Lewis Hamilton could continue to “take a knee” at Formula One races – saying he does not want the fight against racism to die a silent death – as Daniel Ricciardo reacted to the six drivers electing not to do so in Austria.
Formula One isn’t a two-tier racing category, but the 2018 season featured an undoubted class divide.
The championship fight between Mercedes, Ferrari and, to a lesser extent, Red Bull Racing was often fierce and enthralling, but it took place a world away from the thronging F1 midfield, which was forced to play second fiddle to the main game for the entire season.
As is the case for just about any sport, in Formula One the grid has always comprised distinct competitive subsections. In any given season only two or three teams have the opportunity to vie for the title, a similar number remain anchored to the bottom and the rest float somewhere in between.
In 2018, however, the disparity between the top of the heap and those – for want of a less demoralising phrase – making up the numbers has become severe.
Just one of the season’s 63 podium places went to a midfield driver – Sergio Perez at the Azerbaijan Grand Prix, and even that came about only after Daniel Ricciardo, Max Verstappen and Valtteri Bottas retired and Sebastian Vettel dropped to fourth after a botched late-race attempt on the leader.
It’s the equal worst result for the midfield in the turbo-hybrid era, matching last year’s sole midfield podium for Lance Stroll, again in Azerbaijan and again after a series of fortuitous events.
The gap is obvious in qualifying too, where the best-placed midfielder was a distant 1.559 seconds off pole on average in 2018.
There are myriad reasons for the relative underperformance of the midfield, the largest of which is money. Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing have the benefit of significant financial backing from their respective owners, and the sustained success won by these deeper pockets in turn has led to a greater share of prize money, which perpetuates the problem.
“I see how fast the top three teams just blow by us on the racetrack, you’re just somewhat aghast,” Gene Haas, owner of the fifth-placed Haas team, said earlier in the year. “I don’t know how those cars are so much faster.
“I kind of feel like we’re not really racing in Formula 1; we’re racing in Formula 1.5. If we were to finish fourth, then that would be a win in our series.”
Fortunately Formula One is working on rectifying the imbalance by evening out prize money distribution and legislating a cost cap, which will theoretically bring teams closer together.
But agreement on such sensitive matters could yet be years away, so in recognition of the substantial efforts undertaken by the midfield teams and rather than simply considering fourth place in the constructors standings to be a victory, today we will award the only slightly patronising class B championships to the season’s best-of-the-rest team and driver.
The methodology is simple: erase the results of the Mercedes, Ferrari and Red Bull Racing drivers from all 21 races, thereby promoting the midfielders onto the podium and the backmarkers into the points. The points system remains the same – 25 points for a win, followed by 18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1 – with my only change being to allow the combination of Force India’s pre and post-administration points tallies.
Using this basic system, the relative competitiveness of the field increases substantially. Only one of the category’s seven teams failed to score a victory in 2018 and nine of the 14 drivers won at least one race. All bar four drivers stood on the podium at least once.
And the winner of Formula One’s class B? Renault’s Nico Hulkenberg.
Hulkenberg had by far the strongest season, claiming six class wins and ten podiums to defeat teammate Carlos Sainz by just eight points – but the points margin belied the Hulk’s late-season dominance, with the German claiming his title at the Brazilian Grand Prix after consecutive victories in the United States and Mexico.
It wasn’t all smooth sailing for Nico, though. Fernando Alonso started the season as favourite, taking class honours at the Australian Grand Prix and finishing on the podium three times in the first five rounds to hold a handy lead, but his challenge petered out once McLaren redirected its attention to its 2019 car.
Special mention goes to Kevin Magnussen, who won the pole position award for topping qualifying five times, the most of any driver – indeed Haas, aided by Ferrari power, scored nine poles for the year, but the three-year-old team too often failed to convert.
Instead Hulkenberg’s strong score and teammate Sainz’s consistency – the Spaniard scored nine podiums and failed to finish just twice all year – delivered Renault team honours, beating Force India to the class B constructors championship by 50 points.
Retrofitting class points to a portion of the Formula One grid is obviously an imperfect process, but the closeness of an exclusively midfield championship battle serves to demonstrate two things: the first is that the gap between the haves and have-nots is so significant that it is detracting substantially from the spectacle and must be rectified, and the second is that there’s been terrific, close racing to be had off the podium this season.
Formula One should of course never have a second class – certainly not while all teams operate to the same regulations – but a two-tier sport is what we get when the financial and development rules continue to benefit the biggest teams.
Until those regulations are fixed for the benefit of the whole sport, the most F1’s talented grid of midfielders can aspire to is a completely fictional class championship.