The Big Five were still F1’s dominant force, but only four of them figured in Yas Marina’s third Grand Prix in 2011. Well, to be accurate, Sebastian Vettel did – but only for one corner, before the right rear tyre of his Red Bull Renault disintegrated and flung the only man so far to have won in Abu Dhabi into instant retirement.
No real harm done: Vettel was unscathed, and the 2011 title was already wrapped up, a job he had taken care of in Japan three races previously. And in any case Seb had already tasted glory in Abu Dhabi in 2011.
It came when he secured pole position with a time of 1:38.481. It wasn’t the time that mattered, though, it was the quantity – this was his 14th pole of 2011, equalling the season record held by Nigel Mansell. Vettel was five years old when Nigel achieved that feat for Williams in 1992.
But he has always been a driver with an eye for F1’s minor trophies – pole positions, fastest laps –and he screamed ‘Believe in it, baby, believe in it!’ as soon as he knew he had matched the record. ‘Good evening, Mr. Mansell’ was how his Red Bull team responded. More was to come.
This was the start of a three-year period in which Abu Dhabi did not host the final race of the season, so Vettel went to Brazil two weeks later and set a new record of 15 poles. “There is no box in the car that I open and get it from,” said Vettel of his qualifying brilliance. “I felt there was more in the car and we just had to get to it.”
He showed his awareness of the sport’s history, too, when he said of Mansell: “He obviously took two races less to achieve the same but still, it’s something very special.”
Only two other men had taken pole position in 2011. One was Vettel’s Red Bull teammate Mark Webber, beating Vettel in Spain, Great Britain and Germany, with Lewis Hamilton the only other pole-sitter in Korea.
But with 2011’s ‘Mr Mansell’ gone from the Abu Dhabi race, it was Hamilton who romped home to his third win of the season and his first since July in Germany, the result, some observers felt, of turbulence in his private life rather than any fading of his skills. Hamilton agreed.
“At the moment I’m sitting above the clouds,” he said on arrival at Yas Marina Circuit, and he proved it with one of his more serene performances. “I feel fantastic,” he added after heading home Fernando Alonso’s Ferrari and his own McLaren teammate Jenson Button.
“I think it was one of my best races. I said that to myself as I slowed down, just being able to hold off one of the best drivers in the world throughout the race is something that is very, very tough to do. I can get on my flight tonight and smile.”
If not being the final race was new to Abu Dhabi, so was DRS – the Drag Reduction Scheme which acknowledged modern F1 cars’ limitations when caught in the turbulent air behind other cars and allowed the driver to open a ‘letter-box’ in the rear win to reduce drag temporarily and so increase top speed. At Yas Marina there were two DRS ‘zones’, between Turns 7 and 8 and between Turns 10 and 11.
“I think definitely it’s a big step forward,” said Vitaly Petrov, who ironically had been the main beneficiary in Abu Dhabi the previous year when the lack of such a driver aid as DRS had helped keep Alonso stuck behind him.
“I think we will keep it for five to ten years, I think it’s a good chance for us to overtake.” And he was right: while Petrov’s F1 stay was short-lived, DRS is still with us – and still the subject of considerable controversy.
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.”
“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.