All the important prizes had already been taken by Abu Dhabi, a race that could’ve been a microcosm of the season as Lewis Hamilton drove to his 88th career victory, his Mercedes comfortably clear of the Red Bull and Ferrari opposition. The long-running rumbling about Ferrari’s engine advantage was given a season-ending flourish with the team being fined 50,000 Euros for under-declaring the fuel load in Charles Leclerc’s car by 4.88kg.
What was up for grabs in the desert was sixth place in the drivers’ championship (between Alex Albon, Pierre Gasly and Carlos Sainz) and fifth in the constructors’ (between Renault and Toro Rosso).
This gave a pretty good indication of the competitive picture behind the big three. Disappointingly, that second-division bunch were no closer to the ultimate pace than last year and although McLaren had risen quite surely to the front of it, its qualifying average remained 1.2sec slower than Mercedes, ensuring that it would usually be lapped while in the process of winning ‘Class B’.
For McLaren that was at least something of a reassurance after the disaster of 2018 when it had ended the season vying with Williams not to be slowest. Its fourth place in the constructors this year was taken comfortably from, ironically, the works team of engine supplier Renault. Such an outcome was a disaster for the Enstone team, which had set its sights firmly on putting distance on the ‘Class B’ teams and closing the gap to the front. Being under pressure for fifth in the championship from the minnows Toro Rosso (fresh from Pierre Gasly’s second place in Brazil) just rubbed in the discomfort.
The only reason sixth was up for grabs in the drivers’ standings was that Red Bull had split its second car between Gasly and Albon, with both those drivers doing the other half of their seasons at Toro Rosso. Albon getting shunted out of second place in Brazil – and thus promoting Gasly – had made it a far closer contest between them than it otherwise would have been, and the Frenchman arrived in Abu Dhabi on the same points as Sainz, the pace setter of ‘Class B’. Albon was 11 points behind but in a much faster car.
So how did it pan out for that trio? Gasly’s fate was sealed by turn one as he was hit by Lance Stroll’s Racing Point. After limping around for a new nose and a slow stop, he was out of contention. With Toro Rosso needing eight points (sixth) even if Renault non-scored, that was too tall an ask for the single car of Daniil Kvyat. So Renault’s fifth place in the constructors seemed assured.
“I don’t feel very at home with this car in these short 90-degree corners,”
Albon and Sainz were running an early fifth and seventh respectively, but with the usual gulf between the back of Class A (Albon) and the front of Class B (Lando Norris’s McLaren) opening out. It had been a disappointing end of season for Albon, after the highs of his Red Bull debut in Spa and Verstappen-equalling qualifying in Suzuka. Here, he had been 0.4sec off Verstappen in qualifying, a performance he described as ‘very average.’ “I don’t feel very at home with this car in these short 90-degree corners,” he said. “I’ve been much more comfortable in the long, fast corners.”
Running fifth and needing at least fourth to have any chance of out-pointing Gasly and Sainz, Albon followed Sebastian Vettel’s Ferrari, unable to put any pressure on it without asking too much of his tyres, which he had to protect for the planned one-stop. But there was hope for the medium-tyred Albon, in that Vettel had started on soft compound and seemed doomed to a much earlier stop and compromised strategy.
Sainz was shadowing Norris and keeping his eyes on his mirrors for the Renaults of Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hülkenberg. This McLaren/Renault group had all been obliged to start on the soft tyre, as they’d used it in Q2 to get into Q3. That defined their opening stints as short – in theory.
As the pit window opened, Ferrari brought Vettel in to be rid of the softs. Red Bull planned to keep Albon out to get the full strategic benefit of his harder tyres. But then Vettel’s stop went wrong; a delay on the left-front cost him almost 5sec. This put Albon in reach of ‘overcutting’ past – and Red Bull instructed him to give it everything and pit at the end of the lap. This would cost him overall time but there was fourth place on offer. He did as instructed, the stop was not quite as fast as Red Bull’s norm – and he exited on the hards still behind Vettel. That was a disaster and meant he’d lost time being easy on his first stint tyres for no good reason and thrown away his strategy advantage. Furthermore, Valtteri Bottas was making rapid progress from the back of the grid in his fresh-engined Mercedes, and closing fast.
Norris initiated the stops in his group, after flat-spotting his tyres. Sainz stayed out, losing him further time to Norris but giving him a better strategy. He was followed in by Ricciardo a lap later – and they exited still in the same Norris/Sainz/Ricciardo order. But they did so behind the very old-tyred Haas of Romain Grosjean and so couldn’t make use of their faster tyres, unable to pass (DRS was not available for the first 16 laps due to a technical problem in race control). Which allowed Hülkenberg to stop much later and leapfrog past both Ricciardo and Sainz. Norris still led the group but the long-running Racing Point of Sergio Pérez – which had started on mediums – would be among them after a longer first stint, and on fresher tyres.
Pérez has over-delivered in a mediocre car this year, the team compromised by the major regulation change coming when it was in the throes of administration (before the Stroll rescue) and without the resources to research the best technical solutions.
Albon couldn’t challenge Vettel and was passed by Bottas, who was able to push Leclerc for the final podium place, behind Hamilton and Verstappen. Sixth meant he would finish behind Gasly and Sainz in the standings. So the place was surely Sainz’s? Not necessarily. Pérez and Kvyat had pushed him out of the points and going into the last lap, Sainz needed to pass Hülkenberg. He timed his move to perfection into Turn 11. Sainz dummied for the outside, Hulk went to cover and Sainz made the decisive switch down the inside, a wisp of smoke from the inner front tyre, but he was through. Tenth, sixth in the championship by a single point.
A few seconds earlier, at the same corner, Pérez had passed Norris for seventh – and the ‘Class B’ win. One McLaren driver deeply disappointed at losing seventh on the last lap, another joyous at having snatched 10th. But the McLaren recovery continues.
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