Sebastian Vettel wrapped up the 2009 Formula One season in style, leading a Red Bull-Renault 1-2 finish at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. The 22-year-old prodigy scored his fifth career victory and the fourth of the year in a dominant fashion.
"It was a fantastic race," Vettel smiled. "We had a very good launch, a good start, it was not enough to out-accelerate Lewis (Hamilton) but it was close, I was surprised. Then going on the long back straight he pushed the (KERS) button and that was it, he disappeared into the distance."
Vettel chased Hamilton through the opening laps, and then passed the McLaren-Mercedes driver during the first round of pit stops. While Hamilton had to pull into the garage with a rear brake failure, Vettel went from strength to more strength, steadily pulling away from the second-placed Mark Webber, his Red Bull teammate. The gap at the chequered flag was an impressive 17.857 seconds, reinforcing Vettel's status as a future champion.
"I was able to stay close, we knew we were heavier but I was able to keep with him," Vettel continued. "There was a lot of pressure in the pitstops. After that he retired but it was a fantastic race. I had a gap to Jenson (Button) and Mark behind so I was able to pace myself, but the car was fantastic on both tyres. It was a pleasure to sit in the car tonight."
Webber had a tougher race, starting with contact with the Brawn-Mercedes of Rubens Barrichello in the first corner of the race.
"We had a pretty good launch," he recounted. "I had a look on the outside of Sebastian, but the main aim was to get inside and get a good exit. I got hit quite hard and I was worried I had a puncture, but team told me pressure was OK."
But it was his battle with the newly-crowned World Champion, Jenson Button, that had the 40,000 fans in the grandstands buzzing. The Red Bull team decided to switch to a short second stint to keep Webber ahead of Button through the first pit stops, but that gave Button two extra laps to make up the gap.
With Button's option tires working well, he made time hand-over-fist in the late stages, and spent the final three laps trying to find a way past Webber's Red Bull-Renault.
"It is pretty dusty off line," Webber explained. "I got a bit hoppy on one of the last laps, I knew two big stops key to the lap he wasn't going to do much elsewhere. Jenson's overtaking has been good this year so I knew I had to be pretty good."
Button had nothing to lose, having clinched the championship in Brazil a fortnight ago, but even his spirited attempts could not get him better than abreast Webber's Red Bull.
"I found I had very good grip and good initial turn in and that was why I was able to close down," Button recalled. "I couldn't make the move stick, though. I was very excited by that battle but Mark is a very difficult person to overtake. We were clean but on the edge. It's disappointing not to get second place but I enjoyed the fight."
Barrichello finished fourth, with a subdued race after the first-lap incident, crossing the line 4.268 seconds behind his teammate. BMW Sauber's Nick Heidfeld was a further 3.518 seconds back in what may have been the final race for the team, which does not have a guaranteed entry for the 2010 season.
For Hamilton and the McLaren team, the retirement capped a disappointing finish to what had promised to be another strong weekend. The 2008 World Champion scored the most points in the second half of the season but could not finish it on a high note.
"After three or four laps, it became clear that there was a problem with my right-rear brake pad, so I couldn't open up the gap back to Sebastian and Mark," Hamilton explained. "When the problem got worse, the team radioed me and told me to stop at the end of the lap. Of course, it's a shame that we couldn't show the performance we'd had throughout the weekend -- but sometimes that's racing."
The team's second driver' Heikki Kovalainen, suffered a gearbox failure in qualifying, relegating him to the 18th starting position. The Finn fought back with a strong start and a single-stop strategy, but after his KERS system failed, 12th place at the finish was as far up the scoreboard as he could climb.
It was worse yet for Ferrari, though, Kimi Raikkonen started eleventh, with a single-stop fuel strategy, but lost positions to both Kobayashi and Kovalainen. With Giancarlo Fisichella's Ferrari mired in 19th, the team finished out of the points for the fourth time this season.
With both McLaren and Ferrari out of the points, Ferrari finished the season a point behind McLaren in the constructors' standings -- the team's worst finish since the 1993 season.
One of the happiest drivers at the end of the race was Kamui Kobayashi, who claimed sixth place for Toyota in only his second Formula One race, just 1.090 seconds behind Heidfeld. Working on a single-stop strategy, Kobayashi combined a strong start with a steady race pace to claim his first Formula One points -- and to put himself in clear contention for a race seat for next season.
"At the start I overtook Raikkonen and that was important in the end," the 23-year-old said. "It would have been difficult to finish in the top six if I had been behind him during the first stint. When I got past I was confident I had the race pace to fight for the points and my target was to be consistently fast. The team did a great job with the strategy and the pit stop which played a big part in helping me finish in the points."
The start of the 2010 season is just over four months away; with the rules rewritten for the new season, four new teams on the grid and likely a majority of drivers switching teams, it looks certain that the order will be shuffled once again. Stay tuned to find out who has "it" in the new season -- and who doesn't.