Hannah Taylor, F1 Correspondent
Following the penultimate race of the Formula One 2011 season, as the third Abu Dhabi Grand Prix came to a close; McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton was the man who took the top step of the podium. In a surprising turn of events at the beginning of the race, as Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel initially maintained his first place and suddenly made a swift exit from the Grand Prix, this led the way for Hamilton to take control at the front and allowed him to secure his 17th Formula One career victory to date.
Hamilton explained how it felt to take the victory and how the race went on the whole. “This result is just fantastic. I’m usually my own biggest critic – I’m always hard on myself when I make mistakes – but I really felt like I maximised everything today. To be able to sustain that kind of pace, under constant pressure, and not make mistakes, is really satisfying… To have Jenson on the podium alongside me was great – great for me, great for him, great for the team, and a great boost as we move towards the end of the season,” commented Hamilton.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso was next in line, and as a result of picking up second place the Spaniard split the McLaren boys on the podium. Consequently, Jenson Button completed the trio of Champions line up as he secured third place in the end.
While Hamilton and Alonso seemed to keep out of heated scraps for position, Button found himself at war with Mark Webber in the second Red Bull. At various stages of the Grand Prix action Button and Webber fought for position. However, along the way at times both drivers lost positions to each other, but Button’s patience prevailed when he eventually found an opportunity to pass by and finished ahead of the Australian on the final lap of the race.
Although Vettel was true to form in qualifying yesterday, as the reigning World Champion secured his 14th pole position of the season, the German’s luck changed before the race had barely begun today. Despite being the polesitter and keeping the rest of the field behind him, Vettel suddenly spun and appeared to puncture his right rear tyre after going across the kerb at Turn 1. Even though it was not clear whether going over the kerb had caused the rubber to come off the rim, Vettel’s car was beyond repair in any case as he had to gingerly drive it back to the pits. Nevertheless, this spelt the end of Vettel’s race and his first retirement since the Korean Grand Prix last year.
With Vettel out of the picture this meant his closest Championship rivals could breathe a sigh of relief. As a result of Vettel’s early exit from the race, Hamilton took over first place and led with Alonso on his tail. Hamilton’s team mate Button came next in the running order, and the 2009 World Champion was closely followed by Webber in fourth place.
After Vettel’s mysterious tyre puncture occurred on the track, it seemed that Lotus Renault’s Bruno Senna thought it would be a good time to pit for a tyre change. Although this did not work out strategy wise as the Brazilian had planned, it was reported that he was hoping for a safety car period which was the reasoning behind his early pit stop. Sadly, this was not the case for Senna and he dropped down to 21st place as a result of this.
As well as Senna being one of the first to blink for a pit stop, he was soon accompanied by another midfield driver on lap three. Sauber’s Sergio Perez made an appearance in the pits, and during his visit the Mexican had a new nose cone fitted to his car. It was reported that this damage may have been due to contact with someone else in the field. After getting back on track with the remaining runners, Perez slotted back in just behind Senna to hold onto 22nd place.
Towards the front of the field when the racing action was in its early stages, Button and Webber began their scrap for position. Once the DRS had been enabled on lap three, the use of this gadget played into the hands of Button first of all. The Englishman was able to make his first move stick, as he jumped into third place and Webber quickly slipped to fourth position. Meanwhile, second placeman at the time, Alonso was topping the timesheets as he hunted down leader Hamilton. Alonso was the fastest man on the track on lap four, as he completed that lap with a time of 1:46.782secs.
Alonso’s Brazilian team mate Felipe Massa was slightly off the top pace at this point. Massa was holding onto fifth place, but had tough competition from Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg who was just behind him. However, Rosberg was not having an easy ride himself, as his team mate, seven time World Champion Michael Schumacher was on his tail in seventh place. In addition to the possible in-team battle between Schumacher and Rosberg, it was a similar situation for the two Force India boys. In the early stages of the race Adrian Sutil was ahead in eighth place, while the German’s Formula One rookie team mate Paul Di Resta was trailing him in ninth position. As the trend of competition between team mates seemed to be a feature early on in the Grand Prix, the Toro Rosso duo were also in the mix at this point. Swiss driver Sebastien Buemi had the upper hand though, as he was further up the field in 10th place on lap five. Buemi’s Spanish team mate Jaime Alguersuari was slightly behind in 12th position, while the second Lotus Renault of Vitaly Petrov was stuck in the Toro Rosso sandwich in 11th place at the time.
Where the latter end of the midfield line-up was concerned, Team Lotus’ Heikki Kovalainen was running well in 13th place early on in the race. The Finnish driver was in close company with the Williams pair as well. Rubens Barrichello was a little further down the field in 14th place, and his Venezuelan team mate Pastor Maldonado was just behind him in 15th position. Although Marussia Virgin Racing’s Timo Glock was looking strong in 16th place, the German driver was under threat from the second Team Lotus driver Jarno Trulli who was following him. The Hispania Racing pair were next in the initial running order of the race. Vitantonio Liuzzi was the first of the two in 18th place, while the Italian driver’s Australian team mate, Daniel Ricciardo was alongside him in 19th position. Consequently, the trailing Marussia Virgin Racing car of Jerome D’Ambrosio was holding onto 20th place at this point. Senna and Perez lined up next in the running order, and the second Sauber driver Kamui Kobayashi completed field as only 23 drivers remained in the race.
Back at the front of the field where the business end counts for a lot, Alonso was performing at his best as he attempted to catch first placeman Hamilton. Alonso went on to beat his earlier fastest lap with a 1:46.059secs on lap nine. On the very same lap the battles for position were starting to unfold in the midfield. The first one was seen between Di Resta and Buemi. The pair were squabbling over ninth place at the time. However, Di Resta was at an advantage as he was maintaining ninth place, with Buemi gradually putting the Scotsman under pressure.
Whilst Alonso may have looked stronger than the leader over a few laps, Hamilton proved why he was keeping Alonso at bay. The 2008 World Champion topped the timesheets from first place with a time of 1:45.989secs on lap 10.
As Di Resta’s scrap for position with Buemi was still on going, his team mate Sutil was sharing a similar experience with fellow German Schumacher. On lap 10 of the 55 lap marathon race, Schumacher was in front and maintaining seventh place from Sutil. Despite these four drivers still not yielding to each other, it was a different situation towards the back of the field. Senna found a window of opportunity on lap 10 to take 18th place from Liuzzi. Kobayashi then put his famous feisty manoeuvres into practice, as he climbed his way up the running order. After securing 20th place on lap 11, Liuzzi dropped to 21st place, and Ricciardo was a place further back in 22nd position.
Meanwhile, Di Resta’s battle with Buemi continued on lap 11. After reporting a loss of traction on his car, there was a concern that Di Resta may come under fire from Buemi. This problem that arose for Di Resta indicated that tyre wear was an issue even this early on in the proceedings. Similarly, Button reported soon after this via his team radio that there was still a problem. Although there was not an explanation as to what it might be, it was a sign that not everything was running smoothly for him either. With Button potentially in a vulnerable position, this gave Webber the chance to get close to him. At this stage in the Grand Prix Webber was comfortably holding onto fourth place, and Button was in front of him in third position.
Following earlier reports that Di Resta was having problems, this led Buemi to finally pounce on him on lap 14. Initially, Buemi took ninth place from Di Resta. However, Di Resta managed to fight back and resumed his hold on ninth place. Buemi went on to launch an attack once more, as Di Resta experienced a lack of tyre grip. Sadly, Di Resta could not keep Buemi at bay on this occasion. As a result of this, Di Resta dropped down to 10th place, and Buemi was promoted into ninth position. After Di Resta’s slight wobble in lap 14, it meant that Petrov could also close in on him.
When it was suspected that Button was having problems earlier, the potential issue became a reality on lap 15. It was reported that his KERS was not working, which meant Webber could have the opportunity to make a move on him. As the chance came for Webber to do so on lap 15, it looked like he would pass Button. Fortunately, Button was safe from the threat of Webber temporarily, as Webber ran wide and dropped back from attempting to pass by. This left Button still going in third place, but Webber was still on his tail in fourth position. As the first major pit stop window arrived on lap 16, Massa was the first of the front runners to blink. While Massa was out of the picture momentarily, Webber and Button continue to scrap for position on the track. At this point in the proceedings, second place man Alonso had built up a 10 second lead over third place man Button.
However, it was not long before many of the key drivers also decided to pit for a tyre change. Hamilton, Webber, Alonso and Rosberg were among those who joined Button when he visited the pits on lap 17. During Button’s pit stop though, it did not go as smoothly as it should have done. It seemed that the right rear tyre was slow to go on, which caused a slight delay before Button could get back on track again. Fortunately, his rival at that stage of the race, Webber also had a minor pit stop palaver.
The Red Bull pit crew also had trouble like the McLaren team for Button, with putting the right rear tyre onto Webber’s car. Once the problem was rectified Webber had to wait for Rosberg to pass before he could leave his pit box. Although this added to Webber’s time in the pits, he missed any possible contact with Rosberg if he had been released at the same time. Webber also had the upper hand as he re-joined the race in fifth place, while Rosberg had to slot back just behind him in sixth position.
When the action on the track got going again, a scrap between Petrov and Schumacher was at the centre of attention. Between Turns 17 and 18, Petrov became under pressure from Schumacher. Consequently, Petrov dropped down to 11th place, while Schumacher nipped ahead to take 10th position on lap 19.
The popularity of tyre wear so far in the races this season seemed to continue into today’s Grand Prix as well. As some drivers had already experienced problems, more came to light on lap 19 when Buemi had issues. It was reported that his left rear tyre was giving him trouble. The seriousness of the problem was confirmed on lap 21. Sadly, Buemi was forced to retire from the race, with a suspected rear suspension failure or left rear tyre puncture.
After reporting via his team radio that he had a lack of grip in his tyres, Di Resta was coping well with the problem on lap 19. He was still managing to hold it together as he remained out on track and was still running on the tyres he started the race with. The reasoning behind the decision to keep Di Resta out on the same tyres soon came to light on lap 19. It was reported that the team were planning on a one stop strategy for Di Resta, which was why they wanted him to delay his pit stop. At this stage in the racing action, Di Resta was running in ninth place behind Schumacher.
Meanwhile, on lap 21 an in-team battle for position unfolded between Petrov and Senna. The pair were squabbling over 12th place at the time, which Senna was maintaining from the Russian. When Senna temporarily left the scrap for a tyre change, Petrov took over 12th place but had Perez for company in 13th position. Although the competition between those still racing was at the heart of the action, the list of retirements was also a feature. D’Ambrosio was the next to fall on lap 22 and he joined those who had already bowed out earlier in the race.
As the midfield battles for position were hotly contested throughout the race, on lap 22 the scrap between Kobayashi and Maldonado did not disappoint. Kobayashi successfully made a move on Maldonado when the opportunity arose, and he took 10th place from the Venezuelan driver.
Towards the tail end of the field it was a similar situation, as drivers fought for position with each other. On lap 24 Senna was leading the trio concerned in 16th place, while Glock followed closely behind him in 17th place, and Alguersuari was last in the scrap and maintaining 18th place.
On lap 25 in the race it seemed that the front runners were building a strong lead. This proved to be the case when Hamilton began to contend with the back marker traffic. As a result of lapping the drivers at the back of the pack, this cost the leader a bit of time and allowed his rivals to close the gap on him. Alonso was the nearest driver to Hamilton, as the former double World Champion was running in second place, while Button was holding on to third position ahead of Massa at this point. Webber was also in the mix as he was in fifth place in the running order.
As well as the action on the track keeping spectators on the edge of their seats, the pit stop delays and incidents also added to the race. On lap 27 Maldonado was making his way out of the pits, when he ran wide slightly and narrowly missed hitting the inside pit wall. Fortunately, Maldonado avoided any contact with the wall and re-joined the race in 15th place. Finally on lap 28 Di Resta had his opportunity to pit for a tyre change. After a long wait and sticking it out on the track for as long as possible, Di Resta was running in ninth place but re-joined the action in 12th position after stopping.
Despite there not being too many incidents between drivers in the race, the stewards still had some work to do concerning individual ones. Maldonado became the first driver to be under investigation by the stewards on lap 30. He was issued with a drive through penalty for ignoring blue flags, which prevented the leading cars from passing him.
On the same lap as Maldonado getting into hot water with the stewards, Massa had a slight wobble when he ran wide at Turn 7. Webber soon launched into attack mode and managed to take fourth place from Massa. However, Massa soon pulled himself together and took fourth place back from Webber. At the same time as this scrap for position occurring, Hamilton topped the timesheets again in the race. He was the fastest man on the track leading the proceedings with a 1:44.511secs.
On the other hand, Maldonado was not having the same luck. He served his drive through penalty on lap 32 and re-joined the race in 16th place. This was shortly followed by a scrap for position with Alguersuari. While the pair were squabbling over 16th place, this led to Massa and Webber getting stuck behind them. Maldonado seemed to reluctantly let Webber pass him in the end on lap 34. However, Maldonado soon came to the attention of the stewards once again. He found himself under investigation for a second time for ignoring the blue flags. It was reported on lap 42 that the incident would be looked into after the race.
Meanwhile, on lap 33 Button appeared to be back in the game when he had the use of his KERS again. After getting back on track and able to compete with his rivals again, Button and some of the field visited the pits for a tyre change on lap 36-37. Webber was among those to do so and re-joined the race in sixth place, while Button managed to get into fourth place after his pit stop.
As well as Maldonado and Alguersuari being under fire from the stewards, Senna was another driver to join them on lap 37. He was also under investigation for ignoring the blue flags. It was thought that he would have to serve a drive through penalty like Maldonado earlier. At this stage of the Grand Prix it seemed a busy time for action across the field. Schumacher was next to being a feature in the festivities. At Turn 20 he seemed to lose a piece of his front wing, as his car caught part of the inside of the kerb. The former Ferrari driver was running in seventh place at the time, and got a replacement front wing during his pit stop on lap 43. When the scraps for position in the midfield resumed, Perez was the one to benefit on lap 39. He managed to sneak past Petrov to take 10th place from him. This meant that Petrov was in a Sauber sandwich at this point, with Kobayashi the other side of him in 12th place.
Although Webber was a few places off the lead on lap 39, he was running in a solid sixth place and topped the timesheets with a 1:43.671secs. On the following lap Hamilton then had to pit from first place and re-joined the race in second place. At this point in the proceedings, Alonso led the field temporarily. Massa was the next of the front runners to pit on lap 41, and he was running in third place but re-joined the action in sixth position. As Massa made his way out of the pits he nearly had a close encounter with Kovalainen. Massa did get caught behind Kovalainen which caused him a slight delay, but managed to avoid a coming together with him.
Following their previous scraps for position in the race, Webber and Button’s battle was reignited on lap 42. Webber found an opportunity to snatch fourth place from Button, who dropped down to fifth place as a result.
After falling down to second place with his pit stop, Hamilton managed to get back to first place on lap 44. This coincided with Alonso having to pit for his tyre change. The pair went head to head, as Alonso attempted to get out of the pits before Hamilton came through. However, Alonso’s plan did not go as expected when he got stuck in traffic on the pit entry. He was then delayed during his pit stop when the car was rocking from side to side, which made the tyre change difficult to do. Eventually, Alonso got back out on track but in second place. Rosberg was running well in third place ahead of Webber and Button. Massa was next in the line-up in sixth place in front of Schumacher, Sutil and Di Resta, while Perez was holding onto the final top 10 point scoring position.
Kobayashi had managed to make his way back to the midfield, but was missing out on the top 10 at the time. Barrichello was running alongside him in 12th place ahead of Petrov. Barrichello’s team mate Maldonado was the other side of Petrov in 14th position. Senna followed behind Maldonado in 15th place in front of Alguersuari and Kovalainen. Trulli was just behind his team mate in 18th place. This left Glock, Ricciardo and Liuzzi in the final three positions, of those still running in the race.
Even though Webber was still in fourth place on lap 45, he was the fastest man on the track again with a 1:43.183secs. He went on to better this time on lap 48 with a 1:42.907secs, while the midfield runners were continuing their battles for position. One competitive scrap saw Alguersuari jump into 15th place as Senna lost out to him on lap 46. Similarly, an exciting in-team battle also formed between Perez and Kobayashi who got into the final point scoring position. Sadly at this point in the race, Perez slipped down to 11th place.
Towards the front of the field at this stage in the proceedings, it seemed that Button still had more to give as he had his KERS back in action as well. He was gradually closing in on fourth placeman Rosberg on lap 48. However, when Rosberg had to make his pit stop for a tyre change on lap 49 this led the way for Button to leap ahead in the running order. Rosberg went on to rejoin the race in sixth place though.
Meanwhile, Massa had a slight wobble on lap 49 when he spun on the track. Although he appeared to flat spot his tyres in the process, Massa maintained his fifth place then. With the shuffle in positions due to pit stops, Webber moved up into third place and set another fastest lap with a 1:42.830secs on lap 50. He went on to improve this effort on the following lap with a 1:42.612secs though. While Webber remained on the track setting some impressive times, Button was on his tail in fourth place. There was also the fact that Webber still had to pit again before the race ended, which would put Button on the final step of the podium. However, until the time came for Webber to pit, this opportunity for Button remained as a waiting game.
Despite the race still very much in progress for the majority of the field, it was not the case for Ricciardo on lap 52. He was forced to abandon his car off the track, which spelt the end of his involvement in the Grand Prix.
At last on the final lap of the race, Webber made his statutory pit stop. Consequently, he re-joined the race in fourth place, which allowed Button to take third place overall, while Hamilton was certainly out of reach in first place, and Alonso was just behind him in second place. Massa secured fifth place for himself, and got in front of Rosberg who pipped team mate Schumacher to sixth place.
The Force India boys came next in the final classification, but Sutil had the upper hand as he finished in eighth place ahead of Di Resta. Kobayashi was the last driver to pick up a point scoring position, and ended the race in 10th place. Kobayashi’s team mate just missed out on the points, as he secured 11th place for himself. Barrichello was the first of the Williams duo to complete the Grand Prix. The Williams driver crossed the line in 12th place overall, while Petrov had to settle for 13th position in a Williams sandwich. Maldonado overcame his incidents which were brought to the attention of the stewards, and he was in 14th place in the end. Alguersuari came next in the line-up to pick up 15th place for himself, and being the only Toro Rosso to finish the race.
Although Senna was not able to outperform his team mate Petrov, he still completed the 55 laps to take 16th position for himself. Of the newest teams in the sport, Team Lotus were victorious over their rivals. However, Kovalainen managed to get ahead of Trulli to take 17th place. Meanwhile, Glock was the sole Marussia Virgin Racing car to go the distance, and ended the race behind Trulli in 19th position. Liuzzi completed the final line up to secure 20th place, and like Glock was the only car for his team to finish the race. The four retirements who failed to reach the chequered flag were Ricciardo, Buemi, D’Ambrosio and Vettel.
With the season race finale in two weeks’ time at the Brazilian Grand Prix, there is still a lot to play for where the Championships are concerned. Although Vettel and Red Bull may be reigning World Champions, the rest of the field can still battle it out at the last race. As Vettel failed to make the grade and finish the race, his first place remains with 374 points. Button is still in second place in the Standings with 255 points. However, he is only 10 points ahead of third placeman Alonso. Webber is a further 12 points behind Alonso, as he maintains fourth place at present. After taking the race win today, and his first since the German Grand Prix this year, Hamilton remains in fifth place but is just six points adrift catching Webber.
Meanwhile, Massa remains in sixth place, and trails the others with 108 points to his name. Where the Constructors’ battle is concerned, reigning World Champions Red Bull have a massive 607 points to their name. Second place McLaren now have 482 points following their first and third finishes today, while Ferrari are currently in third place with 353 points. Mercedes are the leading midfield team at present, as they hold fourth place with 159 points.
Following today’s eventful race at the Yas Marina Circuit, which saw Vettel make a shocking exit before the action had barely begun, Hamilton has become the first driver to win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix other than Vettel. In taking the top three spots on the podium, Hamilton, Alonso and Button have prevented Red Bull from securing their 20th successive podium finish as well. The Formula One fraternity now have a fortnight to recover from the excitement of today’s festivities and prepare for the final race before the season comes to a close. It is certain that those still left in the Championship running will go all out to beat their rivals, and for Vettel he will be sure to want to end his victorious season with another win under his belt.