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All eyes on two desert duellers

2012-11-01 08:00


As Formula 1 sets up camp in Abu Dhabi after rushing across to the desert state directly from the previous Sunday’s Indian GP the World championship focus is on only two drivers: Red Bull’s (double) reigning champion Sebastian Vettel and his 25-year-old German nemesis Fernando Alonso who has taken his Ferrari further and faster than the F2012 had any right to go.

While Red Bull has put its driver into a late title defence through levels of technical superiority at least the equal of its driver’s skill, the Italian squad has relied on 2005/6 champion Alonso’s sheer determination and utter refusal to admit defeat until every last bullet is spent – at which point the Spaniard still kicks and screams.


With only 13 points between them – either of whom stands to become the sport’s youngest triple champion within the next three races – the contrast between them could not be more marked: Teutonic efficiency versus Latin fire; British engineering takes on Italian craftsmanship; youthful enthusiasm and confidence over relentless underdog; blue versus red.

Fascinating stuff, a far cry from the seven winners in as many races during the opening third of this 20-race 2012 season, the longest championship on record, one which has to date seen 17 rounds run – more than during many a full season in recent history - yet still has 15% of calendar slots remaining.
Vettel’s Indian summer took his win tally to five and 240 points over the 227 and three victories posted by Alonso, putting the latter just half a GP win (fourth place) behind. The winless Kimi Raikkonen (173) is third and thus effectively out of it, for the Finn needs 67 points out of the 75 left in play – a feat not up to his Lotus-Renault, consistent as it is.

In India it was evident that tempers were fraying among the two finalist teams as pressure and fatigue mount, with minor slips creeping in – botched pit-stop here, under-torqued nut there. F1 cars consist of 9000 components; if a car is 99.99% right it still contains 90 suspect parts. All it needs is one and the pressure is reaching boiling point…


This weekend’s 55-lap GP holds happy memories for Vettel; it was here that the now 25-year-old in 2010 humbled Alonso to take his first title in a four-way shoot-out in the final round of the season after the Ferrari driver – title favourite going to Abu Dhabi – proved unable to overtake Vitaly Petrov’s visibly slower Renault lap upon lap.

Mention that race to Alonso and his eyebrows bristle.

The 5.554km Yas Marina Circuit is on an island of the same name in the Arabian Gulf off the coast of the Arab Emirates’ capital, Abu Dhabi. It is not unlike India’s Buddh complex in that it is a modern superstadium with a smooth surface and fast straights leading into medium-speed corners and is about the same length.

There the similarities stop, for not only is the circuit surrounded by glitz and glamour but, where last week’s race was held in hot (but smoggy) sunshine, proceedings in Abu Dhabi get under way at 5pm local time (3pm SA time, running into dark, with Saturday qualifying commencing at the same (dusky) time.

Thus the thermal qualities of Pirelli’s Soft (yellow sidewall) and Hard (white) tyres will be inversely affected despite temperatures of 30-33°C (and bone-dry skies) forecast for the weekend, for ambient/track temperature ratios will drop during the course of the race due to a lack of direct sunlight on the track surface.


This factor, plus drift which plays havoc with traction levels and a rapidly evolving track surface as the weekend progresses, provides team tacticians with interesting challenges, with two stops likely to be the winning strategy as per previous races – the first two of which were won by Vettel, with Hamilton taking the 2011 flag.

The circuit’s 21-turn layout (12L/9R) provides a demanding blend of high and low speeds. An anti-clockwise direction of travel further spices the challenge, as does the long (360m) pits-lane exiting via a (slippery) curved tunnel. The event has experienced a single pace car deployment over the three races held to date. The circuit’s wide run-off areas – some of which extend under the grandstands – mean fewer interruptions.

YMC has three very different sectors, with high-speed turns dominating the start of the lap, down to the chicane and hairpin at Turn 7. The middle sector consists of two ultra-long straights split by a slow chicane, with the end mimicking Monaco with its slow, very technical, sections.


Four of the turns are taken at more than 250km/h, five at less than 100km/h, four of the 11 braking events, are extremely heavy. Non-DRS overtakes are generally few; 2011 saw 56, of which only six were “normal”.

Although the FIA had not announced the DRS zones when this was written, paddock expectations are that there will again be two zones, the first on the long back straight between Turns 7 and 8, the second on the following kinked straight towards the Turn 11/12/13 complex.

Next week the circuit will host F1’s annual three-day rookie tests as the rest of the circus heads for the Americas for the final two rounds in Austin, Texas and Sao Paulo. Victory by Vettel or Alonso in the sands of Yas would set up either for title glory.

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