RENCKEN's Abu Dhabi wrap-up
Having been overshadowed by Jenson Button in the wins stakes in 2011 – the 2009 champion led team mate and title predecessor Lewis Hamilton three: Two ahead of the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix – the latter made amends in fine style by taking victory from Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso by 8.4 seconds, with Button placing third despite a recalcitrant KERS.
In the process Alonso kept the runners-up battle, in which he trails Button by 10 points (245 to 255) with 25 to play for in Brazil in a fortnight – alive, thus adding an element of interest to the finale of a season already done and dusted in Japan by reigning double champion Sebastian Vettel.
All of which begs the question: where was Sebastian Vettel, who in 2011 has landed on the podium in every race bar one, finishing fourth in that one?
Simple: The Vettel suffered an instantaneous puncture in the first corner on the opening lap, and was pitched off-track by Turn 2. Although he proceeded to the pits, his Red Bull was deemed too unsafe to continue, and he posted his first retirement since Korea over a year ago. Neither non-score was his fault, which tells its own story.
However, back to a Grand Prix which the entire paddock appeared to dread after two tedious previous events, both of which were won by Vettel from pole; after Vettel planted the blue car on pole (again) with minimum fuss; without exerting effort during the prelims, and thus saving tyres.
'MY OWN BIGGEST CRITIC'
Vettel’s retirement, though, turned that upside down, and instead we were treated to a high-speed game of cat-and-mouse as Lewis drove beautifully to maintain the gap over Alonso at minimum two seconds. Yes, Hamilton had the quicker car, but has suffered from self-doubt of late due to personal issues, and it was tremendous to see him shake off the demons which recently affected his life as he threw the silver McLaren about.
He had no choice: Alonso is never more dangerous than when on a charge from the rear, and Lewis said as much after the race.
Hamilton: “This result is just fantastic; I’m usually my own biggest critic, but I really felt I maximised everything today. For most of the race I was concentrating on managing the gap to [Fernando] Alonso.
“He’ll never give you an inch, in fact,” said Hamilton.
For his part, Alonso afterwards admitted to driving at the absolute limit throughout the 55-lap race.
Alonso said: “It was an individual race against time. I was doing qualifying laps every lap trying to close the gap, but it was one tenth up or down for the whole stint, and we dominated.”
Yes, he suffered bad luck, first when stuck behind an HRT on his in-lap ahead of his final stop, then again when a wheel nut jammed, meaning he exited the pits a couple of hundred metres behind the McLaren which had stopped a couple of laps before him. However, the bottom line was that only superhuman effort and incredible daring at the start hauled the red car that far up the order from fifth on the grid.
Also hit by ill luck was Button, whose McLaren had only intermittent KERS from Lap 14 onwards, meaning at times he was a sitting duck when faced with attacks from the rear. Worse, his braking was affected, for during energy harvesting process under braking, KERS provides additional retardation, and thus Button was faced with an inconsistent brake pedal.
Still he kept it all together to stay ahead of Mark Webber, who was another to suffer at the hand of fate, for he, too, suffered a slow stop due to a recalcitrant wheel nut, then found himself on Pirelli’s “softs” for three stints, forcing a last-lap stop which left the Webber unable to challenge Button for the final podium slot and on.
Talking of which, Pirelli had forecast two-stoppers for the front-runners, and, save for Webber, proved on the money after the relatively cool conditions facilitated by twilight made life easy for both compounds.
Having suffered unwelcome attention from Hamilton during the past few events, Felipe Massa likely had mixed feelings about seeing his nemesis so far up the road, but that did not stop the Brazilian from having moments of his own.
First he hit somebody’s debris, then half spun before suffering tyre issues, yet still he managed to finish in the top half of the first ten – something he failed to do since the German Grand Prix in July.
Nico Rosberg proved he is not to be toyed with, not even by his own team-mate, the seven-time former champion Michael Schumacher. Having lost his qualifying advantage over his compatriot at the start, the young German robustly snatched back the effective sixth place, thereafter remaining the lead Mercedes driver save for during the pit stop reshuffles, while Schumacher discreetly settled for seventh.
Eighth and ninth went to Force India twins Adrian Sutil and Paul di Resta, leaving the team with an interesting conundrum: the word in the paddock is that the former will be released at season-end to make way for Nico Hulkenberg, while the latter keeps his place despite having been out-raced 12:6 to date - go figure. Sauber’s Kamui Kobayashi finished a plodding tenth after qualifying a plodding 15th.
BACK ON FORM
Thus the third Abu Dhabi Grand Prix drew to a close, with Hamilton’s victory being his third of the season. This continues a remarkable run which has seen all 2011 Grands Prix to date won by world champions – with Vettel having won 11 to the three each of Button and Hamilton, and singleton victory of Alonso.
Equally remarkable is that one world champion – Michael Schumacher – has yet to make a podium and on today’s evidence it seems unlikely that either he or Webber will upset the status quo in Sao Paulo.
By the same token it is unlikely that Hamilton would have won had Vettel not retired, with Alonso’s issues eventually handing the Briton an unchallenged victory.
Hamilton came to Abu Dhabi still wearing a haunted look and left five days later with a smile. A quivering one, yes, but as he said, “It’s early days yet, but this is definitely a good start.”
Indeed it is.