It’s all to play for in Abu Dhabi – unless you’re obsessed with showdowns.
I’ve watched a few, it’s true. Smudgy Fuji images from 1976 are a vague memory, and my right big toe clicked weirdly for years after kicking a chair in frustration at Nigel Mansell’s Adelaide blowout of 1986.
But grands prix really should be standalone events as well as the building blocks of a world championship.
That was clearly the case when Formula 1 visited circuits dripping with character. You knew where you were back in the 1980s: in the Ardennes Forest or Styrian Mountains, amid Zandvoort’s dunes, on the downramps of Detroit or in Upstate New York during the Fall.
Seasons possessed pleasing patterns and reassuring rhythms. A motor racing shipping forecast, if you will:
Tabac, Upper Mirabeau, Lower Mirabeau, Surtees, Crowthorne, Chute, Loop, Degner, Tosa, Dingle Dell, Signes, (the) Lesmos, Ste Devote, (right at) Portier, Pouhon, Boschkurve, 130R, Tarzan, Stowe, Abbey, Bus Stop, Jukskei Sweep, Scheivlak, Rascasse, Mistral, Blanchimont, Bos Uit, Eau Rouge, Clearways and Shoreline Drive.
Whereas races on today’s anodyne, homogenised circuits – with their numbered Turns with multi-digit GPS co-ordinates rather than names on a map and grandstands containing more points of architectural interest than spectators – are means to an end rather than ends in themselves.
No doubt the movers and Sheikhs of Abu Dhabi paid top dirham for the honour of hosting the last GP of the year. But does no showdown guarantee a letdown?
It had been hoped by many that Mercedes-Benz, with nothing to lose, might let Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg off the leash. But computer has said ‘No’ apparently.
The omens are not good.
But hang in there! If, like me, you have watched sufficient F1 to know that much of it is dull – as is the case with all sports – you will also know that you just never know.
For instance, Ferrari had romped through 1953 – as it had in 1952 – by the time its double world champion Alberto Ascari arrived at Monza in September.
Though his nine-race winning streak had ended at Reims in July – he finished a watchful fourth behind the epic dice between team-mate Mike Hawthorn and the improving Maseratis of Juan Fangio and Froilán González – and a wheel had come off while he was leading at the Nürburgring, Ascari had secured the title by ignoring team orders at Bremgarten in Switzerland.
The latter was the sort of tigerish performance many had considered this metronomic talent incapable of.
Ascari wanted to put to bed any such doubts once and for all at Monza.
Throughout the first half of the race he regularly swapped positions with his team-mate Giuseppe Farina, who was fuming because of the ‘injustice’ of Bremgarten; that he, too, had ignored the ‘Ease’ pit signal was neither here nor there for this firebrand.
Also in the mix were Fangio and his Maserati protégé Onofre Marimón.
“The race was enough to give anybody heart failure,” wrote Denis Jenkinson.
Marimón lost six minutes on lap 46 (of 80) while a damaged oil radiator was repaired before he cheekily rejoined the battle between the three world champions.
Ascari was by then attempting to assert his authority, regularly crossing the line in first place, whereas his rivals had only done so in dribs and drabs. And when he lapped the Ferrari of mentor Luigi Villoresi, he at last found a willing ally. Now both Ferrari and Maserati had a joker in the pack.
But Ascari wasn’t laughing as he stomped to the pits, Marimón a picture of innocence alongside, after their last-corner collision.
Fangio reckoned the leader had been baulked by a backmarker [Felice Bonetto’s works Maserati] and spun when forced off line and to brake hard. Others thought that Ascari had slid on oil and been collected by Marimón.
Second-placed Farina’s nosecone was also dented…
This was Fangio’s first major victory since fracturing vertebrae in his neck in a crash at the same circuit in June 1952. And finally Maserati had beaten its Modenese rival.
Championship already decided, there had been much to play for.
Ferrari romped through 2004, too, Rubens Barrichello mopping up what few crumbs fell from Michael Schumacher’s top table.
Only a brilliant performance at Spa by McLaren’s Kimi Raikkönen – making light of a diffuser damaged at the first corner and the most of Michelins faster than Schumacher’s Bridgestones in reaching operating temperature after three safety car periods – had prevented a Ferrari clean sweep.
But at the finale in the atmospheric bear pit of Interlagos – rather than money pit of Abu Dhabi – Schumacher dropped the ball.
It was the best race of the season as a result – a bareknuckle fight between Raikkönen and the Williams of soon-to-be McLaren team-mate Juan Pablo Montoya that began with a side-by-side dash down the pitlane on the fifth lap and continued to the chequered flag.
Also much to be admired was Fernando Alonso, whose Renault was one of the few to start on dry tyres. He spun on the first lap but recovered remarkably quickly, and with great élan, as the conditions and grip came back to him.
He led for a time and, despite having to double-stint his fronts because the team wanted to avoid another period of severe graining – it had incorrectly chosen the softer of Michelin’s options – he finished a brilliant fourth.
Schumacher’s successors were jockeying for position.
Like you, I can make a very informed guess as to what is likely to happen this weekend.
But I’ll be watching. Watching Alonso’s successors jockeying for position. Watching because there just might be a banzai move for the lead on the last lap at Turn 21.
I think that’s the last corner. Let me check: 24º 28’ 2” N, 54º 36’ 11” E…