Another Formula 1 season sails past at a scary pace, our traditional post-season Sky F1 team photo under the floodlights on the Abu Dhabi start straight seems to come around every six months.
Being generous, that was a slow-burn race which gathered excitement towards the end, as is often the case on the Yas Island layout.
In theory, a slow T7 hairpin leading onto a long straight, which is followed by a clumsy but slow chicane onto another effectively long straight, should generate some organic overtaking. Both those straights also have DRS drag reduction zones for the rear wing, although on this occasion that system failed due to a server crashing for the first 18 laps of the race.
Every action always has unintended consequences in the complex world of F1. Without DRS, drivers like Valtteri Bottas, starting from 20th and the back of the grid, suddenly stalled out in P14.
Those trying the earlier undercut pit stop also took pain because without DRS they couldn’t clear the traffic, which was still on old tyres. Instead, those being parsimonious with their tyres and running long were getting the benefit of a clearer track.
This particularly worked well for Sergio Perez, who stopped his Racing Point on lap 37 of 55, and Daniil Kvyat, who finally pitted his Toro Rosso on lap 40. Coaxing a lot of laps out of a set of tyres at reasonable pace is like putting grip in the bank for later. A decent strategy to steal a few points but no good up front for those who expect to win the race and lap everyone up to the top six.
Perez with a great last lap overtake would finish seventh and Kvyat ninth.
In some ways I preferred the action when the DRS stopped working, it seemed more tense and the few overtakes were harder won. As soon as it switched back on, though, the race was freed up and we saw much more combat and examples of sterling defence, although some overtakes then became a breeze-past gift, just like when you pass ‘Go’ in Monopoly.
Having said that, the two McLarens and two Renaults were caught up in a DRS train for much of the race.
For this 21-corner anti-clockwise circuit, at sea level with little contour change and lots of annoying off-camber corners where the track falls away, the Mercedes car and team just seem to turn up with a plug and play fast set-up.
It feels an odd thing to say given that he has dominated yet another season of F1, but I sensed Lewis Hamilton, in his 250th GP, was fully back to his finest form.
It was his first pole position in 10 grands prix, since Hockenheim, Germany back in July, and he controlled the start, pace and race with a calm ease. Popping in a new lap record on lap 53 simply confirmed that he was playing with the pack like a cat with a ball of wool.
With Bottas confined to the back of the grid after his change of power unit from the retirement in Brazil – meaning double pain and penalty, of course, in that situation – Hamilton was basically in a one-horse race out front.
Max Verstappen did his best to at least keep him in sight despite some engine driveability issues and having been passed by the flying Ferrari of Charles Leclerc on the first lap.
Leclerc was racing under suspicion because the FIA had measured that his fuel level was 4.88kg different to that declared by the team. A €50k fine seems to have sorted that maladministration but there’s no doubting that the FIA with added ‘enthusiasm’ from Mercedes and Red Bull are determined to close down any loopholes and grey areas that Ferrari may have found for generating extra power using hydrocarbons. There’s no doubt that something is up given various conversations I had over the weekend.
With different power-unit philosophies, aero-downforce settings, electrical regeneration and deployment, and DRS activation, it’s a complex area to define. But with common fuel-flow limits at all times, along with a raft of other regulations and measurements, there should be good common control. But in teams with a head count of 1000+ key personnel move around this specialist business and knowledge of techniques and practices gets shared.
Elsewhere in the race, some drivers like Pierre Gasly, Kimi Raikkonen, and Antonio Giovinazzi had their bubbles burst after great results just two weeks earlier in Brazil, such was the different nature of the circuit.
Carlos Sainz, after a late change to a two-stop strategy, did just enough with a nice lunge (unseen by us) on Nico Hulkenberg, who was having his last race, to snatch the point he needed for sixth in the championship and ‘best of the rest’ after the top three Grandee teams. He has been outstanding this year, as has his team-mate Lando Norris.
They’ve worked so well together to help build a team spirit and momentum, but Fernando Alonso on the grid confirmed to me he wants to be back in F1 for 2021 – most likely with Renault I would have thought. The focus at the moment is all about the fresh new talent in F1, but there’s not a big queue of Leclercs and Verstappens knocking on the door of F1 right now, and even the Red Bull young driver train is stuck in the station.
Alex Albon was solid for Red Bull since his transition from Toro Rosso but he needs to find half a second per lap at least over the winter to get on terms with team-mate Verstappen. With no safety car intervention, he was 53 seconds behind the Dutchman in a 55-lap race.
The Ferraris of Leclerc and Vettel were respectively 43 and 64 seconds behind the cruising Hamilton which feels rather more like the earlier hybrid power-unit years. Let’s hope for 2020 that’s not the case.
And so, we lose Robert Kubica and Nico Hulkenberg from the grid, gaining Nicholas Latifi at Williams and a returning Esteban Ocon at Renault. Otherwise we have great stability in teams, drivers and regulations which tends to close the pack, with what could be the fastest cars in F1 history for a while before we move on to the significant 2021 changes.
Thank you for your company over this F1 season, and I wish you a great festive break and a happy and prosperous New Year. MB