Race Recap: At the Abu Dhabi grand prix, the caravan chases a mirage
Abu Dhabi was the latest venue, and what the Yas Marina Circuit has lacked in racing excitement, it has more than made up for in drama. It's where Lewis Hamilton always does well and should have won but for an engine blow-up. That lead to Kimi Räikkönen taking the first win of his return, and giving Lotus its first win. It's where a championship was decided when Fernando Alonso was stuck behind Vitaly Petrov and Timo Glock and couldn't put up a fight against Vettel. And this year, it was where Mark Webber again out-qualified his Red Bull teammate and grabbed pole, just three rounds away from retirement.
He was followed by Vettel, the Mercedes-AMG Petronas pair of Nico Rosberg and Lewis Hamilton, the unstoppable Nico Hülkenberg in the first Sauber in fifth, Romain Grosjean in the first Lotus, Felipe Massa in the first Ferrari, Sergio Perez in the McLaren, Daniel Ricciardo in the Toro Rosso and Alonso in the second Ferrari in tenth. Tenth.
If the field hadn't been told that mirages also appear at night, they learned as soon as the lights went out.
That's when Vettel took his funny car disguised as an RB9 and romped away from everyone on a 55-lap drag race, never giving up the lead even when he was in the pits. Webber got a decent start but couldn't get it up into second gear and lost out to Vettel by the first turn and Rosberg by the third. Once Vettel got out in clear air, the race was done. At one point, after most of the followers had come in for new tires, Vettel was lapping faster on his old soft tires than everyone else was on brand new mediums. Accumulating more than a second on the field on each lap, he got so far ahead the producers didn't even bother turning the cameras on him, and the only radio conversations he had were from his engineer telling him either 'keep it up' or 'hold this gap.' He won the race by 30 seconds.
Webber had a scare on Lap 5 when his KERS had to be reset, but otherwise he ran a perfectly smooth race after falling back to third at the start. His RB9 wasn't pumped full of the magic juice found in Vettel's car so he actually had to work, a reliable car allowing him to pass his way through the pack whenever he pitted and keep Rosberg at bay. He finished second.
Rosberg rounded out the podium, his drive also on the quiet side. Even though the Mercedes man got into second on the first lap, his car wasn't strong enough to stay in front of Webber's Red Bull – and the huge, double DRS zones didn't help – but it was he instead of teammate Hamilton that proved the Mercedes still has some bite at Yas Marina.
The secret of his third place was that he didn't get caught behind the Force Indias and the Saubers after the first round of pit stops. Paul di Resta stopped once, Adrian Sutil stopped twice but the second time wasn't until a few laps from the end, and Hülkenberg and Esteban Gutíerrez waited until late to make their stops. Add in the Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne, and those five would bottle up Massa, Alonso, Grosjean and Hamilton for the thick part of the race.
That did lead to some neat moves among the clotted bunch in the DRS zones, such as when Hamilton was trying to get around Sutil, and Massa, behind those two, sneaked up and passed both as they squabbled into the first chicane. Speaking of Massa, his performances of late led Sky commentator Martin Brundle to say that Ferrari should fire him at the beginning of every season and then hire him again at the end; the Brazilian out-qualified Alonso, forced Alonso to pass him on the track and would have finished higher than eighth if Ferrari had given him the soft compound tires he wanted for the final stint instead of mediums. He said he wanted softs and he refused to blame the team for the mistake, but it's hard to figure out how that got messed up.
Alonso, conversely, did get soft tires for the last ten laps of the race and was able to make his way up through the field because of it. His second pit stop could have been disastrous, when he returned to the track and had to avoid Vergne, but instead of backing off and rejoining behind the Toro Rosso he ran outside the track limits and got air over some curbs, then rejoined after he had passed Vergne. The stewards didn't issue any penalty, so Alonso kept his fifth place.
As for others we thought might make noise, last year's race winner Räikkönen was out of the race at the first corner. Disqualified from qualifying because the floor of his Lotus was beyond tolerances, he started from the back of the pack instead of pit lane. He dove into Turn 1 underneath a backmarker and made slight contact, breaking his steering. Last year's near-winner Hamilton couldn't find the speed in his Mercedes and spent his race stuck behind the Force Indias and Saubers. Hülkenberg was doing well for a solid top ten finish until he was busted for an unsafe release on his first pit stop and had to serve a drive-through penalty. He would finish 14th.
The final order was Vettel, Webber, Rosberg, Grosjean, Alonso, di Resta, Hamilton, Massa, Perez and Sutil. In case you're still counting, the win is Vettel's seventh in a row and 11th of the season. It would be ridiculous to bet against him winning the last two races of the season, even if Red Bull dials the performance of his car back by half.
Mercedes gave itself a bit more buffer in the fight for second in the Constructor's Championship, going from a four-point differential to Ferrari in third to an eleven-point spread. Lotus is still lurking in fourth, 25 points behind the Scuderia; the team out-qualified ahead of both Ferraris, and if they can get both cars to finish that way then they'll be a threat to the team in scarlet.
The next round comes on our own home turf, from the Circuit of the Americas in Texas on November 17. We'll see you then.
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