RACE DEBRIEF

    A whirlwind Formula 1 season is set to draw to a close with the spectacular race at sunset in Abu Dhabi. Fresh from a massive weekend in Las Vegas it’s time to settle all of the final positions in the championships, and there’s plenty to look forward to. Chris Medland is across all the paddock chatter ahead of the season finale...

    Will Verstappen stand alone in third?

    That’s right, Max Verstappen is looking to finish third… Kind of. The Dutchman has enjoyed a record-breaking season as he wrapped up his third world championship, adding 18 victories to his tally so far and only failing to win in Jeddah, Azerbaijan and Singapore.

    The remarkable rate of success has set new records but also vaulted him rapidly up the all-time winners’ list, and after reaching the milestone of 50 victories in Austin he sat fifth in those rankings but with Alain Prost and Sebastian Vettel in his sights.

    TECH TUESDAY: Did Ferrari’s qualifying gamble on rear wing levels cost them a win in Las Vegas?

    Consecutive wins since then in Mexico, Brazil and Las Vegas now mean Verstappen has pulled clear of Prost and is level with Vettel in third place, and a seventh straight victory would move him into third on his own.

    LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 18: Race winner Max Verstappen of the Netherlands and Oracle Red Bull
    Verstappen's victory in Las Vegas tied him with Sebastian Vettel in third on the all-time list

    Given the fact he started the year with 35 wins to his name, it’s an astonishing prospect.

    It might be some time before he can think about the top two, though, with Michael Schumacher’s 91 race wins a number of years away, and Lewis Hamilton still setting the benchmark on a remarkable 103.

    Mercedes vs Ferrari

    While Verstappen is targeting a personal accolade, the biggest undecided fight between teams is over second place in the constructors’ championship.

    Mercedes appeared to be relatively comfortable in the runner-up position after the summer break, when they had a 51-point advantage over Ferrari and at the time enjoyed a more consistent level of performance. It was rare that the Mercedes was the outright second fastest car, but while other teams fluctuated between that and being fourth or fifth quickest, Lewis Hamilton and George Russell were regularly picking up solid points.

    READ MORE: Wolff frustrated after claiming Mercedes had the pace for Las Vegas podium

    But ever since an upgrade in Monza, Ferrari have been far more competitive, with Carlos Sainz on pole that weekend in Italy and following that up with another pole and victory in Singapore – the only time Red Bull have been beaten this year.

    Charles Leclerc has also been on pole position at three of the past four races, and that form has seen the gap closed to just four points heading to Yas Marina Circuit.

    You have to say momentum is with Ferrari but Mercedes are not going to give up the position easily and still have the advantage in terms of points, so expect a fierce battle between both teams this weekend.

    LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 18: Charles Leclerc of Monaco driving the (16) Ferrari SF-23 on track
    Ferrari are just four points behind second-placed Mercedes in the constructors' championship

    The P4 battle is still on

    Another fight between teams that seemed to be heading in one direction only a few races ago has had new life breathed into it over the past two rounds, as Aston Martin have hit back against McLaren.

    It must be said, McLaren’s turnaround mid-season was one of the most impressive developments of 2023, as they went from struggling to score points to regularly being the second fastest car. But after rapidly closing in and overtaking Aston Martin in fourth place – and briefly being asked if Ferrari could be caught – McLaren’s results in Brazil and Las Vegas have unlocked the door again.

    READ MORE: Stroll praises ‘great recovery’ after rising to P5 from P19 in Las Vegas as Alonso celebrates double-points finish for Aston Martin

    Second for Lando Norris in Interlagos was one of McLaren’s strongest performances but Oscar Piastri was unfortunate and didn’t score, and then Norris crashed out in Las Vegas and Piastri was limited to tenth place (plus the fastest lap) from the back of the grid.

    I say those results unlocked the door, because it’s Aston Martin’s own upturn in form that has opened it fully. After a hugely impressive first half of the season, the second part has been more of a struggle but Aston have resolutely reversed that trend with 37 points over the past two races to leave the two teams just 11 points apart now.

    Both have had great seasons in terms of progress, but only one will have a top four result to show for it when the chequered flag falls on Sunday.

    LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - NOVEMBER 15: Fernando Alonso of Spain and Aston Martin F1 Team and Lance Stroll
    Aston Martin's last two results have helped to reduce the gap to McLaren

    FP1 will be full of new faces

    Before those positions are sorted out, there is going to be a very different feel to FP1 in Abu Dhabi thanks to the rules that require teams to run rookie drivers.

    Every race driver must give up their seat to a rookie for FP1 on at least one occasion each season, meaning each team has to do it across both cars. And with considerations such as Sprint races, alternate tyre allocations and weather forecasts to take into account, Abu Dhabi – the venue for a post-race test, too – often tops the list of locations to make such a switch.

    READ MORE: Bearman and Fittipaldi to drive for Haas in post-season Abu Dhabi test

    First practice is going to see half of the grid replaced, with the unusual sight of both Red Bull drivers stepping aside for Jake Dennis and Isack Hadjar respectively.

    Other new faces will be seen at McLaren – where Pato O’Ward gets his first run of the season at the same venue he tested a year ago – and Williams, as Zak O’Sullivan makes his debut on an F1 weekend.

    Fred Vesti gets another outing at Mercedes while Robert Shwartzman will be driving for Ferrari, and there are also repeat appearances for Felipe Drugovich (Aston Martin), Jack Doohan (Alpine), Theo Pourchaire (Alfa Romeo) and Ollie Bearman (Haas).

    MEXICO CITY, MEXICO - OCTOBER 28: Frederik Vesti of Denmark and Mercedes  looks on in the garage
    Frederik Vesti will get another go in the Mercedes in FP1 at Abu Dhabi

    The final seat to be confirmed

    One of the reasons the McLaren and Williams FP1 outings are the only ones each team are competing this season is because they both picked rookies in race seats and so the season-opener in Bahrain counted towards the total for Oscar Piastri and Logan Sargeant respectively.

    While Piastri’s future was already secured even before he signed a contract extension a few months ago, Sargeant has yet to have an option taken up by Williams for 2024. The team were keen to set the American a number of performance targets after a season that has shown plenty of promise but also a number of mistakes that needed ironing out.

    READ MORE: Williams drivers reveal crucial factor that ‘killed’ their chance of scoring points in Las Vegas

    Sargeant has responded impressively and scored his first point at one of his home races in Austin, while consistent race performances were added to with a career-best sixth on the grid last time out in Las Vegas.

    Although both Williams drivers faded in the race on Saturday night, Sargeant’s improvements have certainly done his chances of keeping his seat no harm at all, but Williams do not need to rush and he enters the final race weekend in the only vacant seat on the grid for next year as it stands.