Feature F1 Unlocked
PADDOCK INSIDER: Plenty to play for in Austin with four teams battling it out for P2 in the constructors'
The drivers’ and constructors’ championships may have been decided but as the F1 fraternity arrived in Austin with five Grands Prix still to go, there’s still plenty on the line for the remainder of the grid – headlined by a four-team fight for P2.
Mercedes are the incumbents on 326 points, the Silver Arrows having started the season poorly (Lewis Hamilton’s words, not mine) before digging their heels in. Even if they lacked the outright pace to secure big results – like Ferrari’s shock victory in Singapore – consistency has allowed them to rise into P2.
They have brought a modified floor to Austin – Team Principal Toto Wolff saying this is their “last significant update” that will hit the track this year – in a bid to not only deliver a performance gain but more importantly aid the technical team in setting their development path for next year’s car.
The eight-time world champions won’t have long to analyse the new part, though, as it’s a Sprint weekend – the fifth and penultimate of the season – and that means there’s just one hour of practice before we head into parc ferme conditions – where teams can’t change their cars unless it’s for safety reasons.
Mercedes have been looking over their shoulders for the last few races as rivals Ferrari have built some momentum, helped in large part by Carlos Sainz’s supreme form since the championship resumed after the summer break at Zandvoort in the Netherlands, which peaked with the only non-Red Bull win of the year so far in Singapore.
Ferrari have dialled understeer into the car in a bid to control a lairy and unstable rear end. That has made the car more predictable and allowed Sainz and Charles Leclerc to push the car harder more consistently. Sainz has been the more comfortable with this direction as he prefers a car that is pointier with a stable rear end, whereas Leclerc likes a looser rear with more oversteer.
This has allowed Ferrari to find some real momentum, scoring 97 points to Mercedes’ 71 in the last four events to lie just 28 adrift of the Silver Arrows. And Austin is a circuit that should, in theory, suit them. Sainz was on pole here last year – Ferrari’s first-ever pole at the Circuit of The Americas – but was punted into a spin by George Russell that forced his retirement. Leclerc took P3.
While they are fully focused on their 2024 car, which the team have suggested will be a different direction to their current machine, they are still finding ways to maximise their current package and thus remain a genuine threat to Mercedes in the fight for P2.
Aston Martin were a genuine part of this fight early doors, courtesy of Fernando Alonso securing six podiums in the first eight races, however their form has deteriorated since Zandvoort. The green cars have managed just 15 points in that period to leave the team fourth.
That position had still looked safe – and would be a fine result for a team that ended 2022 seventh out of 10 teams – but their dramatic tail off in form has left them exposed to McLaren, who have emerged as the second-quickest package on the grid after a second major in-season upgrade.
McLaren scored just 17 points across the first nine races. But their season turned around at Silverstone – following the introduction of their first significant in-season package at the previous event in Austria – as Lando Norris took a superb second.
The Briton has since gone on to take another four podiums – taking his tally to a personal record of five in a single season – with team mate Oscar Piastri joining him on the rostrum at each of the last two Grands Prix (Japan and Qatar).
That superb run of form has seen them score 108 points in the last four events, only nine short of this season’s dominant team Red Bull’s tally in the same period – and moved them to a mere 11 adrift of Aston Martin.
Passing their green rivals looks like a formality now, but Norris and Piastri have set their sights on the next target Ferrari, who are 79 ahead.
That would be a mighty impressive feat, should they overhaul them, and with Mercedes only 28 further up the road – suddenly, the prospect of P2 for McLaren (which would be their best finish since 2011) doesn’t look so outlandish.
There’s plenty to play for in the drivers’ standings, too, with pride on the line. Sergio Perez had looked like he was nailed on to finish P2 behind Red Bull team mate Max Verstappen and give the team their first-ever one-two finish, but a difficult run of form has allowed Hamilton to close to within 30 points with five races to go.
Considering how far off Mercedes have been in terms of pure pace, it would be an extraordinary feat if Hamilton manages to overhaul the Mexican. And it’s not just a two-way fight as Alonso is lurking in P4, just 11 points behind, too.
There’s a tasty battle between the Ferrari duo, with Sainz edging Leclerc by eight points – and both are being caught by Sainz’s old team mate Lando Norris, who is nine further back in P7. And George Russell can’t be discounted, the Mercedes driver is four behind his countryman Norris in fourth.
Plenty, then, to play for at the Circuit of The Americas and beyond as F1 heads into a golden period of five races in six weekends to close out the season.