“You need to feel the moment when it’s time to move.”
Those words of wisdom came from Fernando Alonso, whose departure from Ferrari after a five-year stint in the scarlet cars was announced as Abu Dhabi settled into its sixth weekend as a Grand Prix venue.
In a season book-ended by new beginnings and sometimes tragic endings, two initiatives stood out, one at its start, the other at its Yas Marina Circuit conclusion, each for very different reasons.
Formula One itself had decided it was time to move away from 20th-century technology, and towards a seismic shift in the sport’s technical development. In 2014, Grand Prix cars stopped using ‘engines’ and switched to ‘power units’ whose complexity might have baffled the layman, but whose performance was staggering.
Small, turbocharged hybrid units – just 1.6 litres in the engines at their heart – were the order of the day as the front-running teams sought to harness new technology and take F1 back to the future.
Front-running teams? In truth there was only one: Abu Dhabi in 2014 saw the coronation of the first Mercedes-powered world champion since the peerless Juan Manuel Fangio in 1955, and the constructors’ title had been sewn up in Russia three races earlier.
Happily, though, the Mercedes pairing of Lewis Hamilton and Nico Rosberg had their own private fight to finish in round 19, predictably labelled the ‘duel in the desert’ as they reached Abu Dhabi with just 17 points separating the Englishman and the German who had been his friend and rival since their karting days.
That’s where the other radical initiative comes in. F1 had decided that the last race of the 2014 season should see double points awarded, an idea that threatened to artificially bias the end result of a year in which Hamilton had already won 10 times to Rosberg’s five.
Just one other driver had stood on the top step of the podium. That was Red Bull’s new recruit Daniel Ricciardo, replacing Mark Webber and instantly getting the better of Sebastian Vettel in a way his Australian compatriot rarely did.
‘Danny Ric’ and his cheesy grin won three times, the Red Bull star waning while the three-pointed star was on the rise. That performance may have been at least a small part of Vettel’s decision to leave and join Ferrari, saying “I think at some stage you want to take on a new challenge.”
When the real action began, Rosberg threw down the gauntlet with a 1:40.480 lap to take pole, but on Sunday Hamilton eclipsed his only competitor off the line. “My start was like a rocket,” he said later. “The car was fantastic, we really got it spot-on for the race.”
Rosberg’s dismay was compounded when a failure in his energy recovery system – a crucial part of the new technology – meant he was literally powerless to prevent himself from sliding back to an eventual 14th place.
Double points, thankfully, had made no difference. “This is the greatest moment of my life,” said Hamilton of his second world title, but for several others there were goodbyes to be said and new dawns – or false dawns – for some.
The latter included Felipe Massa and Williams teammate Valtteri Bottas, who finished second and third respectively. “Really, it’s just the beginning,” enthused the Brazilian. “We can do a lot more than that.”
Sadly it was momentary relief for the once-great British team, whose fall from grace sees them last in the standings as they head to Abu Dhabi in 2018. Even Alonso might look back ruefully on his farewell to Ferrari. Three-times runner-up for the Prancing Horse, Alonso added: “Now it is time to close one door, to open a new one and we’ll see how it goes.”
So badly did it go at McLaren that Abu Dhabi this year will see the great Spanish driver’s final appearance in F1… at least for now.
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.