA championship in every season from 1992 to 2014. Seventy of his 80 ARCA victories were in the #46 car).

Dennis Setzer (Setzer has the dubious distinction of being the runner-up in the NASCAR Truck championship in three consecutive seasons and each of those seasons were in the #46 Chevrolet. Eleven of his 18 Truck victories were in the #46 Truck).

#45: Greg Hancock
You might not know who Greg Hancock is, but he might be the one of the greatest American competitors in an international motorsports championship. 

Hancock spent nearly 30 years competing at the highest levels of speedway motorcycling racing. The flat-track, oval racing series has long been popular in Europe, but Hancock was one of a handful of American riders who found success in the late 1980s into the 1990s. He won three Speedway World Team Cups for the United States. 

Individually, Hancock started competing in the Speedway Grand Prix series in 1995 and won the championship in 1997 at 27 years old. He would not win another championship another he was 41 years in 2011. He would win three championships from 2011 to 2016. Hancock competed until he was 49 years old, retiring after the 2019 season. 

Why does he get the #45? Speedway didn't allow riders to adopt their own number until the 2014 season and Hancock took #45. He won his third championship that year and his fourth two years later. Considering how competitive Hancock while competing against riders half his age he deserves some sort of recognition even if no one in his native country has a clue who he is or what he has achieved. 

Honorable Mentions:
Patrick Long/Jörg Bergmeister (Long and Bergmeister won consecutive American Le Mans Series GT2 class championships in 2009 and 2010 driving the #45 Flying Lizard Motorsports Porsche. They won ten of 19 races over those two seasons and were on the podium 11 times. The American-German combo stayed together through 2012 and in the #45 Porsche alone they won 12 races).

#44: Lewis Hamilton
Similar to Johnson and Rossi, this was a no-brainer. 

Though the first portion of his Formula One career came in the number rotation era, since 2014, Hamilton has taken on the #44 and he has been flawless ever since. 

Adorning the number that days back to his karting days, Hamilton has six world championships in the #44 Mercedes. Seventy-three of his record 95 grand prix victories have been in the #44. In every season he has used the #44, Hamilton has led 450 laps or more. He has had at least 14 podium finishes in all seven of his seasons. He has won at least nine races in every season with the #44.

Prior to Hamilton, the #44 had only one victory. It was a big one, the 1955 Monaco Grand Prix with Maurice Trintignant driving a Ferrari, but it had only been used in 51 races and it had not been used since the 1977 British Grand Prix when Tony Trimmer failed to pre-qualify for that race. It had not been on the starting grid for a grand prix since the 1970 Italian Grand Prix with Jack Brabham. It was Brabham's fourth-to-last start. 

Besides victories, Hamilton holds the record for most pole positions with 98, most podium finishes with 165, most races with at least one lap led at 162 and he has led 5,099 laps in his career. Hamilton needs to lead another 13 laps to surpass Michael Schumacher's record. He is second all-time in grand slams with six, two off of Jim Clark's record.

He is tied with Schumacher on seven World Drivers' Championships. 

Need I say anymore on Hamilton?

Honorable Mentions: 
Terry Labonte (Labonte's first Cup championship came in the #44 Chevrolet driving for Hagan Racing. His first six Cup victories came in the #44).

Bobby Labonte (Off the success of his brother, Bobby Labonte used the #44 driving for his father's team in the NASCAR Busch Series. He would win the 1991 NASCAR Busch Series championship in the #44 and eight of his ten victories in the series were won the #44 car).

#43: Richard Petty
Another softball, no one else comes close to what Richard Petty did in car #43. 

Petty was the first driver to win seven NASCAR Cup Series championships, his first came in 1964, a 62-race season that actually started prior to Thanksgiving in 1963 and spanned 363 days. 

His 1967 championship might be his greatest. He won a record 27 races, which included ten consecutive victories. He had 40 top ten finishes in 48 starts. 

Petty won the final championship prior to the modern era with 21 victories in 46 starts in 1971 and then he won the first championship in the modern era, winning eight of 31 starts in 1972. 

He went back-to-back again in 1974 and 1975. Petty won ten races in 1974 and 13 the year after that. In each of those seasons he had over 20 top five finishes. He led over 3,100 laps in each of those two seasons. 

Petty's seventh and final Cup championship came in 1979 with five victories, 23 top five finishes and 27 top ten finishes over 31 starts. 

Championships aside, Petty won 200 races in his NASCAR Cup career, 192 of those came in the #43 and 1,125 of his record 1,184 starts were in the #43. All seven of Petty's Daytona 500 victories were in the #43. His two Coca-Cola 600 victories and his only Southern 500 victory were in the #43. He won with seven different manufactures in the #43: Plymouth, Ford, Dodge, Oldsmobile, Chevrolet, Buick and Pontiac. 

Petty is still the all-time leader in victories at Daytona (ten), Martinsville (15) and Richmond (13). He also holds the record for victories at North Wilkesboro (15), Rockingham (11) and the Nashville Fairgrounds (nine).

It is simply remarkable.

Honorable Mentions:
Nigel Mansell (A veteran of 187 Formula One starts, Mansell's first two were in the #43 Lotus at Österreichring and Zandvoort. He retired from both races, first with an engine failure at Austria and then with a brakes failure in the Netherlands).

#42: Lee Petty
Like father, like son. Before Richard Petty, Lee Petty was on top of NASCAR.

Lee Petty won 53 NASCAR Cup races in car #42 and he won three Cup championships, then the all-time record. In his 1954 championship season, Petty won seven races and he was in the top ten for 32 of his 34 starts. He had seven victories again when he won the 1958 championship and he followed that up with 11 victories in 42 stars to successfully defend his championship. 

From 1949 to 1960, Petty's worst championship finish was sixth. When he retired, he was the all-time leader in Cup championships and Cup victories. His son would surpass him in both categories. 

Petty won the inaugural Daytona 500. He won once on the original Daytona Beach circuit. His most victories came at Asheville-Weaverville Speedway, where he won four times. He had three victories at Martinsville and North Wilkesboro. He won twice at Hickory and Richmond. He even won North of the Border at Exposition Stadium in Toronto. 

Surprisingly, he never won at Darlington, but if that is the only blemish on his career no one will hold it against him.

Honorable Mentions:
Kyle Petty (Six of Petty's eight NASCAR Cup victories came in car #42)

Juan Pablo Montoya (Montoya used the #42 for the majority of his NASCAR Cup Series career and he won at Sonoma and Watkins Glen in the #42). 

#41: Curtis Turner
Turner went toe-to-toe with Petty and the other NASCAR greats of its first decade. 

He was the first driver to reach three career NASCAR Cup victories and he was the all-time leader in Cup victories from May 21, 1950 to October 21, 1951. 

Thirteen of Turner's 17 NASCAR Cup Series victories are in car #41, including his first nine victories. He also won the first race at Rockingham driving the #41 Wood Brothers Ford. He only finished in the top five of the championship once, fifth in 1950. He won four races that season. 

Turner might be remembered most for attempting to establish a driver's union and was banned from NASCAR in 1961. He would sit out for four seasons before returning in 1965. His Rockingham victory was in his seventh start back. 

A fragmented career, Turner's do not tell a complete story, but it is a glimpse of greatness. He still ranks 25th all-time in winning percentage for drivers with over 100 starts at 9.24%, just behind Kyle Busch and use ahead of Brad Keselowski, Denny Hamlin and Kevin Harvick.

Honorable Mentions:
Gaston Chevrolet (Chevrolet has the most IndyCar victories in the #41 car. All those victories came in 1919, two at Sheepshead Bay and one at Uniontown. He had one more victory in his career, the 1920 Indianapolis 500, but that was not the #41. He dropped the one and kept the four. 

Noriyuki Haga (Perhaps the best World Superbike rider not to win the championship, Haga won 43 races in his WSBK career, he is still fourth all-time, but he has the most victories of a rider without a championship. In eight seasons between 2000 and 2002-09, Haga was in the top four of the championship in every season with three runner-up finishes. He lost the 2007 title by two points and the 2009 title by six points). 

#40: Adrián Fernández
The #40 does not have a wealth of great options but I am going with Fernández though a few other names may stick. 

Fernández drove the #40 Reynard-Ford in three seasons for Patrick Racing in CART. He won two races in each of those three seasons. In 1998, he won at Motegi and Mid-Ohio. Mid-Ohio was a Patrick Racing 1-2 with Scott Pruett in second. Fernández was fourth in the championship that season. He won at Motegi again in 1999 and he closed the season with a victory at Fontana to claim sixth in the championship. 

In 2000, he won the final race at Rio and he won at Surfers Paradise to claim second in the championship, falling ten points shy of Gil de Ferran for the championship. After that, Fernández went on to start his own team where he continued to see success not only in IndyCar but sports cars as well.

Fernández is kind of a forgotten driver from the CART-IRL split era. He won on both sides, he got a later start in IndyCar, not making his debut until he was 28 years old and his final IndyCar start came when he was only 40 years old. He did so much in a short period of time but imagine if he had a full IndyCar career.

Honorable Mentions:
Wally Dallenbach (Dallenbach won five races in his IndyCar career in car #40, including a victory in the 1973 California 500, a season where he was runner-up in the championship despite failing to qualify in two races).

Parnelli Jones (Jones famously drive the STP-Paxton Turbocar in the 1967 Indianapolis 500 with a #40 smacked on the Day-Glo orange scheme. We all know how this story goes. Jones led 171 laps before a bearing failed with four laps to go. Gone was the victory, but the legend remains).

Emerson Fittipaldi (Fittipaldi's first IndyCar victory came in the #40 March-Cosworth for Patrick Racing in the Michigan 500).

This could be the Murder's Row of this Greatest by Number series. 

There are two drivers who combine for 14 NASCAR Cup championships, oh and then a driver who adds another three NASCAR Cup championships. 

Then there is a driver tied for the most World Drivers' Championships. 

Then there is a nine-time grand prix motorcycle champion with a four-time Speedway Grand Prix champion. 

These aren't minor championships we are talking about. These are the top series in the world.

The 40s are going to be difficult to beat. 

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

2021 MotoGP Season Preview

After holding the championship that nobody wanted to win in 2020, MotoGP returns with a rather star-studded field for what hopes to be a 19-race championship. 

The 2021 season will have a high standard to match. There were nine winners across the 14 races. Five of those winners were first-time MotoGP winners. Customer teams won eight of 14 races. Four of the six manufactures won a race. Five of the manufactures had a representative in the top ten of the championship.

Much of the grid has been mixed up. The defending champion Suzuki is the only team with an unchanged lineup from the 2020 season. 

Provisional Schedule
MotoGP opens its 2021 season with a doubleheader in Qatar. The Losail International Circuit will host the Qatar Grand Prix on March 28 with the Grand Prix of Doha on Easter Sunday, April 4. 

Portugal will kick off the European portion of the calendar on April 18 ahead of the Spanish Grand Prix from Jerez on May 2. Le Mans and Mugello host rounds on May 16 and May 30 respectively. Barcelona rounds out a back-to-back with Mugello on June 6. 

Summer begins in Germany on June 20 with the Dutch TT scheduled for June 27. The inaugural round at the Kymi Ring and the first Finnish Grand Prix since 1981 is scheduled for July 11 and will bring MotoGP to its summer break. 

The first race back will be Austria on August 15 with the British Grand Prix from Silverstone following on August 29. The 12-race European leg will end with a back-to-back, first visiting Aragón on September 12 and Misano closing out summer on September 19. 

The Asia-Pacific swing will be a pair of back-to-backs. First will be Japan on October 3 ahead of Thailand on October 10. Phillip Island hosts the Australian Grand Prix on October 24 and Malaysia follows on October 31. Valencia is currently scheduled as the season finale on November 14.

There are two postponed rounds, the Argentine Grand Prix and Grand Prix of the Americas. The Indonesian Grand Prix at the new Mandalika street circuit remains as a reserve grand prix in case of further postponements. 

Team Suzuki Ecstar
Joan Mir: #36 Suzuki GSX-RR
What did he do in 2020: Mir won the MotoGP World Championship with 171 points. His only victory was the European Grand Prix from Valencia. He was on the podium seven times in 14 races, and he became the second premier class world champion to not win a pole position during a championship season. 

What to expect in 2021: Mir won the title through consistency last season while others proved to be quick for four or five races, but not a complete 14-race season. Suzuki did not show outstanding pace in testing. At no point was Suzuki firmly at the top of the charts and mixed up with the Ducatis or Yamahas. I don't think Mir will repeat and I am not sure he will crack the top five in the championship. He could slide back and yet maintain his consistency. It is a longer season, at least five races longer but could be as many as seven races longer. I think that could play into someone else's hands if Mir is only around fifth or sixth in those additional races.

Álex Rins: #42 Suzuki GSX-RR
What did he do in 2020: Rins was third in the world championship, 32 points behind his Suzuki teammate. Rins won the Aragón Grand Prix and he had three other podium finishes.

What to expect in 2021: Both Suzuki riders were pretty even in testing. They were pretty even last year with Mir coming out on top more times than Rins. I could see both these riders end up between fifth and seventh in the championship. Both could win a race or two, but I am not sure either can be on the podium at the same rate as last season.

Petronas Yamaha SRT
Franco Morbidelli: #21 Yamaha YZR-M1
What did he do in 2020: Morbidelli was tied for the most MotoGP victories in 2020 with three, the San Marino and Rimini Grand Prix from Misano, the Teruel Grand Prix from Aragón and the Valencian Community Grand Prix. He had only two other podium finishes, and he retired from three races, leaving him 13 points behind Mir for the championship. 

What to expect in 2021: Morbidelli should be leading the Yamaha contingent and be competing with Maverick Viñales for the best in the manufactures' fold. At the higher speed tracks, Yamaha lost out. I think Morbidelli can maximize the tracks that suit Yamaha, but that might not be enough to overcome the deficit. He should be competing for a top five championship position. 

Valentino Rossi: #46 Yamaha YZR-M1
What did he do in 2020: Rossi was 15th in the championship on 66 points. His only podium finish was in the second race of the season at Jerez. He missed the two Aragón races after contracting COVID-19. It was the first time Rossi finished outside the top ten of a championship in his grand prix racing career and he remains on 199 career premier class podium finishes.

What to expect in 2021: Last year was difficult for Rossi and he is 42 years old. Could he end up on the podium once and get to 200? Yes, but I expect he will be fourth of the four Yamahas and struggle to finish in the top ten of the championship.

Red Bull KTM Factory Racing
Brad Binder: #33 KTM RC16
What did he do in 2020: Binder won the Czech Grand Prix, but he had only two other top five finishes the rest of the season and he retired from four races. This left the South African 11th in the championship on 87 points.

What to expect in 2021: KTM did draw much attention in testing. Binder was one of the slowest riders, but many believe testing does not tell the entire story. Results will improve enough to put him in the top ten of the championship, he should get a few podium finishes, but I think he will lose the KTM battle. 

Miguel Oliveira: #88 KTM RC16
What did he do in 2020: Oliveira won the Styrian Grand Prix on a final corner pass and he dominated his home grand prix, the Portuguese Grand Prix. However, two victories with only two other top five finishes, both fifth-place results, slotted him ninth in the championship on 125 points.

What to expect in 2021: Oliveira was the top KTM rider in testing and put the bike in the top ten regularly. I think he will lead the way for KTM in 2021. I am not sure he can match what Pol Espargaró did and end up in the top five of the championship, but he could come close, and he could pick up a few victories. 

Ducati Lenovo Team
Jack Miller: #43 Ducati Desmosedici GP21
What did he do in 2020: Miller was seventh in the championship, the top rider without a race victory, on 132 points. The Australian had four podium finishes, including a pair of runner-up results to close the season. 

What to expect in 2021: Miller topped testing, and many are penciling him in as one of the championship favorites. He probably should have won a race or two last year. Ducati should have done better last season. It has been almost five years since his lone MotoGP victory, a wet Dutch TT. That will change this year. He should have a career year in the top class. 

Francesco Bagnaia: #63 Ducati Desmosedici GP21
What did he do in 2020: Bagnaia broke his leg at Brno and missed three races. However, he returned with a runner-up finish at Misano. That was his only top five finish, and he was 16th in the championship on 47 points.

What to expect in 2021: Bagnaia had moments last year, but he didn't put together a full season and both his MotoGP seasons have been underwhelming. He is now on the factory Ducati and his results should be better, but I am not convinced he can match his teammate. He could end up outside the top ten of the championship again. 

Pramac Racing
Johann Zarco: #5 Ducati Desmosedici GP21
What did he do in 2020: Zarco's only podium finish was third at Brno from pole position. He scored 77 points, leaving him 13th in the championship.

What to expect in 2021: Zarco could challenge for a top ten championship finish. He had a few good days last season. I am not sure he can string together ten or 12 of those, but he could pick off a podium finish or two. 

Jorge Martín: #89 Ducati Desmosedici GP21
What did he do in 2020: Mártin was fifth the Moto2 championship with two victories and six podium finishes. Those results earned him 160 points, but he missed the two Misano rounds after testing positive for COVID-19.

What to expect in 2021: Martín will have some learning to do. I think he will be somewhere between 14th and 18th in the championship.

Monster Energy Yamaha MotoGP
Maverick Viñales: #12 Yamaha YZR-M1
What did he do in 2020: Viñales won three pole positions and he won the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix at Misano, but the Spaniard had one top five finish in the final seven races. He ended the year on 132 points, sixth in the championship. 

What to expect in 2021: Early testing results were encouraging for the entire Yamaha bunch, but concerns remain about Yamaha's overall pace, which cost the manufacture at many races in 2020. There is still a sense when Yamaha is on it will look good, but when it is off it will be out of the picture. Will a more rounded schedule benefit or hinder Yamaha? There were a lot of doubleheaders last year, which exacerbated the problems. Viñales will pick up his share of victories, but it will prove difficult to put together a championship-worthy season.

Fabio Quartararo: #20 Yamaha YZR-M1
What did he do in 2020: Quartararo opened the season with a pair of victories from pole position at Jerez, but he had only one other victory in the final 12 races and that was at Barcelona. That was also his only other podium finish. He was eighth or worse in the final six races and settled for eighth in the championship with 127 points.

What to expect in 2021: Not many times does a rider enter a season off winning a share of the most races and feel like momentum is against him. Quartararo left a lot to be desired with the end of his 2020 season. After winning the first two races and with Marc Márquez out, it felt like the championship was Quartararo's for the taking. He struggled more than the rest of the Yamaha riders. Eighth in the championship might have been generous last year. He has to be more consistent this season and score more podium finishes. He could turn it around and be in the championship fight, but I expect him to be a tad shy of that. 

Red Bull KTM Tech 3
Danilo Petrucci: #9 KTM RC16
What did he do in 2020: Riding for the factory Ducati team, Petrucci won at Le Mans, but his next best finish over the entire season was seventh. He was 12th in the championship with 78 points.

What to expect in 2021: Petrucci seems happy entering the season. KTM was streaky last season, and the Austrian manufacture was not flashy in testing, but the thought is KTM was not showing its hand. I think Petrucci will be about where he was last year, between tenth and 13th and he could have a couple top five results, maybe even get on the podium once or twice.

Iker Lecuona: #27 KTM RC16
What did he do in 2020: Lecuona scored 27 points in 11 races with his best finish being ninth at the Austrian Grand Prix and Teruel Grand Prix. He missed the final three races after contracting COVID-19.

What to expect in 2021: About the same as 2020. Lecuona will score a few points, but not many. He may sneak into the top ten once or twice.

LCR Honda Idemitsu/Castrol
Takaaki Nakagami: #30 Honda RC213V
What did he do in 2020: Nakagami scored points in the first ten races, won pole position for the 11th round, the Teruel Grand Prix and the proceeded to fall the bike on the opening lap of that race. He scored points in 12 of 14 races, with all the results being top ten finishes, but he was tenth in the championship with 116 points. 

What to expect in 2021: More of the same. I think Nakagami will remain consistent, score points and we could see him again in the top ten of the championship. He could get on the podium.

Álex Márquez: #73 Honda RC213V
What did he do in 2020: Riding for the factory Honda team, Márquez scored runner-up finishes at Le Mans and Aragón, but he had no other top five finishes. With 74 points, he was the second-best rookie, 14th in the championship.
What to expect in 2021: Márquez will be coming off a fractured foot and he is moving down to the customer team. He had a better feeling of the bike as the season went along. His goal should be to beat his teammate Nakagami in the championship.

Repsol Honda Team
Stefan Bradl: #6 Honda RC213V
What did he do in 2020: Bradl ran 11 races in place of an injured Marc Márquez, and Bradl scored 27 points. His best finish was seventh at Portimão.

What to expect in 2021: Márquez will miss the Qatar Grand Prix and that means Bradl will get at least one start. He could get more if Márquez's recovery continues to be delayed. Bradl improved over the course of his 2020 season and testing was good. I am not sure he will be keeping up with Espargaró. 

Pol Espargaró: #44 Honda RC213V
What did he do in 2020: Espargaró was fifth in the championship with 135 points riding for the factory KTM outfit. He was the third-place finisher on five occasions, including in both races where he started on pole position. 

What to expect in 2021: Espargaró had a solid test, though he was not lighting the field on fire in testing. Honda needs Espargaró to match his 2020 output on the KTM. He might just miss out on the top five in the championship, but I think he should be somewhere in the top ten and win a race or two.  

Marc Márquez: #93 Honda RC213V
What did he do in 2020: Márquez broke his arm in the 2020 season opener at Jerez. After attempting to run the second race from Jerez, Márquez sidelined himself until he properly healed. He fractured the plate in his arm attempting to close a window and that ended any chance of him running again in the 2020 season.

What to expect in 2021: It comes down to whether or not Márquez is healthy, and he will miss the season opener from Qatar. He has done very limited testing and is coming off a slow recovery from his broken arm. I am concerned about his fitness. He has not raced competitively since the middle of last July and that is his only race in nearly 16 months. He is remarkable and he won races and championships while not 100%, but I am hesitant to say it is his championship to lose. 

There is a world where Márquez wins the championship with about eight race victories. There is another world where he is struggling to compete for the top five and he has his worst championship finish. If he stays healthy, I think he will end up winning a race at some point, but I cannot give an exact total. 

Esponsorama Racing
Luca Marini: #10 Ducati Desmosedici GP19
What did he do in 2020: Marini was runner-up in Moto2 after winning three races and picking up six podium finishes. He lost the title by nine points. 

What to expect in 2021: Marini will be at the back of the field and fighting for points. This all-rookie lineup will do the best it can, but it is an older bike. If he can score about 30 points that would be a good season. 

Enea Bastianini: #23 Ducati Desmosedici GP19
What did he do in 2020: Bastianini won the Moto2 World Championship with three victories and seven podium finishes. He ended up on 205 points. 

What to expect in 2021: The same as Marini. Both these riders will be developing this season. They were pretty equal last year in Moto2. Zarco achieved some impressive results with Esponsorama, but he is a veteran. I think the goal for both these riders is to score at least four top ten finishes each and beat fellow Ducati customer rider Jorge Martín in the championship.

Aprilia Racing Team Gresini
Lorenzo Savadori: #32 Aprilia RS-GP
What did he do in 2020: Savadori substituted for Bradley Smith in the final three races of the MotoGP season. He retired in two races and was 18th in the second Valencia round.

What to expect in 2021: Savadori will be significantly off his Aprilia teammate and he will likely be outside the top 15 in the championship. This is a big step up for him. He was adequate in World Superbike, but that will not be good enough in MotoGP.

Aleix Espargaró: #41 Aprilia RS-GP
What did he do in 2020: Espargaró was 17th in the championship with 42 points with his best finish being eighth in the finale at Portugal. His second-best result of the season was in the penultimate race of the season, ninth at Valencia. 

What to expect in 2021: Testing suggests Aprilia might have found something and Espargaró could be much more competitive. Aprilia has pushed its chips to the center of the table and is shooting for points. He averaged three points per race last year. Two years ago, five points per race would have been good enough for 12th in the championship. The goal has to be average five points per race and a top 15 championship finish, but closer to tenth than 15th.

MotoGP takes to the track for first practice at 8:40 a.m. ET on Friday March 26. Second practice will follow at 1:00 p.m. Third practice will be at 8;15 a.m. on Saturday ahead of the fourth practice at 12:20 p.m. Qualifying will follow at 1:00 p.m. ET. The Qatar Grand Prix will take place on Sunday March 28 at 1:00 p.m.

Monday, March 22, 2021

Musings From the Weekend: Credit Where Credit is Due

Sebring went to the wire in almost every class. Corvette broke out some silver. Corvette also will not field GTD-Pro for the 2022 IMSA season. Mazda MX-5 Cup continues to be the best series on the planet. Shane van Gisbergen was incredible with a broken collarbone and made an amazing pass to open the weekend. The Supercross championship is entering its final stages. NASCAR should consider using Atlanta's infield road course when it returns in July. IndyCar had an iRacing event, Álex Palou won his Ganassi debut at Montreal, and I have to double-back and talk about that. Here is a rundown of what got me thinking.

Credit Where Credit is Due
Two weeks ago, after a long and quiet winter, I picked apart IndyCar for having not held any iRacing events during the offseason after highly suggesting the exhibition would continue as a bridge during the 2020-21 offseason. Three days later, IndyCar announced it would hold a three-race series, all on Thursday nights, over three weeks in late March and early April. This past Thursday was the first event.

I have to give IndyCar credit. It came up with a series and it fulfilled what a sufficient preseason iRacing series should be. Three events are plenty. It's not too many that it becomes overkill. It's not only one or two events that people could miss. Three events provide enough of a stage to present the series. It allows for the variety of IndyCar to be showcased and this year's IndyCar iRacing calendar presents something different. 

The first race was at Montreal, a track that once hosted Champ Car but has not featured North American open-wheel racing's top series since 2006. Round two will be at Homestead, a track IndyCar has a notable history at, but Homestead hasn't hosted IndyCar in a decade. The final event will be a fan voted venue between Kentucky, Phoenix, Sonoma and Sebring. 

Last Thursday's opening event from Montreal was a good start. It was a straightforward race, 32 laps, no gimmicks, first across the line was the winner. It was streamed on IndyCar's YouTube page and other social media avenues and while it was not broadcasted on NBCSN like the events were in 2020, there are advantages to streaming. There is greater flexibility if an event goes long. There is time to interview three or four drivers and get every question answered. The broadcast isn't rushing for a hard out-time. Another perk is there are no commercial breaks. You get to see the entire race, all the passes, all the spins and all the necessary replays. 

There was plenty of time over the winter though to set up a television broadcast strategy with these events. It has been a hectic period as sports leagues did not take place during the pandemic and many leagues are competing in a condensed window after seasons were delayed last year. The prime windows IndyCar got last year are not available, but there is some time for IndyCar to fit a 90-minute window, or even a 60-minute window, and there is also a different avenue. 

NBC launched the streaming service Peacock last summer and Peacock will be where live IndyCar practice and qualifying sessions can be found in 2021. These iRacing events would have been great for Peacock, a place where you don't have to worry about hard deadlines and commercials, and it would have been a chance to get people acclimated to visiting the platform to see IndyCar ahead of the 2021 season. 

The race format was enough as well for these iRacing events. It took about an hour and you had about a round of pit stops. Once all the post-race interviews were complete, an hour and 15 minutes had surpassed, and it was over. It didn't require someone to give up their entire night. I think there could be a little more of a show at the top. A few pre-race interviews, especially with those starting at the front, would have been beneficial. The broadcast jumped right into the race, but you didn't get a sense of who was where until the starting grid came up. I feel like there needed to be a little more of buildup. 

There are a few areas necessary for improvements.

One of the detractors from the opening weekend was the lack of IndyCar drivers in IndyCar's iRacing event. 

There are about 24 full-time IndyCar drivers. There were only 18 entrants for this first event. About ten of them will be regulars in the 2021 IndyCar season. 

I will bet IndyCar had been working on this for a while, but when this is condensed over three weeks, announced a week before the first race and it appeared the racing schedule that has already began was not thoroughly taken into consideration, you are going to lose out to scheduling conflicts. 

The first event was held the Thursday of 12 Hours of Sebring weekend. Simon Pagenaud, Alexander Rossi, Scott Dixon, Sébastien Bourdais and Jimmie Johnson were all busy with sports cars. Conor Daly had a previously scheduled sponsorship engagement. Those are six notable drivers unavailable, one of which is the defending champion, one of which has won one of the last two Indianapolis 500s, two of which are two of IndyCar's last three most popular drivers and the other is the center of the commercials promoting IndyCar's first race of the season. You have to get at least half of those drivers in this event.

This was avoidable and it points that more work should have been done to ensure the drivers were available. None of Andretti Autosport's full-time drivers were available. Ed Carpenter Racing ran an all Road to Indy lineup. Arrow McLaren SP, the team obsessed with becoming IndyCar's fourth best team, didn't even participate. Only two drivers that finished in the top ten of the 2020 championship competed (Josef Newgarden and Takuma Sato). I know this is a voluntary exhibition and some drivers are going to decline, but participation dictates whether or not these events will be a success. 

It sounds like more drivers will be participating at the Homestead round and I hope even more are available for the final event. In the future, a little more schedule awareness is necessary.

But I think we can still have a little more fun with these events. The opening race was good, but with iRacing, I think it is ok to take chances. Have a random caution pop up. Invert the starting order. Invite a few guests. You can have fun and a fair competition. 

I look at the four choices for the fan vote track and those are pretty boring options. IndyCar has raced at Phoenix and Sonoma recently. Kentucky is tame. Sebring is different, but is that really the biggest IndyCar can dream? 

Dinner with Racers had IndyCar at Talladega race alongside NASCAR Cup cars and the Porsche 919 Hybrid last year. If you want to draw viewers, have Talladega as an option and have it against Bathurst, Eldora and Monza (road course or oval). We can take a step out of reality for a second with these iRacing events and stepping out of reality will get more people interested and might get more drivers interested in competing. If you are going to do something, do something that gets people talking. 

I am glad IndyCar ended up having something. It still needs a sanctioned iRacing series, but these are the right steps to make in the infancy of the 2020s. This is year two of increased iRacing involvement and we are still learning, but we are getting an idea of how this can fit with a real-life championship. We can take these missteps and apply them to better implementation in future years. 
Winners From the Weekend
You know about Álex Palou, but did you know...

The #5 JDC-Miler Motorsports Cadillac of Loïc Duval, Tristan Vautier and Sébastien Bourdais won the 12 Hours of Sebring. The #52 PR1/Mathiasen Motorsports Oreca-Gibson of Scott Huffaker, Mikkel Jensen and Ben Keating won in the LMP2 class. The #54 CORE Autosport Jon Bennett, Colin Braun and George Kurtz won in the LMP3 class. The #79 WeatherTech Racing Porsche of Cooper MacNeil, Mathieu Jaminet and Matt Campbell won in GTLM. The #9 Pfaff Motorsport Porsche of Laurens Vanthoor, Zach Robichon and Lars Kern won in GTD.

Ryan Blaney won the NASCAR Cup race from Atlanta. Justin Allgaier won the Grand National Series race. Kyle Busch won the Truck race, his 60th Truck victory. 

Shane van Gisbergen swept the three Supercars races from Sandown.

Cooper Webb swept the Supercross races from Arlington.

Coming Up This Weekend
Formula One opens its season in Bahrain. 
MotoGP opens its season in Qatar.
NASCAR has its dirt race at Bristol.
The aforementioned IndyCar iRacing round at Homestead.

Friday, March 19, 2021

2021 Formula One Season Preview

After last year's significantly delayed and significantly condensed Formula One season, 2021 hopes to be a much more common season with a March start, a normal springtime European leg and trips around the globe. 

Of course, as the global pandemic continues, everything remains subject to change. The hope is to visit multiple continents and tracks that have sat idle for over a year, but we will have to be patient as countries figure out their own restrictions on travel, public gathering and vaccine distribution.

Provisional Schedule
Bahrain is currently set to host the 2021 Formula One season opener on March 28, two weeks after the track hosted preseason testing. 

Imola and Portimão return for a second-consecutive season, hosting the Emilia Romagna and Portuguese Grand Prix respectively on April 18 and May 2, an earlier start to the European swing than most seasons. Spain will return to its May date on May 9 with Monaco scheduled to return on May 23. 

Azerbaijan is scheduled for June 6 with the Canadian Grand Prix in Montreal, the first major trans-Atlantic trip, planned for June 13. Formula One returns to Europe on June 27 with the French Grand Prix before heading to Austria on July 4. The tenth round of the season will be the British Grand Prix from Silverstone on July 18. Hungary closes out the first half of the season on August 1, ahead of the summer break. 

Spa-Francorchamps, Zandvoort and Monza will comprise a three-consecutive week return on August 29, September 5 and September 12 respectively. Russia will be the first race of Autumn on September 26. The Asia-Pacific return is planned for Singapore and Japan on October 3 and October 10. 

The Americas will have a three-race stretch beginning with the United States Grand Prix on October 24 before the Mexico City Grand Prix on October 31. Brazil rounds out the three-week trip on November 7. Australia was pushed back to November 21. Saudi Arabia's inaugural grand prix will take place on December 5, a week prior to the season finale, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on December 12.

It is currently planned that the Canadian Grand Prix, British Grand Prix, Italian Grand Prix and Brazilian Grand Prix will all feature a qualifying sprint race on Saturday to determine the grid for the grand prix held on Sunday. 

Mercedes-AMG Petronas Formula One Team
Lewis Hamilton: #44 Mercedes F1 W12 E Performance
What did he do in 2020: Hamilton won 11 races on his way to scoring 347 points and earning his seventh World Drivers' Championship. He broke Michael Schumacher's record for most grand prix victories and Hamilton will enter 2021 with 95 grand prix victories. He scored points in all 16 of his starts, but he did miss the Sakhir Grand Prix after contracting COVID-19.

What to expect in 2021: An eighth world championship and another ten to 12 victories. Is there any reason to expect anything different? This year there might be, as the Mercedes drivers were not comfortable with the rear end with the car during the Bahrain test. However, for the past seven seasons Mercedes has been the class of the field. It has worked through any minor problem and come out on the other side better than before. I don't believe this rear end issue will slow the team down. Could it be like 2018 when Ferrari and Sebastian Vettel gave a strong fight through the first half of the season? Possibly, but Mercedes still came out on top. I don't see that changing.

The Hamilton preview has been the same since 2016. Mercedes is going to provide the best car on the grid and Hamilton is going to continue being one of the best drivers in the world. He could race an entire season with one eye closed and still win seven races. 

Valtteri Bottas: #77 Mercedes F1 W12 E Performance
What did he do in 2020: Bottas won twice and stood on the podium 11 times. His 223 points put him second in the world championship. 

What to expect in 2021: A few victories and finishing somewhere between second and fifth in the world championship. Both Mercedes drivers are in contract years. Hamilton will have another deal as long as he likes one. Bottas is a sufficient number two, but with the lingering feeling Hamilton could walk away at any moment, the question becomes does Mercedes believe Bottas can be a team leader? This has to be the year Bottas proves he can take over should the spot open up. He will need to be flawless, nipping Hamilton's heels and Bottas cannot afford to have pedestrian results.

Red Bull Racing Honda
Sergio Pérez: #11 Red Bull Racing RB16B
What did he do in 2020: Pérez picked up a popular victory in the Sakhir Grand Prix and he was also second in the Turkish Grand Prix. Despite missing two races for contracting COVID-19, Pérez ended up on 125 points and fourth in the world championship with Racing Point.

What to expect in 2021: This is Pérez's last big break. After establishing himself as the best of the midfield, he has been elevated to a powerhouse. He was fourth with Racing Point. Fourth is the minimum for Red Bull. After having a one-driver team for the last two seasons, Red Bull needs production from Pérez and must pressure Mercedes in the World Constructors' Championship. Pérez should pick up at least one or two victories and be on the podium six to nine times. Testing results showed he was matching his Red Bull teammate. It would not be a surprise if Pérez came out on top in the Red Bull battle, but if he doesn't, he will still increase Red Bull's points production.

Max Verstappen: #33 Red Bull Racing RB16B
What did he do in 2020: Verstappen won two races and picked up ten podium finishes. With 214 points, he was third in the world championship.

What to expect in 2021: The heir apparent to the Formula One throne, Verstappen was whiskers short of being vice-champion, nine points off of Bottas. Reliability and aggression kept him from second in the world championship. He will have to win more, likely at least five to six times if he wants to be only behind Hamilton. I think he can do it. 

In testing, Verstappen led the way and for the first time since 2013 it feels like Red Bull has a significant shot at returning to title glory. The speed is there and if the reliability matches, combined with uncertainty for Mercedes, we could see the German manufactures' seven-year championship run end at the hands of the Austrian organization. It is a long season and we will see ups and downs in this championship. A strong start for Red Bull could go a long way and could decide whether or not it pulls out a championship.

McLaren F1 Team
Daniel Ricciardo: #3 McLaren MCL35M
What did he do in 2020: Driving for Renault, Ricciardo was third at the Nürburgring and Imola and he scored points in 14 of 17 races. He picked fastest lap at Spa-Francorchamps and Abu Dhabi and was fifth in the world championship on 119 points.

What to expect in 2021: With McLaren returning to Mercedes power for the first time since 2014, Ricciardo could be the sleeper of the season. He was ahead of both McLaren's drivers in the 2020 drivers' championship, but McLaren topped Renault in last year's constructors' championship. The switch from Renault to Mercedes causes skepticism, however McLaren looked very promising in testing. It is still early in the process and the woefully Honda years are still fresh in our memories. 

I think McLaren will be fine. If everything clicks, McLaren could secure third in the constructors' battle on its own without a rival being docked points. In that case, Ricciardo would be leading the way, snatching a handful of podium results, possibly a race victory, and he would likely crack the top five in the championship for another season.

Lando Norris: #4 McLaren MCL35M 
What did he do in 2020: Norris opened the season with a third and a fastest lap in Austria. He scored 97 points and was ninth in the world championship.

What to expect in 2021: I expect Norris to lose the intra-team battle. His first two seasons have been all fun and games, but with Ricciardo in the other garage and Mercedes under the engine cover, play time is over. The goofy awkwardness has to be replaced with a ruthless demeanor. Norris cannot let Ricciardo thrash him in the championship, which I think could happen. While Ricciardo's smile eases everyone in the paddock, on the track he is an assassin of sorts and he will not sink to Norris' level. Norris has to ascend higher than he has ever been in his short Formula One stint.

Norris could be on the podium a few times, but I am not sure he can win with this car. I don't think he can consistently beat Ricciardo. We could be looking at another season where he is three or four spots behind a teammate in the championship.

Aston Martin Cognizant Formula One Team
Sebastian Vettel: #5 Aston Martin AMR21
What did he do in 2020: Vettel had the worst season in his full-time Formula One career with only 33 points slotting him 13th in the championship. He was third in Turkey, but that was the only time he finished in the top five all season and he failed to score points in ten races. 

What to expect in 2021: Aston Martin has attracted its share of attention over the offseason and the team formerly pretty in pink as Racing Point takes on an iconic motorsports name and an iconic green scheme. Expectations will be to match the results of last year and for Vettel to resurrect his career. However, testing was not a promising start to the 2021 season and Vettel finds himself in another precarious situation.

This career resurrection has taken an undesired first turn and Vettel cannot afford another uncompetitive season, especially at Aston Martin. He is the team leader. It's one thing to lose out to Charles Leclerc and even Daniel Ricciardo going back to Vettel's final year at Red Bull. He cannot let Lance Stroll beat him. Vettel has to a clear number one in this team. Sergio Pérez averaged 8.333 points per start last year. A respectable season for Vettel is to coming close to that, averaging around seven points a start. The only problem is I am not sure Aston Martin will provide a car that can meet that goal.

Lance Stroll: #16 Aston Martin AMR21
What did he do in 2020: Stroll was 11th in the championship on 75 points, but he did have two podium finishes, the first coming at Monza and the other coming in the Sakhir Grand Prix. Both were third-place finishes. He also won pole position in Turkey.

What to expect in 2021: Coming off by far the best season of his Formula One career, and with his father's money firmly in this team, Stroll has a Formula One seat for as long as he wants it. He showed he could handle the pace of the Racing Point last year, but still ran into rough patches and fell to pieces from a commanding position in Turkey. I think top ten in the championship is possible. Can he beat Vettel? The question should be can Stroll raise his game to the level Pérez was at in 2020? 

We already saw Vettel toil around in a Ferrari and Stroll finished ahead of the German in the world championship. If Stroll does that again it is not as impressive if he is 11th while Vettel is 13th. But if Stroll ends up seventh or eighth in the world championship with four or five podium finishes and ahead of Vettel then we would have to recognize it as a step forward. 

I don't think either happens. If Stroll is in the top ten of the championship, Vettel is likely a spot or two ahead of the him. There is a good chance that neither driver makes the top ten and in that case there will nothing to brag about for this operation. 

Alpine F1 Team
Fernando Alonso: #14 Alpine A521
What did he do in 2020: Alonso was 13th in the Dakar Rally driving for Toyota and he competed in this second Indianapolis 500. Alonso qualified 26th driving for McLaren and he finished 21st, one-lap down, largely forgotten most of the race. 

What to expect in 2021: I don't know. Alonso's third act with this French outfit comes after a year off. The man competed in two races last year. One, he had little to no expectations in the Dakar. The other, we knew he could be competitive in, but he his second Indianapolis 500 start was absent of the magic that made his 2017 attempt a worldwide interest story. We cannot forget to mention he is starting the season a month removed from suffering a broken jaw after an automobile hit him while Alonso was cycling. 

The man will turn 40 years old during the season. He has titanium in his face. The fire is still there, and the ability is not gone either after watching his sports car success with Toyota. But Alonso has been hamstrung in his last few Formula One efforts. A competitive car is not going to be enough to win a grand prix and for a two-time World Drivers' Champion and 32-time grand prix winner, fifth-place finishes will only frustrate him. However, if Ricciardo can get on the podium, I think Alonso can as well. His championship finish will be in the back half of the top ten.

Esteban Ocon: #31 Alpine A521
What did he do in 2020: Ocon returned to Formula One after a sabbatical in 2019 and he scored 62 points, good enough for 12th in the championship. He was runner-up in the Sakhir Grand Prix.

What to expect in 2021: Ocon went from unwarranted outcast to afterthought in a year. Many felt he was wrongly sidelined after the 2018 season, but his 2020 results were underwhelming and almost justify his absence. He scored just more than half of Ricciardo's point total last year. He has to make a gain this season, but with how tight the midfield will be, Ocon could still end up on the outside of the top ten in the championship. 

The last time Ocon and Alonso were on the grid together, Alonso beat him in the world championship by a point. Alonso was strapped with the fluctuating McLaren program. Ocon was saddled with the Force India collapse. I still think Alonso's talent will place him ahead of Ocon in the championship though Ocon should score a greater percentage of points than last season.

Scuderia Ferrari
Charles Leclerc: #16 Ferrari SF21
What did he do in 2020: Leclerc was eighth in the world championship on 98 points. His only podium finishes were second in the Austrian Grand Prix and third in the British Grand Prix.

What to expect in 2021: It couldn't be worse than 2020, right? Last year was the first time Ferrari did not finish in the top five of the World Constructors' Championship since 1980. It was only the third season in Leclerc's lifetime the Scuderia did not win a grand prix and all of those have come since 2015. The Monegasque driver made the most of it and pieced together a respectable season, but if the car is down on power again, it is hard to see how 2021 will be much better. 

Leclerc does have the smarts to get a car home and not make boneheaded moves. He could be eighth in the world championship again even if the engine is not much better, but if Aston Martin improves from testing, McLaren nails the adaptations to the Mercedes engine and Alpine raises its game, there is a chance neither Ferrari driver is in the top ten of the championship and Ferrari will be on the outside of the top five in the constructors' battle for consecutive seasons for the first time ever.

I don't see that happening. Ferrari says it has gotten its power deficiency squared away. I don't think Ferrari will get back into the top three, but I think it can finish fourth or fifth in the constructors' championship. If Ferrari does, Leclerc will pick up a few podium finishes and stay in the back half of the top ten in the championship. 

Carlos Sainz, Jr.: #55 Ferrari SF21
What did he do in 2020: Sainz, Jr. was second at Monza and scored points in 12 of 17 races as he was the lead McLaren driver in the championship, sixth with 105 points.

What to expect in 2021: Sainz, Jr. should help Ferrari score more points and have it be a more balanced lineup than Leclerc and Vettel last season. However, all the concerns for Leclerc's 2021 season apply to Sainz, Jr.'s 2021 season. The Spaniard can only achieve so much if the Ferrari power unit is underpowered. If Sainz, Jr. simply matches Leclerc's output and Leclerc's output is consistent from 2020, then Ferrari will likely be back the top five of the constructors' championship and possibly even sneak into fourth, but I do not think it will be that simple.

I think Ferrari has a good shot of jumping ahead of Alpine and that is partially because Sainz, Jr. is there. I think both Ferraris can be regular point scorers. That does mean both cars will be competing for a podium finish but Ferrari put both cars in the points five times in 2020. In four of those races, the second Ferrari was tenth, contributing one point to the team's tally. I think we will see more races where the Ferraris are sixth and eighth, or seventh and eighth, or fourth and seventh. That's not exciting, but it is better than last season.

Scuderia AlphaTauri Honda
Pierre Gasly: #10 AlphaTauri AT02
What did he do in 2020: Gasly famously won the Italian Grand Prix, but his only other top five result was fifth at Portimão and he ended up tenth in the championship on 75 points.

What to expect in 2021: One-third of Gasly's points in 2020 came from one race. Though he ended up in the points in ten races, I think we need to calm ourselves before thinking AlphaTauri is guaranteed to make a large jump. Gasly has this consistency with AlphaTauri that was lacking during his brief stint at Red Bull. Last year, he found himself surpassing the output of Alexander Albon in the Red Bull at times and appeared to be proving a few decision-makers wrong. 

The good news for Gasly is AlphaTauri was the feel-good story of testing and the car was not far off its parent team. How seriously should we take those results? I think AlphaTauri could be better than last season, but I am not convinced it will crack the top four of the constructors' championship. It could be a tight fight for fifth with Ferrari, Alpine and a possibly dipping Aston Martin. My gut says Gasly could finish exactly where he was in the championship last year, but if he slid back to 12th-14th I would not be surprised either.

Yuki Tsunoda: #22 AlphaTauri AT02
What did he do in 2020: Tsunoda won three races in the Formula Two championship and he picked up a total of seven podium finishes, placing him third in the championship on 200 points. He started 2020 placing fourth in the Toyota Racing Series with only one victory from 15 races.

What to expect in 2021: Red Bull has such a short leash we may never see Tsunoda's full potential. This is Honda getting thrown a bone and with Honda out of the picture next year Tsunoda will have to be exceptional. However, Tsunoda was responsible for AlphaTauri's fastest lap in testing and I get the sense that Honda will want to do all it can to leave Tsunoda in a promising position for 2022 and beyond. 

He was breathtaking at times in Formula Two. It took him time to settle in, but he found control in the second half of the season. Exceeding Daniil Kvyat's output is not out of the question and only twice were both AlphaTauri drivers in the points last season. I expect the team to do better than that and Tsunoda to give Gasly a run for his money. 

Alfa Romeo Racing Orlen
Kimi Räikkönen: #7 Alfa Romeo C41
What did he do in 2020: Räikkönen scored four points, two in Tuscany and two in Imola. He also broke the record for most races entered and started in Formula One history. 

What to expect in 2021: This is not the Kimi Räikkönen of old. He isn't going to score points in 15 races and stand on the podium. Frankly, the bar is so low for Alfa Romeo any points the Finn scores will be a notable achievement. Eventually, he will call it a day. The paycheck is nice but how many seasons can you run outside the points for 90% of the races and think this is the best way to spend your time? That final start is coming, but I don't think Räikkönen will make much of his farewell. 

Antonio Giovinazzi: #99 Alfa Romeo C41
What did he do in 2020: Giovinazzi scored four points, two in Austria, one in Germany and one in Imola, however, the spoils go to his teammate as Räikkönen bested the Italian in the championship on tiebreaker.

What to expect in 2021: About as much as you can expect for Räikkönen. Giovinazzi had a few good days last season, but nothing suggests he is a star hiding in plain sight. If he scores four points again, great; if he scores more, phenomenal. If he scores less or scores nothing, Alfa Romeo will just replace him. If Alfa Romeo's partnership ends after this season and Sauber returns to being Sauber, he will likely be out anyway as the team will need someone who can foot the bills. 

Uralkali Haas F1 Team
Nikita Mazepin: #9 Haas VF-21
What did he do in 2020: Mazepin won two races in Formula Two, stood on the podium six times and picked up 11 penalty points, one shy of a one-race ban.

What to expect in 2021: Mazepin caused so much controversy in Formula Two I bet he wouldn't mind going unnoticed in his rookie Formula One campaign. Luckily for him, he is driving for Haas, which will be toward the back of the field. The bad news is he was already getting in the way and proving to be a hazard in testing. He shouldn't be running into people, but like a magnet, Mazepin seems to be attracting contact. Haas has said it is not developing this car at all over this season. I expect the best results to be at the start and then Haas to fall to the bottom of the field. 

Mick Schumacher: #47 Haas VF-21
What did he do in 2020: Schumacher took the Formula Two championship with 215 points. He won two races, had ten podium finishes and he scored points in 20 of 24 races.

What to expect in 2021: Back in December, I thought Haas would score at least 48 points because it had Schumacher and Ferrari would at least want Schumacher to look good in year one. If Haas is giving up once the season starts, I can't see how this team scores 48 points unless this car is spectacular out of the gate. This car is not spectacular, and the expectations is Haas will fall behind Williams. 

I will go out on a limb and throw this out there: If Haas is solidly in the cellar and around the Austrian Grand Prix there is no hope of Haas scoring points, I would not be stunned if Schumacher moved to Alfa Romeo, a more competitive car and one that could help his development. I have nothing to support such a thought, but I cannot imagine Ferrari will let Schumacher waste a season and potentially stunt his growth. 

Williams Racing
Nicholas Latifi: #6 Williams FW43B
What did he do in 2020: Latifi scored zero points and his best finish was 11th in Austria, Monza and Imola.

What to expect in 2021: Though far from outstanding, Latifi was capable as a rookie. He avoided mistakes and at times that put him ahead of his much more celebrated teammate. Williams is under a new direction this season. The team is far from a disaster. A step forward would get into the battle for points. I am not going to rule out a few points for Latifi. I am not going to say he will score a lot, but if he scores one to six points, that a suitable sophomore season. 

George Russell: #63 Williams FW43B
What did he do in 2020: Russell scored three points in 2021, but those came in the Sakhir Grand Prix when he drove for Mercedes in place of the absent Hamilton. Russell was ninth with a point for fastest lap. It very well could have been a race victory had it not been for a tire mixup in the pit lane and a puncture after that error. For Williams, his best finish was 11th at Mugello. 

What to expect in 2021: Russell has to score a few points this year. Once again, I am not saying he will score 50 points, but if he could score eight to 12 points, and finish ahead of his teammate, that is a very good season. If Haas is mailing it in from race one onward, Williams could score ten points and end up ninth in the constructors' championship. It could even sneak ahead of Alfa Romeo. Russell has to do something. He is destined to end up at Mercedes, but he wants to leave a mark on Williams. I don't think he will win races for the team or even get them on the podium, but to score points and boost morale in that garage would be a tremendous accomplishment for Russell and possibly a wonderful note to go out on.

The first free practice of the Formula One season will be on Friday March 26 at 7:30 a.m. ET with second practice at 11:00 a.m. Saturday's practice will begin at 8:00 a.m. ET with qualifying three hours later. The 2021 Bahrain Grand Prix will take place on Sunday March 28 at 11:00 a.m. ET.