A perfect drive at last weekend's Turkish Grand Prix has made Lewis Hamilton a seven-time champion, a capstone to what was already a championship-winning season for Mercedes AMG F1. Titles have been decided and awarded, and Mercedes has nothing left to race for but history in the next three rounds. There are, however, other things to fight for, things that can define the next few years for the teams and drivers still fighting.
Constructor's Championship Standings
Both NASCAR and IndyCar send out a certain amount of guaranteed money every year to a limited-but-large number of teams that meet certain requirements. These deals, known as charters and Leader's Circle benefits, respectively, help distribute the television money the series makes and ensure some basic level of security for teams even if they struggle to find major funding of their own. The goal is to keep the field consistent from year to year, and to keep it from shrinking drastically overnight. This reflects the media money disbursement in other American sports, the money that goes toward paying and determining the salary cap of and NBA or NFL franchise.
Formula 1 has a very different idea of how they should distribute prize money.
F1 has some money that is distributed in other ways (determined by a complicated combination of variables recently updated during the sport's last Concorde agreement, a bargaining tool that could be compared to a collective bargaining agreement in sports with organized labor), but the most sizable chunk of money a Formula 1 team receives comes from the end-of-year distribution of cash determined by the final series standings. In other words, the best teams receive significantly more money than the worst teams. It is a direct inverse of the draft pick system American team sports use to create parity, and the obvious result is that it keeps rich teams wealthy and poorer teams destitute.
Because of the multiple distribution variables, the exact split available to teams is unclear until those teams have actually finished in certain places in the standings. What is clear is that the difference between finishing, say, second or third in the constructor's championship is a sum in the range of seven or eight million dollars.
With three races remaining and a total of 44 points available to a team on a perfect weekend where their competitors do not score a single point. Red Bull Racing has a lead of 86 points in the battle for second in the standings and appears likely to finish in that position. The gap from third to sixth, however, is just 24 points.
Racing Point leads McLaren, Renault, and Ferrari in that chase. While all four have substantial financial backing, whether from a major investor or an auto manufacturer, each could no doubt make use of the money in the eight figure difference between third and sixth in the standings. The four have had similar pace throughout the year and will be in hard-fought battles in every race going forward. Those battles may be for third or fourth every weekend, but they will be what determines who holds a significant chunk of new prize money at the end of the season. Each position is worth more than the position before it, so do not expect any team to let off the gas even if one begins to pull away in the battle for third.
Similarly, Alfa Romeo leads Haas and Williams by just eight points in the battle for eighth. Of course, eight points is five more than the paltry three Haas has scored all season and eight more than the paltrier zero Williams has to its name, but the margin here is thin enough that any one of those teams could have a fortunate race in strange conditions and vault themselves into that eighth spot.
Driver's Championship Spots
While the driver's championship is less important to the future of these teams, there is nonetheless value in a driver being able to claim that they finished at a certain point in the championship standings. Second is still up for grabs, with Valtteri Bottas leading Max Verstappen by just over one race worth of points with three left to run, but the more interesting battle is from fourth on back, where Sergio Perez holds a slim lead over Charles Leclerc and Daniel Ricciardo.
The position likely means very little for Perez in the long run, but being able to claim a fourth place finish in the Formula 1 World Driver's Championship while driving a Racing Point entry is a bragging right that will greatly increase the prestige of his resume. This is crucial because of the last thing drivers have left to fight for.
Or, more accurately, one open seat.
The biggest change in the Formula 1 grid became clear months ago, when Ferrari announced that it was hiring Carlos Sainz Jr. from McLaren and leaving Sebastian Vettel to free agency after six years with the team. Vettel landed at Racing Point, Daniel Ricciardo replaced Sainz at McLaren, and Fernando Alonso announced an upcoming return to Renault to replace Ricciardo.
Sergio Perez was left as the odd man out.
Perez, who you may note is currently fourth in the driver's championship and a key reason that Racing Point is fighting for a massive payday with the opportunity to finish third in the constructor's championship, will spend the next three races trying to prove that he belongs in another car, and he seemed to make a very convincing case after his exceptional run in Turkey last weekend. Perez finished second on old tires after his teammate Lance Stroll's race collapsed, failing to hold off Lewis Hamilton but keeping back both Ferrari drivers on absolutely ruined tires over the last ten laps of the race. Performances like that are the sort of things that get a driver noticed, and Perez is certainly hoping that Red Bull Racing is the one noticing.
They are the team that could be convinced to move on from current driver Alex Albon, who himself briefly led the Turkish Grand Prix but has largely struggled to keep pace with his teammate Max Verstappen. Albon is the second consecutive Red Bull driver to find himself closer in pace to the company's B-team, now AlphaTauri, in the standings than his own teammate. A similarly disappointing season got Pierre Gasly demoted back to that program last year, and Gasly has been far more impressive in that car than he was in the Red Bull, winning his first career race after an exceptional drive at Monza and competing for points every week. Gasly's teammate, Daniil Kvyat, is also a former Red Bull driver.
This, combined with Daniel Ricciardo's decision to leave the team for a far less competitive Renault entry after years of winning races with the program in 2018, raises some questions about the value of that second Red Bull entry to a driver interested in winning races and championships. Verstappen is the clear favorite at that program, possibly even more so than Sebastian Vettel was when Mark Webber was so famously ordered out of his way, and any driver who joins the team would seemingly be doing so under the understanding that they are playing wingman to Verstappen. It is, however, a car capable of winning races at a team with a championship pedigree.
If Red Bull decides to move on from Albon or demote him to AlphaTauri, their obvious choice is Sergio Perez. They could also look to promote someone from AlphaTauri, or hire someone from outside of the series and promote them directly to the lead car. All of these are still in play, and any driver Red Bull has informed of interest knows they have three races left to show why they belong. This includes Albon himself. For the most impressive, a chance to win races in 2021 could be available. The others may be looking at life after Formula 1.
Three races remain in what has in the era of Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton become an annual Formula 1 epilogue. The champions have nothing left to fight for but an increase in their total wins and total poles, but the drivers and teams behind them understand that their future is at stake. The next three grands prix will be worth watching.
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