How F1's third-fastest team threw away third place - The Race
Formula 1

How F1’s third-fastest team threw away third place

Dec 14 2020
By Edd Straw

Racing Point had the third-strongest car during the 2020 Formula 1 season, but missed out on third place in the constructors’ championship to McLaren by just seven points after a dismal Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

It was a bad end to a troubled season for the team, but one in which it did deliver on its stated pre-season objectives of finishing fourth and being closer to the leading teams than it was when it finished in the same position in its Force India guise in 2016 and ’17 in terms of performance.

Dec 13 : Abu Dhabi Grand Prix review

But those targets were set before it became clear Ferrari had fallen from the group of three leading teams deep into the midfield, creating an open goal that Racing Point failed to take advantage of.

Although a lot went right this season, the team progressing towards its long-term objective of becoming a title contender and taking a first win, things did also go wrong. So what were the factors that led to Racing Point finishing fourth, rather than third?

1 THE CAR CLONING CONTROVERSY

Racing Point actually scored enough points to have finished third, but the 15-point deduction for running illegally-designed rear brake ducts was enough to tip the balance in favour of McLaren.

When the Racing Point RP20 broke cover at pre-season testing, its similarity to the all-conquering 2019 Mercedes W10 was instantly recognised. But despite grumbling from rivals, the way it designed the car was deemed to be perfectly legal – but for one component.

Renault protested Racing Point after the second race of the season, the Styrian Grand Prix. Key to its case was the design of the front and rear brake ducts. Brake ducts joined the ‘listed parts’ that a team must design itself this season but the stewards investigation showed that Racing Point had based its brake ducts on CAD data previously received from technical partner Mercedes.

At the time it received the data, it was allowed and the stewards deemed that the Racing Point front brake ducts were acceptable as it had run Mercedes-based ones in 2019. This established the principle of them being ‘grandfathered’, which in the unique case of something transitioning from non-listed to listed parts allows a team to continue to evolve its design based on data from a rival.

However, Racing Point had not run the Mercedes-based rear brake ducts in 2019 as they did not work with what was a higher-rake car concept last year. But once it decided to clone the 2019 Mercedes, the team returned to the Mercedes CAD data for its brake duct designs. This was deemed illegal because it they could not be grandfathered.

The long-running controversy led to subsequent appeals but once rules preventing cars being copied by means of explicit reverse engineering were approved, these were dropped. Racing Point accepted the 15-point deduction and €400,000 fine.

However, Racing Point was permitted to continue to run the illegally-designed brake ducts, which also conferred a performance advantage throughout the season.

2 RELIABILITY

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Race Day Abu Dhabi, Uae

Reliability problems played a key part in Racing Point losing third place in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, with Sakhir race winner Sergio Perez starting 19th thanks to a back-of-the-grid penalty for taking a new V6, turbocharger and MGU-H.

From a total of 34 entries (two cars across 17 races), Racing Point racked up seven retirements, which includes Perez’s late failure in the Bahrain GP while running third that was close enough to the finish for him being classified 18th, plus a “did not start” at Silverstone for Nico Hulkenberg. So not far short of a quarter of its points-scoring opportunities. Four of those retirements were car-related, compared to two for fellow Mercedes customer Williams and one for the works team.

By contrast, Renault-propelled McLaren had three retirements and a DNS for Carlos Sainz at Spa. But in the final reckoning, both teams managed 25 points finishes and nine races with both cars in the points. This means reliability cannot exclusively be blamed.

3 COVID-19

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship 70th Anniversary Grand Prix Race Day Silverstone, England

Racing Point’s regular drivers were both sidelined by COVID-19 at points during the season, with Perez missing the Silverstone double-header then Stroll pulling out of the Nurburgring weekend at the eleventh hour.

While stand-in Hulkenberg did a superb job and contributed a total of 10 points in the two races he was able to start – having missed the British Grand Prix thanks to an engine problem – this can’t have failed to create disruption.

Speaking after the Emilia Romagna Grand Prix, technical director Andrew Green suggested COVID recovery was among the reasons Stroll had a difficult spell, while Perez was below par on the Hungaroring weekend that preceded his positive test before Silverstone. While not explicitly connected to COVID-19, it’s possible that he was already feeling the effects.

Without doubt, the disruption to team and drivers could have cost those all-important seven points. What’s more, given how strong Racing Point was in testing you could argue that the delayed start to the season meant rival teams had a little time to catch up, while the reduction of the season from 22 to 17 races increased the possibility of variance impacting the result given you might expect overall performance to show in the results more powerfully over a larger sample set of events. But these latter two points are highly speculative and untestable.

4 LANCE STROLL

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Bahrain Grand Prix Race Day Sakhir, Bahrain

While Stroll’s 2020 season was stronger than his first year with the team in ’19, he was still the weak link in the driver line-up – as Abu Dhabi proved.

There, he lacked pace, as shown by the fact Perez’s token qualifying lap in Q1 was faster than anything Stroll achieved through the rest of qualifying. Stroll then drove a tepid race to 10th after struggling with tyre temperatures.

In total, Stroll contributed 35.7% of Racing Point’s tally of 210 (pre-penalty) points. If you eliminate the 16 points the team scored in the race Stroll missed at the Nurburgring to make a more fair comparison, that rises to 38.7% or 40.7% if you also discount the 10 point Hulkenberg contribution. That latter figure is the most generous possible, given it does not factor in Perez’s two missed races.

By contrast, McLaren’s lower-scoring driver – Lando Norris – contributed 48% of the team’s points. Whichever way you dice it, McLaren’s line-up made a more balanced contribution.

In Stroll’s defence, he did have more misfortune, with five retirements as well as one missed race. Of those, three were entirely out of his hands – the engine problem in Austria, crashing heavily at Mugello after a tyre failure while fourth, being pitched into the wall by Charles Leclerc in Russia – while he also only has a tiny minority of responsibility for his Sakhir GP flip that was predominantly caused by Daniil Kvyat’s botched overtake.

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Sakhir Grand Prix Preparation Day Sakhir, Bahrain

Only his Portugal retirement while carrying damage caused by his clash with Lando Norris was entirely Stroll’s fault, although he also had a dismal run at Imola after an off on the first lap that gave him some damage.

But after a run of seven consecutive points finishes in the first half of the season, culminating in third place at Monza – a race he could have won – points were scarce. In the final eight races he participated in, he scored just three times – third place in the Sakhir GP, ninth in Turkey after leading much of the race from pole position thanks to front tyre graining troubles blamed on initially-undetected aero damage, and the poor 10th place in Abu Dhabi.

So while it’s fair to say luck was not on Stroll’s side this year, he’s clearly the team’s second driver. On adjusted average, he was 0.145s off Perez in qualifying, and lacking his team-mate’s capacity for incisive race drive.

The bottom line is that with two Perez-level drivers in the car, even one suffering Stroll’s bad luck, Racing Point would likely have been third. After all, even if you just take the average return in races where they scored, Perez’s average contribution was 9.6 points, Stroll’s 7.5.

5 STRATEGIC SHARPNESS

Motor Racing Formula One World Championship Steiermark Grand Prix Race Day Spielberg, AustriaHistorically, Racing Point has been a razor-sharp race team but there were a few occasions this season when potential podium finishes were lost to strategy decisions.

In Austria, leaving Perez out under the late-race safety car left him powerless to avoid slipping to sixth, while at Imola the reverse decision was made while running third and led to him finishing sixth.

Conversely, there were plenty of good strategy calls, but when a championship battle is as tight as this, such calls can make a big difference. And this was a minor weakness made more significant by the fact that McLaren was generally pretty sharp when it came to its in-race decisions, so played a part in the final outcome.

6 BAD LUCK

There’s something to be said for the old adage that you make your own luck, but it’s fair to say that Racing Point didn’t have a straightforward year on many levels. Much of the misfortune has been covered in the various categories above but it’s worth noting that it wouldn’t have taken much of a break to have gained the seven points needed to beat McLaren.

Speaking to The Race before the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix settled the battle for third, team principal Otmar Szafanuer laid out the impact bad luck had on the team. At that point, his team was still the favourite to close out third place – the best possible result.

“I don’t think we could have ever hoped to finish second,” Szafnauer told The Race. “There were times when our car was strongly in third and third-fastest car and other times when we were just marginally third-fastest car, but second I don’t think was possible so third was the best we could do.

“I think we should be pretty clear, but we’ve had some unfortunate events like Sergio running a strong third in Bahrain and having an engine failure, Lance in Mugello, being hit by Leclerc a couple of times on the first lap, being hit by Kvyat [in Sakhir].

“Other teams can point to their bad luck, but I think we’ve had two, three four times what you’d expect in a season.”

DOES IT MATTER?

While finishing fourth rather than third is a disappointment to the team, it doesn’t have an enormous impact on the project as a whole even if it does cost Racing Point several million in prize money.

It’s still a strong team that has done a good job to understand a completely new, if derivative, car concept and that first victory is invaluable. Next season, it has a facelift to become Aston Martin and will have the resources to continue to evolve over the coming years. This year’s result doesn’t diminish any of that ambition or potential.

But race teams exist to win – and if you can’t win you always aim for the best possible result. Building the third-fastest car was a success, but while fourth place being a disappointment is testament to a bright future for this team, the failure to capitalise on Ferrari’s slump and take third has to go down as a failure.

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