Jenson Button summed it up well when he said he wanted to finish the season in style and have some fun. He and his Brawn Mercedes team 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.
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 Renault – 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 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.’ Webber agreed: ‘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.
Formula One champion Lewis Hamilton was forced to issue a clarification about his comments regarding hosting F1 races in ‘poor place’ like India.
Hamilton had earlier stated that he did not like the idea of hosting races in new countries after this month’s announcement of the Vietnam Grand Prix.
“I’ve been to Vietnam before and it is beautiful. I’ve been to India before to a race which was strange because India was such a poor place yet we had this massive, beautiful grand prix track made in the middle of nowhere. I felt very conflicted when I went to that grand prix. We had a grand prix in Turkey and hardly anyone came.” Hamilton had said.
His comments created a storm on social media and the Mercedes driver issued a statement, saying: “I noticed some people are upset with my comment on India. My reference was that a grand prix there felt strange to drive past homeless people, then arrive in a huge arena where money was not an issue.
“They spent hundreds of millions on a track that was now never used and that money could have been spent on schools or homes. When we did have the race nobody came because it was too expensive or there was no interest.”
World champion Lewis Hamilton has backed races in traditional Formula 1 venues as opposed to new locations on the circuit.
Formula 1 chiefs continued the sport’s current trend by announcing plans earlier this month for a grand prix in Vietnam from 2020.
Venues like Bahrain, Azerbaijan, Abu Dhabi and India are among venues added to the Formula 1 calendar since 2004.
But British star Hamilton, who recently claimed his fifth world title, has questioned that approach.
“On the racing side, I don’t know how important it is to go to new countries as such,” Hamilton told BBC Sport.
“If you had the Silverstone Grand Prix and a London Grand Prix, it would be pretty cool.
“We’ve got a lot of real racing history in England, Germany, Italy and now in the States it is starting to grow. But you only have one event per year in those places.
“If it was my business, I would be trying to do more events in those countries.
“I’ve been to Vietnam before and it is beautiful.
“I’ve been to India before to a race which was strange because India was such a poor place yet we had this massive, beautiful grand prix track made in the middle of nowhere. I felt very conflicted when I went to that grand prix.
“We had a grand prix in Turkey and hardly anyone came. Cool track, cool weekend but poor audience.
“If you have the German Grand Prix and you’ve got a grand prix in Berlin, I think connecting to cities where a lot of people are is probably a good thing, not necessarily going to countries where they don’t know so much about Formula 1.”
Hamilton is two world title successes short of equalling Michael Schumacher’s all-time record of seven, and he added: “I feel I have still got more years, more days ahead if I am lucky, and there are still many mountains to climb.
“There will still be difficult times ahead. I don’t know when they will come, but I feel better prepared now than I ever have been.
“I have got to look at this season, which has been the best of my career, and think, ‘How can I improve next year?'”