Nikita Mazepin has said he and his fellow Russian athletes are victims of "cancel culture" after losing his job with Formula One team Haas amid the Ukraine crisis.

The 23-year-old was dismissed by the US-based team ahead of the 2022 season after both he and his father, Dimitry Mazepin, were sanctioned by the European Union.

Numerous other sports have also moved to ban Russian athletes and teams in wake of the country's invasion of Ukraine on February 24.

However, exiled F1 driver Mazepin does not believe it is fair that Russians have been targeted as he reiterated his intention to overturn the sanctions.

"I don't agree with being in the sanctions," Mazepin told BBC's Hardtalk programme. "I've said previously that I intend to fight it.

"Perhaps now is not the right time because if you look at the whole situation that's happening against athletes in the general case, it's cancel culture against my country."

Mazepin's father Dmitry has close ties to Vladimir Putin, holding face-to-face business talks with the Russian president as recently as January. 

Dmitry Mazepin is deputy chairman of Uralkali, the potash producer that has been a major financial backer of Haas.

As well as ousting Mazepin, Haas announced last month that the commercial link with Uralkali has also been scrapped with immediate effect.

The Russian Grand Prix for 2022 has also been cancelled, with F1 announcing it has terminated its deal for future races in the country.

Despite his father's links with Putin, Nikita Mazepin insisted his only connection to the president "is through the sport that I do".

Asked for his thoughts on the ongoing events across Ukraine, Mazepin added: "It's very painful to watch that on many levels.

"My feeling obviously changed as a human being and as a person who wants to live in a very peaceful world.

"But I see tremendous risks in saying anything at all about this case because I will never satisfy everyone and therefore I will keep myself publicly quiet."

Mazepin finished last in the drivers' standings in 2021 after failing to score a point.

Mick Schumacher will not contest the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix following his terrifying crash during qualifying on Saturday. 

Haas driver Schumacher hit the concrete barrier at Turn 12 at 170mph during Q2, resulting in a red flag that halted the session for almost an hour. 

The 23-year-old was removed from the car and deemed to have no injuries following an assessment at the Jeddah Corniche Circuit's medical centre, though he was transferred to King Fahad Armed Forces Hospital for precautionary checks. 

Haas later confirmed Schumacher would not take part in the race on Sunday and the team would only run Kevin Magnussen's car. 

"Hi everyone, I just wanted to say that I'm ok," Schumacher posted on Twitter.

"Thank you for the kind messages. The car felt great ... we'll come back stronger."

Team principal Gunther Steiner said: "The best thing is that Mick has apparently no injuries. He's in the hospital right now and being evaluated by the doctors, so he is in good hands at the moment. 

"There is a possibility that he'll have to stay for observation overnight at the hospital. Based on these facts and where we are, we have decided not to field his car tomorrow." 

Magnussen will start in 10th after reaching Q3 for the second successive race. 

Sergio Perez brought an end to his long wait for a first Formula One pole position at the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, cutting short Ferrari's early-season dominance.

The Scuderia had looked set to continue their outstanding form, potentially locking out the front row in a hectic qualifying session that was delayed for an extended period following a terrifying crash for Mick Schumacher, son of former Ferrari superstar Michael.

Schumacher hit the concrete barrier at Turn 12 at 170mph, although he showed no signs of injury when he was eventually pulled from his Haas, heading to hospital for precautionary scans.

That incident came in the middle of Q2, with Lewis Hamilton having sensationally bowed out in Q1, leaving Ferrari pair Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz to battle with Red Bull duo Perez and Max Verstappen.

Defending champion Verstappen struggled to stay in touch, and it had appeared as though Sainz might be the man celebrating a first pole when he set the benchmark in Q3.

But he was passed by team-mate Leclerc and then Perez in his 220th grand prix, marking the longest wait for a driver before qualifying fastest, with ex-Red Bull man Marc Webber (131) the previous record-holder.

With Sunday marking 11 years to the day since Perez's first entry, he said: "It took me a couple of races, no?

"What a lap, unbelievable. I could do 1,000 laps and I don't think I could beat that one. It was unbelievable.

"We were not expecting too much from qualifying, we were focusing mainly for the race, so hopefully we get [the win] tomorrow."

Earlier, there had also been a red flag in Q1 following a crash involving Nicholas Latifi, after which Hamilton could not recover from a slow start.

His third time was his fastest but enough only for P15, where he soon fell below Lance Stroll to bow out in Q1 for the first time since the 2017 Brazilian GP and the first time on pure pace since the 2009 British GP.

Mercedes struggled to explain the result, as George Russell ran fourth fastest in that initial session, and Hamilton would not use the distraction a day earlier – when practice was halted due to a missile attack near the track – as an excuse.

"I just struggled with the balance of the car," Hamilton told Sky Sports. "It's not where we want to be."

PROVISIONAL CLASSIFICATION

1. Sergio Perez (Red Bull) 1:28.200
2. Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +0.025s
3. Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) +0.202s
4. Max Verstappen (Red Bull) +0.261s
5. Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +0.868s
6. George Russell (Mercedes) +0.904s
7. Fernando Alonso (Alpine) +0.947s
8. Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo) +0.983s
9. Pierre Gasly (AlphaTauri) +1.054s
10. Kevin Magnussen (Haas) +1.388s

Formula One team principals have explained how they were reassured of their safety in extensive talks following a missile attack near the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix.

The attack on an oil depot prompted an explosion that delayed FP2 in Jeddah on Friday.

F1 confirmed later on Friday and again early on Saturday the race would be going ahead, having met with the teams and heard their concerns before Saudi government authorities and security agencies offered "full and detailed assurances that the event is secure".

Facing the media ahead of FP3, team principals elaborated on these discussions, with Haas chief Gunther Steiner revealing: "For me, the assurance is if the authorities have got their own families here and they feel safe, I can be safe as well.

"They explained very credibly what [system] is in place. The technical details I am not in a position to explain that, because I'm not qualified enough. But there is stuff in place, which protects us, obviously. I'm not trained in that one.

"The credible explanation of what they do, and that their families are here with them, that gives me the assurance that I'm safe and that my team is safe."

Aston Martin's Mike Krack added: "We had quite a few high ranked authorities yesterday, and they explained to us the situation, they explained it to us in a very credible way.

"This made all of the 10 of us that were in the room confident that they take their responsibility very seriously."

Andreas Seidl of McLaren said: "In the end, we need to trust F1, and the authorities here, put safety always first for every single member of the paddock here.

"I have full trust that this is happening."

Kevin Magnussen has returned to Formula One after signing a multi-year deal with Haas for 2022, replacing outgoing Russian driver Nikita Mazepin.

The American-owned team parted ways with Mazepin ahead of the season following Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Magnussen is back in F1 having left Haas at the end of the 2020 season after four years with the team. He has also previously driven for McLaren and Renault.

The Dane has since participated in sportscars and IndyCar in the United States, and had been about to join Peugeot's World Endurance Championship squad before the call came to return to Haas.

Magnussen joins up with the team's other driver, Mick Schumacher, son of German great Michael Schumacher.

Mazepin spoke to the media on Wednesday, four days after his sacking was announced by Haas, and he described that ousting as "an injustice".

His father, Dmitry, has close ties to Vladimir Putin, holding face-to-face business talks with the Russian president as recently as January. Dmitry Mazepin is deputy chairman of Uralkali, the potash fertiliser producer that has been a major financial backer of Haas.

Haas also cut the sponsorship link with Uralkali with immediate effect, leading to a demand on Wednesday from the Russian firm for reimbursement of funds it had invested ahead of the new season.

The Russian Grand Prix for 2022 has been cancelled, with F1 announcing this week it has terminated its deal for future races in the country.

Dumped driver Nikita Mazepin claims to have received messages of support from at least four fellow drivers, but the Russian said former Haas team-mate Mick Schumacher was not among them.

Mazepin spoke to the media on Wednesday, four days after his sacking was announced by American-owned team Haas, and he described that ousting as "an injustice".

Russia's invasion of Ukraine, rather than his results on the track, is what has cost the 23-year-old his seat for 2022.

Mazepin's father, Dmitry, has close ties to Vladimir Putin, holding face-to-face business talks with the Russian president as recently as January. Dmitry Mazepin is deputy chairman of Uralkali, the potash fertiliser producer that has been a major financial backer of Haas.

As well as ousting Mazepin, Haas cut the sponsorship link with Uralkali with immediate effect, leading to a demand on Wednesday from the Russian firm for reimbursement of funds it had invested ahead of the new season.

Mazepin is smarting over his treatment by Haas and, according to L'Equipe, he said: "I had no message from Gunther Steiner, the team boss, and nothing from Mick Schumacher either. It is in these moments that we measure what people really are.

"I have always trusted Gunther 100 per cent and, after what has just happened, understand that at 23 I was not ready to experience such a disappointment.

"I don't want to speak in front of you about Haas and the men of the team, when they are not there. I will tell them what I think directly if I have the opportunity to meet them again."

Asked who had sent him messages, Mazepin said: "Sergio Perez, Valtteri Bottas, George Russell and Charles Leclerc. I appreciated it.

"Simple messages telling me to keep my head up, that they shared my pain, because they know the sacrifices you have to make to get to F1."

On social media, Mazepin declared he would be setting up a foundation "to help athletes who have been blocked from competing for political reasons". That statement faced swift ridicule from Twitter users.

Mazepin's F1 career may be over after only one season, with no guarantee he will find another drive in future.

After governing body the FIA gave Russian drivers permission to compete under a neutral flag, Mazepin was hopeful he could be able to race in 2022, before Haas decided to cut ties.

"I will abstain from any political commentary but, personally, I see my eviction as an injustice," he said. "Especially after the FIA ​​indicated that Russian drivers could race under a neutral banner. Exactly like tennis players under the ATP umbrella."

Haas will miss the start of Formula One pre-season testing in Bahrain due to the late arrival of their freight.

The plane that was due to transport the team's cargo from the United Kingdom was reportedly grounded by technical problems.

Although the freight arrived in Bahrain on Tuesday evening, that left the team short of time to be ready for the beginning of testing on Thursday.

Haas said they plan to have the car ready to be out on track later in the day.

"The team's freight arrived late last night to the circuit in Bahrain," a Haas statement said.

"This delay will impact our programme, but we are targeting being out on track for the second session Thursday afternoon with Pietro Fittipaldi driving the VF-22."

The disruption comes after Haas cancelled the contract of Russian driver Nikita Mazepin amid the war in Ukraine and also terminated their commercial partnership with Uralkali.

Uralkali, a Russian fertiliser producer, on Wednesday stated it will request an immediate reimbursement of sponsorship payments it has made for the 2022 season. The company described Haas' decision as "unreasonable", adding that sport "should always be free of politics and pressure from external factors".

Haas are yet to announce who Mick Schumacher's team-mate will be, just over a week before the first race of the year in Bahrain. Fittipaldi is their test and reserve driver.

Nikita Mazepin said he was "very disappointed" after Haas sacked him from their driver line-up and cut lucrative ties with Russian backer Uralkali.

Russian racer Mazepin was consistently a backmarker during the 2021 season, his first year on the F1 grid, and was frequently outperformed by team-mate Mick Schumacher.

It has been Russia's invasion of Ukraine that has cost him his seat for 2022, however, rather than his results on the track.

Mazepin's father, Dmitry, has close ties to Vladimir Putin, holding face-to-face business talks with the Russian president as recently as January. Dmitry Mazepin is deputy chairman of Uralkali, the potash producer that has been a major financial backer of Haas.

As well as ousting 23-year-old Mazepin, Haas announced the commercial link with Uralkali has also been scrapped with immediate effect.

Haas removed the Uralkali logos from their cars for the final day of pre-season testing in Barcelona last month, in keeping with wider efforts to impose sporting sanctions on Russia.

The Russian Grand Prix for 2022 has been cancelled, with F1 announcing this week it has terminated its deal for future races in the country.

Mazepin responded to news of his dismissal by Haas on Saturday, stating: "I am very disappointed to hear that my F1 contract has been terminated.

"While I understand the difficulties, the ruling from FIA plus my ongoing willingness to accept the conditions proposed in order to continue were completely ignored and no process was followed in this unilateral step."

He did not clarify further on those points, but said he would elaborate on his statement "in the coming days".

"To those who have tried to understand, my eternal thanks," Mazepin added. "I have treasured my time in F1 and genuinely hope we can all be together again in better times."

Before Haas announced their decision, it had already been revealed that Mazepin would be banned from competing at the British Grand Prix.

Formula One team Haas have cancelled the contract of Russian driver Nikita Mazepin amid the Ukraine crisis.

Mazepin's father, Dmitry, has close ties to Vladimir Putin, holding face-to-face business talks with the Russian President as recently as January.

Dmitry Mazepin is deputy chairman of Uralkali, the potash producer that has been a major financial backer of Haas.

As well as ousting 23-year-old Mazepin, who was the only Russian with an F1 drive for the 2022 season, the commercial tie-up with Uralkali has also been scrapped.

It comes as Russia's invasion of Ukraine continues. Thousands have reportedly been killed since the start of the attack on February 24, including many civilians.

Haas said in a statement on Saturday: "Haas F1 team has elected to terminate, with immediate effect, the title partnership of Uralkali, and the driver contract of Nikita Mazepin.

"As with the rest of the Formula 1 community, the team is shocked and saddened by the invasion of Ukraine and wishes for a swift and peaceful end to the conflict."

Haas removed the Uralkali logos from its cars for the final day of pre-season testing in Barcelona last month.

The team's other driver is Mick Schumacher, son of German great Michael Schumacher. Haas have yet to announce who will replace Mazepin in the new season, which gets under way in Bahrain in two weeks' time.

The Russian Grand Prix for 2022 has been cancelled, with F1 announcing this week it has terminated its deal for future races in the country.

Russian driver Nikita Mazepin will be barred from competing for Haas at the British Grand Prix following measures introduced by Britain's national motorsport authority in response to the situation in Ukraine.

The FIA confirmed on Tuesday that Russian and Belarusian drivers would be allowed to compete in Formula One this season under a neutral flag.

However, Motorsport UK will not allow drivers, teams or officials from those nations to take part at Silverstone in early July, meaning Mazepin will miss out. The ban spans across all motorsports in the United Kingdom.

Motorsport UK chair David Richards, in accordance with the board of the organisation, made the announcement in a statement on Wednesday, a week on from Russia's initial invasion of neighbouring Ukraine.

"The entire Motorsport UK community condemns the acts of war by Russia and Belarus in Ukraine and expresses its solidarity and support towards all those affected by the ongoing conflict," Richards said.

"We stand united with the people of Ukraine and the motorsport community following the invasion and the unacceptable actions that have unfolded. 

"This is a time for the international motorsport community to act and show support for the people of Ukraine and our colleagues at the Federation Automobile d'Ukraine (FAU)."

Motorsport UK says the decision was "taken in full consultation with the UK government and national sports governing bodies to ensure that there is a unilateral response to the crisis".

Richards added: "It is our duty to use whatever influence and leverage we might have to bring this wholly unjustified invasion of Ukraine to a halt. 

"We would encourage the motorsport community and our colleagues around the world to fully embrace the recommendations of the International Olympic Committee and do whatever we can to end this war.

"Motorsport UK stands united with Leonid Kostyuchenko, the President of the FAU, the Ukrainian motorsport community and the Ukrainian people and calls for the violence to end with a peaceful resolution."

Mazepin is the only Russian driver on the F1 grid, with the 22-year-old due to start his second season in Bahrain later this month.

He finished bottom of the drivers' standings in 2021 and his future with Haas was already in doubt prior to Wednesday's announcement, with just three weeks to go until the 2022 season begins.

The Russian Grand Prix, which was due to take place in September, has already been cancelled by F1 chiefs, with the FIA describing that as a decision taken "for reason of force majeure".

Russian drivers have avoided being banned by motorsport's world governing body, meaning Haas driver Nikita Mazepin can compete for his Formula One team.

A range of measures was announced by the FIA on Tuesday, with teams representing Russia and close ally Belarus being suspended until further notice.

The conflict since the Russian-led invasion of Ukraine was addressed at an extraordinary meeting of the World Motor Sport Council (WMSC).

Drivers from Russia and Belarus will be barred from racing as representatives of their countries, but they will be allowed to compete as neutrals, providing they do not step out of line.

Mazepin is the only Russian driver on the F1 grid, with the 22-year-old due to start his second season in Bahrain later this month.

FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem told the meeting the FIA was observing events in Ukraine "with sadness and shock", adding that he hoped for "a swift and peaceful resolution". He also spoke of concern for the FIA's Ukrainian members and their current "intolerable hardship".

"We condemn the Russian invasion of Ukraine and our thoughts are with all those suffering as a result of the events in Ukraine," he added.

The FIA said none of its competitions should take place in Russia or Belarus until further notice, with flags or symbols of either country also banned for now, along with anthems and national colours.

Outlining its position on drivers, the FIA stated: "Russian/Belarusian drivers, individual competitors and officials to participate in international/zone competitions only in their neutral capacity and under the 'FIA flag', subject to specific commitment and adherence to the FIA's principles of peace and political neutrality, until further notice."

The Russian Grand Prix, which was due to take place in September, has already been cancelled by F1 chiefs, with the FIA describing that as a decision taken "for reason of force majeure".

FIA president Mohammed Ben Sulayem has called an extraordinary meeting of the World Motor Sport Council to discuss a response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Ben Sulayem made the announcement on his social media page on Monday.

The council will meet on Tuesday "to discuss matters relating to the ongoing crisis in Ukraine", a Twitter post read.

The FIA was awarded full recognition status by the International Olympic Committee (IOC) in 2013. The IOC has recommended Russian and Belarusian athletes be suspended from all sports.

In Formula One, such a ban would impact Haas driver Nikita Mazepin, the only Russian driver on the grid for 2022.

The Russian Grand Prix has already been removed from the F1 calendar in the coming season.

Haas driver Nikita Mazepin has been ruled out of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix after testing positive for coronavirus.

The Russian, who qualified at the back of the grid on Saturday, will sit out the season-ending race after returning a positive result at the Yas Marina Circuit.

Mazepin had driven in all of the sessions ahead of Sunday's concluding race, meaning reserve driver Pietro Fittipaldi is unable to step in.

Mick Schumacher will therefore be Haas' sole representative in the 19-driver race, with the German starting from 19th.

Formula One confirmed all of Mazepin's close contacts have been declared and there will be no wider impact on Sunday's highly anticipated race.

A Haas statement read: "Nikita is physically well, having been asymptomatic, but he will now self-isolate and adhere to the guidelines of the relevant public health authorities, with safety the ultimate priority for all parties concerned.

"Uralkali Haas F1 Team wish Nikita well, and we look forward to his return to the race track in early 2022 for pre-season testing."

Mazepin, who is one of only two regular drivers – alongside team-mate Schumacher – without a point to his name this season, added in a social media post: "Hi, everyone!  Sorry to report I've had a positive Covid test.  

"Feeling totally fine but won't be able to race today. Wishing all my fellow drivers a fantastic end to the season and sending thanks and love to everyone for their support."

Lewis Hamilton returns to Bahrain four months on from winning an 11th race of a dominant 2020 season knowing Mercedes have plenty of questions to answer from an exciting-looking Red Bull.

It was another season to remember for Hamilton in a campaign disrupted heavily by the coronavirus pandemic, the Briton himself contracting the virus late in the season and missing the second leg of a Sakhir double-header a week later.

By winning a seventh Formula One world title, Hamilton levelled Michael Schumacher's all-time record and also surpassed the legendary German for overall race wins (now 95), and he is now going in search of history.

But the evidence in pre-season suggests Mercedes are set for a titanic tussle with Red Bull, whose exciting line-up of Max Verstappen – the 23-year-old many are tipping to finally go toe-to-toe-with Hamilton – and Sergio Perez will be out to lay down a marker at the Bahrain International Circuit in Sakhir.

Many have suggested that F1's technical 2021 changes have redressed the competitive balance and certainly there was evidence to suggest as such at pre-season testing where Mercedes posted the lowest lap count of any team and Red Bull set the pace on two out of the three days.

We have been here before with Mercedes, though, where some have questioned whether their period of dominance – the Silver Arrows winning the constructors' championship seven years running – is finally over, only for the German manufacturers to turn it on when it matters.

This weekend should give us a clearer indication as to the strength of both teams, but that is by no means the only talking point on the grid...

LAST TIME OUT

Red Bull can certainly take heart from a strong end to the 2020 campaign, which saw Verstappen coast to victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, a race in which Hamilton finished third after returning from his absence due to COVID-19.

In that race, Red Bull were not necessarily favourites but beat Mercedes in a straight-line fight for Verstappen's second triumph of the season – his first coming in round five at the 70th Anniversary Grand Prix.

Perez can also take plenty of confidence from the fact he triumphed at this circuit for the Sakhir Grand Prix a week after Hamilton's last win of 2020, with a power issue in Abu Dhabi meaning his final outing with Racing Point ended in a whimper.

Valtteri Bottas finished second ahead of Hamilton on that occasion and the Finn knows he has a lot to prove against a strong-looking Red Bull line-up, while McLaren cars finished in fifth and sixth and are fancied for another strong campaign after finished third in the constructors' championship.

WHAT TO LOOK OUT FOR IN SAKHIR

There are plenty of sub-plots in play this weekend after a close-season of change in F1.

Most notable is the return of a legend and the arrival of a rookie aiming to emulate his great father.

Two-time world champion Fernando Alonso is back, racing for the rebranded Alpine Team – formerly Renault where the brilliant Spaniard won his two titles.

Mick Schumacher, son of Michael, has sizeable shoes to fill and will start his career on the biggest stage with Haas alongside fellow F1 rookie Nikita Mazepin.

Sebastian Vettel has a new home after ending his association with Ferrari and will race for Aston Martin, who are back in F1 for the first time since 1960, while the Scuderia signed Carlos Sainz Jr from McLaren to line-up alongside Charles Leclerc for 2021.

McLaren consequently turned to amiable Australian Daniel Ricciardo to partner Lando Norris, with the team starting 2021 12 podiums shy of 500.

TOP FIVE OPTA STATS

- Vettel and Hamilton are the drivers to have won the most races at the Bahrain GP (four), and have taken the most pole positions (three).

- In 2014, Mercedes recorded the first out of their 70 one-twos in hybrid-era qualifying in Bahrain (Nico Rosberg first, Hamilton second). The Germans have achieved 78 one-twos; they are two wins away from reaching Ferrari as the team to have secured one-twos in qualifying most often (80).

- Mick Schumacher will race his maiden grand prix in Bahrain eight years, four months and three days after father Michael's final appearance in Brazil 2012. Both will have started in F1 aged 22 years old, but the younger Schumacher will have done so seven months and 16 days earlier than his dad.

- Sainz will be the third Spanish driver to race for Ferrari. In his maiden race for the Scudería, Alfonso de Portago failed to finish in France (1956), but Alonso won in Bahrain (2010).

- Verstappen has retired three times at the Bahrain Grand Prix (four in Sakhir), more than any other race in his F1 career. The Dutchman has the chance to win back-to-back grands prix in F1 for the first time after 120 races.

After an unpredictable 2020 Formula One campaign ended in wholly predictable fashion, the world's best drivers are back for more in 2021.

The coronavirus pandemic delayed the start to last season and prompted serious surgery to the planned race calendar.

At the end of it all, though, Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes again walked away on top of the pile.

As so often in recent years, the task for the rest of the grid this coming year is simply to stop the reigning champion and his Silver Arrow.

While that is easier said than done, of course, the signs in pre-season are promising.

Will testing preparations derail Mercedes in the opening weeks? We are about to find out, as the Bahrain opener is just days away...

 

MORE HAMILTON AND MERCEDES DOMINANCE?

Hamilton's title in 2020 was his seventh, tying Michael Schumacher's competition record. A new benchmark is on the horizon if the Briton can repeat his success.

That is not the only landmark in Hamilton's sights, either: with 95 wins and 98 pole positions – both F1 highs – he can surely look forward to a pair of century celebrations this year.

But even if this is to be another sublime season for the 36-year-old, he surely will not find it as straightforward as last year.

Hamilton shut out the noise surrounding his future to claim 11 victories in 2020, yet the new contract he belatedly signed at the end of the campaign keeps him with Mercedes only until the end of 2021.

That spells another 12 months of uncertainty for the sport's premier driver, who also does not yet appear entirely at home in the new W12 car.

The Silver Arrows recorded only 304 test laps in pre-season – the fewest of any team – and may require Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas to learn on the job if they are to extend their record-breaking streak of seven straight constructors' championships.

 

WHO CAN CHALLENGE THE DEFENDING CHAMP?

Mercedes team-mate Bottas has finished second to Hamilton in the past two seasons, but it would be a tough ask to expect him to outperform the 'GOAT' in the same car – even before considering potential issues with that machine.

No, if Hamilton is to be dethroned, Red Bull look the best bet.

Max Verstappen is undoubtedly the chief threat at the Austrian outfit, having qualified ahead of his team-mates on 36 of 38 occasions since Daniel Ricciardo departed (including a 17-0 record against Alex Albon in 2020).

Indeed, Verstappen – third last year – had the fastest lap time in testing, his effort of a minute and 28.960 seconds in Bahrain putting Red Bull on top in pre-season for the first time.

The Dutchman is pessimistic, though, saying: "[Testing] doesn't say anything about pure performance.

"I know people are excited and think we are just saying this, but Mercedes are still the favourites. How can they not be when they have won seven world championships in a row?"

Ferrari can never be counted out, but they are starting a season with two drivers yet to win a world championship (Charles Leclerc and Carlos Sainz) for the first time since 2007, when Felipe Massa and Kimi Raikkonen lined up for the Scuderia. Of course, that year ended with Raikkonen being crowned champion.

 

ELSEWHERE...

There is no shortage of intrigue away from the top teams, with two big names returning to F1 – albeit only one of the two drivers having previously raced at this level.

Former champion Fernando Alonso is back, joining the rebranded Alpine team, formerly Renault – where the Spaniard won two titles.

Alonso's most recent race win came in Ferrari colours at the 2013 Spanish Grand Prix, since when he has gone 110 events without victory.

If Alpine can be competitive and Alonso belatedly returns to the top step of the podium later in the season, he could break Raikkonen's record of 114 grands prix between triumphs (2013 to 2018).

The 39-year-old needs only three podiums to reach 100 in F1.

At the other end of the spectrum, Mick Schumacher is the familiar name but new face at Haas, forming an all-rookie line-up alongside Nikita Mazepin, his F2 title rival last year.

Schumacher, who won that championship, will debut at Bahrain eight years, four months and three days after father Michael's final race in Brazil in 2012.

Michael was also 22 when he made his F1 bow, although Mick will be seven months and 16 days younger.

Ricciardo has joined McLaren, who are 12 podiums shy of 500, and Aston Martin are back for the first time since 1960, replacing Racing Point and bringing in Sebastian Vettel.

Meanwhile, there will be increased attention paid to Williams' George Russell, who impressed when given a chance with Mercedes at Sakhir 2020, qualifying second and finishing ninth.

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