Berthold Bouman, F1 Correspondent
- Hamilton takes 17th career win at Abu Dhabi
- Pirelli putting the pieces back together
- Alonso finally wins his missing trophy
Lewis Hamilton won the Adu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina circuit without a problem and added another victory to his tally. The 2008 World Champion took his 17th career win after his rival Sebastian Vettel made an early exit at Turn 2, puncturing his right rear tyre which then came off the rim, the unlucky German limped back to the pits and had to abandon the race after his pit crew saw the flat tyre had caused damage to the suspension of the RB7 as well. Thus Vettel spent the evening in Abu Dhabi on the pit wall with his team, monitoring the progress of his team mate Mark Webber.
About the incident Vettel reported, “On the exit of the first corner, everything seemed fine and then turning into the second corner I could feel that something was odd on the rear right. I had to catch the car surprisingly and then the second time, I couldn't do it anymore, as I'd lost too much air in the rear right tyre.” He was certainly disappointed, “To lose the race there, so early on, it hurts for sure. There wasn't much we could do, so after that I took the opportunity to learn a little bit on the pit wall.”
Red Bull Team Principal Christian Horner about Vettel’s presence on the pit wall, “I think he was quite interested to see how a race operates and offer his feedback to try and help Mark get the best result possible.” And added with a smile, “He wanted to see how we make decisions in the race, he's like a sponge for that kind of thing. So of course he was disappointed, but he didn't rush to leave the circuit. He hung around to help the team and try and help his team-mate”
Vettel’s retirement also marked the end of 19 successive points finishes dating back to last year, while his hopes on beating Michael Schumacher’s record of 13 wins in one season also evaporated. Webber’s fourth place also marked the end of Red Bull’s domination, as for the first time this season there was no Red Bull driver on the podium. With just one race to go Red Bull have won 11 of the 18 Grands Prix this season, took all but one pole positions and won both championships, but as Horner put it, ‘it would have been great to have maintained our unbeaten run here, but unfortunately ...it was not to be.’
Pirelli putting the pieces back together
Pirelli have launched an investigation to put, in this case literally, the pieces back together as to why Vettel’s rear tyre suddenly deflated and ultimately was forced of the rim, causing enough damage to retire. “Together with Red Bull Racing, we're still examining the remains of Vettel's tyre in order to try and piece together what happened,” said Pirelli Motorsport Director Paul Hembery. “It certainly seems to be a very unusual incident and we've already been to look at the place with Sebastian: there seems to be no reason that is immediately obvious and the set of tyres was one that he had already used for qualifying,” he added.
And that was also what Vettel reported, he had taken that same kerb dozens of times during practice and qualifying without a problem. “I don't know what happened,” said Vettel, adding, “We lost pressure all of a sudden out of the exit of Turn One. I don't why. There is nothing that I did differently to any of the other laps.”
Many believe it was just an ordinary tyre failure, but Hembery was cautious in his comments, “There are so many possibilities for why a tyre can go down, but we are not going to find out right now because of the limited resources that we have here [in Abu Dhabi].” But he also warned Pirelli may never find the cause of the sudden deflation, as the tyre was completely shredded, one thing is certain however, data from the car indicates the tyre did suddenly deflate, and the video footage of the start also clearly shows Vettel wasn’t hit from behind by Hamilton or any other driver.
The only thing Pirelli can do now is to compare the video footage with the data from the car and the timing information to try to piece together when and where exactly the tyre suddenly failed. But as Hembery said, “Until we know for sure, there's no point in speculating.”
Disappointing result for Webber
Although his main rival Vettel was out of the race, Webber could no take advantage of that, he finished in fourth position, despite the fact he had pushed very hard all race long. He qualified fourth on the grid ahead of Alonso, but again his start wasn’t really great, and he had to let Alonso past, who took third place after Vettel’s early exit. He was able to hang on to fourth place during his first stint, but his first pit stop was a complete disaster due to a wheel nut problem, and he rejoined the race in fifth position.
However, the Australian was not about to give up his hopes for a podium finish, and battled it out with Massa who was then ahead of him. The Brazilian was hard to catch on his soft tyres, but Webber eventually arrived at the tail of the Ferrari trying to regain his fourth place. On lap 30 Massa ran wide and Webber could almost find a way past, but on the long straights Massa was able to defend his position from a charging Webber with his KERS.
But much to everyone’s surprise, Webber was on an alternative tyre strategy and would stay on the soft tyres until the penultimate lap. Now having the advantage of the faster soft Pirellis, he was able to catch Massa, and later Button, but lost third place again after his last stop. “On the second pit stop, we fitted the option tyre again to try and cut the race down to something different; it was certainly worth a bit of a punt,” Webber explained.
Horner had decided to change the strategy after the problematic first stop of the Australian. “On the first pit stop we had a wheel nut issue and thereafter it dropped him behind Felipe Massa, so at that point we opted for a different strategic route and a three stop race, which was the only opportunity to take on and beat Massa and to have a go at Button,” Horner said. “Unfortunately there just weren't enough laps to pull out a big enough gap, but it was worth a go and Mark drove well. Fourth was ultimately the best we could achieve today.”
Maximum performance by McLaren
Obviously not disappointed was Hamilton, who saw Vettel sliding off the track ahead of him after the German double World Champion had beaten him at the start and was already several car lengths ahead. “I didn't know which way it was going to go, so I was just trying to avoid that. I saw immediately that something had happened to his tyre, and that's why he was going sideways. I was just making sure that I didn't collect him as he potentially [could come] across the track,” winner Hamilton explained.
“Victory is the best medicine,” is what Ferrari boss Luca di Montezemolo said after the Italian team failed to impress earlier this season, and the same goes for Hamilton. After a disastrous season with many incidents, accidents, and several trips to the FIA Stewards, as well as personal problems involving his father and now ex-manager Anthony Hamilton and his now also ex-girlfriend Nicole Scherzinger, the Briton now seems much more relaxed, almost relieved, to score yet another victory, and this must be a huge boost for his moral.
“I feel fantastic,” said Hamilton after the race. “Being able to hold off one of the best drivers in the world throughout the race is something that is very tough to do. It’s rare for us and me to get the opportunity to be able to maintain a gap, control the race, but today I had the pace.” And with a smile he added, “This is so uplifting, to be able to walk away with a smile feels fantastic. Victory is good for the soul!”
McLaren Team Principal Martin Whitmarsh also praised Hamilton, “Lewis drove an utterly faultless race today, taking the lead at the second corner and controlling the gap back to Fernando with consummate skill over the remaining 54 laps. To put it simply, he was brilliant today.”
Although Hamilton didn’t lead the race from start to finish, as he lost his leading position during his two pit stops, he was able to control the race, didn’t even have to defend his position and relatively easy crossed the finish line in first position. Both Fernando Alonso and Webber tried to get ahead of him by staying out longer during the pit stops, but the trick didn’t work as they could not build up a big enough gap.
“For most of the race I was concentrating on managing the gap to Fernando. He's such a strong driver. He'll never give you an inch, in fact. Into the closing laps I found myself beginning to think about victory, but I didn't want to do that really so I kept saying to myself: 'Don't even go there!'”, he stated.
For Button the race was troublesome, in the early stages he struggled with a malfunctioning KERS system, which meant he had problems fending off Webber’s many attacks on his third position. “It was a difficult race for me, as I had a KERS issue, which is admittedly very rare for us. After about 15 laps it stopped working -- and that doesn't just affect your power out of the corners, it affects engine braking too,” Button reported. And added, “Fortunately, my engineer came over the radio and told me they'd found a way to make it work again -- but it meant pushing lots of buttons on the steering wheel.”
And indeed that was his luck, as Webber never gave up his attempts to grab third place, but the Australian’s progress was hampered by the relatively slow straight line speed, which is the Achilles heel of his otherwise perfect RB7 machine, designed by Adrian Newey. Even with the DRS deployed Webber could only make his Red Bull very visible in the McLaren’s rear view mirrors, but Button was able to defend using his KERS.
Button was on a soft-soft-medium tyre strategy, which meant that Webber -- still on the soft compound during the closing stages of the race -- could easily pass Button who was already on the medium compound, only to return to the pit lane on the penultimate lap to make his mandatory stop for the medium tyres, thus handing third place back to Button. With his third place finish, Hamilton cannot take Button’s second place in the Drivers’ Championship, as he is now 28 points behind his team mate.
Whitmarsh about McLaren’s weekend at Abu Dhabi, “Jenson, too, drove a truly excellent race, managing KERS problems throughout, and emerging with a hard-won third place and 15 valuable world championship points to consolidate his second position in the drivers' world championship. It's always a great feeling to see two McLaren Mercedes drivers on the podium together.” And he ended his comments, “But 2011 isn't done and dusted yet - from here we'll travel to Brazil, and the famous Interlagos circuit, over whose majestic twists and turns Lewis and Jenson will be trying their damnedest to score McLaren Mercedes' seventh victory of the year. Bring it on!”
Alonso did get his missing trophy
Ahead of the race Ferrari’s Alonso had mentioned one trophy was still missing in his collection, “I have 72 podiums so far, which means 72 trophies at home, which is not bad. They come from all the circuits on the calendar apart from Abu Dhabi. So there is only one trophy missing at home and I hope that this year I can add the one from Abu Dhabi.”
Alonso qualified in fifth position, while team mate Felipe Massa took sixth on the grid, but Alonso was not demoralized by the poor performance, in contrary, he like always believes Ferrari has a better race pace, and therefore was still optimistic to grab a podium position.
This weekend Ferrari went back to Maranello with another 28 points in the bag, “Getting a driver onto the podium in this race is indeed cause for satisfaction,” Team Principal Stefano Domenicali said. And added, “Thanks to yet another extraordinary drive from Fernando, we were in the fight for the win right up until the final part of the race. The Spaniard's first lap was exceptional, as was his race pace after that.”
And indeed, Alonso’s first lap was again a jewel, he leapt from fifth to second in just two turns, leaving Button and Webber behind him. During the post race press conference he said, “I don't think it [the start] was so good. I think we lost a little bit of ground with Jenson, who was right in front of us in third, and we were fifth. Then we braked and we risked, on the outside of Turn 1, to overtake Mark, so we gained one position there. We gained one position with Sebastian's accident and then one position with the slipstream with Jenson. I think we've had better starts than today, the start itself.”
After that, it was a case of managing the gap to Hamilton, but also to keep an eye on what was going on behind him with Button and Webber, and the Spaniard was pushing as hard as he could. “I think it was a time trial race, like an individual race, not against the time. I was doing like qualifying laps every lap, trying to close the gap, but one tenth up, one tenth down for the whole stint,” he stated.
As said, during the last pit stop he tried to get ahead of Hamilton, but the gap wasn’t big enough and he encountered traffic in the pit lane as well. “The last pit-stop we stayed two laps longer than the McLaren and we were close I think. We had some traffic in the pit entry, behind one HRT, and I think we lost a little bit of ground. But, anyway, with the last stint I think they [McLaren] had a little bit more pace so even if we were able to overtake in the stop it was difficult to win the race.”
Felipe Massa was not at all happy with his race, and thought he could have done better than fifth position. He told the tyres were the problem for him, “ Things were going reasonably well while I was on the softs, but with the mediums I was really struggling to keep the car on track because of the lack of grip”. And then he also spun, “That's why I ended up spinning on lap 49, losing any remaining hope of staying ahead of Webber.”
Alonso scored his 10th podium finish of the season, including a victory at Silverstone, while Massa hasn’t seen much of the podium all season. His best performance was fifth place, he scored a total of 108 points, while Alonso has scored 245 points and is currently third in the Drivers’ Championship.
While Alonso last week remarked Hamilton was in fact the only driver on the grid who could win the title in a non-competitive car, it has by now been established the same goes for Alonso, every time there is an opportunity, Alonso is always right there to take advantage of it, and it would therefore be safe to say Alonso is also one of those drivers who can perform miracles in a non-competitive car.
The midfield action
Since the top five relatively easy could maintain their position throughout the race, the real action could be found midfield, and even right at the back of the field. Both Mercedes drivers Nico Rosberg and Michael Schumacher, who had qualified in seventh and eighth position respectively, were involved in a battle which started on the very first lap, when both drivers went side by side through several corners, a thrilling sight for the spectators. Team principal Ross Brawn, “A very lively first lap between our drivers today which was highly entertaining. We've often said that they are free to race as long as they keep it sensible, and it was good to see today.”
But it was Rosberg who won the battle as he managed to stay ahead of the seven times World Champion until the finish line. “The start didn't work out very well as I tried to overtake Felipe but suddenly there was no space left. Michael was able to overtake me, and we had a fun battle before I took the place back,” Rosberg said. For him the race was pretty straightforward, he kept his then seventh place during the first stint with Schumacher trailing him at a for Rosberg safe distance. “I was able to handle my tyre situation very well. I stayed out a bit longer before the second stop as there was some grip left, and it was better to stay out with the softer tyres,” Rosberg said.
During his second stint he was followed by his compatriot Adrian Sutil, but the Force India driver was almost 10 seconds behind him and didn’t really pose a threat. He then advanced to fourth place when others ahead of him made their last stop, and fell back to sixth place again after his last stop on lap 48.
Schumacher had already encountered Sutil during the first stint as he was right behind him, but when both man pitted, Sutil managed to get ahead of Schumacher. Sutil declared, “I spent a lot of the race fighting with Schumacher and managed to get ahead of him for the middle stint.” During the next stop, Schumacher had the advantage again and Sutil commented, “I probably went one lap too long in the middle stint and he got ahead of me when we were both on the medium tyre at the end of the race. I was close behind him, but we had similar pace and I couldn't get back ahead.” Schumacher would finish the race in seventh, and Sutil in eighth position.
Sutil’s Force India team mate Paul di Resta spent his first stint behind Sutil, but the Scot was closely followed by Sebastien Buemi in the Toro Rosso, Vitaly Petrov in the Lotus Renault, and later the second Toro Rosso piloted by Jaime Alguersuari joined the trio for the battle for ninth position. Buemi was still behind di Resta after the first stop, but the Swiss driver had to give up after a hydraulic problem. “I had a good fight with Buemi in the early laps and I think we were quite lucky that he retired, which made my race a bit easier,” said di Resta.
Of course Buemi was disappointed, “I had to retire because of a loss of fluid from the hydraulic system, which I first felt through the lack of power steering, as this is what makes the most demand on the hydraulics. After that, I could not change gear so there was nothing to do but bring the car into the pits and retire.”
Di Resta meanwhile was still out on his first set of medium tyres, as his team had opted for a one stop strategy, and stayed out on his mediums until lap 27 while he was in ninth place, switched to the softs, rejoined the race in 12th place, but then had the advantage of being on the faster soft tyres. It was his only pit stop and as others ahead of him pitted at a later stage, he regained his ninth position again, and finished ninth as well.
Di Resta was satisfied with the result, “To do a one-stop race and come away with two points is as much as we could really hope for. It's what we need for our fight in the championship.” And indeed Force India needs all the points they can get, as Sutil finished in eighth place, the team went home with six points, and reinforced their sixth position in the Constructor’s Championship, while their nearest rivals Sauber only scored one point. Both teams and the Toro Rosso team are fighting for that sixth position, the difference money wise between finishing seventh or sixth in the Constructors’ Championship can be as much as 9 million Euro in revenues.
Sauber’s Sergio Perez started from 11th place on the grid, but ran into the back of Sutil in Turn 7, and the Mexican had to pit for repairs. “I couldn't avoid hitting Sutil's car. It wasn't immediately clear how big the damage was, but then the team told me my front wing was broken and I had to pit after lap two.” He fell back to 23rd and last pace, but then started to carve his way through the field. During his unscheduled pit stop, the team had decided to send him out on the medium tyres, but switchrd to the softs on lap 27 and then really made a lot of progress, until he finally finished in 11th place, just behind his Japanese team mate Kamui Kobayashi, who scored one point for his boss Peter Sauber.
Sauber praised his drivers for their determination, “Both drivers showed a lot of fighting spirit and set very good lap times for most of the race. It was good to score a point today, but we didn't achieve the maximum we could.”
Which brings us to the third contender for sixth place, Toro Rosso. As said, not a good day for Buemi, but also not much of a day for Alguersuari, who finished in 15th place, behind the two Williams drivers and the Lotus Renault of Petrov. Team Principal Franz Tost was certainly not happy and described the race as a race of ‘missed opportunities’.
Both Rubens Barrichello and Pastor Maldonado did make good use of the opportunities, as they had started from the last row on the grid, recording the worst ever qualification result for the once so mighty and unbeatable Williams team, but finished in 12th and 14th position respectively. Both drivers started on the medium compound and later switched to the faster soft tyres, and the strategy did work for Williams.
Barrichello already advanced five places during the first lap, then overtook Vitantonio Liuzzi and Timo Glock, but was stopped by the Team Lotus of Heikki Kovalainen, who was much faster. Both pitted, Kovalainen was first, and when Barrichello made his stop he had hoped to get ahead of him, but instead lost a lot of time during his stop when his crew had problems fitting one of his rear tyres, and emerged from the pit still behind the Team Lotus. He nevertheless this time passed Kovalainen, and he later commented, “It was a very good race, and a well considered one by the team. We started from the back but I fought all the way through and we almost ended up fighting for points. We did well to finish where we did today.”
Maldonado could even have finished higher, but ignored the waving blue flags and was rewarded with a drive-through penalty by the FIA Stewards. Unfortunately for him, he was fighting with Alguersuari and Bruno Senna when the top five started to lap him, and once again the FIA Stewards ruled he had ignored the blue flags, and this time was given a 30 second time penalty. The Venezuelan wasn’t happy with the decision, and complained, “I saw the guys for sure, but I cannot lose four seconds every time. Even when I get the Virgin cars or the Hispania cars, I'm always losing time. In that moment, I was fighting with Alguersuari, so it was a difficult decision.”
Indeed, he was fighting for position with the Spaniard, and did move out of the way at the for him first available opportunity, on top of that, a driver cannot just disappear into thin air on the tight and narrow corners on a circuit like Yas Marina, so the FIA Stewards should have taken that into account as well.
Also not happy was Senna, who finished in 16th position, he was also rewarded a drive-through penalty for the same offence. The Brazilian complained about a lack of consistency of the Stewards, and hinted he would like to speak with FIA Race Director Charlie Whiting about it.
Perfectly happy was Kovalainen who took his Team Lotus to 17th place, once again beating his team mate Jarno Trulli, who finished one lap behind him in 18th place. “I didn't have any issues for the whole race, the pit stops were good and the strategy worked out exactly was we'd planned, so across the whole weekend this has been another strong event for us,” said Kovalainen.
Apart form Buemi and Vettel, HRT’s Daniel Ricciardo had to park his car and give up the race with electrical problems, while Marussia Virgin’s Jerome d’Ambrisio had to give up his race with brake problems. Therefore Glock and Liuzzi took 19th and 20th spot, finishing two laps behind winner Hamilton.
Next stop: Interlagos, Brazil
Next stop is the Brazilian Grand Prix at the Autodromo Jose Carlos Pace, named after the famous Brazilian Formula One driver Carlos Pace, who was tragically killed in an airplane crash in 1977 three days after the also tragic South African Grand Prix at Kyalami, the circuit that was also the scene of his Formula One debut in 1972. He participated in 73 Grands Prix, won one of them, the 1975 Brazilian Grand Prix, and scored one pole position. Together with the Fittipaldi brothers Emerson and Wilson, he was one of Brazil’s most beloved racing drivers of that era.
Another famous Brazilian driver will wave the chequered flag to signal the end of the race at the Interlagos circuit, Nelson Piquet, who won the World Championship in 1981, 1983 and 1987. Piquet participated in 207 races, won 23 of them, scored 60 podium positions and 24 poles. Brazil is a country with a rich racing history, thanks to drivers as Fittipaldi, Pace, Piquet, Ayrton Senna, and later Barrichello and Massa. In total no less than 30 Brazilian drivers have participated in Formula One since 1950, together they scored eight World Championships.
The race will finally answer the question who will land second place in the Drivers’ Championship, Button, currently second, Alonso (fourth) or Webber who is fifth. Button seems to have the best cards, Alonso is 10 points behind him, while Webber is 22 points behind the Briton, and will have to win the Brazilian Grand Prix to even stand a chance to take second place.
Although racing drivers generally believe second place is just as worthless as fifth or sixth, Button has said that taking second place for him means, apart form Vettel, he has beaten the best in the business: Alonso, his team mate Hamilton and Webber. Follow all the action on Motortsport.com in two weeks time.