The Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi provided a futuristic Thousand and One Nights-like decor for last weekend's ultimate round of the 2009 Formula One World Championship. The developers and builders of the circuit can rest assured, they have achieved the impossible; they have build an awesome circuit on a man-made island, which only three years ago was nothing more than a pile of sand and dust. The circuit has a high speed section with long straights and fast corners, and a low speed section with tight corners and 90 degree turns lined with barriers. The race started in daylight and ended in the evening, also unique in the history of Formula One. The Yas Marina Hotel, with its ever changing colors during the darkness of the night, was the temporarily home for most drivers and teams this weekend, and they could ponder about the last race of the season while enjoying a birds-eye view of the Abu Dhabi circuit from their bedroom window.
One of the unique features of the track is the tunnel at the end of the pit lane exit, and because it is not a part of the actual pit lane, there is no speed limit, and many reporters believed the tunnel would cause problems during the race. After BBC commentator Martin Brundle suggested the race should be stopped if a car would crash in the tunnel and block the exit for other competitors, the organizers thought it would be better to be safe than sorry, and decided to station two marshals in the tunnel with a mobile crane and the necessary equipment to remove stranded cars. Although several drivers were seen slipping and sliding through the first corner which leads into the tunnel, nothing happened, and drivers and reporters later admitted that the tunnel just added another 'kick' to the Abu Dhabi race experience.
Although both Formula One championships had already been decided during the penultimate race of the season in Brazil, for a number of drivers and teams there was still some unfinished business to take care of in Abu Dhabi. The third place in the constructors championship still wasn't decided, and before the race both McLaren and Ferrari had vowed to give it their all to secure that third position. Red Bull driver Sebastian Vettel and Brawn GP driver Rubens Barrichello were locked into a battle for second place in the drivers championship. And because this was the last race of the season, it was also a last chance for some drivers to show teams why they should hire them for next season.
McLaren keeps third place in front of Ferrari
Before the race, only one point separated the McLaren team (71 points) from the Ferrari team (70 points) in their battle for third position. Lewis Hamilton did the best he could and handed the pole position to McLaren during Saturday's qualifying, while team mate Heikki Kovalainen ended on a disappointing thirteenth place with gearbox troubles, which meant he also got a 5-place grid penalty for replacing the gearbox, and he had to start the race from eighteenth position.
Ferrari couldn't impress us either during qualifying, Kimi Raikkonen ended on twelfth place, while Giancarlo Fisichella had the worst qualifying session during his short 2009 Ferrari career, and ended on twentieth and last place. With all the problems Fisichella had at his Ferrari dream team, I'm sure he was thinking about his heydays at Force India earlier this year. Everyone assumed this would be his last Formula One race, but Fisichella made it clear he wasn't ready for a permanent retirement yet, and was caught thinking aloud about a possible return to the Force India team.
At the start of the race Hamilton pressed the famous KERS button for the last time this season, and left the rest of the field behind him. Vettel couldn't keep up with the pace and he had to watch how Hamilton disappeared in the distance. Hamilton was happy with the speed he had, until after three or four laps he noticed he had a problem with the right-rear brakes. McLaren's telemetry revealed an excessive wear of the brake pads, and Hamilton had already experienced two hair-raising moments when he ran wide in one of the high speed corners.
Hamilton pitted during lap 17, and when Vettel pitted three laps later, he saw Hamilton's McLaren behind him in his mirrors while exiting the pit lane. Red Bull team mate Mark Webber overtook Hamilton one lap later. The McLaren obviously had brake problems, and in lap 21 the team made the call to Hamilton and directed him back to the pit, where team principal Martin Whitmarsh personally apologized to Hamilton and explained it was too dangerous to continue the race with the failing rear brakes.
And that opened the door for Ferrari to take back their third place in the constructors championship, at that stage of the race Raikkonen was sixth, with Kovalainen behind him in seventh place. But Kovalainen understood what was at stake, and managed to overtake Raikkonen on lap 29. Raikkonen pitted one lap later, and rejoined the race in fifteenth position. Kovalainen rejoined the race in twelfth position after his pit stop, again in front of Raikkonen, who had by then moved into thirteenth position.
With both drivers now outside the points, and other Ferrari driver Fisichella in a hopeless and pointless eighteenth position, the third place in the championship was now back in the hands of the McLaren team again. Raikkonen was always close to compatriot Kovalainen, but was never in a position to overtake him. The situation stayed like that for the remainder of the race, and because neither McLaren, nor Ferrari scored any points, the third place in the constructors championship remained in the hands of a very relieved McLaren team.
Barrichello loses second place to Vettel
Another battle to be fought at Abu Dhabi was about second and third place in the drivers championship, between Vettel (second with 74 points), and Barrichello (third with 72 points). After Hamilton's retirement on lap 21, Vettel was now leading the race, followed by Webber, Button and Barrichello, who was about 28 seconds behind Vettel, and only a miracle could turn the situation around in favor of Barrichello. But the miracle didn't happen, the Brawns simply couldn't match the pace of the Red Bulls.
After the second round of pit stops, where all drivers changed to the softer tyre, the order was still the same: Vettel, Webber, Button and Barrichello. But both Red Bull drivers were in total command of the race, Vettel was the first to see the checkered flag, and although Button launched a last attack on Webber's position during the last four laps of the race, the Australian crossed the finish line in second place, followed by Button and Barrichello on third and fourth place. Red Bull Racing finished the season in style with a dominant 1-2 win at the Abu Dhabi circuit.
Again 23-year old Kamui Kobayashi, who replaced the still injured Timo Glock at Toyota, surprised friend and foe with a yet another strong performance during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. This was only his second race for the Toyota team, and it was intriguing to see how rookie Kobayashi, without any experience with the 2009 cars at all, managed to take sixth place, leaving established drivers like Jarno Trulli, Nico Rosberg, Kimi Raikkonen and Fernando Alonso far behind him.
While his fellow rookie drivers Jaime Alguersuari and Romain Grosjean were still struggling to come to terms with the very difficult to handle 2009 Formula One cars, Kobayashi lapped the Abu Dhabi circuit as if it was his everyday business. On Saturday during Q2 he took twelfth place, only 0.4 seconds slower than his team mate Trulli, who was more interested in proving Adrian Sutil pushed him out of the Brazilian Grand Prix, and was frequently spotted in the paddock this weekend, armed with his laptop containing the evidence, rather than concentrating on the last race of the season.
Kobayashi was on a one-stop strategy, he started with the hard tyres and ended his race on the soft tyres. At the start he overtook Kimi Raikkonen's Ferrari, and during the first part of the race, he worked his way up to take third place on lap 21, after a thrilling fight for fourth place with 2009 World Champion Jenson Button, who almost flew of the track at Turn 8 in a futile attempt to keep the Toyota driver behind him. Once again, Kobayashi showed us his fighting spirit, and he has certainly impressed the bosses at Toyota, and is now in a good position to land a seat at the Toyota team for next season. John Howett, team principal of Toyota said: "We have to seriously consider him [for the 2010 season] after his strong performance", and even hinted that the chances for Kobayashi were "as good as 80 per cent".
Not a happy ending for all drivers
Even more remarkable was the achievement of 19-year old Spanish Toro Rosso driver Jaime Alguersuari, who managed to stop at the wrong pit box during his first pit stop of the race, and as it turned out, it would be his last pit stop of the 2009 season. He decided to pit to sort out a gearbox problem, but forgot to tell his team he was heading for the pit lane, and to make things worse, he pulled over at the doorstep of the Red Bull Racing team, instead of his Toro Rosso team. The Red Bull mechanics quickly waved him on, and Alguersuari left the pit lane in shame, just in time to make way for Vettel, who was about to come in for his first pit stop of the race. Alguersuari retired from the race due to his gearbox problem one lap later.
Fernando Alonso was another driver who had a bad race weekend. He came to Abu Dhabi to end his career at Renault on a high, and was aiming for a podium position. But despite his optimism, Alonso was struggling with his Renault all weekend, and qualified in a very disappointing sixteenth place, not exactly a good position to launch an attack for a place on the podium. During the race he was still struggling to find the right pace, but his Renault was just not quick enough to do the job and he ended his last race for Renault in fourteenth position, while team mate Grosjean again failed to impress and became the last driver who crossed the finish line at Abu Dhabi.
Although Force India team principal Vijay Mallya was upbeat before the race about the chances of his team, this weekend his drivers Adrian Sutil and Vitantonio Liuzzi were back at where they started at the beginning of the season; the back of the field. Some things never change.
BMW-Sauber drivers Nick Heidfeld and Robert Kubica had mixed feelings about their last race for the team, Heidfeld was pleasantly surprised when he finished the race in fifth position and scored the final four points for the BMW team, who announced their retreat from Formula One a few weeks ago. With those four points the BMW team took over sixth place from Williams in the constructors championship. Kubica spun when he tried to overtake Toro Rosso driver Sebastien Buemi during the last stages of the race, lost two places in the process, and was clearly not very happy about the tactics Buemi used to defend his position.
Williams drivers Nico Rosberg and Kazuki Nakajima ended their Williams career on a low, with a ninth position for Rosberg, and a fourteenth place for Nakajima. Both drivers will not race for Williams in 2010, and while Rosberg will certainly return in 2010 at the wheel of a Formula One car, Nakajima faces a slim prospect of finding an employer for the 2010 season.
The end of the season
The Formula One venue at Abu Dhabi attracted a lot of celebrity-spectators, who joined the glitter and glamour spectacle for various reasons. There were people who were just curious and traveled to Abu Dhabi to experience the unique atmosphere of a Formula One race in the desert sunset, like Beyonce, Naomi Campbell, Boris Becker, US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton and American basketball legend Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.
But there were also spectators who were hoping to do some business in Abu Dhabi, like Timo Glock and Jacques Villeneuve, who were exploring their possibilities for a race seat in 2010. Damon Hill was present to have a meeting with Bernie Ecclestone about a possible continuation of the British Grand Prix at Silverstone now that Donington had failed to meet Ecclestone's deadline for the third time.
New FIA (Federation Internationale de l'Automobile) president Jean Todt was also present and was without a doubt busy building bridges to overcome the gaps Max Mosley has left behind him after his 16-year FIA reign. But the most surprising spectator was without a doubt McLaren CEO Ron Dennis, we hadn't seen him at all this year, and with his arch-enemy Max Mosley now removed from office, many reporters were more than happy to speculate about a possible return of Dennis as a team principal. When interviewed by Dutch RTL TV, Dennis said he planned to attend several races next year, but also said his priority was still the McLaren road car project.
Well, what ever Dennis will decide, it is safe to conclude that the Abu Dhabi venue has certainly been an enormous success and already has a huge number of fans, and not just the reporters and spectators love the circuit, all drivers praised the circuit as well and many of them are already looking forward to the 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Motorsport.com is also looking forward to the 2010 season, and meanwhile we will of course keep you updated with the latest Formula One news.