Alpine vs. McLaren: Four points apart in the fight for fourth – The Checkered Flag

Just four points apart going into Summer Shutdown, the closest battle in the constructors’ standings is between BWT Alpine F1 Team and McLaren F1 Team, with both teams vying for fourth place in this year’s championship. 
Both Alpine and McLaren have a significant margin on Alfa Romeo Racing, who sits in sixth, while Mercedes-AMG Petronas F1 Team has transcended the midfield teams, having essentially secured a top three result with their recent performances. With the exception of any huge gains made from teams lower in the standings, it appears that the battle for the “best of the rest” will be fought by the evenly-pegged constructors. 
Alpine, who sits at ninety-nine points as of the Hungarian Grand Prix, and McLaren, with ninety-five, have both shown strengths and weaknesses as the season has developed, each with stand-out results and difficult weekends– Let’s take a look at how the season has panned out so far.
Alpine may have comfortably outperformed McLaren at the season opening Bahrain Grand Prix, but the first handful of races ended up playing out in McLaren’s favour. The early-season Australian Grand Prix and Emilia Romagna Grand Prix were McLaren’s two best performances of the season, giving them a great margin over their rivals.
Lando Norris finished fifth and Daniel Ricciardo finished sixth in Australia, coming off a solid qualifying performance and benefitting from some key retirements from ahead. The team made out with an even bigger haul of points in Imola, as both drivers qualified well and were able to snatch seven points in the sprint, followed by Norris’ first and only podium of the season so far with a third place finish. Ricciardo unfortunately didn’t score any points on Sunday, finishing last after suffering a first lap collision with Carlos Sainz. Ultimately, the team brought home twenty-two points from the Imola Sprint weekend, their largest points result of the season so far. 
Alpine had a slow start when it came to accumulating points in the beginning of the season, particularly due to a string of unlucky races for Fernando Alonso— after Bahrain, he had four race weekends in a row with no points to show for. At the Saudi Arabian Grand Prix, Alonso was on for points before a car failure ended his race. In Australia, the timing of safety cars ruined his strategy and saw him finish last. A first-lap incident saw him retire in Imola, having not taken any points in the sprint either, and two five-second penalties resulted in him dropping out of the points at the Miami Grand Prix
Ocon did earn a handful points in these early races, but not enough to keep up with McLaren, who was leading in points by a considerable margin. In the highlighted orange section in the graph below, the stark difference in early points earnings is clear:
From Miami forward, the teams were performing very similarly, both earning points that kept approximately a twenty point gap between the two. The points totals of each team were increasing at a similar rate, which is visible in the highlighted-grey part of the graph. The lead McLaren had made at the beginning had a lasting impact, and the teams were on about equal stance performance-wise. 
Alpine made its first major stride toward McLaren at the Canadian Grand Prix, where Ocon took sixth and Alonso finished ninth for a total of ten points, whereas McLaren brought home no points. McLaren’s Norris and Ricciardo both had said that they struggled with pace in Montréal, with a slow double-stack pitstop further contributing to their troubles. The gap between the teams narrowed to eight points, and would continue to shrink in the following races– a momentum that can be seen in the blue section of the graph. 
The teams were six points apart after the British Grand Prix and ended up tied for points after the Austrian Grand Prix, with Alpine earning their largest number of points of the season at the Sprint weekend. The team took home fourteen points, with Ocon finishing fifth in the Grand Prix and Alonso taking tenth. There was potential for an even greater result, as Alonso had to contend with another reliability issue that kept him from starting the Sprint– he had to start from the back of the grid as a result. 
Here’s what Alpine Team Principal Otmar Szafnauer had to say after Austria, summing up the team’s aim for the rest of the season:
“By scoring so highly, combined with yesterday’s effort in the Sprint, it means the team is continuing its momentum forwards after delivering some good upgrades at recent events.
“We had some reliability issues this weekend, which means we cannot leave Austria feeling completely satisfied. We must focus on getting on top of these issues so we can have a trouble-free second half of the season.
“We clearly have a quick car, but we must also ensure all operational issues of the team are performing to a high standard, so we continue to score good points with both cars.”
Alpine overtook McLaren in the standings after their home French Grand Prix, and remained ahead as of the Hungarian Grand Prix. Both teams saw great performances during the wet qualifying at the Hungaroring, with Norris qualifying fourth, the Alpines locking out the third row and Ricciardo starting ninth. 
On race day, Norris was unable to hang on to his stellar starting position and ended up finishing seventh, with Alonso finishing just behind in eighth and Ocon in ninth. Ricciardo dropped out of the points, finishing fifteenth after two incidents hindered his race. 
McLaren Team Principal Andreas Seidl said that their newest upgrade put them in a great spot in Hungary, an improvement may show great potential the half of the season:
“With all six cars from the top three teams finishing the race, P7 was the best we could achieve today – and we did it. The upgrade we introduced at Paul Ricard – and improved our understanding of here – put us into position to be the fourth fastest team, which is a great achievement.” 
With Hungary complete, the teams stand just four points apart. With so much of the season left to go after Summer break, there is still plenty of racing to come and the battle is open. If the trend continues as it has, however, it appears that Alpine has the better odds to take fourth, having steadily improved throughout the season and made a great comeback after a tough beginning of the season. 
Both Ocon and Alonso have been very consistent throughout the year, and if they continue to display the same pace, they will be a difficult pair to beat. The main thing that Alpine could face moving forward is further reliability problems, as McLaren has been solid on this front, and any retirements can make a world of difference in a fight this close. 
As far as McLaren’s chances go, a main hindrance for the team will be Ricciardo’s difficulty coming to grips with the MCL36. Norris has scored eighty percent of the team’s points, while Ricciardo has found himself unable to crack the points in over half of this year’s Grands Prix. It will continue to be unclear where the shortcomings fall– whether be it the team, the driver or both– but the loss of points on one side of the garage will have an impact. 
There is still time for the Australian driver to see a turn around of his fortunes, however, as he said after the Hungarian Grand Prix that he will look to return from the break with a “little more speed” after the difficult first half of the season:
“I’m looking forward to the break, of course, and will try to come back with a little more speed in the second half of the year.”
This disparity may be hard to come back from for McLaren, but not certainly not impossible. Considering the unpredictability that this season has fostered, McLaren absolutely has the potential to take back the place, especially if they continue to maximise big opportunities when they come their way. Development is not done with either– if McLaren can continue to improve on the technical side, as seen by the knowledge they gained in Hungary, their chances will only increase.
However the pendulum swings in this battle, it will be an interesting storyline to see though until Abu Dhabi. Which team will you be having your money on?

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