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.

Pierre Gasly believes Ferrari could be the team to watch in the 2021 Formula One season even though Mercedes are likely to finish "clearly on top".

The Scuderia managed just three podium finishes through Charles Leclerc and Sebastian Vettel last year as they came sixth in the constructors' championship.

AlphaTauri were just 24 points behind them, their season buoyed by a remarkable grand prix win for Gasly in Monza.

However, testing ahead of 2021 has offered glimpses of a better future for Ferrari following their worst season in four decades. Carlos Sainz recorded the third-fastest time last Sunday in Bahrain, while he and Leclerc are each said to be happier with the handling of the car after problems with straight-line speed last year.

Gasly, who has spoken privately to Leclerc about Ferrari's progress, believes the team are keeping their cards close to their chest in terms of their progress during the off-season.

He told Stats Perform News: "I think Ferrari are kind of hiding and not showing too much. Compared to last year I think they are clearly better.

"I discussed it with [Charles] Leclerc after the test and we exchanged a couple of messages, talking but not too much, just trying to [laughing], have an idea!

"I think we are close to each other. I don't know if they are ahead of us or if we are slightly ahead. But they have clearly made a step forward. 

"I think McLaren seem to be a very strong opponent and competitor at the moment, especially with a Mercedes engine. They seem to have managed to put a strong package together.

"Then at the top, we will see what happens between Mercedes and Red Bull; it is very difficult to say and make any conclusion. Mercedes had a pretty difficult test, with some reliability issues, but we know how strong they are as a team so I wouldn't be surprised to see them clearly on top."

The new season begins in Bahrain on March 28.

Lewis Hamilton endured more testing misery after beaching his Mercedes in trackside gravel at the Bahrain International Circuit on Saturday. 

The Formula One drivers' champion, who will be chasing a record eighth title this year, complained about sand in the desert on Friday. 

He said the sandstorms being whipped up were unlike anything he had ever experienced at the track, but it did not appear to be a factor in Saturday's loss of control. 

Hamilton was entering Turn 13, having completed 35 laps, when his rear end went and the car span off the track. 

The Briton attempted to drive away but his car would not move, the tyres spinning and sinking, sending up a cloud of dust. 

Hamilton got out and required a lift back to the Mercedes garage, with the session red-flagged while his car was pulled out of the gravel.

It was not the end of his session, however, with Hamilton soon back on the track. He completed 58 laps overall and was eighth quickest in the morning action, clocking a best time of one minute 33.399 seconds. 

Daniel Ricciardo's McLaren led the way in 1:32.215 while former world champion Fernando Alonso completed 60 laps in the Alpine, with 1:32.339 good enough for second on the morning timesheet.

Lewis Hamilton was well off the pace as Mercedes were jolted by their "poor start" to testing ahead of the new Formula One season.

Gearbox trouble meant Valtteri Bottas could only complete six laps in the morning in Bahrain, before team-mate Hamilton had a clearer run and ran through 42 laps in the afternoon.

However, reigning drivers' champion Hamilton was only 10th-fastest on the day, with Red Bull's Max Verstappen topping the time sheets, while Bottas was the slowest of all the 17 drivers involved.

Mercedes' trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin declared: "It's been a poor start to the season from us.

"Once we got running it was clear we didn't have the car in the right balance window and, while we made some progress during the day, we're not happy with how the car is performing and it's pretty clear we have some work to do."

The Mercedes W12 is the car with which the team hope to land an eighth consecutive constructors' title, while Hamilton will be chasing a fifth successive drivers' championship and a record eighth overall.

Hamilton said: "Today definitely wasn't the cleanest of days that we've had, but these things are sent to try us.

"Everyone has worked extremely hard to get us here. We had that mishap in the morning which was very unfortunate for Valtteri in terms of losing time on track and the team is working hard to try and understand what that was.

"I think they did a great job to turn the car around. The second session wasn't without its challenges, but we exist to find solutions to the problems we're faced with."

Hamilton was affected by a sandstorm and said Mercedes would look to "take the positives" from their shaky day, with two more days of testing to come.

Positives were not immediately obvious, and Bottas said: "In recent years, things have been pretty much bulletproof so it's not a familiar experience."

However, the Finn added on the team's website: "I am confident we can recover and I’m looking forward to two good days over the weekend."

As well as testing, Bahrain will host the opening grand prix of the Formula One season, with that race scheduled for March 28.

Silverstone is "absolutely" open to hosting one of the proposed new Formula One sprint races in 2021.

Plans have been drawn up to introduce shorter races on Saturdays at three circuits, which would precede the traditional grand prix a day later.

F1 president Stefano Domenicali told the Daily Mail that Silverstone was one of the proposed venues for the inaugural races, with teams said to be broadly in support of the new format.

The grands prix in Montreal, Monza and Interlagos are also reportedly under consideration to host sprint races.

Asked by Sky Sports if Silverstone welcomed the proposals, the circuit's managing director Stuart Pringle said: "Absolutely.

"If F1 should decide that Silverstone is the right venue for a sprint race then we would be totally supportive of that and feel it would be a fantastic spectacle for the fans."

The idea was first mooted in a meeting of the Formula One commission in February, after which F1 and governing body FIA issued a statement that said: "All teams recognised the major importance of engaging fans in new and innovative ways to ensure an even more exciting weekend format.

"There was, therefore, broad support from all parties for a new qualifying format at some races, and a working group has been tasked with creating a complete plan."

The proposal is for the sprint races, lasting roughly 30 minutes, to take place on the Saturday of a grand prix weekend. Qualifying would be moved to the Friday in place of the second practice session, with results determining the starting grid for the sprint event.

These shorter races would offer points for drivers and constructors, with the precise numbers yet to be determined, and decide the starting order for the main event on Sunday.

There would be no podium celebration after the sprint race, according to Domenicali, who is keen to preserve "the prestige of the grand prix itself".

Williams team principal Simon Roberts said this week, as per Race Fans: "We're all running carry-over cars [from 2020]. So fundamentally, we're not expecting massive shifts in the pecking order. So, let's try something.

"But there's a lot of detail being discussed in the background. The idea's cool, the concept's easy, but then in the detail, how do you actually [run] the weekend – how do you do tyres, what can you do, what can't you do – that's still in negotiation."

Mattia Binotto said he knows there can be no repeat of a dismal 2020 season for Ferrari this year when the team launched their new car on Wednesday.

The Scuderia finished down in sixth in the constructor standings last year with only 131 points.

They failed to win a race and secured only three podiums in their worst season for four decades, as Mercedes continued their dominance of Formula One.

Carlos Sainz has replaced Sebastian Vettel at the famous Italian team, partnering Monegasque driver Charles Leclerc.

The duo will be behind the wheel of a new revamped SF21, which team principal Binotto hopes to be bring a turnaround in fortunes in a season that starts in Bahrain on March 28.

Binotto said: "Last year was a big disappointment. We know we cannot repeat such a bad result. We know we need to do better in 2021."

He added: "This car was born out of last year's car, due to the new regulations. So, it was partially frozen, but we tried to improve it in all of its areas wherever possible.

"The aerodynamics were revised, its livery has also changed.

"The posterior is a burgundy colour, similar to the very first Ferrari racing car, the 125S. It's the same colour we used last year at Mugello to celebrate our 1,000th Grand Prix. 

"Visually, we've drawn on our past but we're also looking forward to the future, which will always be defined by our Ferrari red."

George Russell hopes Williams can make a flying start to the Formula One season in Bahrain - but he believes Mercedes are the only team who will be sure they are race-ready.

British driver Russell caught the eye when he replaced Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes for one race last year, after the world champion tested positive for COVID-19 and missed the Sakhir Grand Prix.

He went close to winning that race until a pit-stop error and a puncture late on cost him a probable victory, and he then returned to his regular drive at Williams.

Mercedes have assured Russell, who is part of their junior driver programme, that he can have a racing future with them if his development continues as expected.

That could come as soon as next year, but for now Russell's focus is on delivering for Williams.

The team has been in transition following the takeover by Dorilton Capital, and German motorsport veteran Jost Capito was appointed chief executive officer during the close season.

Russell believes Williams, who failed to score a point last season, should be better placed in 2021 to at least improve on that disappointing outcome.

"We want, the bare minimum, to be fighting with the Haas and the Alfas, as we did last year, and closing the gap to that midfield," Williams said.

"We made nine out of 17 Q2 appearances and that is definitely a thrill. That's got to be almost an aim every weekend for myself and team."

The season begins in Bahrain on March 28, and by then there should be evidence of which teams have made progress since 2020, with testing taking place, also in Bahrain, on the March 12-14 long weekend.

Russell admits it is a waiting game to see how rivals have advanced, or regressed.

"Fingers crossed that they go backwards and we go forwards," he said, in an Instagram chat on Formula One's official page. 

"Ultimately, we may go to Bahrain and see every other team has progressed more than us.

"We may go there and see we've made great progress. Until we get to Bahrain not a single team, probably bar Mercedes, can tell you how they're going to perform."

Russell, 23, has been tipped for a big future in the sport. He also believes Williams, a great name from the history of Formula One, can begin a journey back to the top of the sport.

"The arrival of Jost is massive for the team, really exciting," he said. "The future for Williams and everybody here at Grove [the team's headquarters] is really great.

"Unfortunately, things don't change in a matter of moments in Formula One, but the building blocks are really getting set in stone.

"Jost has loads of experience, he's a great character, and I think he's going to bring a lot of motivation to the team."

Russell was speaking on the day F1 chiefs confirmed the Portuguese Grand Prix on the new season's calendar, with the race inked in for May 2.

It will be the second round of 23 in the championship, with Portugal having returned to the Formula One rota last year for the first time since 1996.

George Russell has no intention of "hassling" Mercedes over his future as he focuses on trying to get the most out of a new-look Williams car in 2021.  

The British driver is heading into the final year of his contract with Williams, where he will once again work alongside Nicholas Latifi for the season.  

It will be a third year for Russell with the team, though he did step in to drive for Mercedes - having previously been part of their junior driver programme - at the 2020 Sakhir Grand Prix, replacing Lewis Hamilton after the seven-time world champion tested positive for COVID-19. 

His performance in the race - he was in front for the majority before a slow puncture forced him to settle for ninth place - led to speculation over a permanent switch, but Hamilton and Valtteri Bottas have remained together.  

While a move could still happen at some stage further down the line, Russell is relaxed over his standing within Mercedes.  

"Mercedes and Toto have always had my back and believed in me from day one. When they believe the time is right, the time will be right," he told Sky Sports at the launch of Williams' FW43B car.  

"I'm not hassling them, I’m just going out there and doing my job on the track. What comes in the future will come.  

"Obviously I had a great opportunity in Bahrain last year, but for now we will focus on the job here at Williams for this season and trying to get the most out of it."

In a somewhat surprising move, Hamilton only agreed to a one-year extension earlier this year, committing him to a ninth season with Mercedes.

Bottas' deal runs "at last until the end of 2021", per the team's statement when the Finn's future was revealed last August, so Russell could potentially be considered to replace either driver in 2022.

"Every driver wants to put themselves against the best," he said when asked if forming a partnership with Hamilton appealed to him.

"I believe in myself and Lewis is the benchmark at the moment, but equally you have a lot of fantastic drivers out there who might not have the same CV as Lewis.  

"Max [Verstappen], Charles [Leclerc], Lewis – they are all on the same level. Putting yourself against one of those three would be great for any driver."

Williams - now owned by Dorilton Capital - unveiled a new blue, white and yellow livery on Friday that takes inspiration from the team's successful cars in the 1980s and 1990s.


Sebastian Vettel is excited to get the 2021 Formula One season underway with Aston Martin, with the former world champion seeing plenty of potential at his new team.

Vettel, a four-time F1 champion, left Ferrari at the end of the 2020 campaign, bringing an end to a six-season stint with the Italian manufacturers.

Charles Leclerc had usurped him as Ferrari's number one driver, and Vettel slumped to a 13th-placed finish in last year's drivers' standings, claiming just one podium finish.

Vettel has now switched to Aston Martin, who have rebranded the Racing Point team to make their F1 return after a 61-year break from the competition. 

The German made no secret of his disappointment at how his final season at Ferrari panned out but is anticipating an exciting debut year with Aston Martin.

"I am not happy with last year in terms of performance – partly my performance – but I accepted it," said Vettel at the unveiling of the AMR21 car on Wednesday, which also featured NFL great Tom Brady and Hollywood star Daniel Craig.

"There are things that didn't go well, but I am looking forward to this year.

"I go racing to win and obviously it's a very exciting project, a new start and a new chapter for the entire team. I'm very much looking forward to it.

"Winning is maybe a bit ambitious straight away, but it's everybody's goal, it's why we go racing.

"Even though I have raced for four Formula One teams and for many years, starting a new season with a new team still gives me a sense of excitement.

"I see potential. I think the team has always been very successful in the past with limited resources, now the regulations in F1 are changing, and with the new launch of Aston Martin coming back, a lot of talented people joining and coming together to this already good group already, I think it's [his arrival is] only an addition.

"So I hope that I can contribute as well, and I think if we keep sharing that joy and passion then good things will follow."

Vettel's Ferrari future was decided before the 2020 season – which was derailed due to the COVID-19 pandemic – had started, yet he claims to have had no doubt that Aston Martin was the right move. 

"As a driver, I have always kept my eye on the competition and this team has consistently impressed me with what they have been able to do without the biggest of budgets," he added.

"So, when Lawrence [Stroll] and Otmar [Szafnauer] approached me last year, and explained what their ambitions were, I was immediately very motivated to join the team.
 
"I love the history of motor racing and Aston Martin is one of the great names of the past, so it is fun to be part of their return to Formula One after an absence of 61 years.  
 
"I have not driven the car yet but I think it looks great. I am really looking forward to getting it out on the track. I am also looking forward to working with and getting to know better everyone in the team, including my team-mate Lance [Stroll]. We will certainly make a big effort to deliver some good results together and have fun doing it."

Toto Wolff admitted Max Verstappen is a driver who will be "on everybody's radar" but has vowed Mercedes will not rush to seduce the Red Bull star.

Mercedes team principal Wolff will be aware that reports have linked Verstappen with a possible future move to the Silver Arrows, possibly as a long-term replacement for Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton.

For now, though, Hamilton is going nowhere, having signed a contract for the upcoming 2021 season, and the British driver may yet remain for years to come.

After landing a seventh drivers' title last year to match Michael Schumacher's F1 record, there is no driver that Mercedes would take above Hamilton in the present time.

Wolff said: "The symbiosis that we have in the relationship, it's always that we have a mutual understanding of what we want to do in the future. That will be also the case in the discussions with Lewis going forward.

"Max is certainly an outstanding young driver that will be on everybody's radar in the future, but we are not flirting outside before we have a clear understanding with our two drivers."

Verstappen has finished third in the championship in each of the last two seasons, with the 23-year-old winning races at Silverstone and Abu Dhabi during the 2020 campaign.

He tallied 214 points to finish just nine points behind Mercedes' runner-up Valtteri Bottas in the championship.

Quoted widely after Mercedes unveiled their new W12 car on Tuesday, Wolff underlined how Mercedes are not blinkered about the team's future and the potential for a change of direction.

Bottas is also due to reach the end of his contract after the new campaign, meaning Mercedes currently have flexibility should they wish to reshape their driver line-up for 2022 and beyond.

"Our first discussions are going to be with Valtteri and Lewis in respecting our values, integrity and loyalty - but on the other side the young drivers are the future," Wolff said.

"Therefore we need to consider how we want to set ourselves up for the years beyond."

Lewis Hamilton says his decision to only sign a one-year contract with Mercedes should not cause concern as he prioritises his drive for more diversity in Formula One.

It took until February before seven-time world champion Hamilton and Mercedes finally announced they had come to terms on a new contract.

The agreement was only for 2021, the last season before sweeping regulation changes come into the sport.

Hamilton, 36, insists there should be no doubts over his commitment.

The Briton also spoke of his passion to fight for change and equality in F1 and wider society.

That will serve as his main focus in a year where he could surpass Michael Schumacher outright with an eighth title.

"I'm kind of in a fortunate position where I've achieved most of the stuff I wanted to achieve up until this point, so there's no real need necessarily to plan too far ahead in the future," Hamilton said at the launch of Mercedes' new W12 car.

"I'm fully invested in this season and delivering. I still love what I do.

"We're living through an unusual period of time in life and I just wanted one year. Then we can talk about if we do more, and keep adding it [by] one if we have to.

"I chose to have a one-year deal, so I can see where we are at. It doesn't mean I'm not committed.

"What I'm really focused on - there was a lot of discussion around the diversity issue, what is important is that we are delivering."

Hamilton added: "I'm really proud of my team, I'm already seeing steps to see that progress. That's my driving force to make sure we continue to push for accountability.

"The main priority for 2021 - in the past it was about just winning championships. But now it's really pushing for making real change.

"Last year there was discussion about equality and inclusion and there was a lot of talk this year about pushing for diversity and really making sure that action is taken.

"That's at the core of the drive for me, but of course we exist to win. That is what all these guys and girls here are working towards, so that's my goal to deliver it for them."

Mercedes boss Toto Wolff echoed the comments of Hamilton and is not concerned about the short deal.

Wolff said: "No doubt about his commitment. First of all, he enjoys racing a lot. We enjoy working with each other and we discussed that a lot.

"But he’s absolutely right. The times change, new priorities for all of us in terms of the way we live, our health, he is very passionate about his initiatives against racism and inequality.

"Then we have this massive regulatory change in 2022 that is going to reshape what Formula One will be.

"I don't think this will play a role, but I think it's fair for a driver who has won seven championships to have the flexibility to decide what he wants to do in future.

"We have agreed that we want to pick up the discussions much earlier this year to avoid a situation like we had in 2020, to run out of time and be in the uncomfortable position that we have no time left before the beginning of the season."

The 2021 season is scheduled to get under way with the Bahrain Grand Prix on March 28.

Australian star Daniel Ricciardo vowed to "close the gap" in the race for Formula One championship glory and the new McLaren driver is refusing to make any excuses.

Ricciardo enters his 11th season in F1 having switched from Renault to McLaren, but the 31-year-old does not expect the transition to hold him back.

Since entering F1, Ricciardo has claimed seven grand prix victories and 31 podium finishes, while he earned fifth place in the drivers' championship during the coronavirus-hit 2020 season.

After moving to McLaren to replace new Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz Jr. and pair up with the returning Lando Norris, Ricciardo has an eye on climbing the ranks.

"What I expect out of myself in 2021 is to really hit the ground running," Ricciardo said.

"Naturally it does take some time to learn a new team, a new car, but I guess I'm going to be hard on myself, not to give myself too much time.

"I think with Renault I was the same. I really wanted to be there by Melbourne, that first race, but naturally it did take a bit of time.

"I don't want to be naive but I also want to make sure I'm just leaving no stone unturned and really by the end of year I've had a big contribution to the team, moving forward and closing the gap."

Fernando Alonso had surgery on a jaw fracture after a road accident while cycling but is expected to be fit for the start of the 2021 Formula One season.

There were initially doubts the two-time F1 champion would be ready to make his return to the series after a two-year absence at the season-opening Bahrain Grand Prix on March 28 following the incident in Switzerland on Thursday.

Alonso underwent an operation on his jaw and is expected to remain in hospital until Sunday at the earliest.

However, Alpine have confirmed they do not expect the injury to have any impact on their preparation for the new campaign, with pre-season testing scheduled to take place at Sakhir from March 12-14.

"Following his cycling accident yesterday Fernando Alonso was kept under observation in hospital in Switzerland," read an Alpine statement issued on Friday.

"Medics discovered a fracture in his upper jaw and conducted a successful corrective operation. The attending medical team are satisfied with his progress.

"Fernando will remain under observation in hospital for a further 48 hours.

"Looking forward, after a few days of complete rest, he will be able to progressively resume training. We expect him be fully operational to undertake preparation for the season.

"Alpine F1 Team and Fernando thank you for your wishes and will issue further updates when appropriate."

Fernando Alonso is "conscious and well in himself" after the two-time Formula One world champion was involved in a road accident while cycling.

Alonso, 39, is set to return to F1 with the Alpine team this season, after a two-year absence, though there will now be doubts over his participation at the first race in Bahrain next month.

The Spaniard won successive F1 world championships in 2005 and 2006.

On Thursday, Apline confirmed in a statement that Alonso had been involved in an incident while cycling in Switzerland.

However, the statement did not confirm if Alonso was in hopsital.

It read: "Fernando is conscious and well in himself and is awaiting further medical examinations tomorrow [Friday] morning.

"Alpine F1 Team will not make any further statement at this point in time. Further updates will be given tomorrow."

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