MEDLAND: Neverending stories

MEDLAND: Neverending stories

Formula 1

MEDLAND: Neverending stories

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Lewis Hamilton has secured the drivers’ championship. Mercedes won the constructors’ title, McLaren and Honda thrashed out a divorce settlement and new bedmates, while Fernando Alonso signed on the dotted line to stay where he is. You could be forgiven for thinking there is nothing left to talk about over these last two race weekends.

With the movers and shakers all sorted out at the front of the grid and the destination of both titles confirmed, where should you be looking for conversation points? Start with Williams.

Felipe Massa wanted to be able to confirm his plans before his home grand prix in case it was to be his final race at Interlagos (again), so announced last weekend that he is retiring from F1 for good at the end of the season. It’s unlikely to be as emotional an occasion as 2016 was, when a spontaneous guard of honor formed along the pit lane as Massa walked back to the Williams garage, having retired in the wet. But Massa deserves to be able to once again say goodbye in front of his home crowd without any uncertainty.

That uncertainty was because Williams has been evaluating other options for 2018, and one of those options could be a major story from a personal sense as much as a sporting one. Testing both Robert Kubica and Paul di Resta in recent weeks, Williams has been weighing up whether the Pole can deliver at the highest level despite physical limitations caused by his near-fatal rally accident back in 2011.

To see Kubica back would be a massive good news story for Formula 1 as well as for the man himself, but Williams is taking its time over a decision. It is an understandable approach, given Renault’s investment in Kubica before it ultimately opted against giving him a race seat. And so a number of other drivers remain on the shortlist, with Pascal Wehrlein another candidate as Mercedes looks to move its prospect up the grid next year.

The Williams line-up is one of three still to be finalized for 2018, with Sauber and Toro Rosso also still having open seats. At Sauber it looks increasingly likely that Wehrlein will be replaced by Ferrari protege Charles Leclerc, who will again get a run in FP1 on Friday in Brazil. The F2 champion simply HAS to get a seat on the grid given his performances this year, and with so few spots left, it seems Ferrari is prioritizing him over Antonio Giovinazzi.

Toro Rosso appears to be a closed shop in terms of it not being a viable destination for any current driver on the grid, but neither Brendon Hartley nor Pierre Gasly will be fully comfortable despite being the latest incumbents. Team principal Franz Tost has said the pair looks highly likely to be the line-up next year, but Toro Rosso loves a curveball and both drivers will need to prove themselves in the final races.

It’s a tough ask for each, given their relative inexperience in F1 machinery and the nature of their schedules – Gasly missed Austin to attempt to race in Super Formula, and Hartley is racing every weekend due to his WEC commitments – but at least in each other they have benchmarks that are dealing with similar scenarios..

Where that situation really hurts Toro Rosso, however, is in the constructors’ championship. The top four positions have already been solidified, and barring a hugely dramatic final two races, McLaren and Sauber will finish ninth and tenth respectively. But there has been an almighty scrap between Williams, Toro Rosso, Renault and Haas for fifth place all season long.

Lance Stroll’s sixth in Mexico could prove crucial, as it has opened up a 23-point advantage for Williams over sixth-placed Toro Rosso, with a maximum of 86 points still on offer. With Toro Rosso having only scored a solitary point in the last four races, the driver changes have clearly had an impact, and it is now the fight for sixth that will go to the wire.

Only six points separate Toro Rosso, Renault and Haas, and the financial impact of finishing at the top of that pile is worth millions of dollars in prize money. In a microcosm of the inconsistency that has plagued many teams in the midfield, it is Gene Haas’ outfit that has looked least competitive as the season has gone on, yet it has picked up points more regularly, scoring with three cars in the last four races compared to one single score each for the two teams directly in front of it.

The closeness of that battle – and its financial significance – highlights why all the teams involved face such a crucial final two rounds. However, whoever is successful will have their joy slightly tempered by the knowledge that all of the teams in secure positions are able to take risks in preparation for next season. Mercedes has spoken openly about using Brazil and Abu Dhabi as the start of its 2018 battle for success, while Force India – the team the rest of the midfield will have in its sights next year – has likewise stated it will compromise Friday practice sessions in order to focus on developments beyond this season.

Force India will also run another rising star in George Russell; Mercedes’ 19-year-old GP3 champion making his race weekend debut in FP1 at Interlagos. For the teams with secure positions, the final two races will provide a glimpse into the future on many fronts, almost like a first day of pre-season testing.

All of that is against a backdrop of political posturing between the big teams and owners Liberty Media that will provide storylines throughout the coming weeks as Formula 1’s direction beyond 2020 is discussed.

But above all else, when the flag drops and the bull***t stops (to steal a quote from Mark Webber), with three teams capable of staking a realistic claim for victory on Sunday, there’s still set to be plenty of fantastic racing among some of the best drivers and cars in the world. And for many, the shackles are now off…

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