It’s invariably anti-climactic when a drivers’ championship is wrapped up before the end of the season. The edge to the fight for race victories become somewhat blunted, and exciting on-track battles between two former title protagonists – now a champion and runner-up – are underscored by the faint sense that the outcome ultimately doesn’t really matter.
But so much of the remaining two races of the 2018 season does matter, including those at the front of the field.
If we start with the obvious unsettled argument, Ferrari still has a (very slim) shot at the constructors’ title. As painful as Monza, Singapore, Russia and Japan were for Sebastian Vettel, they were also costly weekends for the Scuderia as a gap of 15 points between the two teams after Vettel’s win in Belgium grew to a 78-point deficit heading to Austin.
Ferrari took a wrong turn with upgrades and paid the price, but got back on track to some extent in the last two races to outscore Mercedes on both occasions and leave the defending champions’ advantage at 55 points ahead of this weekend’s Brazilian Grand Prix.
It’s still an extremely tall order. If Ferrari wants its first constructors’ championship in a decade, then it can’t afford a Mercedes victory in either of the last two races. Even back-to-back Ferrari one-twos will leave Mercedes needing just 31 points in total to secure the title – the equivalent of a fifth and a seventh in Brazil and Abu Dhabi.
If Ferrari is to stand any chance, then it needs to rely on a little bit of history repeating.
Lewis Hamilton became a five-time world champion in Mexico after his most complete title-winning season to date. But there has always been a marked difference between Hamilton the title contender and Hamilton the title winner.
In 2008 and 2014, the championship went right down to the wire. Even without the farcical double points system four years ago, Hamilton and Nico Rosberg would still have entered the final race weekend with the title undecided.
But of his other two previous triumphs, Hamilton wrapped up last year’s in Mexico – with races in Brazil and Abu Dhabi remaining, just as this year – and the 2015 championship in Austin, with three rounds still to run. On each of those occasions the title was secured early, Hamilton failed to win another race that season.
With less on the line, Hamilton’s need to dig down for his absolute best has diminished slightly after having securing the main prize. So perhaps it’s no surprise that wins didn’t follow, although he insists that’s a record he wants to change.
“It’s not a bad finish, and ultimately it’s what we needed,” he said. “But in my mind, we’ve still got a team championship to win, and [in Mexico] we lost some points to Ferrari. And I really want to deliver for the team, so I’ve still got two races to win.”
The Briton has made similar pledges to maintain his form in the past and has still failed to win, so it remains to be seen if there’s anything different this year. If there is, it’s going to represent the ultimate cherry on top of his season. If there isn’t, then the door may just be ajar for Ferrari to take the battle down to the final race.
After all, you could argue that Ferrari is a more competitive outfit than at the same stage 12 months ago – despite the similarities in the standings – and Hamilton certainly had no real challenger other than Rosberg in 2015, but still failed to win another race.
The fight for the constructors’ title might not be the closest in the world, but further down the order it’s a much more tense affair. Barring a chaotic race, Renault’s 30-point buffer over Haas should be enough to secure fourth place, but behind those two there is plenty still up for grabs.
The ‘new’ Force India sits 15 points behind McLaren after failing to score in Mexico, but given that it has picked up 47 points since Belgium – and McLaren has managed just 10 in the same period – the fight for sixth is very much on.
But it’s perhaps the battle for eighth that is most exciting. Sauber moved ahead of Toro Rosso for the first time this season courtesy of its double-points score in Mexico, with three points now separating the pair. Sauber has been a Q3 contender and top 10 finisher more often than not this season, but Toro Rosso had built up a buffer courtesy of Pierre Gasly’s fourth in Bahrain early on.
Reversing the trend might look tough now it has slipped to ninth place, but Toro Rosso’s hopes rest on the updated Honda power unit that was introduced in Japan and is expected to be raced in the last two rounds. As qualifying at Suzuka showed, there is a clear step forward in performance compared to the previous specification of power unit, and it’s one that will be needed to fight back against Sauber.
What’s at stake is a difference of around $3m in prize money. Not life-changing to an F1 team’s budget that is at least 20 times that amount – especially ones with Red Bull and Ferrari partnerships – but certainly welcome when it comes to the final accounts, especially with more regulation changes looming.
It’s the money that makes the constructors’ standings a bigger deal in the final reckoning. The fight for third in the drivers’ championship is still open, as is best of the rest (although Nico Hulkenberg has opened up a 12-point advantage over Sergio Perez) but they all know that by maximizing their team’s finishing position there will be more money available for car development next year, and therefore more competitive machinery to work with.
And it’s a similar story for team members, who are either trying to ensure their current team is in a better position moving forward, or hope to catch the eye of bigger teams further up the grid with impressive performances.
The drivers’ title may be won, but don’t be fooled into thinking it’s just pride at stake now.