Race Weekend Central

Slipstream Saturdays: Haas of Pain

The most exciting aspect of this year’s Saudi Arabian Grand Prix was, in many ways, a gigantic highlight of what has gone wrong with the current rules package in Formula 1.

Many people will point to Red Bull Racing’s total dominance in the series as the key problem that needs to be solved to make the races exciting again. That’s not a crazy statement, as Red Bull’s run has been particularly dominant, even in a series that tends to have these eras.

What was once hailed as the hallmark of F1 dominance, Ferrari’s 2004 car, the F2004, still lost three of the 16 races it competed in. Compare that to the RB19, Red Bull’s 2023 challenger that only lost a single race out of 22 last season.

But arguably, the issue is more about how many upper-tier teams there are now. Red Bull should at least win every race, but Mercedes, Ferrari, Aston Martin Aramco, and McLaren should all aim to get points every race. And they should all get it by a country mile.

In Saudi Arabia, nine of those 10 drivers finished. Those drivers took the top 9 positions, with the ninth-place finisher, Lewis Hamilton, finishing +47.391s behind the race winner. And yet, 10th finished +76.996s behind the race winner- an almost 30-second gap.

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The gap between Max Verstappen and the highest finishing non-Red Bull driver, Charles Leclerc, in third, was +18.639s in comparison, or almost a full dozen seconds closer.

This wouldn’t be that big of a deal if it weren’t just the top 10 finishers scoring points, but that’s how it is now in F1. Points are just so incredibly hard to come by for the back half of the grid this and last year.

Last season, Williams was 7th in points with just 28 points. In 2018, as an albeit cherry-picked example, Williams would have only placed ahead of themselves with 28 points. Mercedes and Ferrari were well ahead of the rest of the field, but everybody else could get points on a really good day. That’s not the case with sixth on back in team points now.

F1 expanded to 10 finishers getting points starting in 2010 due to less attrition. Back in the early days of grand prix racing, only a handful of cars would finish every race. That wasn’t the case come 2010, and it definitely isn’t the case now.

There were just two drivers who dropped out of a race early in 2024, both coming in Saudi Arabia after everybody finished in Bahrain. It’s clear that there really does need to be more than 10 cars getting points every race in modern F1. These cars are rolling out of the factories bulletproof and with an ever-increasing driving standard in the series.

The best system to me would give the race winner 25 points, 18 to second, and 15 to third, as is the case now. Then, 12 points were dropped to fourth and dropped down in one-point increments per position until the final spot, with 1 given to 15th.

But, I digress. In Saudi Arabia, Lance Stroll binned his Aston Martin on lap six, ensuring that there would be one point up for grabs for whoever finished 10th.

During the safety car, most drivers pitted for hard compound tires. Nico Hulkenberg did not, and he moved up to eighth for the restart. He eventually lost positions to upper-tier team drivers George Russell and Oliver Bearman.

His Haas teammate Kevin Magnussen was among those pitting for hards and came out 13th. Magnussen made an egregiously out-of-bounds pass on Yuki Tsunoda to earn himself a 10-second time penalty.

Before that, however, Magnussen almost drove Alexander Albon off the racetrack while defending his position from the Williams driver, earning himself another 10-second penalty.

Now, it should be stated that what Haas did was very smart. It wasn’t a strategy that should have worked, but they are not wrong for exploiting the issues with the series to their advantage.

Magnussen would spend the rest of the race blocking the train of cars behind him, allowing Hulkenberg to drive far enough up the road that he could pit without falling behind the DRS train.

This strategy ended up landing Hulkenberg in 10th, giving Haas a single point on the season and moving them all the way up to sixth in the constructors standings.

Haas took advantage of three key issues here. The first was that Pirelli either brings butter tires that melt away fast or bricks that can last the whole race. Albon couldn’t undercut Magnussen to get ahead that way because there was no real green flag pit-stop cycle.

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The second was that DRS trains are still a gigantic issue. The two worst cars in the field have been identified as the Haas and the Alpine, and the Alpine of Esteban Ocon spent a lot of that race between Magnussen and Albon in the train. Albon had no real way of getting by Ocon because the Alpine had DRS to its advantage.

The dramatic issues these regulations have with dirty air didn’t exist for the first year of them in 2022. Look at the battle for the lead that year on the same racetrack and how easily the car behind could move past the car in front.

Now, teams have been able to find their downforce back, and dirty air is a problem that has gotten significantly worse. Discourse has gone from debating if DRS should even still be a thing in mid-2022 to if there should be three at every racetrack.

The third and final issue exploited was the one where only 10 drivers got points. Had there been 15 instead, that would have disincentives a situation like this where a driver purposefully threw their race away. This was a battle for 11th on a track that ultimately did not mean much, or nearly as much as Hulkenberg finishing 10th.

I’m not going to deny that wasn’t a thrilling aspect to an otherwise boring race, because it was. But it’s very rare to see an aspect lauded like that and yet also be a pretty good indicator of the major faults F1 finds itself in on the competition side.

About the author

Michael has watched NASCAR for 20 years and regularly covered the sport from 2013-2021. He moved on to Formula 1, IndyCar, and SRX coverage for the site, while still putting a toe in the water from time-to-time back into the NASCAR pool.

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