Race analysis: Why Mercedes felt it had to intervene in F1 title showdown
Lewis Hamilton used road position to try and engineer himself a title in Abu Dhabi, despite pleas from the pitwall not to do so. In the end, it didn't work, Nico Rosberg triumphing in a thrilling world championship showdown.
Before the Abu Dhabi GP, the fear of many observers was that we would end up with a dull conclusion to the 2016 World Championship, possibly with the outcome being decided with a first corner drama or early retirement for Lewis Hamilton.
In the event, the destiny of the title was not settled until the chequered flag flew, and Nico Rosberg crossed the line with just enough points to secure the title.
Along the way, we had one of the most intriguing battles we have seen for a while, with Hamilton slowing down his teammate in controversial style.
The Mercedes drivers were in turn being chased down by Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen, with both men running different strategies that converged with the top four crossing the line just 1.685 seconds apart.
Mercedes lays down the law
Everything went to plan for Mercedes, in qualifying at least, when Hamilton and Rosberg duly secured the front row spots.
Even before the weekend Red Bull boss Christian Horner stirred the pot when he suggested that Lewis should back Nico up and make him vulnerable to being passed by those behind. Mercedes was well aware that such a scenario could unfold, and it was discussed within the camp beforehand.
To the media, Wolff said that he expected "sportsmanlike" behaviour from both men.
There was plenty of other stuff for Mercedes to worry about it, not least the nightmare scenario of a mechanical problem hitting one or the other driver, and determining the direction of the World Championship.
"It was a tense time," Paddy Lowe told Motorsport.com.
"The team have done a fantastic job in the previous 20 races. On one level we were comforted by the thought that we have all the procedures in place, we have all the data that we've achieved to make our engineering and operations more and more reliable, and that will sustain as through the day.
"What we wanted was good starts, a clean Turn 1, two cars home, and ideally a one and two finish. And we got all of those things..."
But as we saw, it was a far from stress-free Sunday evening for Mercedes. As Lowe says, the start and first corner were clean, and one potential threat seemed to be neutralised when Max Verstappen spun to the rear of the field.
Both the Dutchman and teammate Daniel Ricciardo had qualified in Q2 on supersofts rather than ultrasofts as once again RBR attempted to put pressure on Mercedes by following a different path. However, despite dropping to the back, Verstappen was far from out of the picture...
Hamilton slow from the start
We didn't really know it at the time, but from the very early laps Mercedes sensed that Hamilton was not driving to the full potential of the W07 package. And that's why we had the unusual sight of the race leader kicking off the pitstops when he came in after just seven laps, when third placed Kimi Raikkonen was just 3s behind him, and only 1.7s off Rosberg.
"If we had pulled more of a gap, we would have stayed out longer," said Lowe.
"But the risk there is that there is a very strong undercut on the soft, and with the gaps we had we couldn't risk others pre-empting that stop, so as soon as we had clear traffic behind, we went for it.
"It's quite rare for us not to have any lead at that point in the race. There didn't seem to be as much pace as we'd hoped for, let's say, at that stage…"
Lewis lost a little time in the stop as he had to wait for Raikkonen to pass by in the pitlane, and then exactly the same happened with Rosberg and Vettel when they came in a lap later.
To most people's surprise, Ricciardo gave up any advantage he might have had with a long stint on the supersofts by pitting after just nine laps, in part because he'd locked up on the first lap which made a long stint somewhat less desirable.
Critical call for Rosberg
The wildcard at this stage was Verstappen. Despite his tyre-smoking spin on Lap 1, he was able to slice though the field and stay out for what turned into a one-stop strategy.
And the intriguing aspect was that not having pitted, he found himself in second place, splitting the two Mercedes drivers.
That gave Rosberg and his team a headache that they hadn't anticipated.
"Each Ferrari caused us a release delay which is unfortunate," said Lowe. "But not too much damage, apart from with Max in his offset strategy in the way, that created a little bit of difficulty for Nico. Eventually we called him and said he couldn't wait any longer, we had to push for the overtake."
Indeed, we heard Nico's engineer tell him that it was "critical" that he pass Verstappen.
"That was not a nice thing to hear," Nico joked after the race. "Really? Critical to pass Verstappen? Honesty, that was bad, that was really bad. That was a horrible feeling!"
Given Verstappen's reputation for making life difficult, and the fact that they'd already had moments together on track in Montreal, Germany and Mexico, not to mention Max's bold outside pass in the wet in Brazil, Nico could be forgiven for being a bit wary.
But to his credit he got his head down and made a bold pass, and Max gave him just enough space.
"The feelings that I had in the battle and right after when I realised that I'd passed him, I've never had that in a racecar ever in my life," said Rosberg. "And I don't want ever want to have them again I don't think..."
"It was a great move," said Lowe. "Considering that Nico's main risk of the day was to have some sort of shunt that took him out. It was still brave, but well controlled, close racing. So a great overtake from Nico which was critical to his championship.
"And respect to Max, he didn't do anything silly either that would have distorted the championship."
So as of Lap 20 Rosberg was back in second place. He then put in a series of fastest laps, closing the gap to Hamilton down to 3s before Lewis pitted on Lap 28, with Nico coming in a lap later.
Then it became apparent that there was another potential spanner in the works as Vettel took over the lead and continued to stay out, in effect shortening his third and final stint – for which he had a set of supersofts safely stashed away.
It was clear that he would be the fastest guy on the track in that last stint, fast enough to be a threat to the Mercedes drivers.
Indeed, it was just a couple of laps after the stops that Hamilton was asked why he was so slow, and it was pointed out that he could be vulnerable to Vettel.
Hamilton takes a stand
The next 25 or so laps were highly unusual as Hamilton received a stream of messages from the pit wall about his pace.
After his final stop and the move to supersofts, Vettel was flying, lapping a couple of seconds faster than the Mercedes drivers. He passed Raikkonen, Ricciardo and then, crucially, Verstappen.
It was around that time that Lowe himself got on the radio and told Hamilton that he had to pick up the pace, making it clear that "this is an instruction".
"I can't answer for the pace of the car, I'm not driving it," said Lowe. "In the end Lewis is driving the car, he knows where he's at. When you are in the lead, you control the race, and that's your position to do so.
"All we can do is give recommendations, advising about the threats. We reached a point where the win was under serious threat from Sebastian, and we were giving him that information in very clear terms.
"In the end, like I say, I can't know the pace of the car, in case he could go quicker and was choosing not to. We were making very clear to him that this was the pace that was necessary to protect the win. What he does with that information in the end was up to him."
It could be argued that Rosberg's second place was under threat, but the win itself was not. Surely Hamilton would simply have put the hammer down as soon as he saw red in his mirrors? But Lowe is adamant that there was no attempt to favour Nico in asking Lewis to speed up.
"The very plain objective of an F1 team is to win every race, and ideally get a one-two. And it was clearly expressed to the drivers," he added.
"We don't mind which order it's in, but we're after a one-two, and we were not going to distort those objectives in favour of the drivers' World Championship."
In the end, Lewis couldn't quite get his ploy to work, although it came pretty close. When he crossed the line at the end of the 55 laps Rosberg was there behind him, as he had been at the three previous races. And that was just enough to secure the title.
"The last 10 laps I could see them coming really close," said Rosberg. "And with what Lewis was doing, I didn't know how far he was going to push it also.
"I could just go completely extreme, and then it would have been a right mess. I didn't know what to expect, so that was also very, very tough."
There was no hiding the fact that there were mixed emotions on the pitwall afterwards as Lowe, Wolff and Niki Lauda tried to come to terms with the fact that Hamilton had done his own thing, and how it had put an unexpected twist on what should have been an evening of celebration.
There may have been some extra stress at Mercedes, but this was a great day for F1, with the title decided on the last lap of the 21st race of the sport's longest season.
"Pace was a problem all afternoon, but on the positive side we got a fantastic four-way finish at the end," Lowe concluded. "F1 is about producing entertainment, producing a spectacle.
"And you couldn't have wished for any better spectacle than that, to come home so close, getting the one-two, Nico getting the championship. A perfect result for us."
Insight: An irony of history as Sebastian Vettel avoids getting involved in F1 title mash up in Abu Dhabi
Abu Dhabi GP: Issue #3 of GP Gazette now online
Race analysis: Why Mercedes felt it had to intervene in F1 title showdown
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|FP2||Fri 20 Sep|| |
|FP3||Sat 21 Sep|| |
|QU||Sat 21 Sep|| |
|Race||Sun 22 Sep|| |
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