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Esteban Ocon on track during the 2017 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

Yas Marina’s $12 million question

The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix might not be Formula One’s best-loved race, but the sport’s twilight fight in the dessert is inevitably a meaningful one by virtue of its place at the end of the calendar.

Even though Lewis Hamilton and Mercedes long ago claimed the drivers and constructors titles, the Yas Marina Circuit’s coveted ‘season finale’ tag means all loose ends will be tied up this weekend and that F1’s tight midfield battle will reach its unpredictable conclusion in the United Arab Emirates.

Places six, seven and eight on the table may not sound glamorous, but for Toro Rosso, Renault and Haas the fight is all about a handy cash injection as much as pride, with Autosport pegging the difference between P6 and P8 at $US12 million.

Indeed the battle is so tense accusations of sabotage have flown between Toro Rosso and Renault, the latter the engine supplier of the former as well as a chief rival

Consistency has proved key to the competition, with none of the three teams scoring dependably for any period — indeed Williams was for a time part of this pack, but Felipe Massa’s dependable points-scoring and Lance Stroll’s improving if stuttering performances have virtually secured it fifth place, albeit 100 points behind Force India.

So who’s in the box seat to take home the cold, hard cash?

TORO ROSSO — P6, 53 points
Scuderia Toro Rosso started 2017 strongly thanks to a Mercedes-esque interpretation of the regulations and its experience Carlos Sainz-Daniil Kvyat driver pairing, and it held fifth in the standings early in the year.

But the Faenza outfit fell to sixth in round eight and has been unable to recover since, the decline was in equal parts due to Williams’s improving form and Kvyat’s failure to score points in nine consecutive rounds before being dropped. Sainz was forced to do the legwork with an increasingly unreliable Renault power unit before his late-season trade.

Working against the team’s sixth-place goal is that it fields a rookie drive line-up comprising Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley. Though the former has extensive junior experience and the latter is a two-time endurance champion, both are new to F1. Neither has scored so far this season — indeed Kiwi Hartley is yet to finish a race.

Toro Rosso obviously isn’t funded to the same tune as senior team Red Bull Racing, making $12 million a valuable prize, but sixth, only one place lower than team principal Franz Tost’s ongoing expectation of a fifth-place finish in recent years, would also be the team’s best finish since 2008 and be.

RENAULT — P7, 49 points
It’s hard not to think Renault doesn’t belong here. It endured a difficult 2016 with a car not of its own making, and its 2017 design has developed into the midfield’s most effective machine — albeit with two caveats.

The first is the power unit. Though Renault has made great gains in the power stakes, chronic unreliability has forced it to detune the engines to the point of non-competitiveness in recent rounds.

The second culprit is Jolyon Palmer. With the exception Carlos Sainz’s six points in the United States after the Spaniard finally vanquished Palmer, Nico Hülkenberg was responsible for all but eight of the team’s points. If you were to double Hulkenberg’s 40-point pre-Sainz tally alone in lieu of a more capable teammate, the French team would currently sit sixth and only two points behind Williams.
“If you want to build something, you cannot have a big hole somewhere,” Renault advisor Alain Prost said after the team dropped Palmer.

Hülkenberg and Sainz make a formidable combination in what is now arguably the fourth-best package on the grid, but ongoing engine unreliability means Renault fights with one hand behind its back in Abu Dhabi. Is it too late for it to win back some pride?

HAAS — P8, 47 points
Formula One’s all-American team — except for the part based in the UK — has been one of the least reliable constructors of the season. After an impressive 2016 debut that ended with eighth in the constructors standings, Haas had its eye set on going at least one better this year, but its rollercoaster-like performance peaks and troughs have baffled the team and pundits alike.

Consider that Romain Grosjean qualified seventh and finished sixth in Austria, but in Canada, also a power circuit, he was knocked out in Q2 and scraped through to P10 one lap down.

The Frenchman’s perpetual moaning via team radio over all manner of things — but especially over his brakes, a never-ending bugbear of the two-year-old team — is a window into the frustration of a team that doesn’t appear to have a real handle on its car.

Worse, the Yas Marina Circuit’s many 90-degree turns and smooth asphalt tests a car’s low-speed traction, conditions in which the Haas has failed to impress so far this season.

Haas, then, remains the wildcard of the fight. Regular racing conditions would likely see the top four teams occupy the top eight finishing places, leaving just three points on offer for the midfield runners, favouring Toro Rosso’s four-point lead.

But trust Renault to go all-out to ensure it doesn’t embarrassingly finish behind one of its customer teams. Hülkenberg and Sainz make a formidable combination in what is now arguably the fourth-best package on the grid – but ongoing engine unreliability means Renault fights with one hand behind its back.

The only certainty is tension. All bets are off for F1’s season finale in Abu Dhabi.

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