Six world championships in seven years suggest Lewis Hamilton’s Formula One dominance is showing no sign of slowing down but the young pretenders are gathering to dethrone the king.
With minimal rules changes for the 2021 season and Hamilton having cruised to a record-equalling seventh championship in 2020, all signs point to the Brit going on to win an eighth title at the all-conquering Silver Arrows next season.
But Hamilton turned 36 earlier this year and there are already a crop of youngsters only too eager to become the next big star on the grid.
Mercedes’ Lewis Hamilton has been the dominant force in Formula One since 2014
The Dutchman may have been in F1 for half-a-decade now but having become the youngest ever driver to compete in a grand prix aged just 17 years and 166 days, he is still only 23 years old.
Having started out at Toro Rosso (now AlphaTauri) he moved to Red Bull in 2016 mid-season following impressive performances and instantly repaid the faith shown in him by winning the 2016 Spanish Grand Prix on his debut after Mercedes drivers Hamilton and Nico Rosberg crashed into each other on the opening lap.
His dominating victory at the final race of the season in Abu Dhabi was his 10th overall victory from 133 starts and in recent times he has been the only driver on pure pace to be able to take the fight to Hamilton and Mercedes, despite his inferior machinery.
Max Verstappen (left) is seen by many as the favourite to lead F1 once Hamilton departs
The pace he gets out of the Red Bull is quite remarkable and there is a reason why the second seat alongside him is seen as a poisoned chalice – no driver can get near him. Daniel Ricciardo was only narrowly slower but replacements including Pierre Gasly and Alex Albon since have been comprehensively beaten by the Dutchman.
Barring the chaotic Turkish Grand Prix ran in wet and slippery conditions, 11 of the 12 race finishes from Verstappen in 2020 saw him on the podium.
It was the race in Istanbul that still showed a little rawness from Verstappen who can still be a bit too aggressive at the wrong time following a botched passing attempt causing him to spin off track – but even Hamilton had similar impatient flaws at the same age.
He has proven he can mix it up with Hamilton having passed the Brit twice to win the 2019 Brazilian Grand Prix in stunning fashion and there is no doubt that given the opportunity he could land multiple world championships during his career.
The Dutchman triumphed in the 2020 season finale at Abu Dhabi by beating both Mercedes
Verstappen will be hoping Red Bull can provide him with a car fit for a championship battle
While Verstappen is favourite to pick up the baton from Hamilton, he will have to be wary of Ferrari starlet Leclerc.
Last year was a difficult one for the 23-year-old who after an excellent maiden season at Maranello in 2019 has been forced to scrap for points in a car that will go down as one of the team’s worst – certainly in modern times.
Ferrari’s eventual sixth place in the constructors championship reflects that of a car lucky to finish in the 10 on most occasions, yet remarkably Leclerc was in contention to finish fourth in the championship up until the final two races of the season.
Charles Leclerc’s reputation had increased during 2020 despite Ferrari’s troubled year
Despite the car being sixth in the constructors’ championship, Leclerc was for much of the campaign in the hunt to take fourth in the drivers’ standings
The Monegasque was opportunistic to grab two early-season podiums in Austria and at Silverstone and has over the two years with the team been quick enough to see off four-time world champion team-mate Sebastian Vettel. This is also the same Vettel who has been the only non-Mercedes driver to launch any sort of championship fight since 2013 when the German was winning the last of his four titles.
While 2020 was not the year to prove title credentials, Leclerc does already have some experience when it comes to duelling with the finest, with his stunning defensive drive at the Italian Grand Prix in 2019 seeing him fend off Valtteri Bottas and Hamilton to take Ferrari’s first home win in nine years under immense pressure.
He is is still prone to making a needless big error when looking to push maximum speed out of the car but there is plenty to suggest F1’s future could see him and Verstappen slugging it out for world championships.
Leclerc’s finest hour in his fledgling career was seeing off the Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas (left) and Hamilton (right) to win the 2019 Italian Grand Prix
For Russell it has been a bittersweet two years in Formula One and he has found that being contracted to Mercedes has its flaws as well as its advantages.
The Brit came into F1 as the F2 champion but with Mercedes locked out with Hamilton and Bottas he has been forced to drive for customer outfit and backmarkers Williams.
In effect, this means for a large majority of the past two years his only realistic hopes of beating another driver has been his team-mate – which he has been easily successful in – but it didn’t stop critics from unfairly sniping at his zero points finishes with the team.
When his Williams car has allowed, he has done well just to compete with other teams and has on many occasions narrowly missed out on getting his first points with the Grove outfit.
Only a botched pit-stop through no fault of his own prevented George Russell from winning the Sakhir Grand Prix as he stood in for Hamilton
The Brit’s performance during the race has strengthened his already impressive reputation
But 2020 threw the 22-year-old an unexpected opportunity when Hamilton was laid low with coronavirus over the weekend of the Sakhir Grand Prix, giving him a precious opportunity to show his ability in a competitive car.
He took it with both hands and after narrowly being beaten in qualifying by his team-mate Bottas soon took control of the race, only for the team to mess up his pit-stop, which followed by a late puncture saw him finish as low as ninth (with a fastest lap.)
It was little consolation to Russell that everybody could see he was robbed of what would have been a victory on his debut for Mercedes but long term he proved he has what it takes for the Silver Arrows to seriously consider him for a top drive when the opportunity arises.
Admittedly he isn’t the finished article just yet, his crash at Imola under the safety car was embarrassing, even more so that it cost him his first points finish. But if Russell is the future of British racing then it looks in damn good hands.
Russell though has spent much of his F1 career leading struggling backmarkers Williams
Although Russell has outperformed his team-mates he has still yet to score a point for Williams
If Russell drops the baton handed down by Hamilton, then Norris is perfectly placed to pick it up, or maybe even beat his compatriot to it anyway.
While Norris had to settle for second best to Russell in F2 back in 2018, he did manage to get a preferable F1 seat at McLaren where in the last two years he has picked up valuable experience dicing in the midfield.
He was given a fitting bar to test himself against too, partnering the talented Carlos Sainz who as a rookie battled well alongside Verstappen at Toro Rosso in 2015 and has impressed enough since to be chosen for the vacant Ferrari drive next term… even if in the short term that doesn’t seem the best of plans.
In 2020, Norris finished just eight points shy of Sainz and even bagged his first podium and fastest lap at the season opening Austrian Grand Prix.
Lando Norris has enjoyed his first two seasons at McLaren which have seen him improve
Still just 21-years-old there is plenty of potential to unlock from McLaren’s Bristolian star
It has been a one-off but then when the top three for much of 2020 had been locked out by Mercedes and Verstappen, the rest of the midfield have only had crumbs to feed off and crucially Norris is always in the mix when the chances come calling.
The Bristolian is still just 21 years old and next term will be up against another quick team-mate in Ricciardo.
With a care-free but joking nature, Norris has endeared himself to fans as well as McLaren, and his excellent relationship with Sainz too has played a big role in helping him settle – this looks set to continue in 2021 alongside a similar bubbly and likeable personality in Ricciardo.
This though is also masking a potential flaw. Norris has proven he is quick and can work well within a team but how does he fare under pressure? If there is a world championship on the line it’s hard to see how such a relaxed atmosphere in a team could continue especially with a team-mate. We’ve yet to see him under severe pressure or be targeted for gamesmanship, but his current positive progression suggests we will see the acid test sooner rather than later.
Norris (left) jokes around with his McLaren team-mate for the past two seasons Carlos Sainz
The 2020 campaign saw Norris bag his first podium with a third place at the Austrian GP
What Schumacher lacks in Formula One experience he makes up for genetically. As the son of a seven-time champion, surely some of that racing DNA from Michael is in him?
Nine years after Michael Schumacher last competed in F1, his 21-year-old offspring will bring the name back into the sport when he makes his debut for Haas.
Of course it helps to have a Schumacher name when making your way into the world of F1 but you need results to prove it too and Mick has them after claiming the F2 title.
Mick Schumacher, son of the legendary Michael, will make his Formula One debut in 2021
The German will be driving for the Haas team, pictured in December during a post-season test
Don’t expect him to head straight to the top because he is a Schumacher though. Haas struggled in 2020 and are likely to be among the back markers when the season gets underway.
His first and perhaps only task in 2021 is to prove he is faster than team-mate Nikita Mazepin, who is also making his debut after placing fifth in F2 this season. His results against the Russian won’t prove conclusive to his potential whether they are positive or negative but it will be the only way to gauge his early progress in the sport.
The deal with Haas comes via parent company Ferrari, so should he continue his impressive rise up the ranks then he could be in line to drive for the team that his father won a record five consecutive world championships with.
Schumacher heads into the new season having won the F2 championship in 2020
He is also under contract at Ferrari, who will be keeping an eye on his performances in 2021
The wildcard on the list. The 20-year-old will be the first Japanese driver to race in F1 in seven years when he makes his debut for Red Bull’s sister team AlphaTauri.
For a team that also gave the likes of Vettel and Verstappen their big breaks with full-time drives, this is not just a typical seat filler – there is promising potential in Tsunoda who in his short time racing in Europe has already been surprising many.
The 2020 campaign was his first racing in F2 and as a rookie he impressively finished third – taking three wins in the process which was one more than Schumacher.
Yuki Tsunoda is another driver who will be making his Formula One debut in 2021
The Japanese driver will feature for AlphaTauri having impressed in the end of season test
Red Bull have been impressed enough with him both during 2020 and in the post-season F1 young drivers’ test – where he set the fifth fastest time – and they are convinced Tsunoda is already good enough to make the step up to the pinnacle of motor racing.
His F2 outings have shown remarkable composure in the heat of a battle and will be something AlphaTauri will hope the Japanese driver can carry over into an F1 cockpit.
At Red Bull’s junior team, Tsunoda has a free-hit in his debut season as he learns the ropes alongside the more experienced Pierre Gasly who by contrast will be under severe pressure to beat his younger team-mate despite his own positive 2020 that saw him take his first win at the Italian Grand Prix.
As long as Tsunoda can keep the Frenchman honest with his pace, occasionally beating him in qualifying and in races, then he he will be on the right track. Given his rapid rise already, we could see him in a Red Bull car sooner rather than later.
Tsunoda (right) also finished a highly credible third in his rookie year in F2 behind series winner Schumacher (centre) and runner-up Callum Ilott