Since Formula 1’s turbo-hybrid era began in 2014, the fight to lead the Constructors’ Championship at the season’s end has rarely been anything more than a one-horse race.
This year is no different, with the fight for second also being a no contest, as Mercedes and Red Bull fill out the top two positions with little competition from behind.
Similarly, throughout the last seven years there been little noise created over the battle for third, even in 2014 and 2015 when Williams out-scored Ferrari and Red Bull respectively with relative ease.
However, 2020’s instalment of F1 has produced a merciless battle for third spot, with very little to choose between three different teams ahead of the season’s final four grands prix.
On 135 points and currently occupying the last spot on the Constructor podium is Renault, which leads both McLaren and Racing Point by just a single point.
Renault in front – but still susceptible
The trio have gained from Ferrari’s miserable toppling this year and are all now in a position to claim their best result since the sport was revamped with new regulations in 2014.
Expectations are that the battle will come down to the falling of the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi, which seems all the more likely considering how little the gaps have changed in recent races.
Renault has propelled to the top of the scuffle through emotions of both delight and vexation.
It has clearly expanded its strengths beyond the straight-line advantages it held last year.
Scoring strong results at venues that test various strengths of a car is encouraging for Renault, which expected to perform strongly at low-downforce venues but is increasingly adding high-downforce tracks to its armoury.
After being nowhere in Budapest and Barcelona it was in the mix at the Nurburgring and Imola.
But there are still concerns. While Daniel Ricciardo has claimed two podiums in the last three races, team-mate Esteban Ocon retired on both occasions. He has not met the chequered flag three times in the last five events owing to reliability issues and Renault was even moved to apologise to Ocon after his latest failure.
And as brilliant as Ricciardo has been, with Ocon unlucky, the Frenchman has also been one of the midfield’s most anonymous racers this season, often falling on the wrong side of a couple of tenths.
Racing Point: Fast but fumbling
Racing Point should be substantially ahead but thanks to dubious decisions and missed chances it is still facing a fierce fight.
Both of its drivers have contracted Covid-19 while it spent the early weeks embroiled in a legal dispute over its RP20.
In its corner is the strength of Sergio Perez, who has scored points in every race he has started, holding sixth overall despite missing two events.
But Racing Point has also squandered chances for Perez, most notably at Imola, where a questionable strategy call dropped him from a net podium to sixth place.
Just as alarming for the Silverstone-based team, who have long been viewed as F1’s successful underdogs, was Lance Stroll’s result – a continuation of a retched run.
Since taking a podium at Monza, Stroll as retired with a tyre failure at Mugello, spun into the wall by Charles Leclerc at Sochi, withdrawn from Nurburgring due to contracting Covid-19, retired from Portimao following damage sustained in a clash with Lando Norris, and finished 13th at Imola, his result impacted by a first-lap collision with Ocon.
Perez’s prowess, coming at a time in which he his fighting for his future in F1, has kept Racing Point in the fight for third, scoring 40 points at the last four events.
The update package introduced by Racing Point at Mugello (though which was not ready for Perez until the Nürburgring) was sizeable and demonstrated the money it now has to compete with the very best.
It also caused controversy with the design of the RP20, effectively copying Mercedes’ W10, and while it never shied away from its approach it was challenged by Renault and stripped of 15 points for breaching the sporting regulations.
McLaren: Hanging on in the fight
McLaren’s advantage at the moment is that it has two strong drivers in the fight but it is undoubtedly hanging on somewhat given the recent run of events.
It introduced a revised aerodynamic package at Mugello though has taken time to understood it – Carlos Sainz felt that running the new parts in Nürburgring cost him a shot at a podium given the lack of time available to carry out a proper evaluation. Three rounds without points for Lando Norris has also not helped matters, owing to a spate of misfortune, though he returned to the top 10 at Imola.
For most of the year McLaren has stressed that it has not had the third-fastest car overall. Only once since Austria’s season-opener has McLaren finished best-of-the-rest in qualifying, when its low-downforce set-up excelled at Monza. Even before the red flag drama Sainz was on course to finish runner-up.
But the momentum is slipping away from McLaren. It was 16 points ahead of Racing Point after Monza while Renault was even further behind. The margins are exceptionally small in the midfield while an ever-improving Ferrari and AlphaTauri are also getting in the mix more often to take points off the trio of teams fighting for third.
It’s going to be close…
Aside from the all-important financial benefits that come from finishing higher up in the standings, the award of pride that comes from out-witting close rivals is valuable, which would mark a true achievement in any of the team’s history.
McLaren, keen to cast aside the struggles of recent years, would see third as redemption and a clear escape-from-the-cave moment, reaffirming its position towards the front of the field – it has not finished so high up in the standings since 2012, the final year of its relationship with Lewis Hamilton.
Renault, which returned as a Constructor in 2016 with a five-year plan to win races and titles, can be buoyed by its gains after its progress stalled in 2019. It has survived threats to its very existence and feels leadership changes 12 months ago are paying off.
Racing Point has not finished third in the standings since its Jordan days in 1999 and while there is sizeable financial might behind the team compared to its underdog Force India days beating the corporate juggernauts of Renault and McLaren – and also Ferrari – would be a shining achievement.
With no one team holding a sizeable advantage it could very well come down to the last lap in Abu Dhabi…