The 2012 Formula 1 season is now quickly advancing to some sort of conclusion, and this weekend the antepenultimate round takes place in the millionaires playground of the Yas Marina Circuit.
This Sunday will be the fourth running of the day-night race that is the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. Despite always being held towards the end of the season (and twice as the season finale), it has only once been the event that has decided the championship. It will not have that honour this season either, but could well be another race that edges Sebastian Vettel towards title glory.
The German is the only driver to win more than once in Abu Dhabi. He won the inaugural event in 2009, and took victory again the following year. That 2010 race had particular significance of course, in that those 25 points propelled Vettel into the championship lead for the first time that season, and gave him his first title.
Last year, Lewis Hamilton took the win, but by the time F1 made its trip to the Middle East, the title had been decided long ago. Vettel took pole position that weekend, but a puncture at the start of the race meant he failed to score points for the first and only time in 2011.
Vettel will surely be focussing on the more positive memories from his previous visits to Abu Dhabi as he prepares for this race though, and will be eager to extend his championship lead before Formula 1 heads into the unknown territory that is Austin, Texas.
Championship rival Fernando Alonso does not have many pleasant recollections from previous races at this venue. The Spaniard was second last season, but the 2010 race – when he went to Abu Dhabi leading the championship and finished only seventh, stuck behind the Renault of Vitaly Petrov for many of the 55 laps – will have been firmly shoved to the back of his mind.
Alonso will be frantically encouraging his Ferrari team to do something – anything – that can get him closer to the pace of the Red Bull of Vettel. It was a heroes’ drive in India which saw him advance from fifth on the grid to eventually finish second (with a bit of help from a malfunctioning KERS for Mark Webber), but there is only so much Alonso’s driving skill can deliver with a slower car, and more races of ‘damage limitation’ will not win him a third championship.
Red Bull refuses to be drawn on how the RB8 should perform around the Yas Marina circuit. A couple of long straights would suggest that the might struggle, seeing as the team are rarely the fastest through the speed traps, but that did not hold them back in India. The likelihood is that Vettel will have the tools at his disposal to grab a fifth consecutive race win on Sunday, and a fantastic drive from someone else, or some bad luck befalling the German, will be needed to prevent it.
However, for anybody who found the Indian Grand Prix a bit dull, or is not a big fan of Hermann-Tilke circuits, they may be tempted to avoid this race. Abu Dhabi is not known as an overtaking venue although if the FIA decides to stretch the DRS zone slightly, as it did in India, the number of manoeuvres may increase.
Pole position, or at least a good qualifying performance, appears to be vital at this track. Nobody has won an Abu Dhabi Grand Prix without starting on the front row of the grid – having said that, a sample size of three is not much to go on. It does suggest that a fourth Red Bull front-row lock-out on Saturday is likely to lead to a Vettel win given that Webber is all but mathematically out of the title race.
Nevertheless, although not conducive to much wheel-to-wheel racing, the Yas Marina circuit does have other things going for it. For a start, it looks fantastic. It is situated on an island (Yas Island) and the track meanders in, around and through one of the most spectacular-looking of hotels. As night falls, the flood-lights provide the drivers with the necessary illumination, whilst the hotel glows in a variety of colours. Add in a marina full of some of the world’s most expensive yachts and boats, and the huge Ferrari World theme park, and you have either an amazing feat of human engineering or a vivid representation of everything that is wrong with capitalism and what Bernie Ecclestone has done with Formula 1, depending on your point of view.
If this season were a novel, it would begin with a completely messy narrative, including one chapter (called Spain), where it becomes completely unbelievable. It would then settle into a predictable story with the conclusion clearly sign-posted. This race in Abu Dhabi will go some way to determining whether that story continues on this obvious trajectory, or whether there is a final twist in the tale…
- Qualifying for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix begins at 13:00 GMT and the race starts at the same time on Sunday.
- Coverage in the UK is available on Sky Sports F1 HD, BBC One (HD) and BBC Radio 5 Live.