Seven of the 10 Formula 1 teams go into 2021 with at least one new driver.
So who’s ended up with the strongest line-up? And who’s at the opposite end of the scale?
We invited eight of our writers to rank the F1 teams’ 2021 driver pairings from worst to best, and then scored them using the current F1 points system to create the rating below.
The question of how to quantify the ‘best’ line-up was left up to individual interpretation – whether to place a team with two aces who might clash and have contradictory set-up demands ahead of a team with one clear superstar and a support act, for example.
It didn’t take long for the results to start dramatically diverging from the constructors’ championship standings…
Here’s where we ended up:
2021 line-up: Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin
Score from our panel: 9
“Starting from scratch,” was Mark Hughes’ summary of Haas’s situation as it swaps the known quantities of Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen for Formula 2 graduates Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin.
Our whole panel placed Haas 10th out of 10, bar Scott Mitchell – who nudged its rookies up to ninth.
Though Schumacher comes into F1 as F2 champion and with a European F3 title under his belt too, we felt this financially enforced gamble on inexperience is likely to leave Haas at a disadvantage against nine rival teams who’ve been able to make safer bets.
9th: Alfa Romeo
2021 line-up: Kimi Raikkonen and Antonio Giovinazzi
Score from our panel: 21
From a team changing both drivers to a team that’s changing neither… but maybe should’ve done.
There was rather a lot of ‘damning with faint praise’ among the panel’s verdicts on Alfa. Matt Beer, Mark Hughes and Valentin Khorounzhiy felt the line-up was eighth best, whereas Scott Mitchell ranked it worst of all. It was a run of nines from everyone else.
“The workmanlike Kimi Raikkonen and the erratic Antonio Giovinazzi average out as a solid pair,” reckoned Edd Straw, or as Mark Hughes put it: “lacklustre competence”.
That said, Raikkonen was the top ‘class C’ scorer of 2020 and did overachieve on his greatest days, and Giovinazzi’s peaks were sufficient to keep his drive on merit.
But we can’t help feeling this team might be higher up the list had it taken a punt on a rookie + experience line-up and/or given the hungry Nico Hulkenberg a place on the grid again.
2021 line-up: George Russell and Nicholas Latifi
Score from our panel: 30
Though we didn’t ask our panel for scores on individual drivers, this is one team where there would’ve been a big disparity in marks across the garage if we had.
George Russell’s class had been clear from his junior career and his heroic efforts in a Williams incapable of scoring in 2019, and then only slightly more competitive in 2020. Then came the Mercedes call-up that vaulted his reputation skywards.
In a way, Russell’s performances make Nicholas Latifi harder to rate. Is he better than he looked last year and being shown up by a superstar team-mate? Or just a well-funded grid-filler?
With Williams’s line-up not changing, 2021 might not answer that question. But right now, we see this as very much a ‘one superstar, one number two’ line-up. Or “lopsided”, as Edd Straw put it.
7th: Aston Martin
2021 line-up: Lance Stroll, Sebastian Vettel
Score from our panel: 52
A four-time world champion and a young multiple podium-finisher with a pole under his belt… and yet Aston’s Sebastian Vettel/Lance Stroll pairing hovered between sixth and seventh in our panel’s votes, with a blunt ninth from Matt Beer.
The phrase that kept coming up about the Aston line-up was “question marks”.
Can Stroll consistently access the potential that he’s shown on his greatest days?
Will Vettel react to his Ferrari exit by flourishing and showing all the greatness that took him to those four titles, but was so hard to spot last year in particular?
Here are two drivers with the potential to make us look silly if they hit the form they’re ultimately capable of. But we don’t feel too guilty about suggesting they have points to prove.
And we banned any further internal discussion of whether Sergio Perez should be in the car too.
2021 line-up: Pierre Gasly, Yuki Tsunoda
Score from our panel: 56
It was a pretty close race for sixth between Aston and AlphaTauri, and a narrow win for the Red Bull officially-not-junior-anymore squad’s line-up of shock Italian Grand Prix victor Pierre Gasly and F2 graduation Yuki Tsunoda.
“Bursting with potential,” was Mark Hughes’ summary of this pairing.
Gasly has transformed his standing in F1 since his failure at Red Bull, and the question of whether he’d be capable of thriving at a top team again now is – for 2021 at least – a moot one as Red Bull’s declared he’s staying put on its ‘other’ team. Given what he achieved there in 2020, that’s still an exciting prospect.
Tsunoda is far from the first driver to arrive in F1 carrying the weight of expectation from being a spectacular young Japanese talent. All his predecessors in that role have starred but not consistently enough. Those on The Race team who’ve paid closest attention to Tsunoda’s rise are optimistic he’ll be different.
2021 line-up: Esteban Ocon, Fernando Alonso
Score from our panel: 80
A unique moment of agreement from our panel here: every single person put Alpine’s combination of Esteban Ocon and returning double world champion Fernando Alonso fifth.
Though Edd Straw summed it up as a “quality, motivated line-up”, we do have some doubts.
“I still haven’t seen enough from Ocon to be certain he’s the star so many say he’ll be,” said Matt Beer, after a year in which Ocon came off firmly second-best alongside Daniel Ricciardo.
And for all Alonso’s great qualities, he’s been out of F1 for two years. He’s also now 39 years old, though there’s very little evidence of age slowing him down.
Plus he’s always the centre of drama – for better or worse. That makes, in Mark Hughes’ words, this line-up “good but potentially volatile”.
2021 line-up: Daniel Ricciardo, Lando Norris
Score from our panel: 120
McLaren bounced around wildly between second and fourth as our panel’s votes came in.
Matt Beer, Scott Mitchell and Valentin Khorounzhiy all rated the addition of Daniel Ricciardo to Lando Norris as giving McLaren F1’s second-best driver line-up. Glenn Freeman, Edd Straw and Jack Benyon were among those less convinced.
The main question mark was over Norris – clearly very good, but is he on a true future superstar level, and if so, is 2021 still too soon for him to really show it.
As Mark Hughes put, “if Norris steps up, this is super-strong”.
We’re all pretty sure that McLaren’s getting something special and spectacular with Ricciardo, though Edd Straw warns that the ex-Renault driver “might need a little time to settle in”.
2021 line-up: Lewis Hamilton, Valtteri Bottas
Score from our panel: 123
The runaway champion team, but not dominant in this ranking.
And we’re pretty sure it wasn’t Lewis Hamilton pulling the scores down.
There’s plenty of support and affection for Valtteri Bottas among The Race’s writers, but yet again we’re wondering if he can bounce back from a run of morale blows and underperformance.
Lucy Morson and Matt Beer both felt Bottas’s struggles meant Mercedes only goes into 2021 with the fourth-best line-up in F1, and no one voted it top – with second places from Mark Hughes, Edd Straw (“the tried and tested combination of one of the greatest of all time and a robust de facto number two can’t be argued with) and Jack Benyon its best placings.
Again, this is a team where if both drivers can access their greatest form, our ranking will look daft. One of pair hits that form week in, week out, barely relents and now has seven titles (six from the last seven years) to show for it. The other we only rarely see the best of.
2nd: Red Bull
2021 line-up: Max Verstappen, Sergio Perez
Score from our panel: 130
It’s fair to say Red Bull would’ve been further down this list had it not made its Sergio Perez in, Alex Albon out switch just before Christmas.
Valentin Khorounzhiy believes the Max Verstappen + Perez combination is now actually the best in F1, while Lucy Morson and Glenn Freeman put it second-best.
Others are less sure about Perez’s ‘king of the midfield’ skills translating to the Red Bull environment, or see him as very much a number two – the ‘Bottas’ to Verstappen’s ‘Hamilton’.
Both Mark Hughes and Scott Mitchell put Red Bull down in fourth on their lists, meaning its triumph over Mercedes and McLaren for the runner-up spot here was narrow.
2021 line-up: Charles Leclerc, Carlos Sainz Jr
Score from our panel: 187
This was an absolute walkover. Only Valentin Khorunzhiy wasn’t convinced that Charles Leclerc plus Carlos Sainz Jr equals F1’s best driver line-up, and he put it second.
“Two world class aces in one team,” is how Mark Hughes put it, with Edd Straw adding “Leclerc’s brilliance combined with the ultra-professional Sainz makes for an outstanding line-up, especially if Leclerc cuts out the errors”.
Leclerc has excelled in all three of his F1 seasons to date – taking Sauber to unlikely heights in 2018, quickly conquering Vettel in 2019 and then wrestling impossible performances out of a troubled Ferrari last year.
He hasn’t yet faced the pressure of a title fight, but he surely won’t in 2021 either. Right now, he just has to keep outperforming his machinery, and that’s been no trouble for him so far.
We’re not all convinced Sainz is of Leclerc’s absolute calibre, but he impressed mightily at McLaren and if anything is getting better and better.
And of course, as we rate Ferrari’s driver line-up this highly, we’re pretty sure that another woeful season for the team in 2021 could only be blamed on the car.