The al­ter­na­tive world cham­pi­onship

It wasn’t quite a last-round show­down, but Au­tosport’s imag­ined Class B ti­tle fight be­tween a mul­ti­tude of driv­ers and teams was a thriller

Autosport (UK) - - CONTENTS - Edd Straw

Nine win­ning driv­ers, six vic­to­ri­ous teams, half a dozen cham­pi­onship con­tenders and no way of know­ing who would lead the way on any given race week­end. For­mula 1’s un­of­fi­cial ‘Class B’ cham­pi­onship, com­pris­ing the seven teams out­side the big three that duked it out in the mid­field, cre­ated a dra­matic, if dis­con­nected, sub­plot dur­ing the 2018 sea­son.

Had it been the bat­tle for out­right vic­tory, this would have gone down as an all-time clas­sic sea­son, even though ‘cham­pion’ Nico Hulken­berg clinched the ti­tle with a race to spare when you re­shape the sea­son with Mercedes, Fer­rari and Red Bull elim­i­nated. For the pur­poses of this story all re­sults re­flect a re­vised clas­si­fi­ca­tion for each race dis­re­gard­ing those ‘big three’ teams, in an era that has an un­usu­ally dis­tinct chasm be­tween the lead group and the rest. While the seven pro­tag­o­nists – Re­nault, Haas, (Rac­ing Point) Force In­dia, Toro Rosso, Mclaren, Sauber and Wil­liams – rep­re­sent a wide range of team sizes, they had one thing in com­mon. All were in a group that was dis­con­nected from the top three, with an av­er­age qual­i­fy­ing deficit of around 1.5 sec­onds from pole po­si­tion to the best of our Class B run­ners. Hulken­berg took six mid­field vic­to­ries, win­ning the

crown by eight points from Re­nault team-mate Car­los Sainz Jr. He sealed the ti­tle in the Brazil­ian Grand Prix, de­spite re­tir­ing from the race, crown­ing his strong­est sea­son in terms of po­si­tion in the real world cham­pi­onship, in which he fin­ished sev­enth.

“I’m driv­ing pretty well this year,” said Hulken­berg. “There have been a few in­stances when maybe not, but if you look at the big­ger pic­ture – the whole sea­son – I’ve been driv­ing well and hav­ing solid races. And that’s why I find my­self in this po­si­tion. It doesn’t re­ally sat­isfy me enough, but you have to take the best you can achieve. And I think that’s the best I could have achieved this year with the cur­rent pack­age and car that we have. Our tar­get for the fu­ture is to get closer to the front, but for this year – apart from a few week­ends – we’ve cap­i­talised on what we have.”

But Hulken­berg’s charge to the Class B ti­tle was far from straight­for­ward. Early in the sea­son, Mclaren driver Fer­nando Alonso led the way off the back of a for­tu­itous vic­tory in the Aus­tralian GP. Alonso owed that win to the Haas team’s pit­stop blun­ders, which first re­moved Class B leader Kevin Mag­nussen and then Ro­main Gros­jean, who stopped on track, lead­ing to the de­ploy­ment of the vir­tual safety car. Hulken­berg pit­ted at the same time as Gros­jean, al­low­ing Alonso to take a cheap stop and jump to the front of the mid­field ahead of Hulken­berg.

There are two ways to look at Haas’s 2018 cam­paign. One was that it had, on av­er­age, the fourth-fastest car and failed to trans­late that ei­ther into ‘Class B’ vic­tory or best-of-the-rest in the con­struc­tors’ cham­pi­onship. The other is that Haas is in only its third sea­son and emerged as a con­sis­tently strong force to beat a clutch of bet­ter-es­tab­lished teams.

Haas ended up 29 ‘real’ points be­hind Re­nault, and it’s not dif­fi­cult to find the ‘miss­ing’ points. From the first race of the sea­son, when both cars re­tired thanks to cross-threaded wheel­nuts cost­ing a likely fifth and sixth place, there were too many missed op­por­tu­ni­ties. Ro­main Gros­jean’s litany of er­rors early in the sea­son, no­tably crash­ing un­der the safety car while run­ning sixth in Azer­bai­jan, were also costly, while early in the sea­son aero parts had a habit of shak­ing them­selves to pieces.

“It was our own fault that we didn’t fin­ish fourth,” says team prin­ci­pal Gun­ther Steiner. “It’s part of the learn­ing process we’re in as a team. To fin­ish fifth, and the first of the pri­va­teers, as we call it, is great. We could have been fourth but ‘could’ doesn’t give you any­thing, so I’ve de­cided to be happy with fifth.”

He’s right to be, con­sid­er­ing how rare it is for a new team to climb so high, so quickly. And Haas, which has log­i­cally cap­i­talised on a part­ner­ship with Fer­rari to use as many of the so-called ‘non-listed parts’ as pos­si­ble so it can fo­cus on per­for­mance devel­op­ment in har­ness with Dal­lara, has proved its met­tle. The car was quick from pre-sea­son test­ing, and al­though there was the odd bad week­end, the er­ratic form of its first two sea­sons was elim­i­nated.

“Our abil­ity has taken a big step in the last 18 months,” says Haas head of aero­dy­nam­ics Ben Agath­angelou. “Pur­su­ing goals of car be­hav­iour, aero-map be­hav­iour in dif­fer­ent parts of the ve­hi­cle en­ve­lope, has been a lot more eas­ily achieved. Maybe we had the ideas two years ago but we couldn’t re­ally ex­e­cute them. It’s all about ma­tu­rity of pro­cesses and peo­ple that al­low you to be more pro­duc­tive.”

Pierre Gasly’s shock Bahrain vic­tory, which came from nowhere after Toro Rosso strug­gled in Aus­tralia, was one of two tri­umphs for the rookie. He also won com­fort­ably in Hun­gary, but was never con­sis­tent enough to be in the ti­tle hunt.

Hulken­berg took his first win in the third round of the sea­son in China with a dom­i­nant per­for­mance, hit­ting the top of the points ta­ble for the first time. But for the sec­ond con­sec­u­tive year he crashed out of the Azer­bai­jan GP, and Alonso’s heroic drive to fourth in a heav­ily dam­aged car al­lowed him to re­take the lead. Hulken­berg was then wiped out at the start in Spain by Gros­jean’s Turn 3 spin, leav­ing Mag­nussen a clear run to vic­tory. Alonso’s third place ex­tended his lead to 15 points over Sainz.

Alonso’s con­sis­tency al­lowed him to still lead de­spite re­tir­ing from the Monaco GP. Este­ban Ocon won in Monte Carlo –

Force In­dia’s sec­ond vic­tory of the year after Ser­gio Perez’s tri­umph in Baku – with Hulken­berg in third.

Hulken­berg’s sec­ond vic­tory of the sea­son came in Canada, where Re­nault dom­i­nated and Sainz backed him up in sec­ond place. But al­though Sainz then took the cham­pi­onship lead by two points in the fol­low­ing French GP thanks to a sec­ond place ahead of Hulken­berg, it was ac­tu­ally a missed op­por­tu­nity.

Sainz had ut­terly dom­i­nated, but an MGU-K fail­ure in the clos­ing stages meant he dropped be­hind Mag­nussen.

Mag­nussen’s sec­ond place in Aus­tria be­hind Gros­jean, who had en­sured he wouldn’t be a ti­tle con­tender by only pick­ing up three points in the first six races, drew him to just six points be­hind leader Sainz after a dis­as­trous week­end for Re­nault. Hulken­berg re­tired with an en­gine fail­ure, while Sainz’s race started promis­ingly, but he man­aged only ninth in class thanks to tyre-degra­da­tion prob­lems.

The next two races were crit­i­cal to Hulken­berg’s sea­son. At Sil­ver­stone, he led the first stint but was set to be un­der­cut by Charles Le­clerc when an un­safe re­lease forced the Sauber driver to stop. Sainz’s col­li­sion at Copse with Gros­jean put him out, and al­lowed Hulken­berg to take a 15-point lead over Mag­nussen, who sur­vived his own clash with Gros­jean to fin­ish fourth.

Mag­nussen looked set to close the gap in the Ger­man GP be­fore the rain came and he started to strug­gle, which al­lowed Hulken­berg to pass him for the lead. Mag­nussen then faded to sev­enth, with Gros­jean and Perez com­ing through to com­plete the podium. Eleven races down, Hulken­berg had a 34-point lead over Mag­nussen, and Sainz was a fur­ther eight points back. But he went into the Au­gust break with that ad­van­tage cut to 22 points in Hun­gary thanks to Mag­nussen fol­low­ing dom­i­nant win­ner Gasly home.

Force In­dia driv­ers Ocon and Perez were close enough to po­ten­tially get in the hunt, but it was in the races im­me­di­ately after the break that both hit form. In the re­born Rac­ing Point Force In­dia team, they took a pair of one-two fin­ishes at Spa and Monza, with Perez win­ning in Bel­gium and Ocon in Italy, while Hulken­berg man­aged a pal­try four points. The Re­nault star’s mis­take at the start at Spa, where he locked up and booted Alonso into Le­clerc’s Sauber, was par­tic­u­larly costly. Al­though Alonso hit back by win­ning in Sin­ga­pore, it was Mclaren’s fi­nal vic­tory of the sea­son and he was only a pe­riph­eral fig­ure in the ti­tle fight to the end of the sea­son.

Sainz’s sec­ond place in Sin­ga­pore, which fol­lowed third at Monza, meant Hulken­berg’s lead was down to 13 points, with Mag­nussen 26 down and the Force In­dias just be­hind. But the pink cars’ mo­men­tum had been slowed when Perez hit Ocon in Sin­ga­pore,

“Pierre Gasly’s shock Bahrain vic­tory came from nowhere after Toro Rosso strug­gled in Aus­tralia”

“It’s been re­ally in­tense. Since day one, tenths make a big dif­fer­ence to your week­end”

then had strug­gles with Sergey Sirotkin.

Mag­nussen’s hopes were hit at Sochi – de­spite Hulken­berg strug­gling to sixth and Sainz 11th – when he was passed by even­tual vic­tor Le­clerc early on. That sec­ond place moved the Dane ahead of Sainz and to within 16 points of Hulken­berg. But after a sen­sa­tional pass around the out­side of Le­clerc at Suzuka’s 130R, Mag­nussen’s fool­ish de­fend­ing put him out of the race when he made con­tact with Le­clerc. It also meant the Haas driver couldn’t cap­i­talise on a poor week­end for Hulken­berg, who re­tired thanks to be­ing out of out­right points con­tention (eu­phemisti­cally de­scribed by the Re­nault team as a prob­lem with the rear, which ac­tu­ally meant a prob­lem with be­ing at the rear of the race!). Perez won after pass­ing Gros­jean – who was mirac­u­lous on his way to sec­ond de­spite the rear-left wheel hav­ing a dan­ger­ous amount of play in it – to close to six points off Hulken­berg, while Ocon’s third place meant he was only one point fur­ther back. Re­nault’s poor form meant that the smart money was now on one of the two Force In­dias, or Mag­nussen, to take the ti­tle.

Then came Re­nault’s resur­gence at Austin – Hulken­berg and Sainz took a one-two ahead of Perez to steady the ship. But Perez then looked set to close to eight points off Hulken­berg by beat­ing him to vic­tory in Mex­ico. Al­though Hulken­berg qual­i­fied on pole po­si­tion, with Perez only sev­enth, the Re­nault driver was locked in to start­ing on the hy­per­soft Pirellis. Perez ran longer after start­ing on su­per­softs when brake prob­lems hit on lap 32. After strug­gling on for a cou­ple of laps, he re­tired fol­low­ing a caliper fail­ure. Hulken­berg built a 41-point lead as a re­sult, mean­ing the ti­tle fight was as good as done.

“It’s been re­ally in­tense,” said Perez after his home race. “Since day one, tenths make a big dif­fer­ence to your week­end. I should be re­ally close to Hulken­berg now, but when you have a race like I’ve had, and Nico has scored so many points, it’s very hard.”

Hulken­berg sealed the ti­tle de­spite re­tir­ing with over­heat­ing prob­lems at In­ter­la­gos. While Perez, Sainz and Ocon were all still in math­e­mat­i­cal con­tention head­ing into the race, Le­clerc’s win from the dam­aged Haas of Gros­jean pre­vented any of this trio scor­ing big points. So when Gros­jean booted Hulken­berg into a roll in Abu Dhabi, it didn’t mat­ter be­cause the Ger­man had al­ready made sure he’d win the ti­tle by eight points.

Le­clerc led that race ini­tially, but stopped early and al­lowed Sainz to run long after start­ing on ul­tra­softs. Sainz’s pace late in his stint was strong enough to al­low him to pit and re­join ahead of the Sauber to take what was his only vic­tory of the year. It was a just re­ward for Sainz – who’d had the French GP in the bag be­fore los­ing the MGU-K, and was also set to win in Mex­ico be­fore an en­gine shut­down – and gave him sec­ond in the cham­pi­onship.

The gap to Hulken­berg was flat­ter­ing, as the cham­pion had seven re­tire­ments, al­though two of those were down to his mis­takes, but Sainz was a con­sis­tent per­former who also took six sec­ond places and de­served his late-sea­son suc­cess.

Sainz, along with the Force In­dia driv­ers and Mag­nussen, all have rea­son to re­gret not win­ning the mid­field bat­tle. But ul­ti­mately Hulken­berg had more sus­tained peaks than any of his ri­vals, as the fi­nal vic­tory tally of six proves. Be­hind the top five, Le­clerc’s late-sea­son run of suc­cess, with a win and a pair of sec­onds in the fi­nal three races, al­lowed him to pip Alonso to sixth in the stand­ings.

With an un­pre­dictable bat­tle and so many ti­tle con­tenders, you can’t help but won­der what it would be like if the front of the field was as hard-fought as the mid­field was in 2018.

Re­nault had a clear ob­jec­tive in 2018 – to fin­ish fourth in the con­struc­tors’ cham­pi­onship in the third sea­son of its re­turn as a works team. It achieved this aim, but it wasn’t easy given the prodi­gious pace of the Haas – on av­er­age the faster car, al­beit only by 0.167% – and the strength of Rac­ing Point Force In­dia in its two in­car­na­tions.

That Hulken­berg won the ‘Class B’ crown and Re­nault the equiv­a­lent con­struc­tors’ ti­tle con­firms this was a strong sea­son and a for­mi­da­ble test of the team’s met­tle, con­sid­er­ing how close things were.

“We can say we reached the main tar­get,” says Re­nault team prin­ci­pal Cyril Abite­boul. “We had set our­selves to dou­ble the to­tal of points, which we’ve done by a mar­gin, and se­condly to im­prove the cham­pi­onship po­si­tion for both driv­ers and teams. That’s a box that is ticked with the team in P4, so there’s no doubt about our po­si­tion.

“I’m happy for the driv­ers as well – P7 for Nico is well de­served – but a bit dis­ap­pointed that we let Car­los down a lit­tle bit on a cou­ple of oc­ca­sions with re­li­a­bil­ity is­sues that cost him di­rect points; I’m think­ing Paul Ri­card and also Mex­ico.”

The Re­nault was gen­er­ally strong in slower cor­ners, al­though did some­times strug­gle for sta­bil­ity in medium and fast turns. But the down­side was that the gap to the front wasn’t closed by as much as the team had hoped – it was pretty much iden­ti­cal to last year. On race day the en­gine was much more com­pet­i­tive, and the main weak­ness was the lack of spe­cial qual­i­fy­ing modes.

“If we look at the race, we al­ways see that the Re­nault-pow­ered cars look more com­pet­i­tive on Sun­day than Satur­day,” says en­gine tech­ni­cal di­rec­tor Remi Taf­fin. “It’s a mat­ter of how you de­velop the en­gine and how much you can take out of it. Maybe we paid too much at­ten­tion to what we would de­velop for rac­ing, but not that much em­pha­sis on what could be done for Satur­day.”

Steiner (l) happy to be “first of the pri­va­teers”; Gros­jean’s early mis­takes were costly

Le­clerc took first of two Class B vic­to­ries at Sochi

Hass blun­ders left the door open for Alonso to tri­umph on Oz Perez’s drive to Class B vic­tory in Baku was good enough for ac­tual podium In the pink: Ocon was a dom­i­nant win­ner on Monaco streets Hun­gary win­ner Gasly did not have ti­tle-bid con­sis­tency

Gros­jean lead home a Haas one-two in Aus­tria (and was a ‘real’ fourth) Mag­nussen won twice, here at Barcelona and in France Gasly and Toro Rosso boss Franz Tost share their de­light in Bahrain En­gine king­pin Taf­fin ac­knowl­edges Re­nault’s Satur­day-pace short­fall

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