Lewis Hamilton won the battle, capturing his 52nd career victory at the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. However, his Mercedes teammate Nico Rosberg won the war, as he held on to second place under withering pressure to become the 2016 Formula 1 World Drivers’ Championship.
Rosberg’s world title comes 34 years after his father Keke won his championship in 1982. Rosberg could have also finished third if Hamilton won to take the crown. He amassed nine wins and 16 podiums; of 1,268 racing laps, he spent 957 – or 75 percent of his season – inside the top three. His crown demanded both endurance and patience: his record of 11 consecutive seasons before becoming the champion is the second longest in history, behind only Britain’s Nigel Mansell’s 12-year breakthrough.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel finished third after being fitted with ultrasoft Pirellis and slicing through the field on a late race charge. His run to the front halted when he encountered Rosberg being slowed by Hamilton, himself trying to push Rosberg back into the clutches of first Vettel and then Verstappen. Had both drivers passed Rosberg, he would have come up short in the championship points battle, giving Hamilton his fourth world driving title.
At the start, both Hamilton and Rosberg had perfect launches with Hamilton leading into the first turn as the Ferrari pair of Kimi Raikkonen and Sebastian Vettel attacked Daniel Ricciardo’s Red Bull for third place.
Raikkonen had better track position and slotted ahead of Ricciardo in Turn 1 as Ricciardo and Vettel both locked brakes. Max Verstappen chose a narrow approach into the turn, which necessitated a wider exit. Unfortunately, Nico Hulkenberg’s Force India was already in that spot. Verstappen’s tire hit Hulkenberg’s side pod, and his Red Bull began a slow pirouette leaving the young Dutchman unscathed, but in last place when the smoke cleared. The race quickly settled down as Hamilton opened up a small gap to Rosberg, who had Raikkonen, Ricciardo and Vettel nipping at his heels. Trailing the field, Verstappen immediately began passing his way back to the front on his relatively harder supersoft starting tires, which would enable him to stay out longer before needing new rubber.
Hamilton changed to soft Pirellis at the end of lap seven along with Raikkonen, with Rosberg coming in one lap later, shadowed by Vettel, both switching to the same soft compound. Rosberg’s stop was slightly delayed on the release, allowing the rapidly recovering Verstappen to leap-frog him on track.
Rosberg was told he needed to overtake Verstappen, as Red Bull had opted to change the youngster’s strategy to a one-stop. However, Rosberg remained on the tail of Verstappen for the next 12-laps before making a decisive move that stuck on the steadily defending Dutchman. From then on, Mercedes reasoned it would be a simple 1-2 run to the flag for the Mercedes duo. Verstappen remained on his starting tires until lap 22.
By lap 36, all the leading drivers except Vettel had made their second tire stops, with Hamilton ahead of Rosberg and Riccardo undercutting Raikkonen. Verstappen was now the lead Red Bull driver in third place. Then on lap 37, Ferrari ominously threw the dice, gambling that Vettel could run to the front with a set of new supersofts. They had seen the gap between Hamilton and Rosberg fall to one second from 3.3s after Rosberg’s second tire stop. Ferrari believed Hamilton was slowing down in front of Rosberg to “push” him back toward his pursuers, Verstappen and Ricciardo. Should Rosberg be passed by the Red Bull duo, a Hamilton victory and a Rosberg fourth place would decide the title once again for Hamilton.
Ferrari believed a flying Vettel on supersofts would reel them in and pass them before the flag.
Mercedes saw the same telemetry and beginning on lap 41, repeatedly requested Hamilton to pick up his pace. The engineers radioed that Hamilton needed to drop his lap times to 1m45.1. Hamilton replied, “I’m in the lead right now, and I am very comfortable.” Vettel was just six seconds from finishing in a podium placing.
On lap 46, with Rosberg complaining of the slow pace, Mercedes gave Hamilton an “instruction” about his lap times. By now, Vettel had passed Raikkonen and Ricciardo on his supersofts and was bearing down on fourth place Verstappen. Hamilton’s reply: “I suggest you guys let us race.” He remains at 1m45.9s.
On lap 48, Mercedes sternly announced: “Vettel is an imminent threat.” Further, Verstappen had now pulled to within two seconds of Hamilton as Vettel closed in. Hamilton’s pace now eased further.
With four laps remaining, the now audibly incensed Mercedes technical boss Paddy Lowe made a further radio call to Hamilton; Lowe is the highest escalation of Mercedes rules of engagement, and only brought in when the message is of vital importance, and his order was clear: increase the pace, immediately. Hamilton replied he was doing the only thing he could to win a fourth title.
Vettel dispatched Verstappen on lap 51 and pulled within Rosberg’s DRS range. Vettel sized up the scenario, later saying he wanted to pass on the second straight, but Rosberg defended so well on the inside, he had no choice but to wait for a mistake. Further, with Hamilton so close to Rosberg, had Vettel attempted to pass Rosberg and slid or locked his brakes, he could have easily taken out Hamilton. Over the last two laps of the 55-lap Grand Prix, Hamilton continued to back Rosberg into Vettel and Verstappen, with just 2.5s covering the quartet.
The immensity of the moment was not lost on Rosberg, who responded to the pressure with flawless control; Vettel never found a hole to dive through. Rosberg crossed the line as the 2016 world champion 0.4s behind Hamilton and just 0.8s ahead of Vettel. Verstappen claimed fourth, 3.6s beyond Ricciardo. Raikkonen finished sixth place, followed by the Force India duo of Hulkenberg and Perez. The retiring Felipe Massa took ninth with former teammate Fernando Alonso claiming tenth.
Lewis Hamilton’s tactics were legitimate, played entirely within the rules of F1 although perhaps not according to Mercedes’ rules of engagement. Their rules cover sensitive scenarios such as Sunday’s race, including the order of command from the pit wall. With Hamilton openly disobeying the team’s orders, Hamilton appeared to ignore the team’s clear, well-determined chain of command. As team principal Toto Wolff said following the race, “undermining the structure in public means you are putting yourself before the team. It’s very simple; it is as it is. And anarchy doesn’t work within any team or any company.” This week won’t be an easy one for Wolff and Niki Lauda, nor we think, Lewis Hamilton.
Speaking after the race, Hamilton said: “I did everything I could these last four races and that’s all I could really ask for myself. So I’ll leave here and will have a lot of fun tonight celebrating with the team and everyone.”
“Lewis was using all of his skill to do it perfectly, so there was absolutely no way for me to be able to get by, of course, I thought about it, but it was just pointless,” said Nico Rosberg. “There was no way I could get past him. He did it in a good way. In a perfect way.”
Asked whether he thought Hamilton’s tactics were correct, Rosberg added: “That’s a pretty simple discussion. You can understand the team’s perspective and you can understand Lewis’ perspective, so that’s it.”
After 17-years, McLaren’s Jenson Button received a two-year contract to step down from his McLaren Formula 1 race seat and take a sabbatical from racing in 2017, with Stoffel Vandoorne installed in his place. Button would hold an option to race again in 2018 should the possibility arise. The 2009 world champion will remain with McLaren as both brand ambassador and reserve driver. In reality, he viewed Abu Dhabi as his final F1 race. It was shorted-lived. A right front suspension failure on lap 12 put him out of the race, and that much closer to a well-earned dinner with family and dear friends and some quality “Jenson Time.”