Issue 42: Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Review


24 November 2014

Race Summary: Lewis Hamilton won a narrow victory ahead of the two Williams of Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas. Daniel Ricciardo took an impressive fourth place after starting from the pit lane ahead of Jenson Button’s McLaren in fifth. Sebastian Vettel came home in eighth place while the two Ferrari’s toiled to a dismal ninth and tenth places. Nico Rosberg struggled home in 14th position.

How the title was won

The red lights went out.

Hamilton launched off the start line like a rocket ship, hooking it up perfectly.

He had passed Rosberg – starting from pole – before the first corner and broke free into a dramatic lead. The Briton had track position!

Rosberg’s good work in qualifying was undone immediately. The pressure now fell on the German to chase and repass Hamilton. It was an overtake he had to make to have any chance of winning the drivers’ title. In the first phase of the race, Hamilton maintained an approximate 1-2 second lead over his team-mate, which turned into a 2-2.5 second lead after the first round of pit stops on Laps 10-11.

Then disaster.

Rosberg had a bad lap (Lap 23), going off the track but rejoining. However, it quickly became clear that he was losing engine power and falling rapidly off the pace. As the race progressed, Rosberg would drop through the field like a stone. However, Hamilton knew that although his chief rival had hit trouble, he still had to finish because Rosberg might yet score points, perhaps enough points to snatch victory from defeat.

This title wasn’t done by any means. The tension ratcheted up.

Hamilton’s car might also fail him and by matching his pace to Rosberg’s, Hamilton encouraged the advances of Felipe Massa. There was a sniff of a win in the air for the Brazilian. Could the race and the title swing back to Rosberg? It looked unlikely, but not by Lap 50 when Rosberg fell out of the points did it look impossible.

Few other live sporting events can match an F1 title fight unfolding on the track in front of us. We know how it ends now, but at the time, in the heat of the moment, it was on a knife-edge. It was slow torture watching the laps tick down.

One might argue that Rosberg’s Energy Recovery System-Kinetic (ERS-K) failure in the race cost him the world championship. My view is that it certainly cost him the chance to challenge Hamilton for the lead once again – and robbed us the fans of a truly grandstand finish to 2014 – but Hamilton had done enough prior to Rosberg’s mechanical failure to show that the title would have been his in a straight fight. Looking at the lap charts, it’s clear that the Briton had a (slight) race pace advantage over Rosberg, setting quicker times on most laps until Rosberg’s problem, and of course he had secured track position by the first corner. From the very early laps, therefore, the odds were stacked increasingly in Hamilton’s favour.

Thinking back to my pre-race scenarios, the race then unfolded according to a mix of Scenarios 1 and 2. The race – and the title – turned on Hamilton securing track position early on and his superior race pace. Rosberg’s ERS-K failure meant that a Swing Factor did come into play, but it did not cost him the world title. It did, of course, make Hamilton’s job that bit easier, despite the charging Williams of Massa at the end.

Thinking of the counterfactual for a moment, if Rosberg had re-passed Hamilton for the lead, the Briton would have been under pressure to stay ahead of Massa in the final phase of the race to win the title. In this scenario, Massa’s aggressive strategy would have increased the chances of a Williams interfering in Mercedes’ race. Instead of managing his car, Hamilton would have had to have matched Massa’s pace, pushing his car harder than he would have liked. This alternative ending would have certainly been a cliff-hanger!

Rosberg to his credit, coaxed his ailing Mercedes to the finish. That decision as well as his manner in defeat marked him out. Mercedes have two star drivers and a star car.

A great racing team roars again!

It seemed only fitting that Williams achieved their best result of the season at the final race. In 2014, they had the best powertrain, produced a great chassis and signed a great driver combination. What a contrast to their trials of 2013 and before. What I admired most about Williams’ race in Abu Dhabi was their decision to bolt the Supersoft tyres on to Massa’s car for a final phase assault on the leader. A lesser team would have gone to Soft tyres and made certain of second place, accepting that the win was out of reach. Not Williams. They showed what true racers they are.

With all the cost pressure that the smaller teams are under, F1 is lucky to still have the Williams team.

The lap charts show Massa was consistently quicker than Bottas throughout the Grand Prix. He thoroughly deserved that second place.

Red Bull gives Daniel wings!!!

Behind the Mercedes and the Williams, there was some great action down the field. Ricciardo produced another storming drive – gotta be drive of the race – to climb from the pit lane to fourth position at the flag after both Red Bulls had been excluded from qualifying for excessive front wing flexing. In my book, Ricciardo’s was an even more impressive result than Vettel’s drive from the back of the grid to third place in 2012 because Ricciardo’s charge through the pack was not aided by the safety car unlike Vettel’s. Not for the first time this year, Ricciardo simply made better use of his tyres than Vettel, and set quicker lap times for most of the race.

Button and Alonso gave us some cracking dicing on Laps 28-30 for 10th position. However, for Alonso at least this was a poor showing. In fact, Abu Dhabi was a disaster for Ferrari, as Alonso and Raikkonen came home in ninth and tenth places. This was sadly reminiscent of Bahrain for the Scuderia; in both Grands Prix, a lack of engine driveability was their undoing.

A penny for Vettel’s thoughts as he passed both Ferraris on his way up from the pit lane to eighth place. Is this move to Ferrari really a good one?

Look out for my 2014 season review in the coming days.