It was the year of the Big Five. It was the 60th anniversary of the Formula One world championship. And it was one of the greatest seasons in the sport’s history.
Proof of that statement? Arriving for the 19th and last race of the year, no fewer than four drivers were still in the hunt for the world title. Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel were two of them, their combined efforts having already clinched the constructors’ championship for their team. The others were McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton, the 2008 title-winner, and Fernando Alonso, who had switched from Renault to Ferrari after a disappointing 2009.
The season saw the points on offer increase to 25 for the winner, rewarding the top 10 on a scale of 25-18-15-12-10-8-6-4-2-1, which meant Alonso arrived in the lead on 246 points from Webber on 238, Vettel on 231 and Hamilton on 222.
Defending champion Jenson Button, fifth of the ‘Big Five’ and now at McLaren, had slipped out of contention on 199. Youngest of the quartet, Vettel also positioned himself as the outsider: “The target is clear,” said the German. “The speed has been there all season and it hasn’t been the easiest season for myself. But we are still in the hunt, so that is good. We try our best. The clear favourites going into this weekend are Mark and Fernando. I try to do my best race and then it depends on where those two guys are.”
Neither ‘those two guys’ nor Hamilton could prevent Vettel from taking his first Abu Dhabi pole and his 10th of the year with a time of 1:39.394, as the main stars filled the top five grid spots, Hamilton alongside Vettel on the front row, Alonso and Button behind, and Webber beside Alonso’s Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa on row three.
If Vettel was the youngest man in the title hunt, the oldest man in the field was one who had served both as inspiration and as target for the German. His compatriot Michael Schumacher, seven-time world champion, winner of 91 Grands Prix, out of the sport since 2006, had been coaxed out of retirement by Mercedes when they took over 2009 title-winners Brawn.
And it was Michael who stood out when the race got under way, for all the wrong reasons: spinning at the chicane first time round, Schumacher was about to get going again when Tonio Liuzzi’s Force India arrived.
With nowhere to go, the Italian’s car mounted the front of the Mercedes, its front left wheel stopping thankfully short of Michael’s helmet. As the dust settled, Vettel the outsider was out in front, and the ‘two other guys’, Alonso and Webber, were in trouble.
The Australian could not extract the maximum from his Bridgestone tyres and pitted after 11 laps. Ferrari reacted belatedly, deciding to cover Webber by bringing Alonso in four laps later. They both found themselves behind Vitaly Petrov’s Renault – and their chances evaporated as they remained stuck in the Russian’s wake for 40 agonising laps while Vettel and Hamilton cruised home first and second ahead of Button.
Vettel garnered 25 points to Alonso’s six and Webber’s four; he led the world championship for the first time as he crossed the Yas Marina finishing line; and he became F1’s youngest world champion at the age of 23 years and 134 days.
“I don’t know what to say but doubtless I’ll find a reason to talk forever,” said the notoriously verbose Vettel, who had ended the campaign brilliantly with victories in Brazil and Abu Dhabi to overhaul his more seasoned rivals, finishing on 256 points to Alonso’s 252 and Webber’s 240.
Five wins, 10 poles, three fastest laps and five other podiums were the bare bones of a remarkable year both for him and for his sport. Looking forward to a night of celebration, the young champion said” “The race started in daylight and I think in a way it will also finish in daylight.”
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