In 2013, Sebastian Vettel claimed his third victory in five appearances in Abu Dhabi, a circuit where he had so far started from the front row four times, including two pole positions. But then, why should Abu Dhabi be any different?
Vettel had clinched his fourth straight world title the weekend before in India, where he took his seventh successive victory. Abu Dhabi was the third-last race on that year’s calendar; Vettel duly won in Texas and Brazil to make it nine successive wins, equalling a record set by Alberto Ascari – over two seasons in 1952-53, at the dawn of the World Championship. Would Vettel be in cruise mode coming to the Middle East?
“We enjoy the challenge,” he retorted, “and that’s why there’s no question as to why we are here and what we have to do. We want to race the others as hard as possible. If we have a chance, we want to win.”
Curiously, the previous year’s winner was almost an absentee. Kimi Raikkonen, in dispute with Lotus over alleged non-payment of his salary during 2013, arrived late and would eventually stay away from both Austin and Interlagos as the season wound down.
But it was another departing driver who was determined not to let Seb have it all his own way at Yas Marina. His Red Bull teammate Mark Webber had announced his decision to retire after 12 seasons in F1, and the Australian was bent on going out in style.
Never comfortable on the tight confines of Yas Marina’s layout, especially its second half, Webber screwed his courage to the sticking-point with a best lap of 1:39.957 to claim his 13th and final F1 pole position, equalling the number set by his compatriot Sir Jack Brabham.
“Fortunately I have a guy in the other car who’s pretty handy at these types of track,” Webber said, “and you do some learning in that respect.”
The educational theme was to continue once the red lights went out. As often happened, pole meant little as Webber was again beaten off the line, not only by Vettel from the front row but by the Mercedes of Nico Rosberg from behind. Vettel was in the lead by Turn 1, and a master-class had just begun.
So quick was Vettel that he could afford the luxury of a lap 14 pit stop and still emerge in the lead, and now he really was in cruise mode: he eventually came home by a margin of over half a minute from Webber, who got the better of Rosberg after 20 laps, and the Mercedes driver himself.
The race’s most significant incident came when Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, emerging from his second pit stop, found himself confronted by the Toro Rosso of Jean-Eric Vergne as he rejoined the track.
Never one to flinch, the Spaniard planted his foot, took to the kerbs and the Ferrari was briefly airborne as he held position.
In that astonishing 2013 season Red Bull driver Vettel eventually won 13 Grands Prix, equalling another record held by Michael Schumacher since 2004. Little did serial winner Sebastian – or anyone else – know that it would be his final Abu Dhabi victory to date as the Silver Arrows of Mercedes waited in the wings for their own chance to fly.
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.”