The battle for third in the 2020 Formula 1 constructors’ championship is certain to go down to the wire, with Renault, McLaren and Racing Point separated by just one point heading into the final four races of the season.
All three teams have had spells at the front of this race during 2020, but they are closer than ever after Daniel Ricciardo’s third place at Imola put Renault into the highest position it has been in since the works team was revived ahead of the 2016 season.
While the constructors’ championship is already settled and the drivers’ title will surely have been secured by Lewis Hamilton well before the season final in Abu Dhabi, this is the battle to watch – especially with Ferrari and AlphaTauri also having a role to play.
“It’s so difficult to predict,” said McLaren team principal Andreas Seidl of the fight for third.
“We have seen this year with the small gaps that we have between the teams in terms of performance, the smallest differences in track temperature, track characteristics, the downforce levels you have to choose can make the difference of one or two tenths. Instead of P5, you find yourself even being at risk to not make it into Q3.”
So what will be the key factors that decide the battle?
Renault is unquestionably the form team in this group. Having initially lagged behind in the battle for third, it has been a strong performer recently, particularly through Ricciardo’s drives – with team-mate Esteban Ocon’s improving but suffering the lion’s share of reliability problems.
Currently, this puts Renault on a trajectory to take third position, which would be the best it has achieved since reviving its works team for the 2016 season. But right now you can make a case for any of the three prevailing.
The reason for Renault’s strong results has been its improved pace over a wide range of circuit characteristics. Ricciardo has taken two podium finishes in the last three races and Renault continues to improve as the season progresses.
After lagging behind its rivals in the early stages of the season, the team really started to hit its stride at Spa, having made set-up breakthroughs there and in the previous events at Silverstone. While it has, on the full-season average, the fifth-fastest car, it has led this third-place group over the past five races.
AVERAGE PACE SINCE MONZA
2 Red Bull, +0.501%
3 Renault, +1.200%
4 Racing Point, +1.339%
5 Ferrari, +1.340%
6 McLaren, +1.400%
7 AlphaTauri, +1.544%
8 Williams, +2.405%
9 Alfa Romeo, +2.584%
10 Haas, +2.772%
“Particularly at the start of the year, it looked like Racing Point [was ahead], there was no denying that,” said Ricciardo at Imola when asked which car was the strongest in the battle for third.
“They still probably produce the most downforce out of us three, so when it comes down to pure grip and performance they probably have got a little edge but that is not always everything.
“It looked that way early on, but our developments might have helped us – so we are very close now, but on raw performance I would say they might have the edge.”
Racing Point has struggled in qualifying recently, with neither driver reaching Q3 at Imola. Technical director Andy Green has suggested that more emphasis might need to be put on Saturday to ensure that the team isn’t up against it on race day, although Sergio Perez was on course for the third place Ricciardo took at Imola before the decision to pit under the late safety car.
“There’s still more in the car,” said Green. “That we sort of showed at the last two races where we performed really well on a Sunday afternoon. The car is really, really quick on Sunday.
“We’ll take stock of where we have been the last two races and see if we need to make some adjustments, maybe a bit more towards the qualifying side rather than the race side.”
“We know in some tracks we’re a couple of tenths slower than the Renault and the Racing Point, but we can get that back in the race” :: Carlos Sainz Jr
McLaren is the weakest in terms of performance. Having had the fourth-fastest car on average in the races up to and including Monza, it has slipped to sixth-fastest since then.
But given it has taken time to get on top of recent upgrades and the team didn’t get the best out of the car in qualifying, there could be an upside for McLaren if it really has understood a package that it has gradually phased in over recent race weekends and that performed decently in Portugal and at Imola.
“It’s very difficult to read,” said McLaren driver Carlos Sainz Jr. “The best summary is that we’ve been performing a bit better, the last couple of races.
“We had a bit of a tricky time in Nurburgring and Russia, and then since, we’ve understood a bit better our package.
“We got on top of our little issues that we were having, and we’re a bit more confident with what we have.
“We know in some tracks we’re a couple of tenths slower than the Renault and the Racing Point, but we can get that back in the race. Tracks like Portimao, we were the same or a tiny bit ahead.
“But on average, during the last three of four races, I would say we’re a tiny bit behind on pure race pace and pure qualifying pace, but it’s still not enough to discard us from the battle.”
For McLaren, it’s essential that it translates this progress into results given the ground lost in recent races, with Renault very much in the ascendancy.
Points scored last 5 races
1 Renault, 64
2 Racing Point, 52
3 McLaren, 36
What McLaren is lacking in car performance in recent races is partly compensated for by its driver line-up.
The points contributions and qualifying performances of Sainz and Lando Norris are similar, and both have been consistent performers this year when technical problems have not intervened.
This means that even on days when Renault and Racing Point – not to mention AlphaTauri and Ferrari – might be capable of being quicker, McLaren can still outperform the second driver in these teams.
“One big asset that we have in the team is having two strong drivers that always manage to pull it off,” Seidl said.
“We have a great record of achieving Q3 with both cars at most of the races, and also in terms of what these guys do then on Sunday in the race is outstanding in terms of bringing the results that are on the table back home. It’s definitely a big asset in this battle for P3.”
At Renault, Ricciardo has had an outstanding season and, to his credit, Ocon has been closing in recently. But at Imola, Ocon wasn’t able to find the extra turn of speed his team-mate did.
Racing Point has the ultra-consistent Perez performing excellently, but for various reasons Lance Stroll hasn’t scored since Monza and his pace in during the last two race weekends has been poor.
Green suggested the after-effects of COVID-19, combined with struggles to build confidence with the car on turn-in since a suspension upgrade was introduced at Sochi, has played a part in Stroll’s struggles in Portugal and at Imola in particular.
The Turkish GP weekend will confirm if Stroll and the team have put all of that behind them.
The Renault now looks to be a car that’s competitive at all kinds of circuits and has hope that this will prove to be the case. Perhaps Turkey, with its low-abrasion track surface, is the biggest question mark for the team.
“At the beginning of the season, we said on the fast track we are performing better, so if we follow that we should perform well at tracks like Bahrain, where it’s a lot of straightline, braking, acceleration and full-throttle time,” said Ocon.
“In Abu Dhabi, I think it’s going to be a close fight with the other three teams, but with Bahrain I’m confident we can perform.”
Green suggests Racing Point could go well in Bahrain, particularly on the regular circuit given the tyre-management demands.
“Bahrain potentially could be good for us, it’s really hard on tyres, it’s got a really rough Tarmac so I think the way we’re naturally kinder to the tyres might help us,” said Green.
“The new circuit at Bahrain is unknown for everybody, we don’t really know where that’s going to pan out.
“Turkey, a lot of high speed, but we don’t have any concerns about the ones coming up.”
McLaren’s strongest track could be the Bahrain Outer Circuit, which is set to be closer to the low-downforce configuration it ran at Monza although perhaps with more compromises required. There, McLaren was the nearest challenger to Mercedes, so this might be its best chance to get back to the front of the midfield pack on pace.
Renault’s reliability record has been poor recently, with Ocon retiring three times in the last five races with various mechanical problems – most recently the gearbox failing at Imola. As two-car finishes will potentially be the key difference-maker, this is a concern for Renault.
It comfortably has the worst reliability record this year, with five DNFs caused by car problems – more than twice that of McLaren and Racing Point.
Racing Point has to be considered the strongest in this area thanks to the Mercedes engine, even though a problem with it caused Nico Hulkenberg to fail to start the British Grand Prix earlier this year.
With only eight more chances to score, twice at each race, any more retirements could prove to be the decisive swing in this battle – bad news for Renault.
Mathematically, both Ferrari and AlphaTauri do still have an outside chance of challenging for third as they are 32 and 46 points behind Renault respectively.
But realistically, with just four races remaining, it’s going to take a freak result to catapult them into serious contention. But that doesn’t mean they won’t be a factor as the two teams will be in the thick of the fight for best-of-the-rest on track and therefore able to impact the battle even if they can’t join it.
Ferrari’s form has picked up since its mid-season nadir, with Charles Leclerc capable of midfield-leading performances even if team-mate Sebastian Vettel’s struggles with the rear end of the car mean he’s only reached Q3 three times this year.
“It’s a difficult question,” said Leclerc when asked about the chances of catching fifth-placed Racing Point, and therefore join the battle for third.
“When we maximise everything, we seem to be pretty competitive.
“To know exactly where we are, I don’t have the answer.
“Realistically it’s going to be difficult if they do everything perfect, but I think we’ve had some opportunities in the past and if we’re always consistently there, there will be others in the future and we can catch them.”
But AlphaTauri is the real wildcard, having been the third-fastest car over the last two race weekends. Pierre Gasly, in particular, is excelling and will be in the thick of the on-track battle.
WHO WILL WIN?
This battle is genuinely too close to call given Renault, Racing Point and McLaren are so evenly matched. After all, that’s why they are separated by just one point after 13 races.
But Ricciardo perhaps best summed up how it will be decided over the final four race weekends.
“Getting both cars in the points is important, minimising mistakes,” said Ricciardo when asked by The Race about the battle.
“Whichever team executes a near-perfect weekend for the next few is probably the team that’s going to do it, whether they’ve got the faster car or not. We’re so evenly matched that that will make the difference.”