Yas Marina: A track record of innovation

Matt Majendie looks at Grand Prix racing at Yas Marina Circuit, and the story so far in its short but exciting history.

Matt Majendie
by Matt Majendie
25th November 2015

article:25th November 2015

To say the Yas Marina Circuit is a bit special is an understatement. The circuit designer Hermann Tilke still ranks Abu Dhabi as his favourite creation and it is a sentiment shared by many in F1.

“I think visually it’s my best,” he said. “It’s the most spectacular and I had a lot of fun designing it.”

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Since the race was added to the calendar in 2009 as F1’s first daynight race, there has been no denying how visually spectacular it is as the sun sets and the colourful lights on the Yas Viceroy Hotel, encompassed within the circuit, illuminate the night sky.

F1 supremo Bernie Ecclestone has been even more effusive than Tilke about Yas Marina, last year marking it out as the benchmark for other grands prix to follow.

“We are very proud of the Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix,” he said. “They have done a super job, Yas Marina has set a new benchmark in F1.”

Ecclestone then went on to liken it to a modern-day Monaco and in what is the seventh running of the race this weekend, it is clear the Etihad Airways Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has cemented its place on the calendar.

Lewis Hamilton celebrates winning the title at last year’s race.

Its history has been brief but it is a combination of both innovation and drama, acting as the climactic backdrop to two Formula 1 driver’s championships: first in 2010 and again last season. In that timeframe, though, it has had its share of critics, with some drivers saying it was ‘too safe’. But such criticism has oft been levelled at the modern Tilke-designed circuits more broadly with what has been perceived as excessively forgiving run-off areas.

For a circuit supposedly lacking flow, it has had its fair share of drama. In 2009, it was the novelty of the race weekend that stood out rather than the racing as Jenson Button arrived with the world title already sewn up at the previous race weekend in Brazil.

It was Button’s subsequent teammate Lewis Hamilton that set the standard early on until a brake issue forced him to retire and Sebastian Vettel performed a one-man roadshow to greet the chequered flag for a Red Bull one-two but with teammate Mark Webber trailing 17 seconds behind.

“Yas Marina has set a new benchmark in Formula One” – Bernie Ecclestone

There were novel factors in that it was the last race in which refuelling was allowed, Toyota’s Jarno Trulli the recipient of a top-up on lap 42, while it was also the last time the 10-9-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 points was used. It is unlikely that Abu Dhabi will be remembered for that even by the staunchest of F1 statisticians. Instead, the iconic 2010 season led to what, arguably, was the best race so far. It was a weekend that began with the mathematical possibility that one of four drivers could walk away with the world title. 

Fernando Alonso found himself in the box seat with 246 points, with Webber second on 238 and Sebastian Vettel third with 231 and Hamilton an outside bet with a tally of 222. It was the only time in F1’s rich history that four drivers have had a chance of winning the title at the final grand prix of the season. 

It proved to be Vettel that ended the weekend on top to start a remarkable period of dominance in the sport which equated to four straight world titles with Red Bull.

Webber and Alonso both made costly decisions to pit early and found themselves held up lap after lap by Vitaly Petrov, thereby erasing their title hopes and they were left to ponder what could have been.

There was no such drama a year on as Vettel, with a second title comfortably sewn up, set out to equal Michael Schumacher’s record of 13 race wins in a season only to be denied by his first race retirement of the entire season. In his absence, Hamilton led from lights to flag for the victory. Abu Dhabi has seen a fluctuation of fortunes for the Briton in its brief history, Hamilton returning to the scene of his triumph the following year only to be sidelined by fuel pressure problems.

In what was turning into a duel for the title between Alonso and Vettel, neither driver could take the win among a cavalcade of crashes, Alonso pushing late on for the win following a safety car only to be denied by Kimi Raikkonen for what was the then Lotus driver’s first race victory since his return from his sabbatical. There was the novel moment in the aftermath, with Raikkonen and Vettel being censured by stewards for bad language on the podium.

For the 2013 race, Vettel kept the profanities to a minimum as he passed pole sitter Webber off the line to take an early lead he never looked like conceding. Such was the procession that his closest rival was more than 30 seconds behind him.

Last season, Vettel effectively disappeared without a trace, his period of dominance finally coming to an end as Hamilton and Nico Rosberg battled it out for the race and title plaudits in Abu Dhabi.

Both Mercedes drivers had the chance of being crowned world champion at the season finale with the controversial introduction of double points for 2014 race, an unpopular rule that has since been scrapped. If nothing else, it created suspense and ensured for the second time the title would be decided at Yas Marina, although, sadly, Rosberg’s car suffered power failure and saw him finish 14th.

With Rosberg out of the picture, Hamilton drove the rest of the race in the knowledge that a second title of his career – to add to that won with McLaren in 2008 – had been sealed immaterial of what happened in the race.

But he still took the win – his 11th win of the season – an outcome which he described as “the greatest day of my life”.

Quite what lies in store over the course of Sunday’s 55 laps with Hamilton’s third world title sewn up, remains to be seen.