Abu Dhabi F1 more for show?
Seventeen rounds done; two to go: that is the state of play ahead of the twilight Abu Dhabi Formula 1 Grand Prix at the space-age 5.554km Yas Marina Circuit.
The anti-clockwise circuit, one of five such layouts on the trail, is spectacular rather than scintillating, having been designed more for show and not go. Never was this more evident than last year, when a potentially explosive four-way title showdown in the desert emirate degenerated into a sandy squib after the top contenders were unable to fight their ways past backmarkers.
That said, the ultra-wide circuit has an intriguing mix of characteristics. It has 21 corners, split 12L and 9R; of these six are taken below 100 km/h - only Monaco, Singapore and Valencia have more slow speed cornering.
On the other hand, the circuit features four straights where cars exceed 285km/h: about the same number of high-speed sections as offered by Monza, with the longest straight being just 30 metres shorter than Shanghai’s benchmark. Yas Marina’s zero altitude means the engines have more power than is generally the case, with the cooler, denser evening air upping output even more. Full throttle is possible for 73% of each lap; however, DRS can be used for 60% of time during qualifying – about average.
Following criticism after last year’s borefest the FIA has decided upon two DRS race zones, which should ‘spice’ the race, even if the proffered solution is a touch artificial. Whatever, some action is better than none…
An idea of the demands placed on the drivers by the circuit in the expected stifling heat - despite the race being F1’s only dusk race – is that they will shift gear 4400 times in two hours. Although storms are forecast for earlier in the week – yes, it rains in deserts – long-term forecasts are for clear, 28°C night skies, with negligible wind blowing the region’s fine sand onto the track as had been the case during both previous races.
Pirelli has announced it will supply its medium (white marking) and soft (yellow) compounds. The dusk start and night-time finish means track temperatures will initially fall, then stabilise – extending tyre life and adding further variables – while the sweeping Turns 2, 3 and 4 sequence punishes tyres.
Unlike last year, when the big draw was the title fight, the main interest this time centres on the scrap for second place behind a certain 24-year-old German, who is rewriting record books quicker than compatriot Michael Schumacher is able to bulldoze opponents out of the way.
Having taken his maiden title with victory at this race a year ago, Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel has since reconfirmed his superiority every fortnight, and after 11 wins this year there is little reason to doubt the outcome of Sunday’s 55-lap race – save, of course, for unforeseen circumstances. Tellingly, he has won both previous editions of this GP…
With 50 points left in play for from this race and Brazil’s in a fortnight, four drivers remain in contention for ‘best of the rest’ honours: McLaren’s Jenson Button, on 240 points; Alonso, who has hauled his Ferrari about relentlessly to score 227, Vettel’s team-mate Mark Webber (221) and the mercurial Lewis Hamilton (McLaren, 202).
While last two-mentioned drivers obviously face an uphill struggle (albeit on a flat, rather angular track), the runners-up spot will likely go to Button, who knows he needs to score just 12 points more than the Spaniard to take it on count-back in Abu Dhabi.
Equally, 2005/6 champion Fernando knows that if he can stay within a dozen points of the 2009 title winner he can delay the showdown to the finale in Sao Paulo, so a real ding-dong battle is expected between the two. Strategic drivers both, they are currently at the top of their games, with the difference in their individual styles adding further to the intrigue.
Webber, too, is desperate to make an impression for he has identical kit to Vettel, yet has still to win a race this year and so has just two races left to salvage his pride. In the other silver corner the haunted-looking Hamilton needs to get a grip on himself after again crashing with Ferrari’s Felipe Massa in India – their fourth incident in six races and the sixth of the season. Where better to start rebuilding his career than here?
Then there is the question of Schumacher, whose second season since returning to F1 is drawing to a close. At time of writing rumours were circulating that the seven-times champ had extended his Mercedes contract for another year; not a rumour, though, is that in the 36 races since his return he has not come close to scoring a podium on merit, so needs to get a move on.
Although the internecine war between MS and team-mate Nico Rosberg has become closer, the latter has mostly gotten the better of Michael in qualifying and straight fights, although for both the chequer seems as far away as ever. Will Sunday deliver the reversal of fortunes Mercedes so badly needs, particularly as Aabar, the Abu Dhabi sovereign wealth fund, is a joint shareholder in the team?
The race starts at 15:00pm (SA local time) on Sunday with qualifying at the equivalent time on Saturday (November 12).
Of equal significance to the runners-up outcome is the Young Driver Test scheduled for 15-17 November at the same venue – held under conditions similar to those experienced during the race to provide meaningful comparisons. Teams are participating with one car each, with the regulations specifying which rookies may test during the three days.
Teams will have four Pirelli compounds to choose from, and the tyre company will also make available a limited number of prototype tyres during the test in preparation for the 2012 season.
Already F1 is looking to 2012…