“It might be tempting to think that with both championships now secure the pressure is off,” Mercedes boss Toto Wolff said ahead of the Brazilian Grand Prix. “But that couldn’t be further from the truth.”
It would be tempting to hit snooze and sleep through the Brazilian Grand Prix and its 3am AEDT start time, but it and the finale in Abu Dhabi are more than mere dead rubber races padding out the 2017 season — indeed the weight of significance of these two rounds spans this season and the next, and for three very good reasons.
An obvious source of meaning springs from that half the field is still fighting for position, and championship places translate to prize money for the teams.
The most important fights for position are between Williams, Toro Rosso, Renault and Haas from places five to eight. Williams is close to secure 23 points ahead of the rest, but just six points separate the remaining three contenders.
“A goal would be to finish better than last year — which would be seventh — at least,” Haas principal Gunther Steiner said, and Romain Grosjean believes there’s an opportunity to pull it off.
“Toro Rosso is the one we can try to go for,” he said. “They’re not performing better than we are, and they’ve got less experience amongst their drivers, so that should help us.”
There are driver battles, too, carrying a great deal of significance. Valtteri Bottas will win more Mercedes attention in his efforts to overhaul Sebastian Vettel’s 15-point lead for second place and thereby completing the team’s fourth consecutive one-two finish.
But perhaps most mouth-watering duel will be Force India’s intra-team battle between Sergio Perez, seventh on 92 points, and teammate Esteban Ocon, one place and nine points further back.
Team orders have muzzled the pair since the Mexican and Frenchman fell out after a series of on-track comings-together, but with fourth place now secured for Force India, management has promised to allow its charges to race amongst themselves. Expect fireworks.
Pride will naturally play a part in the season’s final proceedings, and in particular keep an eye on Ferrari and Red Bull Racing, both of which have points to prove in yet another largely fruitless season for the runners-up.
Ferrari may have finished a strong second in the team standings, but Red Bull Racing is closing the season strongly enough to overshadow the achievement. The Milton Keynes squad has won two of the last four grands prix; Ferrari hasn’t won a race since July. Both will want to end 2017 on a high.
Max Verstappen, always one to watch, should be expected to fire particularly strongly as he attempts to make up for a season of seven failures to finish (so far). The 20-year-old had a stand-out race in the wet this time last year as he threatened to complicate Nico Rosberg’s march to championship glory, and his car’s pace is such that victory cannot be discounted for the rest of the year.
Bottas, too, has much work to do to repair his reputation after his impressive opening to the year descended into lukewarm form at best since August.
“Valtteri made a promising step forward in Mexico and will aim to build from this at Interlagos,” Wolff said, and with both the Finn and Daniel Ricciardo free agents next season, Bottas will surely be feeling the pressure to perform sooner rather than later.
“If I was to sit back now and just relax and let someone else take the glory, sure it would be nice for other people,” freshly crowned champion Lewis Hamilton said in Brazil. “But that is not what I am about.”
Lewis Hamilton should know this as well as anyone: his championship hangover in the final three grands prix of 2015 fed directly into his five consecutive winless rounds in the following season, which set him up for title defeat in the 2016 finale in Abu Dhabi. The offseason may last for three months, but momentum is everything in Formula One.
It’s not only Hamilton, either — his Mercedes team is already earmarking practice in both Brazil and Abu Dhabi as opportunities to test experimental parts ahead of their 2018 debut, as is Force India. Williams has long switch off development for its 2017 car in favour of 2018, and Renault is focussing on completely overhauling its 2017 challenger in search of an even bigger leap in performance by the Australian Grand Prix.
“With the championship now settled, the battle for 2018 has already begun,” Toto Wolff said, laying down the gauntlet. “We are looking at the next two race weekends as the first two grands prix of 2018.”
The fight for 2017’s silverware might be done and dusted, but the war for performance and advantage never really ends in Formula One.