Entering the final race of the 2023 Formula 1 season, only four points separate Ferrari and Mercedes.
And now, with just 58 laps left in the year, the fight for second in the Constructors’ Championship remains too close to call.
For both teams, there are positive signs. Mercedes put George Russell into Q3, and the driver will start the Grand Prix on Sunday in P4. However, they saw Lewis Hamilton eliminated in Q2, and he will start the Grand Prix in P11. Hamilton has seemed frustrated with his W14 all weekend long, and that continued as he crossed the line on Saturday, lamenting that something was just off with his challenger.
As for Ferrari, it was a mixed set of results for them as well. While Charles Leclerc turned in another strong qualifying performance, putting his SF-23 into P2 alongside Max Verstappen after capturing pole in Las Vegas, the team saw Carlos Sainz Jr. knocked out in Q1. That marked the first time since 2019 that Sainz failed to advance into Q2.
So for those keeping score at home, here is how the four drivers are set to start on Sunday:
F1 fans have been itching to see a proper title fight ever since the 2021 Drivers’ Championship came down to the final lap at Yas Marina. While Red Bull’s dominance these past two seasons, as well as the dominance from Verstappen, has denied fans that proper title battle, this fight for second may too come down to the final lap tomorrow.
Which should be thrilling for the fans, as well as those covering the sport.
While the fight for second between Mercedes and Ferrari is capturing the headlines, there are fights throughout the field in the Constructors’ Championship. The main undercard? The fight for fourth between McLaren and Aston Martin.
Heading into the final 58 laps of the season, it is Advantage: McLaren.
Aston Martin driver Lance Stroll was eliminated in Q2, leaving Fernando Alonso as their only representative in Q3. However, he only managed to finish seventh.
Which puts him behind the McLaren duo of Oscar Piastri and Lando Norris. Norris was on an incredible lap during his final push, having gone purple through the first two sectors. But the McLaren driver went a bit wide in the final sector, which opened the door for some of his competitors.
Including his teammate.
Piastri edged out Norris for P2, pushing his teammate down into P3 for the moment. Ferrari’s Leclerc came across ahead of them both, dropping Piastri into fourth. Then Russell came across in P4, which pushed Norris down into fifth.
While Norris — who is notorious for being hard on himself for mistakes in qualifying — may lament the results personally, this was still a very big day for McLaren. They lead Aston Martin by just 11 points in their fight for fourth, but with both Piastri and Norris starting ahead of the Aston Martin duo, and the MCL60 looking better suited for Yas Marina than the AMR23, the team in orange certainly is on the front foot heading into the season finale.
Although, a reminder that qualifying results are always provisional, because Piastri was summoned to meet with race stewards following the session, for a potential impeding penalty:
Loser: Carlos Sainz Jr.
This has been a difficult week for Ferrari driver Carlos Sainz Jr.
Coming out of the Las Vegas Grand Prix, where he was dealt a bitter ten-place grid penalty after a loose manhole cover destroyed his SF-23 in FP1, Sainz was hoping for a better qualifying result at Yas Marina.
Instead, he was knocked out in Q1.
That follows another crash during practice, this time a spinning crash in FP2 where his SF-23 hit a bump, which sent him into the barrier. Race officials smoothed over the bump in the hours following his incident, but it was little solace for the Ferrari driver.
His results from Saturday will also offer little comfort. Sainz was eliminated in Q1, the first time he failed to advance to Q2 since the 2019 Säo Paulo Grand Prix. That brings to a close the longest such streak on the grid.
Winner: Nico Hülkenberg
While Haas has an outside shot at catching Williams for seventh place in the Constructors’ Championship, every spot in the standings matters. With the team just six points behind Alfa Romeo for ninth place, and nine points behind AlphaTauri for eighth, every single point will matter on Sunday.
So seeing Nico Hülkenberg put the VF-23 into Q3, and qualifying in eighth ahead of Sergio Pérez in the RB19, is a massive result for the team.
In addition, every good performance down the stretch matters as Haas starts development on their challenger for the 2024 season. Results like this one will be huge for the team as they start thinking about their challenger for the next campaign.
Loser: Logan Sargeant
Over the second half of the season, Williams Team Principal James Vowles noted that if Logan Sargeant wanted to keep his seat for a second season, he needed to deliver more consistency.
His Q1 performance was consistent, but for all the wrong reasons.
Sargeant posted a very solid time on his first push lap in Q1, but saw that lap time deleted for exceeding track limits. But the rookie driver still had more time for another push lap, and he turned in a banger, one that put him into P4 when he came across the line.
But it, too, was deleted. Sargeant was eliminated in Q1, having failed to post a lap time.
His seat remains in doubt, even after a tremendous qualifying performance a week ago in Las Vegas. Vowles has asked for consistency, but this is not the kind of consistency that he wanted to see from Sargeant. Not only did Sargeant see both push laps deleted, but he now finishes the season with teammate Alexander Albon having out qualified him in every race this season.
If forced to make a prediction, I believe Sargeant returns for next season. Vowles has stressed patience — both for the team and the rookie driver — all season long. Giving Sargeant a second year would fit with that vision.
However, Sargeant has probably made it a much tougher decision for the team with his form this season.
Winner: Yuki Tsunoda
How about the effort from Yuki Tsunoda!?
Both Tsunoda and Daniel Ricciardo predicted yesterday in AlphaTauri’s post-practice media report that if the team got things right, they had a top-ten car on their hands.
Tsunoda proved that, putting his AT04 into Q3 where he ultimately qualified sixth.
Ahead of Sergio Pérez.
Yes, the headlines write themselves with that factoid. But let’s face it: The speculation surrounding Pérez and his status at Red Bull will certainly linger throughout the offseason, and into 2024, the final year of his deal with the team.
And performances like this from Tsunoda will absolutely keep him in the conversation for that second seat.
Losers: Alfa Romeo
Coming out of the summer break, Alfa Romeo announced a clear goal for the second half of the season.
Seventh place in the Constructors’ Championship.
Unfortunately for the team, they have seen that goal slip away from them over the past few weeks. Not only has Williams pulled away from them in the standings, but they have seen AlphaTauri overtake them as well.
Saturday’s results will make their stated goal of P7 that much tougher to realize. Not only did they see Valtteri Bottas and Zhou Guanyu fail to advance out of Q1, but they saw Yuki Tsunoda and Daniel Ricciardo, as well as Alexander Albon, push into Q2. In addition, while Logan Sargeant had both of his push laps deleted for exceeding track limits, his lap times were good enough to put him ahead of the Alfa Romeo duo as well.
The team had a clear goal, but it is one that seems well out of reach with just 58 laps left in the season.
Winner: Max Verstappen
Another Grand Prix weekend.
Another pole position for Max Verstappen.
We’ve said it before, and we will say it again. 2022 was special from Verstappen.
But this year he has been even better. Even on a week where the door seemed open for someone to challenge him at the front of the field for pole Verstappen, as he has done so many times before, slammed that door shut.