When Sebastian Vettel and his Red Bull team took their fourth consecutive drivers’ and constructors’ titles at the Indian Grand Prix at New Delhi on Sunday, it ended the suspense for Formula One fans and drivers about the ultimate prizes this season.
But aside from all the title fanfare, in the last three laps of that race there was a ferocious battle among Sergio Pérez, Lewis Hamilton and Kimi Raikkonen, which was ostensibly for fifth place in the race, but was really a battle among those drivers’ teams — McLaren, Mercedes and Lotus — in the race for second place in the championship.
For the 10 teams that trail Red Bull, such tense battles, pressure and suspense will a peak in a three-race showdown, starting with the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix on Sunday and ending with the Brazilian Grand Prix on Nov. 24, by way of the U.S. Grand Prix a week before that. At stake is $350 million or more in prize money, split between the teams — based on the 2011 figure, the latest that is available — from the series’ commercial rights holder, Formula One Management.
Teams are awarded prize money according to their finishing position in the championship, the largest amount going to the winner and the cut decreasing down the line.
The money, in some cases, could decide whether a team survives, or at the very least, could mean a more competitive 2014 season.
The spread in prize money from 10th position to 11th — or last — position in the series is one of the most important, which can also mean a difference of $10 million and survival of a team, or not.
The bottom three teams are, therefore, in one of the most intense battles on the grid. Williams is in ninth position, with only one point. Marussia and Caterham are in 10th and 11th, with no points. Those two teams, which joined the series in 2010, have yet to earn a single point in four seasons. So they will be doing all they can to improve their position in the last three races of the season.
“It’s definitely tense,” said Max Chilton, a driver at the Marussia team. “But I believe that when you’re passionate and working on the best result possible, you get the best out of yourself and the team. At the moment, we’re doing that. It’s definitely going to be tight, but we’ve got 10th at the moment and we’re hoping to keep it that way until the end of the season.”
Marussia’s best finish this year was scored by Jules Bianchi, Chilton’s teammate, who finished 13th at the Malaysian Grand Prix in April. Neither Charles Pic nor Giedo van der Garde, the drivers at the Caterham team, have finished higher than 14th.
“Of course, for us it’s very important to get the 10th place back,” said van der Garde, referring to Caterham’s 10th-place finish last year. “The one thing we need is a little luck, and the only thing we can do is maximize ourselves, maximize the car, maximize the team — and the rest is luck.”
Although the top teams like Ferrari and Red Bull spend an estimated $250 million to $350 million a year each, the teams at the back of the grid get by on budgets closer to $60 million, so the $14 million or so for 10th place is vital.
Much more money is at stake in the battle for second position in the championship, which can be worth $55 million or more. At the Indian Grand Prix, Ferrari lost second position in the series to Mercedes, whose drivers, Nico Rosberg and Hamilton, finished second and sixth. Mercedes now has 313 points, Ferrari has 309 and Lotus, in fourth, has 285. With 25 points awarded for a victory, and a declining number for each place down to 10th, all three teams have a chance of finishing second.
At stake is also a psychological boost for the team and all of its employees.
“It will be for us a very intense end of the season,” said Stefano Domenicali, the director of the Ferrari team, two days before the race in India.
“We know that everyone wants to reach that,” he said, referring to second position. “We are the same, with the others. It will not be easy, because in the last couple of Grands Prix we saw that Mercedes and Lotus have increased their performance, but we will fight up to the end, that’s for sure.”
The Ferrari driver Felipe Massa, who finished fourth in India and who is a distant eighth in the drivers’ series, also said that the rest of the season was focused on taking second in the series.
“The team is still fighting for second place in the constructors’ championship, and this is very important for us,” he said. “That is my sole focus at the moment.”
For Ross Brawn, the director of the Mercedes team, it all comes down to the purest form of the game.
“What’s crucial for these last four races boils down to who races most effectively — because I think the teams are all quite close,” he said.
“Of course, if we had something available to make the car go faster, we’d fit it; but we don’t. And I don’t think the others do, ” he said, referring to how teams have stopped developing this year’s cars to concentrate on next year’s. “So I think between the three teams it’s a question now of who races well: the team, the strategy, the drivers. And that will determine who finishes second in the championship.”
For that, of course, it also requires the highest level of racing from the drivers, many of whom might have less motivation now that they have no further chance to win the drivers’ title.
“I don’t really particularly care about what position as a driver you finish, unless you’re first,” Hamilton said. “I want to win world championships, I don’t want to win second places.”
But second position in the constructors’ race is “quite cool,” he said. “It’s a real challenge, and I’m excited about it.”
He does care, however, that only 25 points now lie between him and his teammate, Rosberg, in the drivers’ standings, and both will want to finish ahead of the other.
In the battle in the middle of the grid, some of the drivers and teams would rather not have to face this final tense challenge.
“I think you’d rather be comfortable. It’s like saying Vettel is making it boring at the moment, but he’s not finding it boring, is he?” asked Paul di Resta, a driver at the Force India team, which is currently in sixth position.
Force India is trying to hold off the Sauber team, which is only 23 points behind it, but it also has a chance at fifth position, because McLaren-Mercedes is only 25 points ahead.
“The lady on my left has certainly woken us up,” said Vijay Mallya, the Force India team owner and director, referring to Monisha Kaltenborn, the head of the Sauber team, who sat next to him when he spoke. “We are now wide awake and hopefully we will hang on to our current sixth position in the constructors’ championship, though she is getting dangerously close.”
For McLaren, the problem is much deeper, because this second-most-successful team in the history of Formula One — after Ferrari — has only three races left in which to try to save itself from the worst season in its history since 1980. It is the first year since then that the team has failed to score a podium finish.
Finally, the Vettel show is far from over. It has potential to become one of the main focal points of the final races as the four-time champion attempts to equal Alberto Ascari’s 60-year-old record of nine consecutive victories — Vettel has six in a row — and to equal Michael Schumacher’s record of 13 victories in a season.