The new Formula 1 season gets underway this weekend in Bahrain, with new drivers, new-look teams and a whole lot of talking points.
Here’s your rundown on what to expect from this season.
Why is the season not starting in Melbourne?
If the start of this F1 season feels like it has crept up on you, that might be because for just the fourth time since 1996 the season has not opened in Melbourne.
The race has been moved to a later timeslot on the calendar, now scheduled for the weekend of November 18-21.
The main reason for the move was that F1 could not, or would not, commit to 14 days of quarantine for its 1,200 crew members.
This is just the third time the race has been moved to a different time in the calendar.
The other times were in 2006, when it was pushed back to third to allow for the Commonwealth Games and 2010, when it was second after Bahrain.
How many races will there be this year?
Pandemic or not, the F1 circus is still planning on traversing the globe, with a planned 23 races on five different continents on the schedule.
Last year, as F1 scrambled to fulfil its 70th anniversary season, double-headers featured prominently in what ended up being a 17-race calendar, down from the 22 races that were originally planned.
There are no double ups planned this season though, although with the pandemic still raging in some parts of the world, changes could yet be enforced.
The 23-round campaign will be a new record for a single season.
Where will we be racing?
Last year, coronavirus caused the cancellation of races in 13 countries: Australia, Azerbaijan, Singapore, France, Vietnam, Japan, Monaco, Canada, the USA, Mexico, the Netherlands, China and Brazil.
As a result, the calendar was bolstered by double-headers at Austria, Silverstone and Bahrain and the last-minute inclusions of races at the famous Italian circuits Mugello and Imola, as well as Portugal’s gloriously undulating Portimão circuit.
High-speed Imola (round three) and Portimão (round four) remain on the calendar, while the majority of the circuits that missed out last year will also return, with the exception of the Hanoi street circuit in Vietnam, which has been put on ice for now.
The Zandvoort circuit will host a Dutch Grand Prix for the first time since 1985, while the first-ever visit to Saudi Arabia will occur in the penultimate race of the season, subject to the eye-catching Jeddah Street Circuit being verified.
What teams have changed?
However, there have been some name changes.
Renault, meanwhile, has also undergone a re-branding exercise, changing names and paint schemes to represent the sports-car arm of Renault’s empire, Alpine.
Alfa Romeo, Haas and Ferrari will be powered by Ferrari engines in 2021, Red Bull and Alpha Tauri remain with Honda, while all the other teams bar Alpine (Renault) will have Mercedes power units.
Who’s on which team?
The big move from an Australian perspective was Daniel Ricciardo moving from Renault to McLaren.
Ricciardo will partner young British driver, Lando Norris.
Meanwhile, at Alpine, Esteban Ocon will now be partnered by two-time world champion Fernando Alonso, who returned to F1 for the first time since 2018.
Sebastian Vettel has moved on from Ferrari to join Aston Martin where he will partner Canadian Lance Stroll.
Max Verstappen has a new teammate at Red Bull with Sergio Pérez stepping into the seat vacated by Alex Albon, who drops out of F1.
Haas have arguably made the biggest change though, shifting both their former drivers out to be replaced by Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin, which could make them simultaneously the most liked and hated team on the grid.
Why will Haas be hated?
Nothing to do with Mick Schumacher, that’s for sure.
The 21-year-old son of all-time great Michael gets his shot in an F1 car after winning the feeder F2 series last year.
Schumacher told the BBC this week that he is “happy to have brought back the Schumacher name into F1” and that he feels no pressure due to his record in the junior categories, where he has won the F3 and F2 world titles.
“I have done it with championships on my back so we have proven I am able to drive a race car. So I don’t feel a blink of pressure from it,” he said.
Older fans will relish seeing the Schumacher name on the grid again, although Haas are tipped to struggle towards the back of the grid.
Why does everyone hate Nikita Mazepin?
Mazepin, 22, who finished fifth in F2 last season, has courted controversy before even setting foot in an F1 car.
While in F3, Mazepin was banned for a race after punching a rival driver — Callum Ilott, who finished second in F2 behind Schumacher and is seen by many as a far better prospect than Mazepin — in the face.
More recently, Mazepin was heavily criticised in December last year for posting a video on social media where it appears he groped a woman’s breasts.
Haas described the posting of the video as “abhorrent” but that they were dealing with the matter internally.
Mazepin also apologised, saying: “I have to hold myself to a higher standard as a Formula 1 driver and I acknowledge I have let myself and many people down. I promise I will learn from this.”
This apology was later deleted from his social media channels.
Mazepin has also been guilty of several concerning incidents on track, squeezing rivals close to the barriers and even causing crashes, as was the case when he was found “wholly at fault” by stewards for a crash in Sochi that put both he and Nobuharu Matsushita in hospital.
Who is going to win?
It would be a brave person to bet against Mercedes from going for an eighth straight constructors title and Lewis Hamilton from getting a record-breaking eighth individual crown.
However, early signs from testing showed that not all was right in the Mercedes garage, with poor handling and gearbox issues plaguing the session in Bahrain.
Red Bull, on the other hand, looked really strong, meaning Max Verstappen could have his best chance yet of nabbing a title.
Mercedes strategy director James Vowles admitted Red Bull were “the class act” from testing, adding that “we’re going to have a close championship this year”.
How will Daniel Ricciardo fare?
Early signs look positive for McLaren, with really strong testing runs high on pace and performance — helped by a unique rear diffuser.
McLaren’s big, realistic aim is to finish third in the constructor standings behind Red Bull and Mercedes and look well placed to do so.
However, with their midfield competitors featuring stellar driver line-ups that have a combined seven world championships between them, it will be a big challenge to stay on top.