Well, it was certainly a dramatic and incident packed Abu Dhabi grand prix. When all was said and done after 55 laps of racing it was Lotus driver Kimi Raikkonen who came out on top to take his first win since his return to Formula 1 at the start of this season, becoming the eighth different winner in an exciting and unpredictable season. Against all the odds, the podium positions were filled by the top three in the world drivers’ championship, albeit in reverse order. Few would have predicted that outcome at the outset, so how did the race unfold?
I’m making a bit of a habit of starting my race analyses with a look back at Lewis Hamilton’s race, but I feel that I need to do so again. Things looked to be unfolding as we might have expected at the start of the race. Hamilton got a great start from pole position and looked well set to repeat his dominant performance of qualifying. Other than a mistake on the opening laps, which allowed Kimi Raikkonen – who had made a brilliant start to leap from fourth on the grid into second place – to close right up on him, Hamilton drove faultlessly.
Even when the race was interrupted by a safety car on lap eight, following a truly horrendous crash between Mercedes driver Nico Rosberg and HRT’s Narain Karthikeyan (underlining the case for some sort of cockpit protection in F1), Hamilton looked to be in complete control of the race. Following the end of the safety car period, he quickly re-established a lead of around three seconds to Raikkonen and it would have been a brave person who would have bet against him taking his fourth win of the season at that stage.
As it was, though, just five laps after the safety car returned to the pits on lap 15, Hamilton ground to a halt. McLaren team principal Martin Whitmarsh revealed after the race that it was a fuel pump issue that put the Englishman out of the race, and did little to help the team’s pursuit of Ferrari and Red Bull Racing in the world constructors’ championship.
Jenson Button’s fourth place will have been of scant consolation to the team who actually managed to lose ground to both of the teams ahead of them in the constructors’ championship. Sebastian Vettel passed Button for third in the closing stage of the race to take 15 points for Red Bull and Ferrari scored 24 points with second place for Alonso and seventh for his team-mate Felipe Massa. Button’s haul of 12 points for McLaren was simply not good enough.
Vettel, though, unlucky to have to start from the pit-lane after a fuel infringement on Saturday resulted in his exclusion from qualifying, had a complete turnaround in fortune in the race. Despite being involved in a few incidents in the race, notably damaging his front wing twice – once after hitting Romain Grosjean’s Lotus, then nearly hitting Torro Rosso’s Daniel Ricciardo under the first safety car period – Vettel benefitted massively from the misfortune of others in the race to finish in third place.
Hamilton’s retirement, was just the first such stroke of luck for Vettel. The German also benefitted from a spin by Felipe Massa while the Brazilian was racing Vettel’s team-mate Mark Webber, and the incident that caused the second safety car period. That incident, for which Sauber’s Sergio Perez received a 10 second stop and go penalty, not only removed the Mexican from serious contention, but also took Romain Grosjean and Mark Webber out of the race completely. More importantly for Vettel, though, it closed the field up again, and allowed him to make full use of his fresher tyres to make further inroads at the restart, eventually passing Jenson Button for the final podium position, nine laps after the safety car returned to the pits.
The German somehow managed to limit the damage to his championship lead to finish just one place behind the man who is now mathematically his only rival for the world drivers’ championship: Fernando Alonso. The Ferrari driver managed to work miracles again in his Ferrari, moving neatly into fourth place on the opening lap from his sixth place starting position, and moving steadily forward in the race, to close to just 0.8 seconds behind winner Raikkonen as the pair crossed the line.
As a result, the Spaniard now sits 10 points behind Vettel in the championship with two races left to run. While Alonso was keen to present the reduced deficit to the Red Bull driver in a positive light after the race, you can’t help but feel that the championship is heading Vettel’s way. It would surely take a huge turnaround in fortunes, and competitiveness, for Alonso to take a third drivers championship in 2012.
One man who is now out of the championship running is Kimi Raikkonen. Despite delivering the win that had eluded him on his return to the sport at the start of the 2012 season, the Finn now finds himself 57 points behind championship leader Vettel, with only 50 points left on the table. Nevertheless, Raikkonen’s return to Formula 1 is now a triumphant one. The Lotus driver drove a brilliantly controlled race to make the most of Lewis Hamilton’s misfortune and take victory. Raikkonen started brilliantly, leapfrogging both Pastor Maldonado and Mark Webber off the line, and somehow managed to keep his head during the safety car periods, stay out of trouble during the race, and resist the intense pressure from Fernando Alonso in the closing laps.
Not only that, but the Finn managed not to let his irritation with his own team affect him too badly, while also providing further examples of the personality that makes him such a unique character. Twice we heard team radio from Raikkonen during the race where he dismissed the instructions of his engineers. The first, on lap 24, came as his team advised him that he was five seconds ahead of the pursuing Alonso, to which the Finn replied “Leave me alone I know what I’m doing!”. The second, under the second safety car period, came as his engineer advised him to go through tyre warming procedures to get ready for the restart – Raikkonen abruptly cut him off saying “Yes, yes, yes, yes. I’m doing all of that. You don’t have to remind me every single time”.
Despite the fact that Raikkonen crossed the line first, though, I can’t help but feel that the real winner in Abu Dhabi was Sebastian Vettel. His championship lead might be slightly diminished, but he has the fastest car and, seemingly, lady luck on his side.