2020 was a season where almost anything seemed like it could happen in Formula 1, but asking for a thrilling Abu Dhabi Grand Prix proved to be a little too much.
The ingredients were all there for a classic. Max Verstappen finally on pole position, Mercedes vulnerable but surely a threat, McLaren starting strongly but Racing Point with a very quick car and F1’s newest race winner Sergio Perez set for a charging drive from the back of the grid.
But it didn’t take long for one moment to pretty much erase all of the intrigue.
Perez had made his way through to 14th place in the opening eight laps and points were certainly possible for the Mexican in his final grand prix for Racing Point. After all, the reason he had started at the back was due to taking new power unit components, so he could push throughout…
And then on lap nine, an MGU-K problem meant Perez’s F1 career for the time being came to a premature end.
Perez was set to charge from the back — before pulling over to the side of the track
Florent Gooden / DPPI
“It’s a bit sad, leaving the team this way,” Perez said. “Some of my boys were crying there at the end, I told them you just have to remember what happened last weekend.”
Words we could all heed based on what happened next. The virtual safety car wasn’t enough to clear the Racing Point so the safety car was deployed. Either way the majority of the field were pitting for hard tyres. With everyone’s stops made and no chance of an undercut or overcut, the battle was all but over at the front.
Verstappen had shown in those opening nine laps that he had the Mercedes pair covered, edging away to the tune of a couple of tenths per lap. Valtteri Bottas similarly gapped Lewis Hamilton enough that he didn’t look under major threat from his team-mate, who said: “That doesn’t feel like a good strategy” after the top four ran in a line on the restart.
The leaders remained in grid order at the start
Antonin Vincent / DPPI
Alex Albon had jumped Lando Norris in one of the only bits of action prior to the interruption, and behind him Daniel Ricciardo ran fifth having started on the hard tyre. Norris was now down to sixth but safe in the knowledge he would jump Ricciardo when his future team-mate stopped if there was no further drama, while Carlos Sainz soon climbed ahead of the two Ferraris – both inexplicably staying out during the safety car period – to strengthen McLaren’s hopes of snatching back third in the constructors’ standings.
If there was any drama, it was involving Sainz, who was under investigation for slowing unnecessarily in the pit lane. With so many cars pitting under the safety car, the majority of teams were stacking both drivers and Sainz had slowed in front of Lance Stroll, who didn’t manage to jump ahead of the Spaniard.
“I don’t think there’s any issue to be honest,” Sainz said. “I was trying to be as safe as possible with the chaos that was in the pit lane. Cars coming out, in, I haven’t done anything that we’ve not done before in a lot of races so I don’t really get the investigation.”
Ricciardo emerged in fifth ahead of Norris and the Ferraris after the safety car stops
Antonin Vincent / DPPI
What many observers didn’t get was that the investigation would take place after the race, with the stewards later revealing it was due to telemetry they wanted to view that wasn’t available. In the end it wasn’t particularly necessary as Stroll faded after struggling to pass Sebastian Vettel and then lost out to Esteban Ocon on the final lap to finish tenth.
With Norris fifth and Sainz sixth, the 18 points scored by McLaren comfortably overturned the ten-point deficit to Racing Point to secure third in the standings, while Sainz was then cleared of any wrongdoing to confirm the result.
And the result it confirmed was a dominant Verstappen win. After the safety car he simply eased away, and Mercedes had no answer. MGU-K concerns may have played a part for Mercedes as the engines were turned down slightly as a precaution, but in clear air with a quick car, the Red Bull driver was never letting this one slip.
Verstappen in control: Bottas never had a chance to use DRS
AP Photo/Kamran Jebreili
“It was an enjoyable race,” Verstappen said. “We had a decent start and from there onwards could manage the gap and could look after my tyres. Then of course the safety car came out at a little bit of an unfortunate time I think, because then we had to a very long stint on the hards. Luckily, the tyres coped with it but still had to manage it a bit more. But the car was really good today, and just a good balance, so you could really look after the tyres and I could just build a gap all the way through the race.
“Just a bit of vibration on the tyre [was the only concern]. I was thinking back to Spa and a little bit in Imola, but I was keeping an eye on it on every straight. But luckily it was all good. The pace was still there and the tyres were still performing.”