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Why F1’s battle for the scraps is about more than pride

Red Bull’s performance this season has been magnificent, even allowing for the blip in Singapore a week before the team secured the constructors’ championship in Japan.

With six rounds still remaining, it’s a new record — a stat that should not be downplayed simply because there are more races per season now. Three of those six events feature sprints that combine to offer more than another race’s worth of points.

But that championship success was a foregone conclusion as early as the fourth race of the season as Red Bull showed itself to be strong on every type of venue. That storyline has been shut down, but there are two hugely entertaining fights — for different reasons — just behind them.

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Neither of the two teams fighting for second place in the constructors’ standings this season will have had that target in mind when they entered the year. Mercedes and Ferrari both harbored hopes of putting up a challenge to Red Bull and entering the frame for top honors.

Last season played out in a similar season way, with the two were fighting for second overall right up until the final round.

It was a different dynamic in 2022, though. Ferrari had started the season with arguably the quickest car, and certainly a race-winning one that secured a one-two in Bahrain. The Scuderia was seen as a championship contender early on. Mercedes, meanwhile, was in real trouble with the new regulations and took a long time to become competitive, but there was a one-two of its own when George Russell took his first win in Brazil.

The impression was Ferrari had performed poorly as it slipped away from Red Bull and only just managed to hang onto second place, while Mercedes showed encouraging development to get into that fight.

This year it’s been much more balanced, but if anything the roles are slightly reversed. Although Ferrari was quick in Bahrain, Mercedes appeared the more consistent of the two, regularly being third quickest while others fluctuated around it.

That the gap had opened up to as much as 56 points over Ferrari by the summer break suggested P2 would be a formality, but consistency now belongs to the Scuderia, which has delivered a very solid run from Monza onwards. Across very different types of circuit, that bodes well for it to be a tussle right to Abu Dhabi.

Should you care? Well, Mercedes does, not only because of pride and the spirit of competition, but because of the way learning from these kinds of pressure situations can set a team up for the ultimate prize in the future.

“We definitely want to beat them, and they’ll want to beat us,” Andrew Shovlin said of Ferrari. “Second place is not a world championship, and if we win it we aren’t going to be as crazy as Red Bull are right now, but it is important for us and everyone at the factory wants to achieve that.

“It’s also actually quite good practice, because we haven’t been fighting for a championship for a couple of years, and in our sense we’ve got two cars that are closely matched. We’ve got a very small margin, we’ve got some difficult tracks and some new circuits coming up, and it’s actually quite good for us to just get back into that mindset of racing for championships — there’s only so many points on the table, making sure you can grab as many of them as possible.

“The team is enjoying that challenge. You saw in Singapore how quickly the team gets back into that mindset of aggressively racing for a race win. Certainly we’ll do everything we can and push as hard as we can to get second.”

Earlier this season you’d have certainly expected Aston Martin to be one of the teams Mercedes was talking about too, but the impressive development rates from the teams around it has led to AMR slipping ever further back. Its haul of four points from the last two races have coincided with a return of 57 for McLaren, and that only scratches the surface of that dynamic.

In the first eight races, McLaren scored just 17 points and looked a world away from the front-running teams. Then came the Austria upgrade, and in the eight races since — the same sample set — Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri have amassed 155 points between them. That’s nearly a 10-fold increase in scoring.

Not every weekend will be as lucrative as Japan, but the fact Norris has scored four second-place finishes in the past seven races suggests there will be more big scores, and with Piastri also regularly contributing, the gap is closing rapidly. If it keeps up the pace at which it has been outscoring Aston Martin since Austria — 11 points per round — McLaren will have moved up to fourth and hold a six-point advantage heading to Abu Dhabi.

Alonso’s spirited efforts continue to keep Aston Martin at the sharp end, adding an x-factor to McLaren’s second-half comeback. Mark Sutton/Motorsport Images

But that overlooks the impact of Fernando Alonso, who pulled off another stunning start in Japan and felt more points were on the table than his eventual eighth place had the strategy been different. The Spaniard retains a habit of dragging cars into positions they sometimes don’t deserve to be, and with the buffer Aston Martin still has, he could slow McLaren’s progress with one or two more such performances in the remaining six rounds.

It’s also still the same team that developed the car that was so strong out of the box, and the timing of when it has scored its points shouldn’t detract from the strong overall step forward Aston Martin has made in terms of a season’s worth of points. If any of its upgrades that are still planned for this season have even 10% of the impact its winter development did, Aston will give itself a good chance of holding on.

One is a titanic battle on track where two drivers are locked within a second of each other throughout, the other completely opposing strategies that are converging towards the final lap and promising a mouth-watering conclusion.

Sure, it’s not for a title, but it’s still damn fun to watch.

Story originally appeared on Racer