As the season-long title battle draws to a close, it’s becoming likely that, in one way or another, neither Max Verstappen or Lewis Hamilton will have won the title by the time they reach Abu Dhabi. On top of this, Red Bull and Mercedes are currently split by a single point as we prepare for the final four rounds. With both championships on the line, the Red Bull and indeed the Mercedes management must be asking themselves, would we sacrifice the Constructors championship for the Drivers’?
For anyone who knows Formula 1, you’ll be aware that the Prize Money the team receives for the Constructors standings is far more than what the Driver would receive, and it is for this reason Toto Wolff has, over the years, told his drivers to not risk contact for the sake of the Team, especially in the years they were fighting Ferrari.
The news seldom cares for such trivial matters though, instead focusing on the human story of Man vs Man. Come Monday 13th December 2021, headlines will be filled with pictures of “Super Max” or “GOAT Lewis”.
Superlatives from either Christian Horner or Toto Wolff will praise their star man beyond all doubt, but will either of them be entirely satisfied. Sure, the news will mention that the other team won the Constructors, but as the headlines fade into Opinion articles and social media buzz stops for the Christmas break. Who will we remember, and more importantly, who will the Sponsors remember when looking at their 2022 investment opportunities.
While for Mercedes, they have a long history of success in the V6 Turbo Hybrid era, for Red Bull Racing, this is a chance to once again be associated with championship status and the money, even if not directly from the FIA, that comes from that. There is a possibility that even if they cannot win the Constructor’s, the increase in sponsorships for Max’s image will make up for the missing ~$20 million or 2% difference in the Prize Pot.
This of course, may be slightly fanciful on my part. The Prize Pot is the defining feature for many of the Team Owners.
History Leaves us Uncertain
So, with money all to play for, how open would they be to sacrificing Sergio Perez’s race in order to benefit Max’s ambitions. It’s a situation we haven’t seen in the modern era. Mercedes have wrapped up the Constructors title long before the final round in recent years even Red Bull did the same in the Early 2010’s, ensuring Mark Webber was at least theoretically free to help Sebastian Vettel in the 2012 Finale against Fernando Alonso.
The last time both the Teams and Drivers were undecided heading into final, only for the driver to win without his team, was ironically Hamilton and McLaren in 2008.
A key difference with the Brazilian Grand Prix that year though was how early it became apparent Ferrari were on course to win the Constructor’s. Going into the race, McLaren trailed by 11 points with 18 available in the pre-2010 scoring era. On top of this, Felipe Massa’s pole position and Kimi Raikkonen’s third place start meant thoughts of a Constructor’s glory for McLaren quickly evaporated, with the early race pace proving key. Massa would not be caught and with Raikkonen also on course for a podium and McLaren’s Heikki Kovalainen struggling to trouble the top six, focus had quickly shifted to Hamilton’s personal bid.
Prior to that, 2006 had an opposite issue, with Michael Schumacher’s title bid being almost over before the race began as he and Massa failed to deny Renault the Constructors.
The mid-2000’s though was a different time, where the dominance of the leading two manufacturer’s was not as pronounced. Going into Abu Dhabi this year, as Hamilton almost proved in Hungary and ultimately in Brazil, the Mercedes can make up time even if disadvantaged early in the race. Every position and point will be vital. With fastest laps also to contend with, a situation could arise late in the race in which one could not be gained without the other.
The closest example arguably comes from the 1998 and 1999 seasons between Mika Hakkinen in the McLaren, and his Ferrari rivals. However, an early tyre blowout for Schumacher in 1998 and Eddie Irvine’s apparent lack of pace in 1999 saw the focus shifted to the Constructor’s battle before the final pitstops.Embed from Getty Images
Would Sergio want to give up a Constructor’s Crown for Max?
Working out the championship machinations at this early stage is a fools game, but let’s quickly work on some assumptions. Scenario 1 is where Max gets no more wins and Lewis 2 before Abu Dhabi, with Verstappen finishing second. Both would head into the final race on equal points.
For the purist, this is perhaps the most enticing scenario.
Of course though, this opens the door to both teams playing their second drivers off of each other. During the Brazilian GP, Bottas bemoaned the team for not risking a one-stop strategy assumedly to hold up Verstappen. Such a gamble would likely have lost him third to Perez and potentially more depending on how bad the tyre drop off was.
Would Red Bull risk a similar move for Perez? Yas Marina’s final sector is famously slow and difficult to overtake on. A defensive drive similar to that he showed on Sao Paulo could allow Verstappen to more quickly close a gap to Hamilton. In doing so, Perez might finish fourth or fifth though. With Merc looking to head into the final with the points advantage, such a move would only be to Verstappen’s benefit.
Perez could, perhaps rightly protest this. While there has been no flash points between the Mexican and Verstappen, at 30 years-old, Perez may see this as his only chance to collect championship silverware. The move may also sacrifice his personal fight with Valtteri Bottas for third in the Drivers Standings.
At what level; Christian Horner? Helmut Marko? Dietrich Mateschitz? would the decision come.
How much is one man worth to an organisation?
This is the ultimate litmus test of the Red Bull Young Driver Programme. A decision on whether the team would see a championship win with a 2nd and 3rd a better alternative than allowing Max to fight on all cylinders for the title.
With the new regulations coming into play next season there is a big opportunity for much of the field to reset their running order and for Red Bull this could prove an issue.
Losing the support of Honda at the end of the season will be a big blow to the Austrian outfit. No matter how much of this is to be softened by the establishment of Red Bull Powertrains Ltd., the experience and history that Honda engineers have with the project will cause an uphill development race over the winter. One exasperated by the engine freeze that will take place at the first race of next season.
On top of this, Red Bull, like Mercedes, have limited their work on 2022 by their current 2021 distraction. Shifting focus back to 2008 again, it’s worth remembering that the investment and time pushed into the title fight left both Ferrari and McLaren on the backfoot going into 2009. Instead it was Ross Brawn’s self-named outfit, who had focused heavily on the following years regulation changes, that would benefit having an early season advantage that allowed Jenson Button and the Brawn GP team claim the title.
Brawn GP would go on to become the all conquering Mercedes years later, while their rivals for that years crown, Red Bull, would themselves dominate the following four years. As for Ross Brawn himself, he’s been the overseeing eye on the 2022 shake up.
As for Ferrari and McLaren, neither would recapture their title winning exploits, with Ferrari next having a title run in 2017. The choice to commit to 2008 would ultimately cost both a rule generation’s of success. Knowing this, a title, at all costs, may be on Red Bull’s mind as we enter the final 3 rounds…. But which one?
While I have discussed a scenario in which Max and Lewis head into the final race equal on points, perhaps a more intriguing scenario would be one where Lewis still trails, perhaps by the current 14 points heading into the final round.
In the event of an early race disaster for Verstappen he could find himself working his way back up the order, perhaps needing a fourth place in order to secure the title. Perez could make an unnecessary pit stop in order to drop him behind the charging Max, but again, would Horner, Sergio, or co. accept this. Unlike the compromise idea above that could be plausibly denied post-race, this is an obvious move.
Finally then, we must discuss AlphaTauri and George Russell.
Of course, there is one option that goes beyond just Mercedes and Red Bull Racing and that is of affiliate drivers.
Providing we do not see a revival of form from Alfa Romeo, Williams are likely to hang onto eighth in the constructors championship. As a result, Mercedes might be prepared to petition Williams to steal a fastest lap point or to get Russell to hold up Verstappen when lapping him. Russell though, is of course still contracted to his Grove outfit and it would be difficult to justify for Williams should lawyers get involve from the Red Bull camp.
The face perhaps more entwined is Pierre Gasly. With the form he is on, it’s likely he could be a factor in the middle of the top ten and a disruption to potential pitstops, furthermore, he’s reliable enough to pull off the fastest lap point trick. But with the 25-year-old there’s two hold ups.
Obviously Gasly himself has history with Red Bull and a move to help his old team might not be kindly received. Furthermore though, AlphaTauri have their own constructors fight with Alpine. With no points currently splitting the pair, a personal best fifth place potentially on the table, and Yuki Tsunoda failing to live up to the pace of his French counterpart, Franz Tost may quickly put his foot down on such issues. As mentioned, millions of Euros separate these Team’s Championship places, would Mateschitz be prepared to stump up that cost as well?
Marko himself has hinted that getting Verstappen the crown would take priority, while Mercedes will be aware Bottas would have no team loyalty post-Abu Dhabi. For both manufacturers though, the question must remain.
Team or Individual?