Opinion: Is this the end for alpha driver pairings in F1?

Charles Bradley

What constitutes an alpha in a Formula 1 team? As in nature, it’s the individual who shows the greatest strength and aggression, who maintains the strongest position within a group. The key to an individual staying on top is not only from beating the rival (teammate) but also from forging strong alliances in the pack (the team).

When it comes to the Big Three teams in F1 2021, the alphas are expected to be: Lewis Hamilton at Mercedes, Max Verstappen at Red Bull and Charles Leclerc at Ferrari. Unless there’s more change ahead, the challenger to their thrones will be Valtteri Bottas, Alexander Albon and Carlos Sainz respectively.

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF90, leads Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF90, Alexander Albon, Red Bull RB15, and Carlos Sainz Jr., McLaren MCL34

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari SF90, leads Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari SF90, Alexander Albon, Red Bull RB15, and Carlos Sainz Jr., McLaren MCL34 Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Sam Bloxham / Motorsport Images

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Carlos Sainz Jr., McLaren and George Russell, Williams

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Carlos Sainz Jr., McLaren and George Russell, Williams Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

Simon Galloway / Motorsport Images

I’m a big believer in Sainz’s abilities. He’s fast, with a great qualifying record against those he’s been paired with at Toro Rosso – which includes Verstappen. He’s consistent and racked up 267 points from 102 starts. He was best of the rest last year, and totally deserves his shot in a big team. I was a little disappointed in his season with Renault, but feel he bounced back really well with McLaren in 2019. For Ferrari, he was an obvious choice for ’21.

But let’s not forget one thing: When this season does get going, Vettel will be the wounded ex-alpha at Ferrari. How much fight will he have left in him when we return to the racetracks? Will he mount another bid to be top dog? Or roll over and have some dog day Sunday afternoons? Thinking back to his Multi-21 savagery, is he wired up to play the team game?

Going into 2021, I don’t see any immediate alpha confrontations beyond the natural ebb and flow of drivers’ powers. Hamilton is the most senior in terms of years but has shown little sign of any weakness for Bottas to depose him. It’ll take a huge leap for Albon to get to Verstappen’s level – and, as ever at Red Bull Racing, he’s only a sequence of poor races away from being fired... 

If Leclerc kicks on at Ferrari as you’d expect, and gets further into their hearts like he did at Monza last year, it’s going to take a Herculean effort from Sainz to be anything more than his number two when he arrives. Unless there’s some Vettel-inspired Leclerc meltdown. 

You can be sure Carlos will be watching for that like a hawk!

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari and Carlos Sainz, McLaren

Charles Leclerc, Ferrari, Sebastian Vettel, Ferrari and Carlos Sainz, McLaren Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images

Mark Sutton / Motorsport Images