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Formula 1

Does F1’s latest Abu Dhabi decider actually matter?

by Edd Straw
4 min read

Either Charles Leclerc or Sergio Perez – or, if the desperately improbable happens, George Russell – will become only the 19th driver to finish runner-up in the Formula 1 drivers’ championship without ever having won the title today.

It will certainly matter during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix given that it’s the main storyline at the front of the field.

Leclerc goes into the race with the slenderest of margins, level on points with Perez but with three wins to the Red Bull driver’s two to edge it on countback. It’s winner takes all in their personal battle.

For Russell to win, he needs both to fail to score then to personally win and bag fastest lap – the points permutations equivalent of a miracle.

Nobody dreams of finishing second, but taking the runner-up spot will be a personal best for any of the three drivers in the mix and therefore does have value. Racing drivers will always be driven to beat their immediate opposition, so if you can’t be first then second is the next best thing. The same force applies further down the field, as it’s all about beating the next person regardless of what it’s for. Second in the championship, after all, sounds better than third.

Sergio Perez Red Bull Charles Leclerc Ferrari F1

The same applies to teams, with Red Bull gunning for the first 1-2 in the drivers’ championship in its history and willing to deploy team orders to do so. That was proved in Brazil, even though they weren’t heeded, although there are limited scenarios where Max Verstappen could be in a position in Abu Dhabi to help Perez given the points situation.

There are also practical rewards. Most, if not all, drivers will have financial incentives based on championship positions in their contracts, so finishing second rather than third will be a boost for their bank balance. While most are driven primarily by the desire to compete, it would be naive to suppose those who will get a bigger pay day out of being second won’t care about that.

The financial benefit is clear for teams too. Mercedes could yet grab second in the constructors’ championship from Ferrari with the deficit just 19 points. Doing so would not only be an unexpected reward for turning the W13 into a car that, on its day, could win but also direct an extra $11-12million in prize money to Mercedes.

All of these things matter in the moment, but setting aside the more prosaic details of bragging rights and a healthy economic boost, second in the championship doesn’t matter in the grand scheme of things. Yes, it’s an achievement, but not one that is celebrated.

Many F1 fans can reel off the number of titles won by great drivers, but how about second places? You’ll know Sebastian Vettel has four world championships, but how about his runner-up spots? You might be able to count backwards and come up with a number, but ‘three’ won’t instantly spring to mind.

And how much do Ayrton Senna’s two runner-up spots matter? Or Alain Prost’s four? And is anyone investing energy arguing that Michael Schumacher really had three second places rather than the two the record books state (courtesy of his 1997 exclusion) while building a case for his greatness?

Michael Schumacher Ferrari 1997 F1

This is because second is, in the grand scheme of things, a footnote. It’s true that there are celebrated championship defeats, but they are defined not by the fact of being second but by the fact someone else was ahead.

Felipe Massa’s second place in 2008, losing the title to Lewis Hamilton’s late pass on Timo Glock, is rightly celebrated, but it’s for the dramatic way he was defeated and for his great dignity after the race that he’s feted.

Wolfgang von Trips finishing second in 1961 posthumously is a tribute to his tragic end while in contention to win the title, while you could argue that Hamilton’s second place last year is more memorable than some of his title wins because of the unique intensity of the season-long battle. The situation, not the P2 itself, is what’s remembered.

Likewise, Stirling Moss is known as the best driver never to win the world championship, not celebrated for having four runner-up spots. That’s a subtle distinction, an indicator of how close he came, but the frame of reference is failing to be champion, not finishing ahead of someone in third. The same applies to Carlos Reutemann’s infamous Las Vegas failure in 1981, where Nelson Piquet took the title as his main rival faded to eighth.

For those who never win the world championship – and Leclerc, Perez and Russell all aspire to do so – taking runner-up spot is a consolation prize and proof of their ascent close to the pinnacle. But it’s not an end in itself, or anything more than a detail of their career.

Some will be referred to as those who almost won the world championship, but others you would be surprised if reminded they had been runner-up. Second place is an achievement, so not to be sniffed at given precious few drivers ever reach such heights, but it’s really only a consolation prize when it comes to the big picture.

But while second place does matter in some ways, as far as history is concerned the famous quote – versions of which are attributed to multiple different sportspeople but in motor racing to IndyCar legend Bobby Unser – “nobody remembers the guy who finished second but the guy who finished second” definitely applies.

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