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Former Formula One racer Pedro de la Rosa had a clear warning for Lewis Hamilton when looking ahead to the 2021 season, which gets underway in March, for Movistar’s Fernando Alonso-centred documentary. But the seven-time world champion needn’t take much notice, knowing his biggest threat to an eighth title comes from elsewhere.
Hamilton is not yet officially tied down with Mercedes in order to race in 2021 but the 36-year-old is on the entry list and is all but certain to put pen to paper on a new deal in order to continue a sublime F1 career.
But the imperious Brit was in the iron sights when De la Rosa said of the returning Alonso on ‘Vuelve Alonso, vuelve el jefe 2021’: “His return is going to be very positive for F1 in general, not just for him. He can win the world championship again.
“[He has created] an excitement around the sport – it all used to be a bit sad before Alonso appeared.”
Alonso will link up with Alpine, the rebranded Renault outfit. The shake-up of the French team which will see a switch from a yellow and black chassis to blue, red and white colours.
The Spaniard turns 40 in July and has not raced in F1 since the 2018 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which ended a torrid four-year spell with McLaren in which he picked up just 132 points, having amassed 161 in 2014 alone, his final year with Ferrari.
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Still, as a two-time world champion and a driver of great pedigree, Alonso’s return after his time in the FIA World Endurance Championship and the IndyCar Series as well as his two 24 Hours of Le Mans victories is a welcome one and it is hoped he can offer some added excitement to the midfield battles.
But can he be a title contender? De la Rosa may be getting slightly carried away with his claims.
Alonso perhaps still has the ability at the wheel to be battling at the front of the grid but it will be a major ask for Alpine to break into the coterie of teams battling for the drivers’ and constructors’ honours.
It is currently a straight shootout between Mercedes and Red Bull, if it can even be called that given the Silver Arrows’ dominance in the hybrid engine era.
They have taken seven straight double titles and Hamilton finished 134 points clear of team-mate Valtteri Bottas in 2020 having now picked up six of the last seven drivers’ championships, only denied by Nico Rosberg in 2016.
But though Bottas has managed back-to-back second-placed finishes in the final drivers’ standings, it’s likely Red Bull’s Max Verstappen will be a bigger threat to Hamilton than the Finn in 2021.
The 23-year-old is the fastest driver on the grid after Hamilton and finished on the podium in 11 of the 12 races in which he reached the finish line last season.
Five DNFs ultimately meant the Dutchman ended nine points behind Bottas and had to settle for third, while team-mate Alex Albon was seventh, over 100 points back.
“I said five wins and five pole positions. That hasn’t gone quite as I had hoped. But second place in the World Championship would certainly have been possible. Especially if we didn’t have so many DNF’s,” Verstappen joked back in December, looking back at his pre-season prediction.
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But he can certainly hope to add to his tally of 10 race wins in 2021, particularly if he can avoid too many setbacks with his machinery and getting caught up in accidents, and to close the gap on Hamilton.
And with Sergio Perez, who finished fourth for Racing Point after two podiums including victory at the Sakhir Grand Prix, on his side, Verstappen can expect better support – and a tougher intrateam challenge – in 2021.
Verstappen said last month: “Most of the time, Mercedes try to go for an extra stop or whatever, and then I’m in more difficulties, because most of the time when we were quite competitive this year, I was the only car trying to beat them, and tried to do something different.
“But they can always do the right strategy with one of them, because they will always cover me with one car, so it was always a bit difficult to fight them.
“I just hope that Checo will be the one to first of all push the whole team forward, but also keep me on my toes, which is always nice. To have a team-mate pushing you, it’s exciting.
“Hopefully we can, with a bit more of a competitive car from the start, make it just a bit more interesting and difficult for them to make decisions.”
Clearly, Verstappen is relishing having a team-mate closer to his ability, something he has not had since Daniel Ricciardo was in the Red Bull garage, although Pierre Gasly and Albon are fine racers in their own right.
And Hamilton is wary of Red Bull, declaring after Verstappen won in Abu Dhabi in December: “We’ve obviously got a fight on our hands next year. Without a doubt, these guys are going to be strong, as this car [Verstappen] is driving now is next year’s car pretty much, and the same for us.
“I’m excited for that challenge, and that battle that we hopefully will get.”
F1 fans hope to see more wheel-to-wheel battles between Verstappen and Hamilton too, and even better if Bottas and Perez can have their say in the destination of the title by snatching some race wins and podiums away from their team-mates.
But it might be asking a bit much to expect Alonso to get involved in the title mix, even with the rebranded Renault team whom he won both of his F1 titles with in 2005 and 2006. For Hamilton, it’s all about seeing off Verstappen – and Bottas – again.
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