What happened in the Emirates this weekend wasn't just a race, it was a melee, a medieval battle scene where everyone is thrown into the scrum and everything happens. Men clashed, men crashed, one man went flying and another was sent to an early
And when the sun went down in the desert, the titanic clash for the World Championship honors still hadn't been decided.
The Abu Dhabi weekend didn't wait for the race to blow the action grenade; the first Free Practice on Friday let us know this wouldn't be the usual race with Lewis Hamilton dominating proceedings in his McLaren, his teammate Jensen Button almost half a second behind, Red Bull's Sebastian Vettel a further four-tenths back, then Fernando Alonso in the Ferrari – more than a second in arrears of Hamilton – in fifth.
The second Free Practice played jumble with the standings, the leaders' times dropping by 1.5 seconds with Vettel now leading Hamilton by 1.6 tenths, followed by Button and Red Bull's Mark Webber, then the Lotus pair of Romain Grosjean and Kimi Räikkönen coming from way back in FP1 to take fifth and sixth. Alonso clocked in at seventh, the times from Vettel to Alonso separated by less than a second. And come FP3, Hamilton was back again in the number one slot, leading Vettel by more than five tenths. Free practice is never conclusive – masters on Friday have become slaves in qualifying and the race, but it's been a while since we saw anyone, especially the McLarens, seriously challenging the Red Bulls so early.
Hamilton carried that form into Saturday's qualifying, roasting the field in every session to take pole from Webber in second almost four tenths behind. Vettel, winner of the last four races and current Championship leader, had set a time that would make him third fastest and was gunning for a better clip but stopped on track and parked the car before getting back to Parc Ferme. Radio transmissions indicated he was told to stop, team boss Christian Horner saying Renault had detected a problem with the engine and requested it be shut down... but Vettel had also almost run out of gas. There wasn't enough in the tank for the FIA to withdraw the necessary liter for testing, so Vettel was told he could start from the back of the grid or from pit lane. He opted for pit lane. That means he wouldn't be set loose from the paddock until the last car had rounded turn one.
This was great news for Alonso, the former Championship leader now 13 points behind after a run of Red Bull victories compounded by a run of miserable, near-pointless fortune. As he has done all year, he outperformed his car, the Ferrari updated but still behind the rest of the big teams in terms of performance and speed, getting up to seventh place on the grid. Not the ideal slot for the scarlet steed driven by a double world champion gunning for another title, but it put him 17 places above his only real rival, and that – at Abu Dhabi, especially – should have gone a long way.
Ahead of him were Button in fifth, doing his best in spite of the issues he's been having with his McLaren, Räikkönen in fourth, and the surprise of Pastor Maldonado in the bolt of blue and white Williams in third position. Maldonado won in Spain, one of the more touching victories of the year, but the dialogue concerning his performances all year has largely been about his tendency to hit things. Consequently, much of the pre-race chatter were people wondering if the top slots could make it through the first few turns without Maldonado cocking it up. The top ten was rounded out by Nico Rosberg in the Mercedes-AMG Petronas, Felipe Massa in the second Ferrari, Grosjean and Nico Hülkenberg in the Force India.
Late afternoon on Sunday, all were lined up in front of the red lights. When the lights went out, Hamilton played the hare, bolting away in his McLaren, holding on to first place through the first turns and then putting tenths between himself and the pursuers. The only scare he'd have all day was when his cold brakes locked up on him during Lap 2 and he oversteered off the track, Räikkönen close enough to have a go at him but not having enough juice to make the pass. How did Räikkönen get behind him so quickly? Webber made another one of his horrific starts off the grid is how, being immediately overtaken by Räikkönen who slotted into second. Maldonado held onto third and his sanity, keeping it clean through the first laps – and throughout the race, thankfully. Alonso went from seventh to fourth on Lap 1, followed by Button.
The long run down to the first turn did claim a victim in Hülkenberg. He was among four cars side-by-side, straddled by teammate Paul DiResta in the other Force India, and Sauber's Sergio Perez on the inside, the other Williams of Bruno Senna on the outside. Four doesn't go into one, and The Hulk was squeezed by DiResta and Senna, his rear suspension torn to pieces and his race done as everyone was sent into the runoff, but the other three cars were able to continue once they got pointed in the proper direction.
After Narain Kathikayan's HRT rounded the first turn, Vettel was set free from the pit lane, in 24th and dead last place. By the third of 55 laps, when Hamilton had increased his lead to 1.5 seconds on Räikkönen, Vettel had taken back eight spots for 16th place. In the process he had damaged the right side of his front wing while passing Bruno Senna, and was manhandling the wheel through turns as he suffered from a bit of understeer.
By Lap 7 the race was getting into its groove: Hamilton now had three seconds in hand over Räikkönen, Alonso had another long seventh gear just like in India and was blasting down the straights, reeling in Maldonado by a few tenths per lap, and Vettel had got up to 13th spot.
On Lap 9, Rosberg took flight – not on track, but over Karthikayan in the HRT. The HRT's engine gave up through a series of right-hand corners, the event happening so quickly that Karthikayan was still on the racing line as the Mercedes-AMG closed in on him at a much greater speed. Rosberg didn't have time to slow down or avoid, the front left wheel of his Mercedes-AMG using the HRT's right rear wheel as a ramp and he went soaring into and through the air, over the top of Karthikayan, landing in the runoff and sliding into the barriers while the HRT cruised to a standstill behind him. Reminiscent of Grosjean's pirouette at the start of the Belgian Grand Prix, both drivers were thankfully unhurt.
The incident brought out the safety car for four laps, and that bunched up the field. The way things had been going, the only driver who should have had anything to lose was Maldonado, now that Alonso didn't have to take time to catch him. It was Vettel, however, that lost his cool for a moment and more of his front wing. Weaving behind Toro Rosso pilot Daniel Ricciardo, Vettel was caught out when Ricciardo hit his brakes to keep them up to temperature. Vettel went off track to avoid hitting the Toro Rosso and instead clobbered the DRS Detection Zone sign, tearing off the endplate on the already-damaged right side of his wing. With the car's handling even worse, he was forced to pit on Lap 13 for a new wing, also swapping for new tires.
When the Safety Car returned to the pits on Lap 14, Hamilton streaked away again, opening up a 0.8-second gap on Räikkönen after the first lap of racing. Behind them Maldonado still had a good grip on third place, while Alonso, Webber, Button, Massa and Perez were trained up and fighting for fourth. At the other end, Vettel was again fighting his way through the pack. On Lap 18, Hamilton was 2.5 seconds ahead, Vettel was 23 seconds behind him in 13th place.
Two laps later, Hamilton's race was done: An electrical failure shut the car down and he coasted to a stop in the grass. His last few races with McLaren are being stung by reliability issues, a shame this time especially since, as his own engineers told him, he had the race in the bag.
That put Räikkönen in first place, and seeing that he hadn't yet been troubled by Maldonado and the Lotus has been impressively reliable all year, there was enough reason to believe he could actually win this one. On the following lap Alonso got by Maldonado for second place, and was effectively leading the championship on the track with Vettel still out of the top ten, four seconds behind Räikkönen.
On Lap 23, as Maldonado was slowly working his way backwards through the field for reasons no one could figure out, Webber decided to channel the gung-ho driving style we're more used to seeing from Maldonado, the man he was trying to pass. Taking the outside of a left-hander, Webber came over on the Williams and clipped Maldonado's front wing. Maldonado continued, and so did Webber, but not before spinning and dropping to seventh. Three laps later, Webber did it again while trying to pass Massa, going off track and then bouncing back on, making wheel-to-wheel contact with the Ferrari and causing Massa to spin. Webber was investigated for both incidents but the stewards didn't penalize him.
By Lap 30, Perez in the Sauber had recovered from his first corner incident and a lack of a pit stop to take second place, the order going Räikkönen, Perez, Webber, Vettel – who also had not pitted a second time and was trying to make it to end of the race – Alonso and Button.
Vettel's drive, even with its incidents, was spectacular, and now he was in a position to take more points away from Alonso after having started from last place. Alonso was catching him, though, so Vettel would pit again in order to protect at least a fourth-placed position and return to the track in time to avoid a battle behind for fifth place with a group including Grosjean, Webber, Perez and DiResta. That battle would end Webber's race when Perez 'pulled a Webber,' trying to pass DiResta off the track then jumping back on the track and bouncing into Grosjean who then bounced into Webber, the Lotus, Red Bull and Sauber done for the day, the Safety Car needing to come out to collect the Sauber.
That brought the field back together, the order being Räikkönen, Alonso, Button and Vettel in the top spots. On Lap 45, with ten laps to race, it would be a charge to the finish, with Alonso reeling in Räikkönen by a couple of tenths per lap but Räikkönen far enough ahead to appear to have first place locked up, while Vettel gunned to get around Button and take the last podium position – which he did on Lap 52.
When the checkered flag came out three laps later, it was Räikkönen, Alonso, Vettel, Button – who has come in third in every Abu Dhabi race but couldn't do it this time, probably to Alonso's chagrin – Maldonado, Kamui Kobayashi in the Sauber, Massa in the Ferrari, Senna in the Williams, di Resta and Toro Rosso's Ricciardo in the final points spot.
Two years ago the Abu Dhabi race is where Alonso's fight for a third championship came to an end and Vettel won his first. This year it might be where Vettel saved his own fight for a third championship, taking one place just below Alonso on the podium. He lost three points to Alonso and remains ten ahead, with just the grands prix of America and Brazil remaining. Red Bull could have won the constructor's championship if not for Webber's misfortunes, but just needs five points at the next race to clinch it.
But without a doubt the finest story of the day was Räikkönen's victory, the Finn taking two years off from F1 to drive the World Rally Championship and NASCAR, coming back this year and threatening victory ever since Bahrain, finally doing so just a few states away. It was his 69th podium and 19th victory, his first since Spa in 2009. And a Lotus hasn't seen the winner's circle in even longer: 25 years ago at the 1987 Detroit Grand Prix. The action continues in two weeks in Texas, and we'd be crazy to think it won't be even hotter than the state itself.