Ferrari heads into the Formula 1 season finale in Abu Dhabi not only with the chance to steal second in the constructors’ championship from Mercedes, but also knowing “the momentum is for us”, according to team principal Frederic Vasseur.
Mercedes has led Ferrari in the standings since the start of the season, but has closed the gap to just four points heading into the last race of the season. That’s the smallest it has been since after the first race of the year in Bahrain.
Charles Leclerc’s second place, coupled with Carlos Sainz’s sixth place, took 16 points out of the Mercedes advantage to create something approaching a winner-takes-all scenario at Yas Marina. The track configuration there, largely comprising slow corners with long straights, could favour Ferrari this weekend.
For Ferrari to arguably be the slight favourite heading into the last race to take second underlines how much more consistent the team has become as the season has progressed.
“If you consider that we were 60 points behind them a couple of races ago, we’re on a good path,” said Vasseur after the Las Vegas GP. “Abu Dhabi will be another story, [so] four points is nothing or a lot.
“We were able to perform in Monza, Singapore, Austin, Mexico, this weekend, on different tracks with different weather condition, different [tyre] compounds.
“And we can be more than motivated before Abu Dhabi. The momentum is for us. Let’s see what happens.”
To add some precision to Vasseur’s numbers, the deficit to Mercedes peaked at 56 points after both the Hungarian and Belgian Grands Prix prior to the summer break. Ferrari has taken 41 points out of Mercedes over the last seven races, a run that started with Sainz’s win in the Singapore Grand Prix.
While Red Bull has continued to dominate, Mercedes believed it had made a big step with the floor upgrade introduced at the United States Grand Prix.
However, subsequent events have been disappointing, although in Las Vegas Lewis Hamilton’s puncture after wheel-banging with Oscar Piastri and George Russell’s clash with Max Verstappen denied it a much bigger points haul.
Its trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin rebuffed a question about the season winding down in Mercedes' post-Vegas debrief video stating it's actually winding up "because we’ve got quite a big fight for second in the championship with Ferrari".
"Abu Dhabi is a good circuit, there is a range of corner speeds and very fast, some slow, a lot of mid-speed and the changes that they made to the circuit have actually changed the characteristics of it quite a bit," explains Shovlin.
"The downforce level has now shifted to a lower wing, so faster on the straights. We are hoping that the car will work well there.
"We’ve shown good performance at several of the recent tracks, particularly on the Sunday, the race pace has been good.
"We are hoping to get the car into a good position and then crucially, where it’s not a sprint race, you’ve got three hours of free practice time to work on the set-up to learn about the tyres.
"We are optimistic we can have a strong weekend."
Ferrari, meanwhile, has made quieter progress but appears to have made genuine gains in terms of improving the consistency of the car and mitigating the tyre degradation troubles that blighted it in the first half of the year.
That’s led to fewer occasions where the Ferrari has raced significantly less effective than it qualified, as exemplified by Leclerc being in contention for victory in Las Vegas after starting from pole position, albeit with his hopes dented by the timing of the second safety car.
It's that consistency gain that’s most encouraging for Ferrari. Like Mercedes, architectural changes are promised with next year’s car, which was characterised as “brand new” by Ferrari chassis head Enrico Cardile, but it’s an encouraging sign that it appears to have a good understanding of its current, albeit limited, package.
By comparison, the erratic form of Mercedes perhaps hints that the depth of knowledge about the way the car is behaving is shallower – although it too has major changes planned for next year and could have more inconsistency baked into its current car design.
But while it’s difficult to interpret which of the two finishes ahead as a significant indicator of who will be stronger next year, especially given this battle will only be decided at the last race, it’s always better to finish higher in the championship and does confer a financial advantage.
And rest assured, neither will prefer to finish third because of the slight advantage it will confer in terms of windtunnel/computational fluid dynamics (CFD) aerodynamic testing time in the first six months of 2024. They are too competitive for that.
“We’re going there on pretty much equal points with a proper race director, so it should actually be fine,” said Wolff, who couldn’t resist inserting a caustic reference to the 2021 Abu Dhabi GP.
“It’s all down to the last weekend, they are very quick, they have done a good job. We could have been on par today but the result showed something different, so let’s race.
“To be honest, it’s good to have P2 as a positive to finish the season but P2/P3 for me doesn’t make me particularly cheer anyway. It doesn’t make it better for me.”
However, second is better than third and even though the battle for runner-up spot isn’t going to set Toto Wolff’s pulse racing, it does create a fascinating subplot for a season finale that risks being subdued given the long season and the hangover from a Las Vegas GP weekend reckoned by many to have been one of the most tiring they have experienced in F1.
And while Red Bull’s crushing dominance means that both teams will score less than half the points of the title-winning team, securing second would be a useful boost for either Ferrari or Mercedes heading into a crucial winter.