F1 Mid-Pack Teams Improved But Still Light Years From Mercedes, Red Bull

If you happen to be a race fan who drools over the battle for third place, then this weekend’s F1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix is right up your alley. If you’re more into championship chases, go back to your holiday shopping.

Don’t fool yourself. Those second-tier teams fighting for third place in the F1 Constructors’ Championship over at Racing Point, McLaren and Renault, while improved and entertaining, are still just that—second-tier teams. Make that distant second-tier teams behind Mercedes and Red Bull.

And, no, we didn’t forget Ferrari. Sorry, the Prancing Horses are in F1’s third tier this season, along with AlphaTauri.

As for backmarkers Alfa Romeo, Haas and Williams, the 2020 season has been nothing short of a barely watchable train wreck, as those three teams have combined for all of 11 points.

Here’s what the Constructors’ Championship looks like through 16 of 17 races going into Sunday’s finale at the F1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix:

Constructors’ Championship

Of the three second-tier teams this year, only Racing Point has finished a weekend on the top step of the podium. Sergio Perez’s surprise win in Bahrain at the Sakhir Grand Prix last week was the first win for the franchise since 2003 when it was branded as Jordan (Giancarlo Fisichella). McLaren’s last win was in 2012 (Lewis Hamilton), while Renault’s last win goes back to 2008 (Fernando Alonso).

Perez’s win last week not only ended a 189-race winless streak for him, but it was the shining moment for a team that came into the 2020 season with a pink cloud of controversy hanging over it. The team came under some fire for its early pace this year, as rivals protested the team’s brake duct designs, claiming they were exact copies of those Mercedes used in 2019. And the FIA agreed. It fined Racing Point and docked the team a one-time 15 points penalty in the championship.

Funny, hardly anyone these days talk about illegal brake ducts even though Racing Point was allowed to continue to use parts deemed illegal.

“What is interesting is that you have three teams fighting for that third position to a lesser or better degree, but we all have our own models,” said Renault team principal Cyril Abiteboul. “From Renault being a complete manufacturer building every single thing from the engine to the chassis, every nut and bolt has been designed, manufactured and built by our team, so we are a true constructor.

“Then you have the other extreme that we have seen this year. It is not a controversy, but it is clearly no secret that Racing Point have the model of buying as much as they can from Mercedes. And you have McLaren sitting in the middle and doing a great job at what it is responsible for, which is chassis design.”

Clearly, there are different paths to No. 3. However, there is still no clear path to taking down the giant and seven-time defending champ Mercedes. That could change when new regulations kick in for 2022, but none of the second-tier teams are predicting as much.

In the meantime, says McLaren F1 team CEO Zak Brown, a team’s best chance at closing a gap might be to make friends with those beating the daylights out of you.

“I think we feel strongly that it’s a Constructors’ Championship,” Brown said. “You need to design, build, manufacture your own race car. That’s what all the men and women at McLaren do.

“It’s clearly a competitive advantage for the teams that are passing along that information or those parts, both financially, sporting and politically, and at the same time the teams that are on the receiving end are able to short-cut and inherit the work of others. As you say, there’s many teams doing it now.

“We’ll just have to monitor the situation. I think the FIA has stated that their intent is everyone should be their own independent entity. So that’s how McLaren wants to go racing, will continue to go racing. But, hey, this is Formula 1. It’s tough and so you’ve got to beat everyone within what the rules are.”

Or, as is the case at Racing Point, feel free to stray a little outside the rules, align with the best team in the land, and hope that the rules enforcers are in a good mood and don’t come down too hard if a line gets crossed.

“I think we’ve taking a step forward this year in defining the rules,” said Racing Point team principal Otmar Szafnauer. “They’re much more clear. We continue to hire people, expand our manufacturing capability, expand our design and development capability. We started at a smaller base than some of the others but with Aston Martin coming in, we too are growing and will right-size the business. I think we’re going to grow by another 23% and we too will work hard to design, develop and construct our own car to do the best we can.”

That best still won’t be enough to finish any higher than best in class behind Mercedes and Red Bull any time soon.

“We have an interesting battle that’s possible with very different models, but we should not lose sight of the fact that we are all still one second or more from the team that is leading the championship,” Abiteboul said. “I’m really concerned that we are still not doing enough to bring the sport to a level playing field.”

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