As the roaring engines echo through the twists and turns of the Yas Marina Circuit, the spotlight is not on the championship title, but on the fierce battle for the coveted second place in the constructors' standings.
In a season overwhelmingly dominated by Red Bull, former champions Mercedes and Ferrari find themselves entangled in a gripping duel, separated by a mere four points as they hurtle towards the final round of the 2023 Formula 1 campaign.
The qualifying session on Saturday has set the stage for a nail-biting finale, where the question on everyone's mind is: who will emerge triumphant in the race for P2? While the dream of securing the top spot may have eluded them, this season has been a tale of recalibration and realignment for both teams as they gear up to reclaim their glory against Red Bull in the coming year.
In this article, we delve into the thrilling possibilities and assess who holds the best cards for clinching the lucrative second position in the F1 constructors' championship.
The battle for supremacy in the constructors' championship has been a dynamic contest, marked by shifts in momentum. Mercedes initially struggled to keep pace, finding themselves trailing both Ferrari and the unexpectedly swift Aston Martin at the outset of the season.
However, Aston Martin's early speed proved unsustainable, and Mercedes surged ahead to secure the second position at the Spanish Grand Prix as they honed their understanding of their car. Meanwhile, Ferrari faced challenges, notably grappling with excessive tyre wear, causing them to fall 56 points behind by the Hungarian Grand Prix in July.
Nevertheless, the Scuderia orchestrated a remarkable turnaround, mounting a strong comeback, highlighted by Carlos Sainz clinching the sole non-Red Bull victory of the season in Singapore. Closing the gap, they have brought the championship fight down to the wire, creating an intriguing scenario for the decisive race in Abu Dhabi.
Which team does the Abu Dhabi Circuit suit?
While Ferrari exhibited impressive speed in the recent Las Vegas round, whether they can translate that performance to Abu Dhabi is unclear. However, they are poised to have an advantage, particularly with superior straight-line speed in the first half of the lap and a car that has consistently demonstrated robust traction out of slow corners throughout the season, notably at turns five, six, and seven.
Nevertheless, Mercedes are poised to exhibit agility in the second half of the lap, particularly in the medium-speed corners where their car boasts superior performance. The decisive factor may well revolve around tyre wear, as both teams continue to grapple with the persistent challenge of accurately anticipating their car's behaviour at various circuits, given the narrow operating windows they must navigate.
Importance of the fight
The upcoming strategy discussions are expected to carry the same level of intensity as those in any championship-deciding match. Despite the acknowledgement from Ron Dennis that securing second place means being 'the first of the losers', there is significant value at stake.
The variance in payout from Formula 1's estimated $1bn (£800m) constructors' prize fund between the second and third positions is rumoured to be as substantial as $10m, dropping from $131 million to approximately $121m. This is a considerable sum that no team would overlook, especially considering the financial challenges they face while attempting to narrow the gap to Red Bull in the coming year.
Coming down to the wire
Both teams faced setbacks during Saturday's qualifying, with Sainz starting from P16 and Hamilton from P11. In contrast, their teammates Leclerc and Russell will start from more favourable positions, with Leclerc in P2 and Russell in P4.
Moreover, both teams lack extensive long-run data under representative conditions due to disruptions in Friday's FP2 session. Based on FP3 data, Ferrari and Mercedes appeared evenly matched in terms of race pace.
If Leclerc and Russell maintain their current positions (P2 and P4), Ferrari can secure victory in the battle as long as Sainz finishes ahead of Hamilton. However, the complexity of the competition extends beyond this straightforward scenario, with additional factors to consider:
- The additional fastest lap point could be a game-changer. If the points were equal between the two teams, Ferrari would win the championship as they have secured one race win compared to Mercedes' zero.
- McLaren may emerge as the second-fastest team in long runs, potentially disrupting the Leclerc-Russell tandem.
- The race start holds paramount importance, and any contact involving the four drivers could be the decisive factor.
- A well-timed safety car, given Abu Dhabi's challenging overtaking opportunities, could tip the championship scales. Mercedes have repeatedly showed that they hold an advantage in strategic thinking over Ferrari.
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