“We want to finish the season in style with a great result, but we can be a little more relaxed in our approach to the weekend – and of course, it’s always fun to try a new track.”
Jenson Button summed it up beautifully.
He and his Brawn Mercedes team – the phoenix rising from ashes of Honda’s failed F1 return – were embarking on the first Abu Dhabi Grand Prix weekend just 11 days after securing the Drivers’ World Championship in Brazil, so no wonder the 29-year-old Englishman was in easy-going mode.
But drivers are competitive animals, and there was something at stake: the honour of being the first man to take victory on the UAE’s brand-new Yas Marina Circuit, whose state-of-the-art facilities had Formula 1 folk positively purring with pleasure.
“It’s just unbelievable what the country has done to build a venue such as this,” said Red Bull Racing’s Christian Horner. “It’s quite mind-blowing really, and the circuit looks a quality circuit as well, not just a pretty background.”
Part of the attraction, of course, was the way in which the whole track came glowingly to life as daylight faded and floodlighting picked out the spectacular setting, its architecture bowing gracefully to the country’s past while welcoming the modern phenomenon of Grand Prix racing with open arms.
The quickest man in Friday’s opening practice session was none other than Lewis Hamilton, who was then a McLaren driver, albeit with Mercedes power. Hamilton is one of just five drivers in the 2018 field who competed in Abu Dhabi back in 2009, the others being Sebastian Vettel, Kimi Räikkönen, Fernando Alonso and Romain Grosjean.
When things got serious in Saturday’s qualifying, Hamilton was first to claim pole at Yas Marina with a lap of 1:40.948 in Q3, though he had been quicker in both Q1 and Q2. Alongside him was Vettel’s Red Bull – so neither Brawn could make it to the front row.
That simply underlined the fact that the 2009 season was the proverbial game of two halves. While Button won six times, those victories all came within the opening seven rounds. His teammate Rubens Barrichello claimed Brawn’s other two wins in 2009, and the fourth of their 1-2 finishes came in round 13 in Italy.
But no-one was complaining, least of all Button’s competitors. Jarno Trulli of Toyota put it succinctly.
“When he had the best car, he proved he was a race-winning driver,” said the Italian. “And when he didn’t, he stayed cool and he collected the points. He deserves to be champion.”
But in the end neither the new world champion nor the pole-sitter could write his name in the Yas Marina history book – not yet, at least. Hamilton was sidelined by a right rear brake issue after 20 laps, leaving Vettel to bring his Red Bull home for the fifth win of his fledgling career.
Button did, however, light up the race with his pursuit of Vettel’s teammate, Mark Webber, in the closing stages. The Australian, fresh from victory in Brazil, produced one of the finest drives of his F1 career to keep Button at bay and make it a Red Bull 1-2 finish ahead of the two Brawns.
“I thought I could pull it off,” Jenson said, ‘”but Mark is always hard to pass. We were on the edge, but it was good fun, and clean.”
“I knew it would be fair and hard, and it was,” he added. “It’s good to have a ding-dong fight with the world champion.”
And in his typical pithy fashion, it was Webber who also had the last word on F1’s newest destination.
“It’s an awesome place when it’s lit up,” he said.
The intervening years have done nothing to contradict that view.
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