Mercedes has already wrapped up the Formula One teams title for a seventh consecutive season ahead of Red Bull Racing, but the battle for third in the standings and the millions in prize money that goes with it is going down to the wire with three back-to-back races remaining.
Racing Point, soon to be Aston Martin; the historic McLaren team; Renault, to be rebranded as Alpine in 2021; and fallen grandee Ferrari are all in the running for best-of-the-midfield honours as the season comes to a conclusion.
The difference between third and sixth in the standings was worth an estimated US$14 million (B424mn) in 2019, or roughly 10% of next year’s budget cap. With new rules due in 2022, bolstering the war chest now will make a material difference to performance later.
Leading the way is Racing Point, five points ahead of McLaren, but the pink cars should have been further ahead by now. The team unabashedly copied last year’s all-conquering Mercedes through a combination of purchased parts and clever photography and had resultantly fielded the fastest car, but the pit wall has lacked the race-day sharpness to maximise results.
It’s also suffered from having both drivers miss races after contracting COVID-19 - though Sergio Perez, who missed two grands prix, is a lofty fourth in the drivers standings behind only the Mercedes drivers and Max Verstappen. Lance Stroll, absent for one race, has a strike rate of little more than half of his Mexican teammate.
Combined the team’s problems have left it vulnerable to McLaren, which has made incremental progress from fourth in last year’s standings.
The British team started strongly, scoring two podiums in the first half of the season, but its form has trailed off since with a badly timed switch to next year’s car. The focus change coincided with three non-scores from September to August, dropping it from third to fourth and leaving it scrabbling with a transition car the team admits is now only fifth fastest.
Worse still is its downturn comes just as Renault’s form sizzles. Upgrades in late August have brought the car alive and delivered two podiums, both to Daniel Ricciardo, and though the Australian is arguably flattering the car - he’s scored more than twice as heavily as teammate Esteban Ocon - there’s no doubt the French team is surging.
But a difficult race in Turkey cost Renault precious momentum on a day all its rivals scored big. It now sits 18 points off third and is an underdog to snatch back the ascendancy.
Finally, Ferrari is a further six points adrift as an unlikely outsider. The iconic team finished second in the standings last year but is enduring a well-chronicled horror year after sacrificing horsepower to comply with rules clarifications over the off-season.
The Italians have been improving through the year, but third and fourth in Turkey was down to circumstance rather than a sign of resurgence. Fifth in the standings is likely its best outcome by the end of the year.
Adding intrigue is the drivers who are racing for pride. Daniel Ricciardo will replace Carlos Sainz and McLaren, who will replace Sebastian Vettel at Ferrari, who will replace Sergio Perez at Aston Martin. All will want to end their stints on a high - particularly for the axed Perez, for whom a strong finish will keep him in the frame for Alex Albon’s Red Bull Racing seat.
But for the teams the equation is straightforward: the higher you finish after the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi, the better your chance of improving in 2021 to win big in 2022.