Formula 1: Is anybody really buying it?

Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Formula 1 (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images)
Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, Formula 1 (Photo by Clive Mason/Getty Images) /

Yet again, we are hearing how Mercedes are behind Red Bull and how they are not the favorites to win the Formula 1 world championship.

Following an offseason of nearly three and a half months, which admittedly seems like a few days when compared to last year’s unexpected break in action, Formula 1 is scheduled to return with the first of a record-breaking 23 races on the 2021 schedule this Sunday, March 28.

The Bahrain Grand Prix is scheduled to get the 2021 season underway at Bahrain International Circuit this weekend after the Australian Grand Prix was pushed back from Sunday, March 21 to Sunday, November 21 as a result of coronavirus pandemic-related restrictions in Melbourne, Australia.

That also led to preseason testing being relocated from Circuit de Barcelona-Catalunya to Bahrain International Circuit.

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So from Friday, March 12 to Sunday, March 14, the sport’s 10 teams combined to complete several thousand laps around the 15-turn, 3.363-mile (5.412-kilometer) road course in Sakhir, Bahrain.

And suffice it to say that we’re hearing something similar to what we’ve heard over the last several years, yet it is something that always seems to sort itself out before it actually comes to fruition: seven-time reigning driver and constructor world champions Mercedes are the underdogs heading into the 2021 season.

Sure they are — just like four-time reigning driver and constructor world champions Mercedes were the underdogs heading into the 2018 season, five-time reigning driver and constructor world champions Mercedes were the underdogs heading into the 2019 season and six-time reigning driver and constructor world champions Mercedes were the underdogs heading into the 2020 season.

Do you see the trend?

But that’s just it: how much of that is truly similar to what we’ve heard in the past, and how much has to do with the differences we may very well see this year?

How many times have we heard that somebody else is the team to beat?

How many times have we heard how much they’ve struggled and how much they thought they should have lost, then they cruise to a 1-2 finish on the track yet again?

How many times have they sandbagged in preseason testing before? You get the idea; too many to count.

Just look at Lewis Hamilton’s preseason interview with Martin Brundle; he wouldn’t even acknowledge that Mercedes are quicker than McLaren, and he wouldn’t even acknowledge that he will likely secure at least two pole positions this year to break 100.

He has taken at least five pole positions in each of the last nine years, including 10 last year in just 16 races. This year’s schedule includes 23 races.

Even before preseason testing, when Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas definitely did struggle with the handling of the new W12, which the team have referred to as their “diva” ahead of the season opener, there were talks about Red Bull making gains on Mercedes and potentially winning their first title since 2013 this year.

In one way, that makes the whole “underdog” thing less believable, almost as if it was set up and it played right into Mercedes’ hands to do what they always do and mask their true potential. They’re almost better at that than they are at actually winning, and they win quite often if you haven’t picked up on that.

In another way, it makes it more intriguing, considering the fact that some potentially saw their struggles coming and Red Bull’s gains coming. Again, Mercedes certainly did struggle in preseason testing. Based on preseason testing alone, Red Bull are the number one team in the sport entering the new season.

But nobody cares about preseason testing when it comes to handing out the trophies, and that’s one thing that Mercedes happen to do well at no matter what kind of “struggles” they’re supposedly enduring as a team.

So this is either going to be another chapter in the fairytale that fans like to keep believing, or it is going to be the beginning of a new era in which there is more than one team capable of winning on any given weekend.

If there’s one thing that Mercedes never do, it’s intentionally throw away races. Talk is cheap, as we’ve found out many times, but winning races isn’t. So we may get a much clearer picture as early as this weekend.

So if Mercedes are beaten by Red Bull in the season opener, a race Red Bull haven’t won since 2013 before the V6 turbo hybrid era of Silver Arrows dominance, perhaps we may have a fight on our hands.

If Mercedes win, perhaps their advantage may not be as big as it once was, but perhaps their problems aren’t all as advertised, either, making them the favorites to be crowned champions for the eighth straight year.

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ESPN is set to broadcast the Bahrain Grand Prix live from Bahrain International Circuit beginning at 11:00 a.m. ET on Sunday, March 28.