Abu Dhabi’s $12 million question

Michael Lamonato Columnist

By Michael Lamonato, Michael Lamonato is a Roar Expert

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    Max Verstappen and Carlos Sainz was the last productive driver pairing for Toro Rosso. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

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    The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix might not be Formula One’s best-loved race, but the sport’s twilight fight in the dessert is inevitably a meaningful one by virtue of its place at the end of the calendar.

    Even though Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes long ago claimed the drivers and constructors titles, the Yas Marina Circuit’s coveted ‘season finale’ tag means all loose ends will be tied up this weekend and that Formula One’s tight midfield battle will reach its unpredictable conclusion in the United Arab Emirates.

    Places six, seven and eight on the table may not sound glamorous, but for Toro Rosso, Renault and Haas the fight is all about a handy cash injection as much as pride, with Autosport pegging the difference between P6 and P8 at $US12 million.

    Indeed the battle is so tense accusations of sabotage have flown between Toro Rosso and Renault, the latter the engine supplier of the former as well as a chief rival.

    Consistency has proved key to the competition, with none of the three teams scoring dependably for any period. Indeed Williams was for a time part of this pack, but Felipe Massa’s dependable points-scoring and Lance Stroll’s improving if stuttering performances have virtually secured it fifth place, albeit 100 points behind Force India.

    So who’s in the box seat to take home the cold, hard cash?

    Toro Rosso – P6, 53 points
    Scuderia Toro Rosso started 2017 strongly thanks to a Mercedes-esque interpretation of the regulations and its experienced Carlos Sainz-Daniil Kvyat driver pairing, and it held fifth in the standings early in the year.

    But the Faenza outfit fell to sixth in round eight and has been unable to recover since, the decline was in equal parts due to Williams’s improving form and Kvyat’s failure to score points in nine consecutive rounds before being dropped. Sainz was forced to do the legwork with an increasingly unreliable Renault power unit before his late-season trade.

    Working against the team’s sixth-place goal is that it fields a rookie drive line-up comprising Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley. Though the former has extensive junior experience and the latter is a two-time endurance champion, both are new to F1. Neither has scored so far this season – indeed Kiwi Hartley is yet to finish a race.

    For Toro Rosso $12 million would be a valuable prize, but sixth, only one place lower than team principal Franz Tost’s ongoing expectation of a fifth-place finish in recent years, would also be the team’s best finish since 2008.

    Carlos Sainz Jr

    Carlos Sainz Jr (Olaf Pignataro/Red Bull Content Pool)

    Renault – P7, 49 points
    It’s hard not to think Renault doesn’t belong here. It endured a difficult 2016 with a car not of its own making, and its 2017 design has developed into the midfield’s most effective machine – albeit with two caveats.

    The first is the power unit. Though Renault has made great gains in the power stakes, chronic unreliability has forced it to detune the engines to the point of non-competitiveness in recent rounds.

    The second culprit is Jolyon Palmer. With the exception Carlos Sainz’s six points in the United States after the Spaniard finally vanquished Palmer, Nico Hülkenberg was responsible for all but eight of the team’s points. If you were to double Hulkenberg’s 40-point pre-Sainz tally alone in lieu of a more capable teammate, the French team would currently sit sixth and only two points behind Williams.

    “If you want to build something, you cannot have a big hole somewhere,” Renault advisor Alain Prost said after the team dropped Palmer.

    But is it too late for it to win back some pride?

    Haas – P8, 47 points
    Formula One’s all-American team – except for the part based in the UK – has been one of the least reliable constructors of the season. After an impressive 2016 debut that ended with eighth in the constructors standings, Haas had its eye set on going at least one better this year, but its rollercoaster-like performance peaks and troughs have baffled the team and pundits alike.

    Consider that Romain Grosjean qualified seventh and finished sixth in Austria, but in Canada, also a power circuit, he was knocked out in Q2 and scraped through to P10 one lap down.

    The Frenchman’s perpetual moaning via team radio over all manner of things – but especially over his brakes, a never-ending bugbear of the two-year-old team – is a window into the frustration of a team that doesn’t appear to have a real handle on its car.

    Worse, the Yas Marina Circuit’s many 90-degree turns and smooth asphalt tests a car’s low-speed traction, conditions in which the Haas has failed to impress so far this season.

    Haas, then, remains the wildcard of the fight. Regular racing conditions would likely see the top four teams occupy the top eight finishing places, leaving just three points on offer for the midfield runners, favouring Toro Rosso’s four-point lead.

    But trust Renault to go all-out to ensure it doesn’t embarrassingly finish behind one of its customer teams. Hülkenberg and Sainz make a formidable combination in what is now arguably the fourth-best package on the grid – but ongoing engine unreliability means Renault fights with one hand behind its back.

    The only certainty is tension. All bets are off for F1’s season finale in Abu Dhabi.

    Michael Lamonato
    Michael Lamonato

    Michael is one-third of F1 podcast Box of Neutrals, as heard weekly on ABC Grandstand Digital nationwide. Though he's been part of the F1's travelling press room since 2012, people seem more interested in the time he was sick in a kart ? but don't ask about that, follow him on Twitter instead @MichaelLamonato.

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    The Crowd Says (2)

    • Roar Guru

      November 24th 2017 @ 10:15am
      Bayden Westerweller said | November 24th 2017 @ 10:15am | ! Report

      Not to be pedantic though Palmer did indeed contribute points at Singapore – though very few will remember this in years to come!

      The acrimony between Toro Rosso and Renault makes the scrap for P6 even more intriguing. To that end, it’d be amusing if Haas usurps both – a la Vettel on Alonso and Webber in 2010, if they continue to engage in politicking. It’s difficult to see the former adding further points to its haul this weekend following the nightmares of recent events, coupled with concerns over the Renault components even lasting through Sunday.

      • Columnist

        November 24th 2017 @ 2:18pm
        Michael Lamonato said | November 24th 2017 @ 2:18pm | ! Report

        Ah yes, you’re right! An extremely forgettable score, but nonetheless he didn’t bow out of the season scoreless — though whether or not we were to somewhat cruelly label him ‘pointless’ is another question.

        That fight has definitely become personal, but at very least retirement ought to be just as likely for one team as it is the other. Unfortunately the dull track layout and the lack of strategic options with the current hard tyre compounds means, as you say, it’s difficult to see Toro Rosso outperforming Renault here, so the Italians will just have to hope that both teams remain off the pace of Force India and scrap only for ninth and tenth.

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