So they sprayed the rosewater on the podium – Valtteri Bottas on the top step, Lewis Hamilton below him – in front of the traditional F1 logo. However, those bottles featured the new logo. Why talk of logos? Well, there wasn’t really so much to talk about on track. The Mercs had a decisive advantage, one which was exaggerated because – with Bottas leading – Ferrari had to ensure Sebastian Vettel finished the race in order to secure runner-up spot in the championship and so ran its race extremely conservatively. Hamilton chased Bottas hard, especially in the second phase of the single-stop race – but the slow turns of the final sector would disturb his aero sufficiently to lose him any time he’d gained in the DRS zones. So he could never begin those DRS zones quite close enough to try a serious move – and besides, Bottas was his usual super-calm self under pressure.
Anything else? Felipe Massa completed his final Grand Prix with a point for 10th place before handing his car over for Robert Kubica to test here a couple of days later. Nico Hülkenberg drove a strong race to sixth for Renault – albeit 39 seconds behind Bottas – and that was enough to vault it past Toro Rosso for sixth in the constructors. Daniel Ricciardo’s retirement, together with Kimi Räikkönen’s fourth place, secured Kimi fourth in the drivers’ championship.
No championship tension, almost no race tension. But, there was an amazing Etihad air display in the pre-race dusk, an impressive call and response post-race fireworks celebration from either end of the track lighting up the night sky, with the blow of the horns from the yachts in the harbour lending their support. All that and a new logo, how could anyone have possibly been disappointed? Erm, well…
This was not F1 at its best.
Ferrari was adamant that had this been a title contest it would have run its race much more aggressively and felt it could genuinely have raced Mercedes and while it’s easy to be dismissive of that, it does tally with the much smaller difference apparent between the silver car and the red during the practices. Certainly, Mercedes was surprised by the extent of its race day advantage. Ferrari was having to manage its fuel consumption quite heavily – but there was fuel saving going on at Merc too, though probably not quite so much given the W08’s lower drag.
That set of circumstances conspired to make this an unfortunate send off for a season that has generally been much better than this.
Nine years coming here and still the track is releasing new secrets. The grid might well have been decided by the sudden way the track grip fell so suddenly in the last 10 minutes. In the dusk, the smooth surface always begins grippier than when in its overheated state in Saturday morning practice – then as it cools below its optimum through the session, so the grip reduces once more. The difference this time was in how suddenly that grip disappeared in the last few minutes.
This played to Mercedes’ benefit over Ferrari and Red Bull, the silver car’s more aggressive tyre usage keeping the sensitive rubber in the correct temperature zone that crucial few minutes longer. What it also did was determine that the track was quicker during the first Q3 runs than the second – and on those early runs, Bottas was quicker than Hamilton who went out for his final run believing he could snatch away his team-mate’s provisional pole, but finding that track surface had now closed for business. A few minutes early.
Even so, on his last run, Hamilton was still very close to equalling Bottas’ first lap time. There was literally nothing in it by the time Hamilton reached Turn 19. Believing himself to be further behind than he actually was, he tried monstering the final corner, but the grip just wasn’t there and he was then into a major time-losing oversteering moment. This confirmed pole for Bottas, who didn’t therefore even need to complete his final attempt, which hadn’t been shaping up so well.
Those first runs were the crucial ones in hindsight – and Bottas had been faster through the important Turn 5-6 sequence, finding more lap time from getting the car rotated early into the slow turns than he was losing to Hamilton’s later braking. That crossover point of which approach worked better evidently changed along with the track grip.
Much of it was about how you prepared both your car’s set up and the details of tyre preparation on your out-lap – and to this Bottas had paid particular attention. “I really worked on the detail,” he admitted. “We made some changes after practice this morning and the car was behaving much better in qualifying. We had to make very minimal changes during the qualifying to any settings really. I could just really focus on the driving itself and finding lap time here and there. I managed to get pretty much everything together in run one of Q3.”
On the sort of low-grip surface at which Bottas always seems to excel, the finishing touches were all about the deep analysis he and his engineer made of the patterns of the Merc’s behaviour, and trying to anticipate what the car and tyres would need, as the track temperatures fell.
Hamilton seemed only to recognise the scale of Bottas’ challenge this weekend as he began qualifying. “I knew right from the start of qualifying that I had a serious fight on my hands with Valtteri,” he said, “and sure enough he did an incredible lap in the end. I gave it everything, but somehow just seemed to have lost a bit of pace compared to practice. I made some changes in anticipation of the track cooling and in hindsight, it probably wasn’t the right one. But it was nice to experiment, which I hadn’t really done all season long.”
The Ferrari never looked to quite have the edge of the Merc, even before the track cooled so much, and took it into tyre difficulties. There was perhaps just a little too much straight punishing its greater drag. “I think we got our downforce level right,” said third fastest Vettel in reference to the chosen wing settings, “but the time loss was mainly in sector two, and I guess it was probably on the straights.”
“I think the car was very good but it was tricky to make the tyres work consistently,” said Räikkönen in fifth, always more sensitive to under-temperature tyres than Vettel. “It was a good feeling with the car but the tyres were some corners very good and then a bit too snappy and hard to make them work well. It gave good grip but it just snapped a little bit and there was oversteer on the last lap and oversteer in Turn 11 on the exit that compromised the next few corners. I felt there was a lot of speed but I couldn’t really use it.”
Daniel Ricciardo pounced on Räikkönen’s difficulties to slot his Red Bull between the Ferraris, fourth-quickest. The RB13 was proving particularly sensitive to track temperature and Ricciardo was one of the few who actually improved on his second run, this a reflection of his struggle on the first Q3 lap. “I knew we could get a lot more out of the car, we just had to figure it out. We understood the tyre temperature a little better the second time around.”
Max Verstappen struggled through the practices in the other Red Bull to put himself sixth. He’d again tried a 2018 experimental front suspension on Friday (different height mounting points for the upper wishbone) and maybe that had taken time away from decoding the tyre conundrum. “I was just always fighting with the car. The changes we tried did not impact the car how I would have liked and then by the time you get to qualifying it is too late to change anything else.”
As ever, there was a big gap between the big three teams and the very closely-matched best of the rest which this weekend was headed by Nico Hülkenberg’s Renault. The Q2 lap that got him into the run-off was, he reckoned, one of the best qualifying laps he’d ever done. Team-mate Carlos Sainz didn’t make Q3, only 12th fastest after getting out badly placed in traffic for his final Q2 lap and as a consequence not getting his tyres up to temperature for the start of the lap.
Sergio Pérez‘s Force India was 0.1sec adrift of Hülkenberg in eighth, after a good high-pressure second Q3 attempt. Team-mate Esteban Ocon was next, and feeling he’d underperformed. “I think seventh place was realistic, but the traffic didn’t go our way today and there were a few other things that I didn’t maximise. It’s always a difficult qualifying session here with the temperatures dropping and you have to work hard to get the tyres in the right operating window. I’m just annoyed I didn’t show the true pace of the car.”
On his final F1 qualifying appearance, Massa put the Williams into Q3 and went 10th quickest there. His last Q2 lap nudged Fernando Alonso out of the run-off in a nice historic flourish. “I felt I got the best out of the car,” he said. “I’m finishing with my head held high, and showing that I’m at the top of competitiveness.” Lance Stroll was struggling, still with his old engine, and back in 15th he was over 1sec off Massa’s pace in Q2.
Alonso felt that his 11th-fastest time was a fair representation of where the McLaren-Honda was around here, with team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne – a couple of tenths and two places back – saying: “I experimented a little bit with the set-up and tried to go aggressive to find some more lap-time, but it didn’t work.”
Only Kevin Magnussen made it through to Q2 for Haas, but was over 0.7sec off the required pace for Q3, 14th fastest. He was more comfortable in dealing with the car’s lack of front-end here than Romain Grosjean who went out in Q1, in 16th, albeit only a hundredth slower. Grosjean had missed a practice session due to an electrical failure but was at least faster than either Toro Rossos, which had no grip and even less power. Pierre Gasly and Brendon Hartley (engine penalties yet again) were 17th and last respectively, the latter really struggling to find a balance he could work with and 0.6sec adrift of his team-mate. The closely-matched Saubers of Pascal Wehrlein and Marcus Ericsson sat between the Toro Rossos.
Fluttering flags in the beautiful fading light, the build-up to the race was as picturesque as ever: colours glinting, helmets still, waiting for the gantry lights to go out one last time. Inside the pole position Merc, Bottas was confident this was going to be no repeat of Interlagos, where he’d lost the race in the opening seconds. He felt that the combination of power unit and tyre characteristics had been making it too easy to spin the wheels up and since that race work had been done on his pedal mapping. He liked how it felt on the dummy starts he’d been able to try.
And as the lights went out for real he was cleanly into the lead, Hamilton and Vettel in his wake, the Ferrari locking up slightly into the first turn but holding on to third place ahead of a closely dicing Ricciardo and Räikkönen, then Verstappen, with Hülkenberg going clean around Pérez’s outside slightly beyond the width of the track to reclaim the seventh place he’d lost off the line, Ocon looking on from close quarters ahead of Massa, Alonso, Sainz and the rest. Magnussen, having almost lost it into Turn 1 as he was squeezed, then spun the Haas properly through the fast Turn 2, rejoining at the back. Vandoorne rubbed against Massa as they ran through Turn 2, the resultant bodywork damage losing the McLaren a massive amount of rear downforce, causing him to run off track later in the lap, falling behind the dicing Stroll and Grosjean.
Onto the first of the two back straights, punctuated by the chicane of Turns 8-9, Pérez slipstreamed back ahead of Hülkenberg , with the Renault driver then retaliating on the run down to Turn 11, going for the outside approach but locking up as he tried to get fully alongside the Force India. He took to the run-off in avoidance but then missed out most of the chicane that follows to rejoin in front once more. This, of course, was not strictly a legitimate pass but he didn’t let that deter him. Pérez was quick to object and before much longer it was announced that Hülkenberg would serve a 5sec penalty at his pitstop.
By the end of the opening lap, Bottas was already 1.2sec clear of the evenly spaced Hamilton and Vettel, and it was difficult to envisage how this race might come alive. An advantage of around 1.4sec per lap is needed to make a feasible pass around here, so that wasn’t going to happen. Even on the ultra-soft/super-soft tyre combination, this was set to be a comfortable one-stop race, so low were the degradation rates and everyone apart from the Saubers and Hartley had started on the ultra – so little or no strategic variation. The fuel demand is high and teams had not short-fuelled, and in these early stages were soon managing the consumption. It was uncertain whether the under-cut or over-cut would be more powerful around the stops – the degradation of the ultra was low and the super-soft wasn’t really performing very well – but that wouldn’t get to play out for a while yet.
The pre-race plan discussed at Mercedes was that if running 1-2, the leader would stop first and whoever was second would get the opportunity of staying out and trying for the overcut. The longer the initial leader could stay out, the less powerful he’d make the overcut for his team-mate. So Bottas just concentrated on running consistently, keeping his fuel demand in check, secure in the knowledge that so long as he remained error-free Hamilton couldn’t pounce. Hamilton, in turn, preferred to hang back so as not to damage tyres that he reckoned on exploiting around the stops when he hoped to try to overcut Bottas. So we entered a stalemate from which the race never really recovered.
Once Vettel had made no progress from his grid slot on the opening lap, Ferrari put him into safe mode. Needing only an eighth-place finish in the assumption that Bottas would win, he was saving fuel and falling back from Hamilton by around 0.5sec per lap, with Ricciardo doing the same to him – and so on down the field.
The exception to this was Stroll and Grosjean fighting for 13th. The Williams driver was struggling badly: “Nothing worked this weekend,” he said, “so I just couldn’t get the tyres switched on and I was just lost out there. We weren’t in the race today.” They passed and repassed several times up to the Turns 8-9 and 11-12 chicanes before Grosjean eventually made a move that stuck. Stroll locked up and flat-spotted, forcing him to stop as early as lap 11 for a set of super-softs, thus guaranteeing him a strategically disadvantaged two-stop race. Vandoorne pitted around this time too, having destroyed his rear tyres, “sliding around like a rally car,” from the bodywork damage.
The only other early stops came when Red Bull tried to undercut Verstappen past Räikkönen for fourth on the 14th lap. Ferrari responded and got Kimi out, still ahead, despite a considerably slower stop. There was no cascading effect as Räikkönen was by this time too far back to threaten anyone in front, one of whom was team-mate Vettel anyway. Verstappen’s out-lap on his new super-softs was not spectacularly quick, giving the first indication that the overcut – ie staying out longer on your old ultras against the other guy’s new supers – might be a viable tactic. It was duly noted at Mercedes.
The sun set fully around about the 17th lap and the floodlights took over. It was two laps after this that Ricciardo – running about 3sec behind Vettel – suddenly felt a vibration in the front of the car. Feeling it was a puncture, he made a late notice visit to the pits. The team scrambled his set of super-softs as best they could, but there was inevitably a couple of seconds delay. Ferrari pitted Vettel in response but on his out-lap Ricciardo glanced the barriers with the left-rear. A few corners later – down at Turn 5 – he suffered a hydraulics failure and pulled the car off onto the infield.
Yellow flags were shown there – and would be for some time. Was there going to be a safety car as they cleared the Red Bull? It was comfortably within the pitstop window, and Mercedes brought Bottas in as a precaution, to guard against him being forced to do the lap at safety car speeds as others behind him who’d yet to pass the pit entry road would be able to pit for free. This was a crucial juncture – and could’ve gone either way. Bottas got underway again on his new super-softs – and the yellows were still there, meaning he couldn’t set a sector best through there and couldn’t, therefore, maximise his out-lap. “How much do you back off and how do you judge how much Lewis would back off?” is how he summarised it later.
The yellows remained there for three laps and Hamilton was left out in the lead. “Originally I was set to go quite a bit longer,” he said, “then they wanted me to come in the lap after Valtteri stopped, but I said I wanted to stay out [to try for a longer overcut].” The Merc pit wall acquiesced, allowed him to try. If a safety car had been thrown after Bottas’ stop but with Hamilton still out there and able to get quickly in and out, he might have been gifted the lead (depending on where he was on the lap when any safety car came out). But eventually the Red Bull was moved and the safety car was stood down. As for the overcut, Hamilton had made up 1.6sec on Bottas within three laps, having been 2.6sec down before Valtteri stopped – and he was up for continuing to try. But the complication was that he was about to catch lapped traffic and certain therefore to lose time. There was no longer any point in staying out. He was called in on lap 24. He believed he’d done enough and was surprised to find himself still behind as he exited.
He’d been in discussion with the pit wall too about his engine modes. The new engine fitted after qualifying in Brazil had a longer time available in qualifying/overtake mode than the older unit in Bottas’ car. Initially, they’d both been instructed to run the same restrictions on mode – which Hamilton felt was unfair. He wished to make use of the extra modes available. It took a couple of laps before he got his way – but still, it wasn’t enough to get that vital 1.4sec advantage needed to pass. On his new tyres he was attacking Bottas hard immediately, getting almost within touching distance by the end of the back straights, super-late on the brakes, Bottas remaining calm and ordered, then pulling away again through sector thee where Hamilton’s car would be badly affected by Bottas’ dirty air.
They each made a lock-up in the battle – Bottas as he turned in from an acute angle as he was lapping a backmarker, Hamilton straying into the turn 17 run-off to avoid flat-spotting an overworked front tyre. But the gap remained the same.
Vettel by this time was around 12sec back, having been forced into more extreme fuel saving modes than the Mercs. “I would say, the beginning of the second sector, turns 5-6, they were faster than us all weekend. Straights, I think you benefitted from the tow even if you’re a bit further back so I don’t think it’s fair to say that they gained all the time in the straights. In the last sector they were very strong, so even if Lewis had to follow Valtteri closer than I was to Lewis, he was still faster than me in the last sector. So, I think that’s where it got away. Even as my fuel load came down in that first stint I was still hovering at the same lap time whereas they were able to go quicker as they got lighter.”
With the fuel allocation now more or less on target, Vettel was able to take advantage of the Ferrari’s nicer balance on the super-soft and he steadily began to chip away at the gap to the Mercs. Räikkönen, on the save fuel-saving strategy as Vettel, was 10sec or so back, continuing the frustrate Verstappen. A long way behind the top five, Hülkenberg had remained at the head of the second group even after having served his 5sec penalty, having pulled out just enough over Pérez prior to this to remain ahead. Ocon tried running longer on his ultras but could not get anywhere near enough time over his team-mate to emerge ahead after the stops.
Massa led the closely following Alonso and Sainz up to the stops, the McLaren trying the undercut on the Williams. Massa was brought in the lap after and emerged still ahead – but with an initially empty battery. He really should have been allowed an extra few laps to bring it back up to charge. Instead, temporarily minus around 160bhp or more, he was defenceless as even the Honda was able to overpower him on his out-lap. Alonso thus moved up a place. But what he gained there, he was about to lose to Sainz’s greater pace, as the Renault stayed out. Carlos was set to comfortably overcut both the Williams and McLaren when he was brought in on the 31st lap. Unfortunately, the left-front wheel was not properly secured. He only just made it through the tight left hander at the bottom of the pit exit road and once clear of the tunnel and back out on track, was forced to pull off to the side.
Just outside the top 10, Grosjean was having a lonely run, 10sec behind the Alonso-Massa dice but a long way clear of the compromised Vandoorne and delayed Magnussen. They, in fact, were coming under pressure from Wehrlein’s Sauber, but there just wasn’t any way Pascal could make a move on Magnussen stick. Hartley joined them, having become the lead Toro Rosso after Gasly spun. Ericsson took a time to find his way around the struggling Stroll (who eventually stopped a third time after flat-spotting again).
As the Mercs wore through the best of their rubber racing each other, without having to worry about anyone else, so Vettel steadily ate into some of the gap they’d built up. “I really got into the car in that second stint,” he said, “and got a good rhythm. With the fuel load coming down and his tyres still in great shape, he set the race’s fastest lap so far five laps from the end – even though that included a small run-wide mistake in the last sector. Two laps later Bottas put that lap in perspective with what would stand as the fastest – though Seb almost matched that on the last lap. He was, however, 19sec behind at the flag.
As the Mercs flashed by 1-2, so their passage triggered the fireworks spectacular. Vettel, Räikkönen, Verstappen, Hülkenberg, Pérez, Ocon, Alonso and – a point in his final Grand Prix – Massa filled the top 10. The yachts sounded their horns and the parties began. F1 was over for another year.