The next four weeks of the 2021 Formula 1 season will see the drivers and teams tackle the iconic venue of Imola, Portugal’s Portimao and the Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya which has become a staple on the F1 schedule.
There will be a maximum of 78 points up for grabs over the three race weekends and this phase of the championship is vital as to how the rest of the season plays out.
The focus moves to 2022
Every team has already got one eye on next year when Formula 1 introduces a new set of technical regulations which could shake-up the grid.
Work is underway to build the new cars and some teams have confirmed they are putting more effort into their 2022 machines.
Alpine CEO Laurent Rossi admits their 2021 car will feature few developments despite 22 events remaining.
“We know we’ve more or less reached the end of this car,” said Rossi.
"So [we will] extract as much as we can out of this car, use this to fine tune the operations’ organisation and in the meantime make sure we build the best ever car for the next regulations.”
Plans would have been in place prior to the season as to when the last upgrades will be put onto the cars. For Mercedes and Red Bull at the top of the standings, the question is when will they decide to stop development and move their focus towards 2022.
The importance of upgrades
It’s all well and good bringing major updates to an event, but you have to make it work.
In 2018, Ferrari were the team to beat but their new developments for the Singapore Grand Prix took them a step back, rather than a step forward.
Not only did this drastically hurt performance but it wasted weeks worth of research and development, as well as valuable costs. It was partly why they lost out the championship to Mercedes.
With the introduction of the budget cap in 2021 (at $145m), the teams cannot afford developments to go wrong.
Red Bull and Mercedes are set to bring updated cars to Imola and Portimao. These upgrades are likely to be the biggest gains both teams will make in 2021.
New rules for this year mean power unit related performance upgrades are not allowed.
Red Bull have a good baseline and can build on the RB16B which took pole position at the season-opener in Bahrain by nearly four tenths of a second.
This means, unlike previous years, Red Bull can put more performance onto the car knowing that they have a sweet spot which makes them so strong over one lap.
Mercedes were able to match Red Bull in race trim and have been the masters of bringing upgrades to an event and making it work.
With both teams pushing each other on, they could move further away from the midfield.
New wind tunnel reguations
Also new for 2021 are wind tunnel restrictions. The best teams will spend less time in the wind tunnel than the teams at the back of the grid.
Renault (now Alpine) finished fifth in the constructors' championship in 2020 and can spend 100% of the allotted time in the wind tunnel. They are the 'base' team.
The reference of 100% wind tunnel time is equal to 80 hours, with 320 runs and tunnel occupancy at 400 hours.
Aston Martin are allowed 2.5% less time than Renault because they finished fourth last year, McLaren are awarded 2.5% less than Aston Martin and so on.
The teams that finished behind Renault receive 2.5% more time. It means Williams who finished last in the constructors' championship 112.5% of the base time in the wind tunnel.
Wind tunnel time 2021
Mercedes are at a slight disadvantage due to their 2020 success compared to main rivals Red Bull.
The world champions will have 72 hours. 288 runs and 360 hours of occupancy in the wind tunnel whilst Red Bull get 74 hours, 296 runs and 370 hours of occupancy.
“Normally you would look to the wind tunnel to try and just put on a bit of downforce over the course of the year,” Mercedes trackside performance engineer Andrew Shovlin told RacingNews365.com and other select members of the press.
“You’d also look at power unit, try and find a bit of power. But both of those are very restricted by regulation so we have very little time in the wind tunnel. The dyno is also heavily restricted, you can’t develop the engine for performance this year.
“I don’t see us really being able to develop to a point where we could get clear ahead and hopefully Red Bull won’t develop to a point where they’re clear ahead.”
Finding the optimum tyre operating window
Pirelli made changes to the structure of the tyre for this season and it seems Red Bull have had no issues of getting the tyres into the optimum working window.
If Red Bull can continue this trend at Imola and Portimao, which are tracks that have a completely different surface, it puts them in an excellent position.
One reason for Mercedes’ deficit in qualifying could be the tyres. In 2017, the Silver Arrows had problems with finding the sweet spot of the Pirelli rubber in the early stanza of the championship. But once they got on top of those issues, they were the team to beat.
It will be fascinating to see whether the three-week break has allowed Mercedes to understand how the new 2021 tyres work and how they can get the most out of the rubber.
Mercedes, along with Aston Martin, have been vocal about the restrictions to the rear floor of the 2021 cars. They say the changes have favoured the high rake cars such as Red Bull and AlphaTauri.
However, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff is adamant his team are out to defend their titles and will fight back in the coming races.
“You can’t sacrifice 2021 in the hope of having a more competitive race car and power unit next year, that’s not how it works,” Wolff told RacingNews365.com and other select members of the press.
“I think everybody will be balancing their resources between the 2021 car and the 2022 car, including the power units and we are the same. I guess at the moment we need to give some emphasis into this project because we are behind.”
Throughout the field, the teams know if they put more effort and resources into next year’s cars, they will be better off for 2022 and beyond.
It’s a tricky balancing act, especially for Mercedes and Red Bull who are battling for the championship. They can’t afford to throw everything at this season, otherwise they will be on the backfoot in 12 months time.
But this is Formula 1 and every member of the team is ultra competitive, there is no chance they will take their foot off the gas when there’s a title on the line.