2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix report

by Nigel Roebuck on 14th November 2010

Three years ago Kimi Raikkonen went to the last Grand Prix (at Interlagos) as the long shot – the third favourite – in the World Championship, and won both race and title. On Sunday, in Abu Dhabi, Sebastian Vettel did the same thing, the youngest man in the sport’s history to take its biggest crown.

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Vettel did a copybook job with the fastest car in Formula 1, taking pole position, and essentially dominating the race. Lewis Hamilton, who himself had a slim chance of the championship, qualified second, and finished second, with McLaren team-mate Jenson Button at his heels. Thus, the last two World Champions joined the new one on the podium.

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Joy for Vettel and Red Bull then, but not much in the way of thrills for the spectators. The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, sad to say, was the most boring race since the season-opener in Bahrain, primarily because the circuit layout effectively precludes racing. For countless laps Hamilton was trapped behind the Renault of Robert Kubica, while Fernando Alonso and Mark Webber, Vettel’s main challengers in the World Championship, had the frustration of staring – for 40 laps – at the back of Vitaly Petrov’s sister car.

It was an incident on the opening lap that triggered this unusual set of circumstances. Following a slight touch between the Mercedes of Michael Schumacher and Nico Rosberg, Schumacher’s car spun, and finished up facing backwards, whereupon it was soundly hit by Tonio Liuzzi’s Force India.

At once the safety car came into play, and several drivers took the opportunity to pit, swapping from Bridgestone’s super-soft ‘option’ tyres to the harder ‘prime’ compound (which several drivers had found faster during practice). The only front-running drivers to do this were Rosberg and Petrov (who had qualified in the top 10), and the decision to bring Vitaly in was to have great bearing on the outcome of the race.

At the end of lap five the safety car came in, and away they went again, Vettel leading from Hamilton, Button, Alonso, Webber and Massa. For a time it looked as though Lewis might be able to give Sebastian a race, but the tyre stops put an end to that.

Among the first to change was Nick Heidfeld, and when his Sauber was shown as setting the fastest lap to date, the message was there for everyone else. Webber came in after 13 laps, and Alonso after 15 – but crucially, when they rejoined the race they found themselves behind Petrov (who had pitted much earlier, of course), and it was their bad luck that Vitaly, after what may be termed a mixed season, chose this day to drive the race of his life.

On lap 23 Hamilton, running only a couple of seconds behind Vettel, made his stop, and next time round Sebastian too, was in, immediately after setting a new fastest lap. Both pit stops went without hitch, but in terms of track position a handful of seconds had a major impact on the pattern of the race, for while Vettel rejoined the race ahead of Kubica’s Renault, Hamilton was behind it – and there, for most of the afternoon, he would stay.

All in all then, a most curious Grand Prix unfolded. Button – invariably easier on tyres than any other driver – had no need to stop yet, and took up the lead, which he was to hold remarkably, until lap 39, when he finally came in. Vettel moved easily in second place, closing all the time, and knowing that he would take the lead again when Button made his stop.

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Behind the first two, however, there was immense frustration, and much of it may be laid at Hermann Tilke’s door, for his Abu Dhabi track design reminds one of Valencia, another ‘modern’ circuit where overtaking opportunities are zero, even for a quicker car. Hamilton could do nothing about Kubica, and – more significantly in terms of the World Championship – Alonso and Webber could do nothing about Petrov. Not for a second did Fernando relax the pressure on Vitaly, but the gap between them – always less than half a second – stubbornly remained. As we have seen since Job was a lad, the aerodynamics of contemporary F1 cars militate against overtaking, and a track like Abu Dhabi compounds the problem.

In the end Hamilton’s problem was solved when Kubica made his obligatory pit stop – drivers must use both tyre compounds in the course of a race – with nine laps to the flag. That moved Lewis into second place again, but for Alonso and Webber there was no way by Petrov, and by the time the chequered flag came down, Fernando had been behind the Renault for no fewer than 40 laps.

Thus it was that Alonso and Webber, first and second in the point standings when the teams arrived in Abu Dhabi, finished only seventh and eighth – and, more to the point, second and third in the World Championship.

Alonso, in particular, had expected more, and with good reason. Arriving with a lead of eight points over Webber, and 15 over Vettel, Fernando needed only to finish fourth in the event of Sebastian winning the race and, in light of his recent string of results, must have fancied his chances of doing so. He qualified third, and ran fourth in the early stages, ahead of Webber, and all was looking fine – until the stops…

Hindsight is always 20:20 of course, but perhaps Ferrari now regret that, in bringing Alonso so early for tyres, they were responding to what Webber had done, where perhaps they might have been better advised to concentrate on Vettel. Had he stayed out longer, after all, Fernando would not have been behind Petrov when he rejoined and had he had a normal afternoon at the races, would surely have finished in the top four.

Still, the time for ifs and buts is past, and the 2010 World Championship is settled. Vettel has made several ‘unforced errors’ this season, but he has also had a great deal of mechanical misfortune. Three weeks ago, in Korea, he lost certain victory when his engine failed in the late laps, and it was Alonso who benefited – and appeared to put a lock on the World Championship.

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In the space of seven days, though, Vettel was unstoppable in both Brazil and Abu Dhabi, capitalising on the Red Bull’s inherent superiority and his own surpassing pace. After the race there was sympathy – of course – for Alonso and Webber, who had endured the most frustrating of days, but Petrov was only doing his job, and he did it superbly, aided – in spades – by Herr Tilke’s circuit design.

So, at 23, Sebastian Vettel has the world before him. Having won the first of what will surely be many World Championships. On the podium he looked almost shocked, and at the press conference, too, seemed overwhelmed by the enormity of what was happening to him. “Tell me how to react, guys,” he smilingly murmured to Hamilton and Button. Down in the darkness of the paddock, Alonso and Webber just wanted to be somewhere else.

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