2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (Yas Marina, Round 19, November 14th)

Abu Dhabi track layout. © FIA

The 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix may have been a frustrating watch, but it was certainly a tense affair.

On one hand, Sebastian Vettel drove the absolutely perfect race to win at the Yas Marina circuit and become the youngest ever Formula 1 World Champion, but Ferrari did their best to make it easy for the 23-year-old. Indeed, one could argue that Fernando Alonso’s battle was lost before the erroneous pitstop.

The Spaniard had qualified 3rd, but lost that position off the line as McLaren’s Jenson Button shot passed him – meanwhile Vettel made a good start from pole, keeping 2008 World Champion Lewis Hamilton behind him. As for the other title contender, Mark Webber had qualified in Red Bull in 5th …and stayed there.

A frightening start.
Things were not so clear-cut for Michael Schumacher. The Mercedes driver found himself squeezed to the outside of turn 5 by Nico Rosberg, causing the veteran to spin on his own. The German driver faced oncoming traffic, until the worst happened and Force India’s Vitantonio Liuzzi hit Schumacher head on in a terrifying accident. Safety car. Upon reflection, Schumacher told the media:

“I went off the line, spun and because of the dirt there, the back of the car just came around. It’s a shame obviously as I would have liked to finish the season with a more positive ending but I am already looking forward to fighting again next year.”

For a moment, it was difficult to tell the outcome as shards of metal and carbon fibre littered Schumacher’s sight line, compounded further by a stray wheel that nearly found its way into the Mercedes cockpit. A scary situation and a reminder of how exposed the drivers are in open cockpit racing. Thankfully both were unhurt. With the field bunched up Rosberg, Vitaly Petrov (Renault), Lucas di Grassi (Virgin), Jaime Alguersuari (Toro Rosso) and both Hispania Racing cars use this time to pit for new tyres. For Alonso, the rejigged strategy for Rosberg and Petrov would soon wreck his day.

The safety car came back in at the start of lap six with Vettel still heading Hamilton, Button, Alonso, Webber and the second Ferrari of Felipe Massa in 6th. While the leading group were certainly static, those behind making the best of the conditions while the pack was still together – indeed it allowed Kubica to take 9th from Sutil and for Kobayashi to bonsai Barrichello for 7th, only for the Brazilian to fight back and repass the Sauber moments later.
Meanwhile Nico Rosberg – misplaced by his pitstop – sliced his way through the new teams with ease before ten laps had been completed.  Next up was the Williams of Nico Hulkenberg. It had not been a good weekend for Hulkenberg – having secured pole position last week at Interlagos, the 23-year-old was sadly mute at the Yas Marina circuit as he struggled in his Cosworth-powered machine. It showed as Rosberg forced a way through very quickly leaving him sitting in 13th.

Bad calls and strategic errors.
Webber on the other hand, couldn’t find a way around Alonso’s Ferrari – if anything; Alonso had pulled away ever so slightly. With little to lose, the Australian played the strategy card and pitted on lap 12.
Suddenly, a reaction. Spooked by Webber’s stop, Ferrari team strategists called in Massa two laps later and then Alonso on lap 16 – in doing so took their eyes off the ball in dramatic style. Both Webber and Massa found themselves trapped for a time behind Alguersuari with only Webber being allowed to pass the Toro Rosso driver – life would be tougher for Massa, as he would forced to stare at Alguersuari’s rear wing for the duration. More important was that both Rosberg and Petrov had jumped Alonso, leaving the Ferrari outside of the top ten and in trouble.
It would the beginning of a battle that Alonso was never going to win and with him losing nearly a second per lap behind the Russian, the title was slipping away.

The next title contender to stop was Lewis Hamilton on lap 24 with Vettel pitting one lap later, giving Button a temporary lead. Whereas Kamui Kobayashi almost threw himself off the road to let Vettel by, Hamilton would soon find himself locked up behind Robert Kubica’s Renault. Having started all the way down in 11th, the long running Pole had brought himself into a significant position and wasn’t about to let Hamilton pass.
Kubica wasn’t holding back though. Keen to get by Kobayashi, the Pole tried a tough move around the outside at the end of the longest straight in Formula 1, but to no avail. However, with a stumbling Kobayashi coaxing his struggling Sauber onto the next straight, Kubica was able take both the advantage and 3rd place. Within a lap, Hamilton had relegated Kobayashi a further position and set up the Renault just ahead.

While Hamilton pressed one Renault, Alonso was pressurising the other – neither were relenting and as each lapped passed, both were getting frustrated and desperate. With 40 laps down, Button finally stopped for fresh tyres, giving the lead back to Vettel, with the Kubica and Hamilton battle further behind – the 2009 Champion emerged in 4th – a further nail in Alonso’s Championship chances.  Alonso was not the only driver experiencing mid-race woes though – while not battling for any sort of championship, Timo Glock’s race was nailed on lap 44. The Virgin racing driver became the race’s third retirement when a gearbox breakage put a stop to his run.

Both Kubica and Adrian Sutil finally stopped for new tyres on lap 47 – whereas it dropped the quick running Sutil down to a point-less 13th place, Kubica rejoined in 5th ahead of the Petrov / Alonso battle. Game over. With Alonso down in 7th and Webber in 8th, the two favourites had seen their title hopes fall out of their grasp. Hamilton, meanwhile, in 2nd was not looking close to Vettel today; despite some late race fastest laps.
It would need something amazing to take this away from Vettel and it nearly came in the shape of Jarno Trulli. For the rear gunners it had generally been a quiet run to flag, only for the Lotus man to have his progress denied twice by broken wings. The Italian changed his front wing just after the halfway session, but that was nowhere near as dramatic as when his rear collapsed with two laps remaining. Once again, shards and clumps of carbon fibre littered the Yas Marina circuit, but Vettel saw just enough to take avoiding action.

A new Champion.
And with the last two laps rolled off, Sebastian Vettel took the chequered flag and with Alonso mired in 7th – still behind Petrov – the 23-year-old became the youngest World Champion in the history of Formula 1. It was Vettel’s fifth race victory of the season and was enough to give him a four-point advantage when it mattered most. The German was unstably ecstatic with the result:

“I’m speechless. I don’t know what you are supposed to say in these moments, it has been an incredibly tough season for myself and all of us, physically and mentally. We always kept believing in ourselves – no matter what people said – in the team and in our car. I kept believing in myself and today was a special day all round.”

Lewis Hamilton needed the victory, but 2nd place ahead of teammate Jenson Button was the best he could manage. A disappointed Hamilton was pragmatic afterward:

“I was able to match Sebastian’s pace in the early part of the race – but, after my pitstop, I was stuck behind Robert (Kubica). It was just impossible to get past him – he made no mistakes – so it wasn’t possible to resume my attack on Sebastian. But that’s the way motor racing goes sometimes.”

It had been a decent season for the McLaren team, but several mistakes and a car that was slightly off the pace, meant they were always just going to fall short.

Nico Rosberg followed up in 4th with a spirited drive with the Renault’s of Robert Kubica (5th) and Vitaly Petrov (6th). Next across the line was a clearly angry Fernando Alonso, who seemed to take his frustration out on Petrov on the slow down lap – as the two came side-by-side, an animated Alonso shook his fist in the direction of the Russian, but an unperturbed Petrov veered towards Alonso in a move of counter-intimidation.  Following the race, the Russian remained stoic:

“I had a long battle with Fernando, but the car had good top speed today so I was able to control the situation: I just did my job.”

A downhearted Alonso followed up with:

“everything went wrong today, from the start itself to the strategy. With hindsight, it would have been better not to pit so soon, but it’s easy to say that when you have all the facts…”

Mark Webber ended his day in 8th place. It really wasn’t a Champions performance from the Australian – three consecutive mediocre races had seen off his 2010 title chances.

“Earlier in the race we knew we had to roll the dice and go for it with the strategy, but it left us exposed and Fernando (Alonso) covered us. I tried my absolute hardest and we did everything we could, but in the end it wasn’t enough.”

Jaime Alguersuari (9th) and Felipe Massa (10th) rounded off the point scorers; although this is not a race (or a season) that the Brazilian will want to remember.  Nick Heidfeld finished 11th in what may well be his final Grand Prix. The Sauber driver beat Rubens Barrichello (12th) and Adrian Sutil (13th) to the line, with Kamui Kobayashi (14th), Sebastien Buemi (15th) and Nico Hulkenberg (16th) the last of the drivers on the lead lap.

Heikki Kovalainen took the chequered flag in 17th for Lotus – it was a result that means Lotus are the best of the “new” teams; a result that left team boss Tony Fernandes ecstatic:

“I am completely relieved, completely ecstatic, completely happy and completely vindicated in making the decision to go into F1. What we have achieved today is what dreams are made of. To complete 19 races after having just five months to build a car and finish in tenth in style is something that is truly magical. It shows you that even in the modern age where money and power counts for so much, there is a chance for ambition and dreams to shine.”

The Finn crossed the line ahead of Lucas di Grassi (18th) and both Hispania Racing cars, headed by Bruno Senna. Jarno Trulli was classified 21st, despite not seeing the flag.

And that was it for 2010. With his five wins, Sebastian Vettel can look back and count himself a worthwhile champion, while those behind will have to try again next year. Next season, the Championship ends at Interlagos – it can only be a blessing; Abu Dhabi may look stunning, but as a racetrack, it doesn’t really work. That so many drivers were unable to make overtaking moves today is further proof of that.
2011 also brings new challenges. While KERS and movable rear wings make a return, both the F-duct and double diffuser are banned. As Bridgestone exit stage left, Pirelli enter as the sole tyre supplier, with testing to begin on Tuesday morning – yes, Formula 1 takes one day off before the 2011 season begins again behind the scenes.
Will 2011 be as epic as this season? We will just have to wait to find out…
Race Rating: 2 out of 5
*All quotes courtesy of Formula1.com.

Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi Grand Prix (Round 19, November 14th)
1  VETTEL       Red Bull
2  HAMILTON     McLaren      +10.1s
3  BUTTON       McLaren      +11.0s
4  ROSBERG      Mercedes     +30.7s
5  KUBICA       Renault      +39.0s
6  PETROV       Renault      +43.5s
7  ALONSO       Ferrari      +43.7s
8  WEBBER       Red Bull     +44.2s
9  ALGUERSUARI  Toro Rosso   +50.2s
10 MASSA        Ferrari      +50.8s
11 HEIDFELD     Sauber       +51.5s
12 BARRICHELLO  Williams     +57.6s
13 SUTIL        Force India  +58.3s
14 KOBAYASHI    Sauber       +59.5s
15 BUEMI        Toro Rosso   +63.1s
16 HULKENBERG   Williams     +64.7s
17 KOVALAINEN   Lotus        +1 lap
18 DI GRASSI    Virgin       +2 laps
19 SENNA        HRT          +2 laps
20 KLIEN        HRT          +2 laps
21 TRULLI       Lotus        +4 laps
R  GLOCK        Virgin       +12 laps
R  SCHUMACHER   Mercedes     +55 laps
R  LIUZZI       Force India  +55 laps

Driver Team Points
1. Sebastian Vettel Red Bull Racing 256
2. Fernando Alonso Ferrari 252
3. Mark Webber Red Bull Racing 242
4. Lewis Hamilton McLaren 240
5. Jenson Button McLaren 214
6. Felipe Massa Ferrari 144
7. Nico Rosberg Mercedes GP 142
8. Robert Kubica Renault 136
9. Michael Schumacher Mercedes GP 72
10. Rubens Barrichello Williams 47
11. Adrian Sutil Force India 47
12. Kamui Kobayashi Sauber 32
13. Vitaly Petrov Renault 27
14. Nico Hulkenberg Williams 22
15. Vitantonio Liuzzi Force India 21
16. Sebastien Buemi Scuderia Toro Rosso 8
17. Pedro de la Rosa Sauber 6
18. Nick Heidfeld Sauber 6
19. Jaime Alguersuari Scuderia Toro Rosso 5
Constructor Team Points
1. Red Bull Racing 498
2. McLaren 454
3. Ferrari 396
4. Mercedes GP 214
5. Renault 163
6. Williams 69
7. Force India 68
8. Sauber 44
9. Scuderia Toro Rosso 13

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