One championship battle is gripping grand prix fans above all others this season, so much so that it feels almost patronising to mention that it involves guys named Rosberg and Hamilton.
On the constructors’ front, the biggest prize is a near-cert for their all-conquering Mercedes team. Much has also been made of Williams’ scrap over third with Ferrari, with the Grove-based squad enjoying a return to form while the Italians appear on the verge of crisis.
But there is another fascinating inter-team battle taking place between McLaren and Force India, who currently sit fifth and sixth respectively in the standings - separated by a single point.
Last weekend’s Italian Grand Prix kept things very tight between them. Sergio Perez took seventh place and six points for Force India, while team-mate Nico Hulkenberg endured an unusually poor weekend to finish 12th. On the McLaren side, Jenson Button finished eighth and Kevin Magnussen was classified 10th after being hit with a penalty that dropped him from seventh on the road. That gave McLaren a combined five points, resulting in a single point swing to Force India.
These are very different teams: McLaren have a vast history littered with silverware, while Force India are a young outfit with just two podiums to their name; the former is led by the ultra-corporate Ron Dennis and race in subtle silver, the latter by the flamboyant Vijay Mallya with cars painted bright orange and green. However they do share one very important common component: both are powered by the class-of-the-field Mercedes PU106A Hybrid engine. And that adds a little more spice to their duel.
With almost no scope to move further up or drop down, both are solely focussed on securing fifth in the standings. For Mallya’s squad it would represent an all-time best constructors’ championship finish, bettering the sixth-place they recorded last season and in 2011. That would confirm their progress up the grid and fully justify the wholesale driver change that saw Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil ditched in favour of Hulkenberg and Perez.
It would also be financially beneficial to secure a higher championship placing. It is worth noting that Mallya was recently declared ‘a wilful defaulter’ by the United Bank of India, along with his fellow directors at Kingfisher Airlines. In laymen’s terms, that is someone who intentionally fails to honour their debt commitments to lenders; it puts his assets in India and status as a company director in jeopardy. How, if indeed at all, this will affect the team’s fortunes remains to be seen, but clearly he won’t want to miss out on any available F1 prize money.
For McLaren taking fifth would perhaps be more about saving face. Significant management changes and the fact that they are switching to Honda power for next year means that 2014 was always going to be a transitional season.
Nevertheless, for a team that prides itself on advanced engineering as McLaren does, it would be humiliating to finish as the lowest-placed Mercedes squad. It would confirm that their car is fundamentally undeperforming, and result in a worst constructors’ finish since 1981. Never mind the fact that they have been trounced by the factory Mercedes team and old rivals Williams, which is acceptable to Force India but not to a powerhouse like McLaren. They can take the odd financial hit, but the effect slumping to sixth might have on morale is significant.
Perez is well placed to evaluate the teams’ relative strengths having raced for McLaren in 2013 before switching to Force India this term. Of course his words must be taken with some caution, as he is naturally going to favour his current employers over the team who fired him 12 months ago.
"All of the engineers [at Force India] are top class - the same level as McLaren, and McLaren is rated as having probably the best engineers in the sport,” the Mexican said last month, adding that “things are a lot more simple," at his new team.
"They focus purely on performance and everyone is [always] trying to maximise everything,” he told Autosport. This is perhaps a nod towards the famously corporate and closed ethos found at McLaren, which is believed to have played a role in Lewis Hamilton’s departure two years ago. That said, it is the same ethos that has helped the team collect 20 World Championship trophies.
It is difficult to pick an eventual winner in a contest this tight. McLaren have more extensive engineering expertise and a more significant budget to support their development throughout the final flyaway races. However with Honda coming on board next season they may be forced to end their 2014 push earlier than Force India.
In terms of drivers the teams are evenly matched. Hulkenberg is probably the pick of the bunch at the moment, and combined with the often fast (but sometimes erratic) Perez forms a formidable lineup. However Button has vast experience and continues to pick up results, while Magnussen has looked increasingly at home in Formula 1 of late. His recent penalties have been costly, but the team have made encouraging sounds about his progress. Parachuting the 21-year-old rookie in to replace Perez is looking an increasingly shrewd move.
Regardless of which prevails, watching these two very different teams battle for fifth should provide an excellent subplot to what already promises to be an unforgettable conclusion to the season.