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Battle for sixth on line between Toro Rosso, Renault, Haas

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With little else to play for this weekend in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix season finale, it’s the battle for sixth place in the Constructor’s Championship that has received a bit more attention than normal as one of the last key items to get decided in the 2017 Formula 1 season.

The top five positions from Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, Force India and Williams are set, before a six-point spread covers Scuderia Toro Rosso (53 points), Renault (49) and Haas F1 Team (47) heading into Sunday’s race. The difference in payout between sixth and eighth is significant, and as such all three teams have extra incentive to end as high as possible.

TORO ROSSO AND RENAULT’S YEAR AS F1’S ODD COUPLE

Somewhat joined at the hip all year, Toro Rosso and Renault have enjoyed a particularly weird year being F1’s “odd couple.”

Carlos Sainz Jr. provided Toro Rosso 48 of its first 52 points, with a fourth place in the Singapore Grand Prix the best result for the team all season.

But that Singapore weekend saw things change substantially on several fronts. At the weekend, the McLaren/Honda divorce was made official, with the Toro Rosso/Honda link-up revealed, and then Sainz confirmed to get loaned by Red Bull to Renault for 2018.

Kvyat then was surprisingly dropped before Malaysia to give Pierre Gasly an opportunity for his F1 debut, and after Japan two weeks later, Jolyon Palmer got himself out of the way by announcing that was his final drive for Renault, clearing the way for Sainz to switch early. Gasly’s Super Formula commitments at Suzuka meant Toro Rosso needed two new drivers for Austin and so Kvyat was reluctantly brought back, and Brendon Hartley made his shock F1 debut after his Red Bull relationship was rekindled.

At Austin, Sainz then provided Renault the team a shot in the arm with seventh place on debut and six crucial points, while Kvyat delivered a 10th place to ensure Toro Rosso got one more point… and then was promptly dropped again.

SPA, BELGIUM – AUGUST 26: Red Bull Racing Team Principal Christian Horner, Red Bull Racing Team Consultant Dr Helmut Marko and Renault Sport F1 Managing Director Cyril Abiteboul talk after qualifying for the Formula One Grand Prix of Belgium at Circuit de Spa-Francorchamps on August 26, 2017 in Spa, Belgium. (Photo by Dan Mullan/Getty Images)

That has set up the drama of the last two race weekends, then, as Toro Rosso has endured the brunt of unreliability from its engine partner Renault in Mexico and Brazil.

The two sides nearly came to blows in a war of words in the Interlagos paddock. Red Bull motorsport advisor Dr. Helmut Marko stepped in to stem the tide, briefly, but the damage has been done.

Such an unusual situation will reach its climax this weekend with Toro Rosso trying to beat its engine partner for sixth place in the constructor’s championship. This would equal the team’s best result (sixth in 2008, with Sebastian Vettel and Sebastien Bourdais) if it holds. But it will have to stave off its former driver, Sainz, at Renault to do so.

“We go to Abu Dhabi aiming to finish this rollercoaster season on a high,” said Cyril Abiteboul, Renault Sport Racing Managing Director, who has both teams to worry about it.

“This race is almost a championship in itself as we are in a tight battle with Toro Rosso and Haas, and everything is still to play for. Either one of us could finish between sixth and eighth position so we are being very careful with our preparations. We will have to combine an approach that is at the same time attacking, as we need five points more than Toro Rosso to get sixth, but also conservative as we are just two points ahead of Haas.”

Renault, the team, feels it has a good chance of overhauling Toro Rosso. Both Sainz and Nico Hulkenberg have delivered double Q3 appearances the last two races in Mexico and Brazil, although they only have a single 10th place (Hulkenberg in Brazil) to show for it.

“We will look at the balance of risk and reward with the aim of maximising our chances of overhauling Toro Rosso for sixth in the Championship. We’ll fight for every point,” said Bob Bell, Renault Chief Technical Officer.

“I get a great sense that the momentum in this team is building for the longer term and that’s what we’re interested in. Clinching sixth in the Constructors’ is important as this team wants to show progress en route to being successful and winning championships. It’s important to feel and build on this momentum.”

Hulkenberg has a solid record in Abu Dhabi, coming sixth, seventh and seventh in the last three races here with Force India.

“The constructors’ championship will go down to the wire for sixth in Abu Dhabi and I’m really relishing the challenge. The track should suit us better than Interlagos. It’s the season finale, there’s plenty at stake and that makes me very excited,” said the German, who holds the record for most Grands Prix started without a podium finish.

“I head to Abu Dhabi hoping to score well. I want to kick back on Sunday night at Yas Marina with the team and celebrate a job well done.”

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL – NOVEMBER 12: Carlos Sainz of Spain driving the (55) Renault Sport Formula One Team Renault RS17 on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 12, 2017 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Sainz, who with 54 points scored is also in the unique position of having scored more points himself than either of his two teams (Toro Rosso 53, Renault 49) all season, thinks the Abu Dhabi track will suit Renault better. Sainz is yet to score at Abu Dhabi in two prior starts (best finish 11th in 2015).

“I left Brazil with a positive mindset as I’m starting to feel at home in the car and we head to Abu Dhabi with confidence and an aim for points. It’s going to be a tight fight in the championship for sixth, but we are ready for the challenge,” Sainz said.

“There’s been a lot to learn but I think we’ve been able to face the challenge in a positive manner. It’s been an education for me to come to a manufacturer team, and there’s been a lot to do because of joining mid-season. I’m still on a steep learning curve with the car so I hope for another step forward in Abu Dhabi.”

TORO ROSSO’S YOUNG GUNS HOPE TO SAVE SIXTH

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL – NOVEMBER 10: Pierre Gasly of France and Scuderia Toro Rosso and Brendon Hartley of New Zealand and Scuderia Toro Rosso walk in the Paddock after practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Brazil at Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace on November 10, 2017 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

For Toro Rosso’s pair, despite the relative lack of F1 experience, the newly re-signed Gasly and Hartley also enter Abu Dhabi with optimism. Gasly sealed the GP2 title here last year while Hartley has track experience there from Porsche LMP1 testing among other outlets, and brings to an end his epic eight-week, seven-country, three-continent, three-series, three-car “Brendon Hartley Boogaloo World Tour.”

“I’m really excited and looking forward to the last race of the season in Abu Dhabi! It’s a track I really like, especially because I have some really good memories from racing there last year, where I won the GP2 Series title. It’s a place that therefore means a lot to me, also because I was on pole position there for the last two GP2 seasons!” Gasly said.

“I will give my very best; we need to really push and keep our sixth position in the constructors’ championship – it’s really important for the team and us drivers, as we want to make sure the team can develop the car as much as we’d like for next year.”

Hartley added, “Wow, what a way to end a year… Abu Dhabi will mark the end of a very busy and surreal few months for me! This will be my fourth Formula 1 Grand Prix of my career and I have to say that I’ve been feeling more and more comfortable in the Toro Rosso F1 car if I compare it to the first time I drove it. I now feel right at home within the team too, which is always a nice feeling to have. Abu Dhabi is a track I have raced and tested on in other categories and I remain optimistic that I can score my first F1 point!”

HAAS WITH OUTSIDE SHOT AT P6, BETTER SHOT AT P7

SHANGHAI, CHINA – APRIL 07: Haas F1 Team Principal Guenther Steiner sits on the pit wall gantry during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of China at Shanghai International Circuit on April 7, 2017 in Shanghai, China. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Haas is the underdog in the battle for sixth, but, at only two points back of Renault for seventh, can still manage to end one spot higher than it did in its debut season – and hit its preseason target of 50 points scored in the process.

Romain Grosjean has a best finish of fourth at Abu Dhabi in 2013 with Lotus, and just missed a point here last year with Haas in its somewhat traditional P11. Teammate Kevin Magnussen has a best finish at Abu Dhabi of, you guessed it, 11th, in 2014 with McLaren. After a miserable Brazil where both cars had incidents on the first lap, there’s nowhere to go but up in Abu Dhabi.

Team principal Guenther Steiner outlined the team’s goals heading into the weekend. Thus far, there’s been 47 points scored in 11 Grands Prix a big uptick on the 29 points scored in five last year.

“I think points tell something, but not everything,” Steiner said. “Even if we race the same teams, there are different levels of performance. I wouldn’t have said we’ve gotten better if we had less points, but looking in from the outside, I think we’ve made progress at all levels. We wanted to better our position, but at this moment in time we are equal, so sure we will try to get better in Abu Dhabi. I was hoping to better our end-of-season position by one spot.

“Absolutely. We will have a go at it. In Brazil, without the two accidents on lap one, I think we’d have had a good chance to get some points. Then again, we didn’t do it, so it’s just ‘if’ and ‘would’. We will, for sure, try hard in Abu Dhabi.”

F1 Preview: 2018 German Grand Prix

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The German Grand Prix continues its biennial presence on the Formula 1 calendar – it’s hosted F1 events in even numbered years since 2014 – as Formula 1 returns to the Hockenheimring this weekend.

The German fans will undoubtedly be joyful in Sebastian Vettel entering his home race in the championship lead, by nine points over Lewis Hamilton. Yet, somewhat surprisingly, Vettel despite being one of the most successful and decorated drivers of his generation, Vettel has won in Germany only once (2013, at the Nurburgring) and he has never won at Hockenheim.

Conversely, Hamilton has won in Germany three times, including twice at Hockenheim (2008 and 2016).

As such, Vettel will hope to add to his points lead over Hamilton with a win on home soil, though Hamilton may be equally as motivated after watching Vettel his own home race at Silverstone two weeks ago.

Nevertheless, their 2018 championship duel will most certainly continue to be closely fought.

Talking points ahead of the German Grand Prix are below.

A Different World in 2018 vs. 2016

Nico Rosberg during the Formula One Grand Prix of Germany at Hockenheimring on July 31, 2016 in Hockenheim, Germany. Photo: Getty Images

The Formula 1 landscape looked completely different back in 2016, the last time Formula 1 visited the Hockenheimring. Bernie Ecclestone was still the chief executive of Formula 1.

Nico Rosberg was partnering Lewis Hamilton in the Mercedes team, and was on his way to a driver’s championship that year.

Vettel and teammate Kimi Raikkonen were in the midst of a slump as Ferrari went winless in 2016.

The world was still getting to know a then 18-year-old Max Verstappen, the young Dutchman having won the Spanish Grand Prix in May that year.

And the cars looked completely different, with skinnier and taller rear wings and taller rear tires highlighting the appearance differences.

In 2018, Vettel and Ferrari might be the strongest combination. Rosberg is long from Mercedes, and Valtteri Bottas is doing his best to shine in the wake of Hamilton’s enormous shadow.

Verstappen is still a rising star, though he has come under fire at times for overly aggressive driving and his Red Bull teammate Daniel Ricciardo has garnered more headlines this year, with a pair of race wins alongside his status as an F1 free agent after 2018.

In short, the Formula 1 landscape is hardly recognizable from what it was back in 2016. And even though Hamilton won that year, followed by Ricciardo and Verstappen in second and third, very little will carry over from that race two years ago.

Hamilton, Mercedes Look to Take Back Momentum from Vettel, Ferrari

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – JULY 08: Lewis Hamilton of Great Britain driving the (44) Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team Mercedes WO9 leads Sebastian Vettel of Germany driving the (5) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 8, 2018 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Charles Coates/Getty Images)

The seesaw championship fight has tilted back in the favor of Ferrari, with Vettel leading Hamilton after finishes of third and first in Austria and England. Hamilton, meanwhile, DNF’ed in Austria and came home second in England after spinning on Lap 1.

Hamilton trails by nine points, but this is hardly an unfamiliar position for Hamilton in 2018 – he started the year trailing Vettel until he took the championship lead for the first time after the Azerbaijan Grand Prix.

Both teams have had multiple swings of momentum this year – Vettel won the opening two races before finishes of eighth in China (he spun after contact with Verstappen) and a pair of fourth place efforts in Azerbaijan and Spain before getting two more wins in Canada and England.

Hamilton, meanwhile stumbled out of the gates somewhat with finishes of second and third before taking a fortuitous win in Azerbaijan and two dominant wins in Spain and France before the misfortune in Austria.

All told the ebb and flow of the 2018 season seems to change with every race, and while Vettel now leads Hamilton again, things could change this weekend.

Raikkonen Trying to Fend off Ricciardo, Bottas

NORTHAMPTON, ENGLAND – JULY 06: Kimi Raikkonen of Finland driving the (7) Scuderia Ferrari SF71H on track during practice for the Formula One Grand Prix of Great Britain at Silverstone on July 6, 2018 in Northampton, England. (Photo by Mark Thompson/Getty Images)

Kimi Raikkonen is somewhat of a forgotten man this Formula 1 season, but he does rank third in the championship at the moment, 10 points ahead of Ricciardo and 12 points ahead of Bottas.

However, both Ricciardo and Bottas are likely thought to have had better seasons – Ricciardo has the aforementioned wins (at China and Monaco) and the only thing that has kept Bottas from the top step of the podium is a string of horrendous luck.

However, Raikkonen, to his credit, has picked up the pieces whenever others around him have faltered, and he has six podium finishes through 10 races.

However, in order to fully silence any critics, and maybe even keep his Ferrari drive, Raikkonen would do well to get a win in 2018.

Misc.

  • The driver challenging Raikkonen’s position within Ferrari is Sauber’s Charles Leclerc. The Ferrari junior driver has five points finishes, and that could have been six if not for a pit stop error at Silverstone that caused him to leave his pit stall with a loose wheel – it forced him to retire. Leclerc’s star is on the rise, and he could shine again in Germany.
  • Nico Hulkenberg is the “other” German driver on the grid. And though he has a 24 Hours of Le Mans win to his name, he is yet to finish on the podium in an F1 race. The Renault package may not be a podium threat in usual circumstances, but if he stays clean and others falter, he could sneak in there…and doing so in his home race would make that overdue podium even sweeter.
  • After a pair of eighth place finishes, Fernando Alonso has helped McLaren at least stop the bleeding after a dismal stretch of races from Monaco through France in which the team scored zero points. However, the team still has a long way to go, and Germany could be another weekend of struggles.

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