Mercedes salvaged second in the 2023 Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship by just two points from Ferrari as George Russell‘s podium and Lewis Hamilton‘s ninth got them over the line at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Charles Leclerc did all he could in terms of the result with second place but Carlos Sainz was not on course to finish in the points before he retired with a lap to go.
Without Sergio Perez‘s five-second time penalty, Ferrari and Mercedes would have finished level on points but the Prancing Horses would have been ahead in the standings on countback, thanks to Sainz‘s win in Singapore – the only non-Red Bull victory in 2023 by the way.
Leclerc lets Perez through but executes it wrong
Both Red Bulls pitted much later than the other leading runners, so Perez was flying along on fresh hard tyres in the final 15 laps. He emerged behind Lando Norris, Russell, Leclerc and Verstappen.
Norris didn’t make it easy for Perez and on Lap 47, the pair made contact at Turn 6 as the Red Bull driver dived down the inside and banged wheels with his rival. Norris cut the chicane and kept the place but was overtaken a lap later.
But, Perez was given a five-second time penalty for the collision as he set about attacking Russell, who didn’t make life too difficult.
Russell knew he simply had to finish within five seconds of Perez and Leclerc was also made aware of the penalty.
“As soon as I was aware about the five seconds penalty, basically, I was asking constantly the gap between George and Checo,” Leclerc told the press.
“Then they told me that Checo had passed George, so I knew Checo was behind me and his best chance was obviously to get the DRS from me and try and pull away as much as possible from George.
“So I knew that there was quite a bit of discussion between my engineer and myself and I let him know as well that this was my plan but it didn’t work out.”
Perez was lapping nearly one second quicker than Russell but there were only four laps remaining. Leclerc tried to help Perez by letting him through before Turn 5 on the last lap, but he should have given the Mexican a big slipstream down the backstraight.
It probably wouldn’t have made enough of a difference anyway but it was certainly worth a go. In the end, Russell finished 3.8 seconds behind Perez at the chequered flag.
Leclerc could have been very cheeky
There was a bit more Leclerc could have done though to try and make the gap between Russell and Perez more than five seconds.
Think back to the famous 2021 Abu Dhabi GP for a moment. Ironically, Perez held up Hamilton with an incredible defence in the middle of the race, costing the Mercedes driver around seven seconds from just over one lap.
He parked his car on the apexes and really slowed Hamilton down. Leclerc could have tried something similar on the last lap with Russell, but would have the problem of needing to finish within five seconds of Perez himself while putting Russell more than five seconds behind. It’s something Toto Wolff actually alluded to post-race.
“It was a great end for the fight for P2,” Wolff told Sky Sports F1. “George’s driving was exceptional. I think Charles at the end was sportsmanlike behaviour, not trying to slow down. Two great teams, two great friends that fought to the end.
“I was not stressed. I was stressed once in my life in F1 and that was here [in Abu Dhabi] a couple of years ago. It was a fight for P2. In a way, super positive for us as a team and many employees a reward, but it also reminds you that it’s P2.”
Would those tactics have been fair?
As long as the driving wasn’t dangerous, like Perez in 2021, it was definitely something Leclerc could have tried and it would have made for brilliant viewing.
Sport is about giving it absolutely everything and pushing the rules, so Leclerc should have given it a go. That said, it wasn’t like the title itself was on the line, so maybe it’s a case of saving those tactics for another day.
As for F1 in 2024, Mercedes and Ferrari have an uphill battle to beat Red Bull and they will not want to be fighting for runners-up spot again.