Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Analysis: One team, two drivers, one goal…


Großer Preis von Abu Dhabi 2016, Sonntag. Credit: Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team

This weekend’s Abu Dhabi Grand Prix treated us to a fantastic finale to what has been a long and hard fought season. Tactics, tension and some good old-fashioned ignoring of team orders made for a thrilling conclusion, not everyone however saw it that way…

Whilst Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team driver Lewis Hamilton took victory at the Yas Marina Circuit on Sunday, it was team-mate Nico Rosberg that went on to win the world title, equalling the efforts of his dad Keke back in 1982, and becoming the third German driver to take that honour.

Perhaps it was obvious with his twelve-point lead going into the final race of the season, that Rosberg would secure the trophy in Abu Dhabi, but that did not make the journey getting to that moment, any less difficult on Sunday.

I’ve started so I’ll finish…

Hamilton and Rosberg, starting from the front row they have made their own for the last couple of seasons, led off the line in formation, whilst Scuderia Ferrari drivers Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel immediately attacked Red Bull Racing driver Daniel Ricciardo for position, the Australian having started on the harder, super-soft tyre compound.

The Finn got alongside the RB12 and moved ahead under braking at Turn 1, whilst the German had to fall in behind on that occasion after locking up going into the left-hander.

Just behind the battling trio Max Verstappen, who had qualified lower down the order than he would have liked in sixth and was also on the harder compound of tyre, made an opportunistic move on Sahara Force India F1 Team driver Nico Hulkenberg as he fought to hold on to that sixth place. The Dutchman hit the side of the VJM09 however, spinning him around and relegating him to the back of the field.

Cue the Verstappen comeback, as the Dutchman predictably made his way back through the order like it was taking candy from a baby. Up ahead, Hamilton meanwhile had pulled a small gap to Rosberg, before deciding to slow the pace up, with the German unable to shake Raikkonen, Ricciardo and Vettel off his tail.

Keeping control…

As the lead Mercedes out on track, the Brit pitted first for the super-soft tyre on lap seven, whilst Ferrari predictably reacted immediately by bringing in Raikkonen. Rosberg pitted next time around, with Vettel followed his fellow German’s lead. On both occasions the Mercedes drivers, who had the Ferrari garage directly in front of them, were held up to ensure a safe release as the SF16-H sauntered up to its markers.

The delay meant Rosberg came out behind Verstappen, who had chosen to stay out on the red walled rubber he began the race on, Red Bull having switched him on to a one-stop strategy. Despite numerous messages from the team to get the Mercedes driver to pass the Dutchman, who was now beginning to hold the German up, Rosberg remained behind the 19-year-old, although he did make an attempt to get by, but was unwilling to try too hard for fear of compromising his race.

Further down the order in the midfield, McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team driver Jenson Button was enjoying what is set be his final ever race in F1, that is until he suffered a dramatic right-front suspension failure after bouncing over the kerb at Turn 9, forcing him to retire the MP4-31 from the race early.

The Brit did make it back to the pits however, and spent the rest of the grand prix enjoying his last moments in the sport with family and friends, with a few impromptu moments of hijacking the TV coverage along the way!

Up ahead, the race had settled into a steady pace, whilst Hamilton all the while kept a steady eye on what was unfolding behind him through his mirrors. By this point Mercedes were getting frantic, warning Rosberg over team radio that it was now critical that he passed Verstappen or he could lose that vital third place or higher he needed to secure the title.

Dutifully the German complied, as he made a late lunge from way back at Turn 8. The pair came so close they almost touched wheels, but no contact was made as both drivers held their lines in perfect symmetry. No harm done, but not the sort of battle the soon to be world champion was looking to get involved in today.

As they came up to Turn 9, Rosberg moved to the outside, allowing him to get a better exit than the Red Bull, and power by up into second.

It’s the pits…

On lap 22 Verstappen came in for his first and only stop of the race, switching to the soft tyre, he would hopefully be able to manage until the end. The pit stop moved the Dutchman back down the order momentarily, whilst Rosberg worked to build up enough of a lead, so that when he came in for his second pit stop, he would this time come out ahead.

The German got the undercut when he pitted for fresh rubber straight after Hamilton on lap 28, whilst Ricciardo also made his earlier pit stop count by jumping Raikkonen to move up a place. he could not out-do his team-mate however, who had pushed on enough after his pit stop to move ahead of the Australian, and up into third place.

That unanticipated scenario, prompted the Maranello based squad to keep Vettel out longer than they had originally planned, a move that would bring the four-time world champion into play later in the race, in more ways than one.

When Vettel finally pitted on lap 37 to take a fresh set of super-soft tyres, the gap at the front had dropped to just over one second from what had been nearly 3.5, keeping Rosberg crucially out of DRS range, but backing up towards Verstappen and Ricciardo enough to put pressure on the German.

Calling the shots…

As Hamilton continued to slow the field and maintain the gap at around a second to Rosberg, the Mercedes pit wall began to sweat. With the two Red Bull drivers closing to within striking distance of Rosberg, the German squad began to question Hamilton about his pace, suggesting that he should up it. To which they got a steady response from the Brit of “I suggest you guys let us race”.

The tactics from his team-mate were clearly putting huge pressure on Rosberg who was just about holding it together, but his comments to the team over the radio were telling, when he asked if there was any chance of him being let by due to the crazily slow pace being set, adding that he would let Hamilton back past if he remained in second place after the switch.

All the while, Vettel on his new set of the softer tyre compound, was making speedy progress. Having caught and passed team-mate Raikkonen, and then Ricciardo, it would only be a matter of time before the German was on the back of Verstappen.

On lap 46, and just nine laps of the race remaining, Mercedes issued an instruction to Hamilton to up his pace to a 1:45.1, firmly believing that Vettel was a definite threat to them winning the race. The request was ignored by the Brit, who continued with his own campaign.

As Vettel swept past Verstappen on the run in to Turn 11 on lap 51, Mercedes bosses were getting extremely anxious, and gave it one last try to persuade Hamilton to tow the line, bringing Technical Director Paddy Lowe onto the airwaves, who ordered the Brit to go faster if he still wanted to take victory in this final race.

Once again Hamilton’s response was to rebuff the team’s remarks stating categorically that he had things under control and would be doing this his way.

Paddy, I’m actually in the lead right now and I’m quite comfortable. Right now I’m losing the world championship whether I win or lose this race.”

When winning is not enough…

With just two laps of the season ending race to go, the top four could not have been closer, with just 2.5 seconds splitting the quartet, as Hamilton continued to back Rosberg into their competitors.

It was to no avail however as despite having the benefit of younger tyres, the German’s DRS boost down the straights, was negated by the fact that Rosberg was also receiving the same benefit from his proximity to Hamilton, and they took the chequered flag with the Brit winning his tenth race of the season, but Rosberg being crowned the 2016 world champion, just 0.4 seconds back in second place.

Not every victory is a sweet one, a fact Hamilton, already a three-time world champion in his own right, had learnt today, but the Brit can rest easy knowing he did everything he could these last few races.

And the rest…

Vettel took a well-deserved third place, after a Ferrari strategy call had finally paid dividends, earning them a podium finish in the final race of the season.

Verstappen took fourth place, the Dutchman’s tyres having fallen away in the final laps of the race, with team-mate Ricciardo 3.6 seconds further back in fifth, ahead of Raikkonen.

The two Force India’s of Hulkenberg and Sergio Perez came home in formation, bagging seventh and eighth position respectively, to secure the Silverstone based team’s highest ever finish in F1, as rivals Williams Martini Racing were forced to retire the car of Valtteri Bottas from the race, after noticing an anomaly in the data that they did not want to risk exacerbating.

Felipe Masa held on to finish ninth in his last ever F1 race, with the Brazilian retiring from the sport after the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and former team-mate Fernando Alonso rounded out the top ten to claim a final point for the McLaren Honda Formula 1 Team.

Haas F1 Team driver Romain Grosjean was eleventh, ahead of team-mate Esteban Gutierrez, who is still without a confirmed drive for next season, and they were ahead of the two Manor Racing MRT drivers Esteban Ocon and Pascal Wehrlein, with the Frenchman just pipping his team-mate for position, in the battle of the rookies.

Sauber F1 Team drivers Marcus Ericsson and Felipe Nasr were fifteen and sixteenth, with Renault Sport Formula 1 Team driver Jolyon Palmer languishing at the back of the order, having collided with Scuderia Toro Rosso driver Carlos Sainz Jr late on, when jostling for position. The incident saw the Brit hit with a five-second time penalty and the Spaniard have to retire from the race with a broken gearbox, a failure team-mate Daniil Kvyat had already succumbed to earlier in the race.  It capped off the end to a torrid weekend for the Faenza based squad, who also had to deal with wheel rim failures during practice.

Team-mate Kevin Magnussen did not fare much better, having retired from the race early on, after damaging the RS16’s steering rack when he made contact with Ocon.

Großer Preis von Abu Dhabi 2016, Sonntag. Credit: Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team
Großer Preis von Abu Dhabi 2016, Sonntag. Credit: Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team

The Championship…

Sunday’s result see’s Nico Rosberg crowned 2016 F1 drivers champion, after a hard fought year, where the German improved himself at every level. Not content with playing second fiddle to team-mate Hamilton anymore, Rosberg made the changes necessary to get the better of the Brit this time around.

Yes, some luck was involved, as is often the case in F1, but the German handled the pressure brilliantly, and capitalised on his team-mate’s misfortune at every possible occasion, as well as outperforming his rival at times, making Rosberg the worthy victor.

Many, including Hamilton himself, will highlight that the number of technical failures he has experienced this year were ultimately what led to him losing the world championship, but although that can be factored into the equation and it obviously did not make things easy, the Brit also did not help himself, when it came to resolving the problems he was experiencing in executing a good start off the line.

On five occasions this year Hamilton has made a woeful start, with Singapore being a particularly poor race all round for the Brit, where he finished down in third when he should really have taken at least second.

Had Hamilton finished a place higher on each of those ominous occasions, then the points deficit between the pair would have been greatly reduced and much closer when they arrived in Abu Dhabi, making the pressure much greater on Rosberg, and giving Hamilton a much better chance in the final race. Hamilton must acknowledge these issues, as at least part of the reason why he was unable to win the world championship this time around.

Following the three-time world champions actions in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, in not following team orders, the German squad have indicated that they could punish the Brit for his behaviour, with even suspension being bandied around as a possible outcome.

There are two mind-sets as to whether Hamilton’s antics on Sunday were justified or not, and I am firmly in the not camp.

For me, it was an unrealistic request from Mercedes to expect Hamilton to obey team orders when he was still in with a shot of the title, albeit a slim one. Why even bother starting the race if you are just going to give up when it looks like things are not going your way? As far as I am concerned, Hamilton did nothing anyone else in his position would not have done, and he is after all a sportsman at the top of his game – what else did Mercedes expect??

There is also the fact of course that F1 is predominantly a team sport, and going against the wishes of your employer is never taken in a good light. Mercedes on many occasion have let their drivers race, which is to their credit, and so to take such a harsh stance now at the end of the season, and with the constructor’s title already secured, would in my opinion, be a mistake.

By all means give Hamilton a stern talking too, tell him it is not the done thing and ask him not to do it again, but go beyond that and you are at risk of destroying the competitive freedom that makes this sport so great. Hopefully when the dust has settled, Mercedes will also see it that way.

Großer Preis von Abu Dhabi 2016, Sonntag. Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team
Großer Preis von Abu Dhabi 2016, Sonntag. Mercedes AMG Petronas Formula One Team

Red Bull sealed the runners-up spot in the constructor’s championship, in the end finishing seventy points clear of Ferrari who had to make do with third place after a poor season by the prancing horse’s standards, leaving a clear message for the Maranello based squad that something has to change. Ricciardo also took third place in the driver’s standings, a solid effort from the Australian.

With Williams only able to bring home two points in Abu Dhabi, Force India take home fourth place in the constructor’s championship having gone thirty-five points clear of the Grove based squad, and achieving their highest ever finishing position in F1 in the process. A fantastic effort, from a small, independent team, with nowhere near the kind of budget their bigger rivals enjoy.

McLaren held on to take sixth place by thirteen points from Toro Rosso, in what has been a much improved year for the Woking based squad, who will now hope to continue on that upward progression, and be even stronger still in 2017.

In the battle of the two new teams to F1 this season, the Haas F1 Team beat the Renault Sport F1 Team to eighth place, with Romain Grosjean having scored all the American squad’s twenty-nine points. It was a minuscule eight points for the French squad, who always knew it was going to be tough challenge on their return to the sport as a constructor.

Sauber finally scored their first points of the season at the penultimate round of the season, and that was enough to see the Swiss squad jump ahead of Manor Racing MRT in the standings, at the end of the year. It was a disappointing way to finish a season that had started off positively for the Banbury based squad, having scored one point at the third round in Bahrain, when driver Wehrlein had a strong race to come home in tenth place.

It is all change next year as the new regulations come in for 2017, which will hopefully lend themselves to shaking up the order, and bring about a more competitive scene.