Les jeux sont faits. The line signifies the last call for bets at a casino, and is all too familiar to racing fans visiting Monte Carlo for the annual Monaco Grand Prix. But these days the Mediterranean principality isn't the only place that features state-of-the-art Formula One race cars speeding past casinos. Nor is it the only exotic locale anymore that stages an F1 grand prix around a marina, for that matter. Over the past couple of years, Valencia and Singapore became two of the newest circuits that incorporate trackside docking for mega-yachts alongside wheel-to-wheel action, and this year Abu Dhabi joined the fold with the much-hyped Yas Marina Circuit. But by the time the F1 circus sailed in to the Gulf emirate for the last round of the 2009 Formula One World Championship, the titles were already settled and the champions already crowned.
With the major plays already made, some might have dismissed the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as insignificant. Indeed, if Bernie Ecclestone had his way with his proposed olympic-style medal system, the race might have been canceled altogether. But if you ask us, removing the title chase from racing boils motorsport competition down to its essence, all eyes focused purely on the checkered flag instead of scoring points in the larger context of the championship. And if anything, the action on Yas Island only proved the point. Follow the jump to read how it unfolded.
Related Gallery2009 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
If you've clicked through this far, chances are you're of the same opinion with regards to the purity of racing for racing's sake. But there were plenty of other reasons why this year's final grand prix was worth remembering. First there's the new Yas Marina Circuit, twisting and curving its way along a man-made island off the coast of Abu Dhabi in the Persian Gulf. By itself, the freshly "christened" track was a spectacle on its own right, lined with billion-dollar mega-yachts, the new Ferrari theme park currently under construction and a spectacular hotel through which the circuit itself passes like a monorail in Disney World and coated in color-changing lights. Then there's the time slot: following the Singapore Grand Prix that was inaugurated last year as the first night-time race in Formula One history, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix started in the afternoon, raced through twilight and finished in the evening under the floodlights. And if the setting wasn't enough to attract attention, then surely the line-up would be: with newly-crowned champ Jenson Button lining up alongside Lewis Hamilton, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso, there were no fewer than four world champions on the grid – quite nearly five with Michael Schumacher looking on in frustration from the paddock – with two of them (Alonso and Raikkonen) driving for the last time for the teams with which they won their titles. If that isn't a recipe for exciting racing, we don't know what is.
With all that talent and nothing left to prove, Saturday's qualifying session came as quite a surprise to racing fans. Lewis Hamilton, now resigned from his role as defending champion, outpaced everyone else by a considerable margin to claim pole position. Red Bull runners-up Sebastian Vettel and Mark Webber took second and third, with champions-designate Rubens Barrichello and Jenson Button trailing in fourth and fifth. Toyota's Jarno Trulli, BMW Sauber's Robert Kubica and Nick Heidfeld, Williams' Nico Rosberg and Toro Rosso's Sebastien Buemi followed down the grid to round out the top ten, with former champions Raikkonen and Alonso relegated to 11th and 16th respectively, surrounded by back-markers.
From the moment the lights flashed green, Hamilton proceeded to open a seemingly unassailable lead ahead of the rest of the field. But problems with his right-rear brake saw the reigning champ lose precious time to his rivals and eventually forced him to retire to the McLaren garage.
Hamilton's early retirement deputized Vettel as front-runner, a position which he held onto until the checkered flag to claim his 4th victory of the season, second only to Button's six checkered flags this season and cementing the young German driver's status as runner up in this year's championship. The only significant incident that jeopardized Vettel's victory was a mix-up on the part of rookie Jaime Alguersuari, who limped in to pit lane with a gearbox problem only to mistake the Red Bull pit box for STR's just as Vettel was coming in. Hastily waived back out, Alguersuari wouldn't make it another lap back to the pits and warmed the bench for Hamilton, the only two retirements of the race.
Behind the leaders, Mark Webber and Jenson Button fought hard until the end for second place, nearly trading paint right up to the finish line. But Webber held his own against the champion to bring home a Red Bull 1-2 finish. Button joined them in victory lane in third place allowing him to celebrate the end of his title season from the podium. And despite an opening-lap run-in with Webber that cost him his front end-plate, Rubens Barrichello drove impressively to complete the Brawn GP 3-4 finish.
BMW Sauber, racing its final grand prix before withdrawing from the sport, also enjoyed a good day, Nick Heidfeld shadowing Barrichello for fifth while Robert Kubica ultimately finished tenth despite an impressive start to the race. As did Toyota, whose newcomer Kamui Kobayashi – still filling in for Timo Glock and running a gutsy one-stop strategy – made it as high as third in between the pit stops, ultimately to cross the finish line in sixth place for his first championship points, ahead of his team-mate Jarno Trulli who finished seventh. The final point went to Sebastien Buemi, who fared better than his Toro Rosso wingman to finish eighth.
Rosberg, Kubica, McLaren's Heikki Kovalainen, Raikkonen, Williams' Kazuki Nakajima, Alonso, Force India's Tonio Liuzzi, Renault's Romain Grosjean, Ferrari's Giancarlo Fisichella and Force India's Adrian Sutil completed the finishing order outside the points.
The results lock Vettel into second place in the final standings behind Button, Barrichello following in third and Webber in fourth to complete a tumultuous season that ultimately relegated former champions Hamilton, Raikkonen and Alonso to fifth, sixth and ninth in the standings respectively. The Red Bull 1-2 wasn't enough to steal away the constructors' crown from Brawn GP, and both Kimi and Fisi's failure to finish inside the points in this last race meant that McLaren held on to third by a single point even though Lewis and Heikki fared no better.
But really, with the setting Persian sun and all those floodlights pouring down on a glamorous new track that played host to some of the most tenacious racing action all season, who's counting?