Thursday's Hot Topic: Why there’s still plenty to play for in the final three races of 2020
There may be an end-of-term vibe in the Bahrain paddock on Thursday, as F1 closes the season with a triple header. But while the drivers’ and constructors’ championships have already been decided, there’s still plenty on the line…
Shorts were the order of the day for the drivers in a sun-kissed paddock on Thursday, the Formula 1 venue feeling a world away from the quartet of cold-weather races which preceded the desert circuit’s slot on the calendar.
The warm weather, and familiar track layout, should make for a more straightforward weekend for the teams than last time out in Turkey, which will be music to the ears of those battling for P3 in the constructors’ championship as they approach squeaky bum time.
The fight for the final constructors’ podium spot
Racing Point lead the way on 154 points, but just 24 separate them McLaren, Renault and Ferrari, the latter hauling themselves into the fight with their best showing of the year in Turkey.
Charles Leclerc was keen not to get carried away by the Scuderia’s recent form. “[P3 is] definitely the target, but realistically it’s going to be very difficult,” he said. “We need to have the perfect weekend, so we have to focus on ourselves and see if we can make it or not. It will depend on what we do, but also how consistent [our rivals] will be in the next three weekends.”
Our simulations suggest Ferrari will be the third best team on the grid this weekend, behind Mercedes and Red Bull, so that bodes well for the scarlet cars. However, it has been Racing Point who have been the strongest all year – although they have failed to press home that advantage at times, something not lost on Sergio Perez.
“We’ve had a good run of races,” said Perez. “They could have been better on a couple of occasions, but if you ask anyone, you have some ups and downs through the year and what matters is where you finish in Abu Dhabi. So it’s important to finish on a high, and make sure we deliver in these three races.”
Daniel Ricciardo reckons Renault are the underdog in the fight for P3. They trail Racing Point by 18 points and McLaren by 13, but having scored two podiums in the last four races, the Australian knows they are very much in with a chance if they get things right.
“I feel like more times than not the season [Racing Point] have been the quicker car,” he said. “So in that battle I would refer to us being the underdog. With McLaren it has been more evenly-matched. So I would say that was more of an even battle. But with Racing Point, McLaren and us are slight underdogs.
“After Turkey, we are clear underdogs now, but I don't say that in a pessimistic way,” Ricciardo added. “We have a few points to gain, but there is a lot in the table in the next three races. I do not see [P3 as] out of reach. Turkey was a bit of a blow for us but it’s not too far gone. I’m looking forward to the last three – I think we will have a good fight on our hands.”
Of the four, McLaren are perhaps the ones with the slowest package, but their ability to consistently maximise what they’ve got, while also take their opportunities when they come, means they cannot be discounted.
“We have to race hard and make sure we keep ourselves in the fight,” said Carlos Sainz. “Lately we might not have the strongest midfield package, but we have kept ourselves in the fight, kept ourselves in the points every race. One thing that is keeping us in the battle is that. [We] let the others do the mistakes and pick up the pieces.”
It’s not just about the teams’ battle
But it’s not just team results which are important, with P4 in the drivers’ championship very much up for grabs. Thirty points separate Perez in fourth, Leclerc, Ricciardo, Sainz, Lando Norris and Alex Albon, with Pierre Gasly and Lance Stroll only seven and 11 points respectively adrift of Albon respectively.
If you discount Turkey, which was held in random conditions, Ricciardo has been the form driver – closely matched with Perez – so it could be one hell of a fight for that spot in these final three races. “I’ve definitely come a long way with this team and with this car, and I feel a lot more comfortable now,” said Ricciardo, who leaves Renault for McLaren next year.
“So this year has been strong. I have enjoyed it a lot. It is hard to talk highly about yourself, but I’ve been very pleased with the way I performed, so it is up there. There are still three to go so if I close these three out strong then I will definitely say it is up there with my best seasons.”
The driver market remains in full swing
The third talking point of the day was driver futures. For Daniil Kvyat, there was an air of resignation in his voice and facial expression when he discussed his plans. He knows that his time in F1 is almost certainly at an end, with Yuki Tsunoda waiting in the wings, which is a shame for the Russian, who at times this year has looked very quick and still feels he has unfinished business with the sport.
Both Haas drivers – Romain Grosjean and Kevin Magnussen – are all but out, too, the duo set to explore racing opportunities in other series, with Mick Schumacher and Nikita Mazepin expected to be named as their replacements for 2021.
But Sergio Perez is holding out the faintest of hopes he can snatch a seat at Red Bull next year. If not, he admits he’ll take a year off not just from F1 but from motorsport as a whole before having a stab at a race seat for the following campaign.
It appears he’ll be doing the latter, with Red Bull giving Albon more time to deliver the results they believe he can. If he can nail three strong races, he’ll be in the car next year. That’s all he’s thinking about, he says, the Thai driver boosted by the fact Red Bull are continuously giving him their backing. His confidence has improved of late, as has his body language. It’s up to him to get the job done now.