Kimi gets a race crown at last
Author: DIETER RENCKEN
If ever a race proved Formula 1 2012-style is not the lottery many of its detractors suggested it was Sunday’s 55-lap Abu Dhabi GP which not only supplied a thrill a minute for its full one hour and 45 minutes but also saw four World champions representing as many teams occupy the top four places.
Each had a different objective but and at the end the top three could justifiably claim “mission accomplished”, with the fourth driver certainly not leaving the space-age Yas Marina Circuit disappointed.
For winner Kimi Raikkonen it was simple: Return to the top step after a number of fought-for podiums in his come-back season with Lotus, in itself seeking not only a title sponsor but also investors willing to acquire anything up to 39% of the black/gold team to keep it alive.
Across at Ferrari, the motivation was slightly different: enable Fernando Alonso to close the 13-point gap to championship leader Sebastian Vettel while keeping Red Bull Racing honest in the Constructors’ championship and consolidating second place over McLaren. Tall order, yes, but with the Spaniard in your corner anything is possible – as he proved with his hair-raising drive to second to reduce the deficit by three points.
Vettel needed to limit the damage of a swingeing back-of-the-grid penalty after his Red Bull team plain screwed up his qualifying fuel load then attempted to bluff its way through subsequent investigations.
Remarkably, the reigning double champion came within a whisker of winning, with only a precautionary second pit stop for a change of rubber scuppering a “blast from last” win. The final podium slot was the German’s just reward, particularly as he had to start from the back twice – the second time thanks to replacing a front wing assembled that was also damaged twice.
Jenson Button also had reason to be satisfied with his Sunday evening’s work, cheering the boys at McLaren after the bitter blow of seeing team mate Lewis Hamilton retire with fuel-pressure issues while holding a comfortable lead after starting from the pole. Yes, Button lost a podium to Vettel only three laps from the end, but he was fighting a man on a mission, a man driving the fastest car on the grid on fresher rubber.
NO MITIGATING CIRCUMSTANCES
In fact, of the top-six starters (and seven qualifiers) only Lewis and Mark Webber would leave the desert sands unrewarded, for Pastor Maldonado (Williams), who started fourth, kept his nose clean. Lewis could justifiably point elsewhere for the blame - by Lap 21 a pole-to-flag victory by the 2008 champion seemed a foregone conclusion; a lap later he was out.
Webber, however, could not plead mitigating circumstances: the Australian tangled first with Felipe Massa’s Ferrari then became involved in a three-way shunt which virtually destroyed his Red Bull. As he said, “Today nothing went right.” Still, his antics added more spice to an already incident-packed race…
Truth be told, this event had been dreaded by many in the paddock, particularly as memories of last week’s Indian bore-fest were still fresh in most minds, plus, of course, what had gone before at this venue: two runaway victories for Vettel in 2009/10; ditto for Hamilton last year.
Then Pirelli’s motorsport director Paul Hembery rubbed salt: the surface of this cutting-edge circuit was, he predicted, too smooth to cause tyre degradation of consequence so one-stoppers were on the agenda. In the end most drivers started the race on Soft compounds, with the exception of Mercedes’ Michael Schumacher, the Williams of Bruno Senna and Vettel.
NEW NOSE, FRESH RUBBER
For 20 laps it seemed the pessimists were on the money. After the opening lap reshuffle Hamilton pulled away from Raikkonen as Maldonado kept Alonso at bay, with Vettel, whose team had taken advantage of his relegation to the back by electing to start from the pits lane, 13th by Lap 7. This ploy enabled Red Bull to optimise gear ratios and car set-up rather than run to qualifying specification.
A pace car phase, caused by a collision on lap 12 between Nico Rosberg’s Mercedes and Narain Karthikeyan’s HRT after hydraulic failure left the latter without power steering or gear selection, had the potential to change the face of the race, but didn’t – save for Vettel, who dinged a front wing while weaving behind a slower car.
His team called him in for new nose and fresh rubber – which proved his downfall, for his Medium tyres had five laps in them, which ultimately happened to be his shortfall on Softs towards the end, forcing him into the second stop which put an end to his victory aspirations.
Hamilton’s demise eight laps later let Kimi through into a lead he would not relinquish, not even after a second pace car session forced by the Sergio Perez/Webber incident, concertinaed the field all over again. The all-clear was given with 12 laps remaining and 2005/6 champion Alonso tried every which way to unsettle his title successor – to no avail.
“Tonight I’ll go to sleep thinking the glass is half full rather than half empty,” said F1’s matador afterwards. “We must be proud of what we have done, the work of the mechanics at the track and the engineers who tried to fine-tune the car. I fought from start to finish, first with Maldonado, then Jenson and, in the end I tried to catch Kimi. I could not relax for a single lap. The best race of the year? It’s still to come...”
The battle behind the leading two cars was no less fierce, with Vettel determined to get by Button’s McLaren to deal with his pesky nemesis in the red car. He succeeded in displacing Button but was by then too far back to trouble Alonso – who beat the Red Bull by four seconds, having finished 0.8sec behind the winner.
Vettel’s happy summary: “It was a good race for us, a big chance for Ferrari and Fernando, but we didn’t allow it. I enjoyed it a lot today, more than anything.
“I damaged the front wing pretty early with Bruno, which was not ideal, but we were able to carry on and not lose too much. Then, during the safety car, maybe I didn’t pay enough attention. Daniel was slowing down, just as I was warming the tyres and I got surprised.”
Maldonado silenced his critics - of which there are too many - with a fine drive to fifth, with Kamui Kobayashi raising a cheer at Sauber with sixth, enough to bring the independent Swiss team to within 12 points of Mercedes for fifth in the Constructors’ title race.
Felipe Massa took the second Ferrari to a lacklustre seventh and Brazilian compatriot Bruno Senna (Williams) rounded off the top eight. Ninth and 10th went to Paul di Resta (Force India) and Daniel Ricciardo (Toro Rosso).
The fourth Abu Dhabi will not go down as an all-time classic but it deserves a place in the annals of F1 history if only because the race delivered the eighth winner of the season while producing a superb spectacle against the odds. The result will not have done Austin’s inaugural GP, scheduled for November 18, any harm, while likely setting up a dramatic finale in Sao Paulo a week later.
Let Kimi have the final word: “You never know what’s going to happen during a race; the safety (pace) cars made it quite tricky but I’ve had similar races many, many times through 2012.
“Today we had a clear circuit to be able to use our speed. Perhaps we were not the fastest at the end, but we were quick enough and consistent enough to win so it’s great for the team.”