Entering The Twilight Zone: The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2011

When Sebastian Vettel beat the McLaren boys to pole position on Saturday, the world took a deep breath. ‘Here we go again’, we thought. ‘Another boring Abu Dhabi race, where Vettel will win without breaking a sweat’, we said. We were wrong. About Vettel, anyway.

With the five lights extinguished, Vettel made a flying start from pole position, and it looked like we would have another race where the young German would just waltz off into the distance. That’s not to say that the rest of the pack had poor starts; far from it. The McLarens had both their brains and cars in gear, and Webber made one of the best starts of his year. But Vettel’s start was exemplary. On the exit of turn one, Sebastian ran slightly wide, an insignificant mistake, but it might just have had a massive consequence. Turning into the second corner, the Red Bull looked unsettled, uneasy, and unbalanced, and he soon found himself pointed the wrong way on the grass. A catastrophic failure of the right rear tyre meant he had no grip and no way out of the spin. The reason for the puncture is unclear, but the effect was huge. The tyre delaminated, flailing about, and destroyed the suspension and floor of that corner of the car during his slow drive to the pits. There was no way back for Vettel, and he clocked his first retirement since Korea last year. Hamilton was now in the box-seat, and no doubt with a grin stretching from one side of his crash helmet to the other. He started to pull a small lead over his team-mate, before Button was passed into the chicane out the back of the circuit by Alonso, who had no time to waste; he really wanted this one, and saw his odds improve massively with Vettel out of the race. A few laps later, Jenson had Webber all over him, and Mark made a great move into the chicane, although he had the benefit of the DRS to help him make the move. Straight away, they entered the second DRS zone, and then the McLaren had the advantage, sweeping back in front for now. Further down the field the same thing was happening between Buemi and di Resta, with every point so important for those teams locked in a five-way battle for fifth in the championship. It then became apparent that Button had lost KERS on his McLaren, making it slower and more difficult to drive, the last thing anyone wants with a fast Australian on their tail. The next time round, Webber used the first DRS zone to close up, and the second to make his move. He looked like he was going to back out of it, but when Jenson locked up, he went up the inside and took the position. However, that forced him on a slightly wider line for the next corner, they stayed wheel to wheel, and Button was able to go up the inside and take the place back. It was an exciting battle, but comes to a close when Mark pits and was held up by a slow right-rear tyre at the stop. It appeared to be the Achilles heal of the Red Bull team in Abu Dhabi. Fortunately for Jenson, the KERS system got reset on his McLaren, and he proceeded to set his fastest lap of the race, and enabled him to do the second fastest overall, after Mark Webber. From then, the race becomes less interesting. Backmakers consistently get in the way of the leaders, Massa lost a lot of time with an unforced error, Webber tries to make a three-stop strategy work for him (which it doesn’t), and Alonso has a poor final stop, making it seem a done deal for Hamilton out in front. Crossing the line under the cover of darkness, Hamilton became the first man other than Sebastian Vettel to win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and he dedicated the magnificent win to his mum.

Drive of the day: A number of drivers had a great race. Sebastian Vettel had a great start and did the first turn quite well, but let’s look at the guys who made the race distance. Firstly Alonso, still regarded by many as the best driver in the sport, drove a great race to second, overtaking Button at the start in commanding fashion. He kept in touch with Hamilton for most of the race, but any challenge he could have mounted was undone in his final pitstop, and he had to settle for second. But it was another reminder from the man that he is über-talented. Button drove well with KERS problems and a car that didn’t behave quite how he would have liked, but it is difficult to say that he would have been on the podium had Vettel not retired. However, with third place he becomes the first team-mate to finish above Hamilton in the championship standings. His fight with Webber, who also had a good day but was probably on the wrong strategy, was the highlight of the race by far. Exciting, long-lasting, but with an underlying respect throughout. Rosberg too can say he did well at Abu Dhabi, the first guy in behind the top teams, and within 2 seconds of Massa. It was the best the car could give him, and he did well to extract the maximum from it; a well deserved 8 points for the German. But the drive of the day has to be the race winner, Lewis Hamilton. He didn’t put a foot wrong throughout the whole race, and stayed focused when his main rival for the win spun off in front of him; it’s all too easy to get sucked into someone else’s accident like that. He was on the ball all day, and we got to see the Lewis of old again. It was nice to have him back, and delightful to hear him devote the win to him mum as a birthday present. A great drive from a great driver.

Disappointment of the day: There are a few contenders here too. Massa had yet another disappointing weekend, finishing 50 seconds off the lead, and unable to break the 1:44.000 barrier. It’s definitely a season to forget for Felipe. Maldonado once again showed us he has his seat because of his sponsors, not because he can drive. He did gain from his starting position, but when you start behind the HRTs, Lotuses and Virgins, you kind of expect that. He was found twice to hold up the leaders under the blue flags, gaining a drive-through and a 30 second post-race penalty for doing so. He has since complained about the penalties, saying the stewards are inconsistent. Here’s the thing, Pastor: if you don’t want the penalty, don’t do the crime. Alguersuari also gained a post-race penalty for ignoring blue flags, but only 20 seconds as he only did it once. Compared to the Toro Rosso man’s performances of late, it was a poor weekend from Jamie. With lots of guys looking for a seat at STR, it’s a bad time of year to lose form. Senna also failed to show, complaining about his blue flag-related penalty as well, and was last man in front of the new teams. With results like that, you can see why Lotus (Renault) are thinking of putting Grosjean alongside Petrov next year. But the real disappointment was, once again, the Abu Dhabi track. It is clearly not designed to induce overtaking. If we didn’t have the DRS, it would have been a snoozefest to rival Valencia. Paul di Resta was asked what he thought of the circuit. He talked about the facilities being amazing. You know that when a driver chooses to chat about the offices, kitchens, and toilets instead of the track, it isn’t a good event. It was the best Abu Dhabi race we’ve had so far; but to be honest, that isn’t really saying much.


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