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Abu Dhabi GP review: No need to spice it up any more!

Until last year the articles post the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix had to be spiced up, something like this- “Stunning sights at the Yas Marina circuit as Formula 1 takes centrestage against the backdrop of the 499-room Yas Hotel that straddles the track and...

Until last year, the articles post the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix had to be spiced up, something like this - Stunning sights at the Yas Marina circuit, as Formula 1 takes centre stage against the backdrop of the 499-room Yas Hotel that straddles the track and produced a spectacular sparkling show for the onlookers, courtesy the LED panes which were over 5000 in number….” And they rambled on. But not any more! Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2012 was a race to remember. The Brit, who started from pole, warmed the bench in the pit garage for the better part of the race, while for a German, it was a journey from the pits to the podium. Amidst all the chaos, we also had a Finn edging away to glory with child-like enthusiasm (team-radio excerpts have never been more fun).

The Battlefield

Yas Marina or the ‘twilight track’, is a visual delight for the race-goers and offers state-of-art facilities to the outfits. Coming to the track itself, it’s a 5.55 km long setup oriented in an anti-clockwise fashion, peppered 21 corners – nine right-handers and 12 left-handers. Significant brake wear and issues of overheating, like that on HRTs a week ago, might present a palpable challenge. The average speed here is around 190 kmph, top speed around 320 kmph and the cars spend about 82% of the lap time on full throttle. After India, Abu Dhabi has the second longest straight on the F1 calendar (in the first sector) which the drivers have the opportunity to take flat out for about 15 seconds. The track has a good mix of corners, starting with a sequence of sweeping corners through turn 2 to 6, multiple slow ones in the third sector and concluding with the final series of corners where the tyres get worked up.

There are two DRS-assisted overtaking zones. The first has a detection point 40m ahead of turn 7 and activation 390m after the turn, heading into the long back straight along the North Grandstand. The cars decelerate from 320 kmph to 80 kmph under heavy breaking for the double 90-degree corner, which is a potential overtaking zone. The second DRS zone is detected after turn 9, with activation on the apex of turn 10. The tyres on offer this weekend were the soft options and medium prime compounds.

The Start and the ugly lap Nine

The grid had one major change overnight, the casualty being the championship-leader Sebastian Vettel. He was disqualified from the qualifying when his car was found short of the stipulated one-litre fuel requirement at the end of the qualifying event. The starting grid top 10:

1. L. Hamilton (McLaren), 2. M. Webber (Redbull), 3. P. Maldonado (Williams), 4. K. Raikkonen (Lotus), 5. J. Button (McLaren), 6. F. Alonso (Ferrari), 7. N. Rosberg (Mercedes), 8. F. Massa (Ferrari), 9. R. Grosjean (Lotus), 10. N. Hulkenberg (Force India)

Vettel’s unsavoury disqualification and the events of the first ten laps of the race gave us ample signs that this one will not go down as a drab race with the drudgery of seeing the cars come home in the order they began. Hamilton got off to a positive start from pole as he marched ahead of the field while his colleague on the first row, Webber got bogged down. He was gobbled up by Maldonado and Raikkonen, who himself had a great start, moving up to P2, overtaking Maldonado as well. It was about to get worse for him as he came under immense pressure from Alonso, who sucked his car behind Webber’s tow and tried a move around the outside as they were exiting turn 8. While he managed to defend that one adeptly, he was up against arguably the best driver of the season and drove past around the outside out – braking him on turn 9, with some assistance from the KERS.

Rosberg leap-frogs over Karthikeyan – fortunately, there were no casualties

There was carnage in the mid-field right at the start, casualties being Grosjean, Rosberg, Hulkenberg, Senna and Di Resta. Hulkenberg was sandwiched between Senna and teammate Di Resta and he got tangled up with Senna going into turn one, resulting in his early exit while Di Resta sustained damage as headed for an early pit stop. In a separate incident, Rosberg jabbed into Grosjean, leaving him with a flat tyre and had to head to the pits for getting the damaged front wing swapped. Vettel too made a little contact with Senna but decided to carry on as he made good progress soon, getting to P13 and finally made a pit stop on lap 14 with a damaged front wing. But the ugliest moment of the race came in lap 9 when Rosberg rammed into the back of a slowing HRT of Karthikeyan at turn 15 and vaulted off the back of the car. It was a frightening accident as Rosberg could not fathom how early Karthikeyan would brake, which had something to do with the smoke coming out of the HRT. Fortunately, both the drivers were seen climbing out of their respective cars and escaped the disaster without sustaining any injuries.

Shut off that radio, he knows what he is doing

Guys, this section is going to have a lot of quotes! But it’s not often that you hear Kimi “Iceman” Raikkonen go berserk over the team-radio. Throughout the season, the media has been hanging on to every word he says and they just adore the laconic Finn. And this one is a popular victory. Coming out of a two-year sabbatical, he joined forces with Lotus (erstwhile Renault) and looked ominous, particularly in the first half of the season, claiming few podiums. The team went flat ever since, in terms of development but Kimi managed to hang on to the hunt for championship, at least until Suzuka. In all this, a win eluded him but that changed yesterday when the mechanical fuel pump on Hamilton’s McLaren gave way, forcing him to retire on lap 21, handing the lead to the 33-year old. He did inherit the lead but he also earned it on account of his brilliant drive right at the start, seizing P2 then and then just drifting away from Alonso and Vettel, taking control of the race when he got in front.

Raikkonen pumps his fist in elation

But in spite of all his proven skills, the team wanted to make sure he did everything right, which his race engineer Simon Rennie soon learned, wasn’t the best of the options. Just leave me alone, I know what to do, retorted Raikkonen the first time we heard him. And then again, during the safety-car period, when Rennie wanted him “to work all the four tyres”, he was mummed by the Finn - Yes, yes, yes, yes I am doing all the tyres, you don’t have to remind me every second. While this was uncharacteristically expressive (though typically blunt) from him, he responded to questions on how he felt about the win in a distinctive deadpan fashion, Not much really.

But one man who did not mind sharing the delight, was Eric Boullier - Delighted is the word but it’s also a big relief. Having come out issuing statements that they weren’t likely to win any race this year a week ago, this surely comes as a big respite. The Enstone-based unit desperately needed a stepping stone and that is what Abu Dhabi has become for them. This season is effectively over and but a win at this juncture bodes well for them for 2013. But right now, the team deserves the celebration and Kimi deserves all the alcohol.

Vettel has quite a weekend

On Friday, he seemed to have picked up from where he left in India. Saturday wasn’t too bad either when he finished P3, four places ahead of his immediate rival Alonso, except that he was instructed to stop the car right there in a frenetic attempt to escape a likely penalty. And then, the dreaded verdict - disqualified from qualifying, to start from the pits. Though it was disastrous for Redbull and Vettel, on the flipside, it meant they could tinker with the car setup – gearbox, gear ratios and suspension set up in a fashion to give him a car tuned purely for the race rather than to optimize a single lap qualifying. The stage was set and it just got better with every passing lap.

Vettel came up with a scintillating performance to finish on podium

After the severe penalty, he didn’t start too well either. His move on Senna was a little optimistic to be honest, considering that the Williams driver was busy getting around an HRT. Fortunately for him, the front wing came more or less intact out of the collision and his pursuit of points stayed on course. Around lap 13, in the safety car period, he managed to make it worse. He swerved into a polystyrene speed board, narrowly missing the Armco barrier after getting caught out by a braking Torro Rosso of Ricciardo. This time, the damage was significant and it resulted in him having to rejoin at P21 – last on track. Forced to pit on lap 14, he swapped to soft tyres and used them perfectly to climb up the field.

He was expected to drive flat out and that’s what he did, producing a great result. He was helped by the deployment of the safety car after his second pit stop on lap 37, allowing him to close the gap with the front-runners. But that doesn’t take the sheen away from his performance – a culmination of grit, skill and passion and if ever there have been any doubts over whether or not he deserves the third title, they’ve been put to rest once and for all.

Closing Comments

What next? A ten point deficit for Alonso and fifty points to play for! We are headed for Austin in two weeks’ time, which is a brand new circuit and for the last race, we have Interlagos. While Austin is an unknown territory, Brazil has been a pro-Redbull circuit. If Ferrari finally decides to give Alonso a car capable of winning, it has to be in Austin or the season will meet its climax a race too soon.

Among points: K. Raikkonen (Lotus)F. Alonso (Ferrari), S. Vettel (Redbull),  J. Button (McLaren), P. Maldonado (Williams), K. Kobayashi (Sauber), F. Massa (Ferrari), B. Senna (Williams), P. Di Resta (Force India), D. Ricciardo (Torro Rosso)

Drivers’ Championship:

Sebastian Vettel (255 pts), Fernando Alonso (245 pts), K. Raikkonen (198 pts), Mark Webber (167 pts), Lewis Hamilton (165 pts)

Constructors’ Championship: 

 Red Bull (422 pts)Ferrari (340 pts), McLaren (318 pts), Lotus (288 pts)

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