With the 2021 Formula 1 season almost upon us, which drivers are under the most pressure to perform? 

Half of the drivers on the grid find themselves without a seat secured for F1’s new era in 2022 when sweeping regulation changes come into play, guaranteeing a fascinating driver market. And Lewis Hamilton’s one-year deal at Mercedes has only further opened up what was already set to be an exciting silly season. 

Amid the uncertainty and 2020 driver dominoes already causing some interesting dynamics for 2021, several drivers face crucial seasons that could end up shaping the rest of their F1 careers…

Valtteri Bottas 

Unless Valtteri Bottas claims his maiden F1 world title this year, it seems unlikely that his Mercedes future will be determined by his performances alone.

It feels as though Bottas’ time at the German manufacturer will more likely hinge on factors outside of his control, most notably whether Lewis Hamilton decides to continue racing and if George Russell demonstrates beyond doubt that he is deserving of a Mercedes seat for 2022. 

Nevertheless, it is ultimately down to Bottas to do his utmost to prove to Mercedes that he is indispensable. For the fifth year running, the Finn enters the season on a rolling contract and he has little excuse not to perform in what is once again expected to be the best machinery. 

Whether he takes his destiny into his own hands or has his fate decided for him, 2021 is a pivotal year for Bottas. 

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Esteban Ocon

While Esteban Ocon can be forgiven for having - by his own admission - a relatively slow start to life back in F1 following a sabbatical year after losing his seat at Racing Point, the Frenchman needs to hit the ground running in what is arguably the most important year of his career to date.

Ocon was comfortably out-performed by Daniel Ricciardo at Renault last year, though he enjoyed a strong end to the campaign and picked up his first-ever podium at the Sakhir Grand Prix with a brilliant drive to second. 

But with two-time world champion Fernando Alonso returning to the rebranded Alpine squad this year, there will be no hiding place for Ocon now that he has a full-season at the team under his belt.

The 24-year-old has already been usurped by Russell as Hamilton’s long-term successor at Mercedes and will be looking for a more consistent and convincing campaign this season. 

Suffering annihilation at the hands of Alonso could be hugely damaging not only to Ocon’s reputation but also for his chances of retaining his Alpine seat for 2022 with his contract expiring at the end of the year.

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Lando Norris 

Admittedly, 2021 is not a ‘make-or-break season’ in the traditional sense for Norris, given that his place at McLaren looks pretty secure as one of the drivers who have a deal in place for next year. However, it will certainly provide him with his biggest test to date in F1. 

Up until this point we have only had Carlos Sainz to hold Norris against during his two-year stint in F1. Sainz may have held the upper hand over Norris in the final standings in 2019 and 2020, but the Briton generally held his own against a driver Ferrari was desperate to sign, particularly so in qualifying, edging the intra-team Saturday battle 9-8 over the course of last season. 

Daniel Ricciardo will be a totally new challenge for Norris, and arguably a more formidable opponent than Sainz as a seven-time grand prix winner. After all, the Australian has brushed aside past teammates with relative ease barring the exceptional Max Verstappen.

A direct battle against one of the best in the business will be a real test for Norris - who is so highly rated by McLaren and many in the paddock thanks to his outstanding junior career - and how he responds will either boost or lessen his reputation.

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Sebastian Vettel 

Like Norris, Sebastian Vettel’s career is not dependent on his 2021 performances given that he has agreed a multi-year contract at Aston Martin. Instead, it is more a question of the implications the season will have on his reputation.

Following a bruising final few years at Ferrari and the failure to achieve his goal of bringing a world championship back to Maranello, Vettel has found a new home at the rebranded Aston Martin squad, where he hopes to rediscover his mojo and return to form. 

Outclassing new teammate Lance Stroll and spearheading the Silverstone outfit’s charge to further success in 2021 would go some way in restoring some of the damage Vettel has endured in recent years. 

On the flip side, anything less than domination of Stroll in 2021 would only further dent the four-time world champion’s reputation as one of the all-time F1 greats after an abysmal 2020. 

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Antonio Giovinazzi 

Antonio Giovinazzi is another driver who finds himself under immense pressure to perform this season. 

Following a difficult rookie year alongside veteran Kimi Raikkonen in 2019, Giovinazzi’s form noticeably improved in his sophomore campaign. The Italian even managed to outclass F1’s most experienced driver over one lap across the 17-round season. 

Having opted to stick with the same driver line-up for the third year in a row, Alfa Romeo is expecting to see yet another step forward from Giovinazzi in 2021, and Ferrari also has set the 27-year-old clear targets. 

While Giovinazzi insisted to Crash.net in an interview at the end of last year that he is only focusing on himself and is unfazed by a lack of security regarding his future, failure to continue his upward trajectory this year could see his position come under serious threat from Ferrari’s host of emerging younger talents.

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