After setting the fastest lap ever during qualifying at the Yas Marina Circuit, Valtteri Bottas capitalised on track position to win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. He hardly put a wheel wrong while calmly holding off teammate and 2017 F1 champion Lewis Hamilton after mandatory tyre pitstops to take the finale for his third victory of the season.
Two weeks ago in Brazil, Bottas again had captured pole but lost out to Vettel at the first turn and was never a factor in the race.
This time, within two laps of the start, the Mercedes duo, with Bottas in command, was in the clean air after clearing both Ferraris and Red Bulls with little opposition. Bottas turned the lead over to Hamilton after making his only pit stop on lap 22. Three laps later Hamilton stopped, and Bottas regained the lead and sailed on to the checkered flag. Hamilton crossed the line 3.8-seconds later with Sebastian Vettel trailing 19.3-seconds behind the Finn for the third step on the podium.
It was Mercedes’ fourth 1-2 finish of the season and the 40th Mercedes 1-2 since rejoining Formula 1 in 2010.
The Yas Marina racing circuit complex shares its magical ambience with a dragstrip and the Ferrari World theme park – and is straddled by the iconic five-star, 499-room Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi hotel. When the entire complex is under illumination, it becomes the largest lit permanent sports venue in the world.
Another world first is that all of the grandstands, including the massive hairpin seating area, are covered to protect spectators from the desert sun. Inside the paddock, the Yas Marina Circuit has swiftly developed a reputation as the benchmark for judging other new facilities. The pit complex boasts 40 air-conditioned garages beloved by the racing teams. Another bonus for the crews is the complex of hotels located a couple of minutes’ walk from the main gate.
Yas has three very different sectors. It has high-speed turns at the start of the lap, down to the chicane and hairpin at Turn Seven. Following that, the middle part of the lap has two very long straights punctuated by massive braking zones into slow-speed corners. The end of the lap around the perimeter of the harbour has been designed deliberately to mimic Monaco, and like that circuit, it is mostly slow speed and highly technical.
As a little-bit-of-everything layout, Yas demands a little bit of everything regarding set-up. It requires good top speed for the straights, lots of stability for the braking zones, and enough traction and downforce to make sense of the vast array of corners. It means there’s a real opportunity to make different set-ups options work.
The main engineering compromise is between straight-line speed on the two long straights before and after the West Grandstand, and excellent performance in the slow, twisty final sector. As with most racing circuits, it’s in the slowest corners that there exists the most significant potential to lose time, so a fast overall lap demands a car be set up with plenty of wing to cope with that – but equally the main overtaking opportunities come at the end of the two long straights. Cars set up to perform well in the final sector will find it difficult to overtake or defend there.
With Mercedes’ distinct hi-speed advantage, the final go-fast day of the championship meant their rivals would struggle to trim off as much downforce as they dared for speed and then rebalance the car for the slower corners and braking zones. Also, when the sun drops, another significant variable comes into play; cold air is denser, so there is “more aero” to use for grip, offsetting the loss of tyre grip due to the lower temperatures.
By the end of Q2, it was obvious each teams’ engineers were extracting the most from their cars; the order went both Mercedes, both Ferraris, both Red Bulls, Renault’s hard-trying Nico Hulkenberg, both Force India teammates and William’s soon-to-retire Felipe Massa.
Valtteri Bottas wasted no time setting the mark in Q3. He had set a new Yas Marina Circuit record in Q2 and came out of the gates with a scintillating 1m36.261, which Hamilton couldn’t touch on his first run. Furthermore, Bottas was 2.5-seconds faster than Hamilton’s best time from last year’s qualifying sessions. Both of Ferrari’s cars beat that time too, but Bottas remained .75-seconds faster than Kimi Raikkonen and .62-seconds quicker than Vettel.
Hamilton made a strong run at Bottas on his second attempt, going fastest in the first two sectors but losing time in the final segment to cede the pole to his teammate for the second Grand Prix in a row.
Of note was Nico Hulkenberg, who split the two Force Indias to start sixth. With Williams clinching fifth in the constructors’ standings, the battle for sixth in the championship is still very much alive between three teams – Toro Rosso, Renault and Haas.
Last year, sixth place paid out $31-million and eighth place $19-million. That is in addition to a payment of around $36-million for every team.
Now in eighth place, Renault knows that money is the lifeblood of F1 and are counting on Hulkenberg to score enough points for them to leapfrog both Haas and Toro Rosso for sixth place in the constructor’s championship. That additional $12-million represents around 10% of the team’s annual budget.
Pressure, what pressure?
Bottas made the perfect launch from the pole at the start and took the lead before Turn 1 and rapidly took control pulling up a one-second lead over Hamilton and then increasing it to two seconds before the pit stops. On Lap 22, Bottas was the first of the Mercedes drivers to pit, changing his ultra-softs for super-softs and rejoining in second place.
Hamilton remained on track for three further laps, responding with the fastest lap, but failed to reduce the gap. Hamilton rejoined behind Bottas.
There was drama in their rapid wake. Renault’s chance to claim sixth in the championship took a hit when Hulkenberg received a five-second time penalty for leaving the track and gaining an advantage as he battled Sergio Perez on the first lap. Hulkenberg then set to work building a lead over Perez. By the time he served the penalty at his pitstop, he had opened the gap between himself and Perez to negate its effect.
Hulkenberg’s teammate Carlos Sainz Jr retired for the fourth time in six races after Renault released him from his pitstop with his left-front tyre unbolted on the hub. Sainz wheel began working its way loose through the pit-out tunnel, and he stopped once he emerged. The Spaniard was on a strategy to pass both Fernando Alonso and Felipe Massa into ninth place by running long before pitting. With Sainz now out, Renault lost their “insurance policy” for that constructor’s 6th place finish; with Renault’s engine reliability record in 2017, that reward looked exceedingly in peril.
The Alonso and Massa Train renewed their nose-to-tail battle where it had left off in Brazil. Alonso would later quip he had followed in Massa’s wake for so long he now knew the placement of every nut and bolt on the Williams car’s rear suspension. It paid off when he passed the later-pitting Massa on his out-lap.
Red Bull’s Daniel Ricciardo was on course to finish fourth but retired his car with a hydraulic problem on Lap 21. Teammate Max Verstappen had been usually quiet in qualifying and without passing pace during the race. He remained in fifth place, holding station 1.1-seconds behind Raikkonen.
Hamilton had one last gasp for Bottas, attacking him on Lap 49 to close within DRS range, but the Brit locked up at Turn 17, darting off track before rejoining. Hamilton went back to working on Bottas, getting to within 0.5-seconds after Bottas locked-up his fronts between Turns 4 and 5, but the Finn got it back together by putting his boot into it and pulling out to a lead of 2.3-seconds on Lap 52. With that, it was all over but for the doughnuts.
The result was Mercedes’ forth one-two of the season. Vettel took third place, mentioning, along with Hamilton that the Yas Circuit gave the impression that when following another car, the course seemed to build a wall of impenetrable buffeting 1.2-seconds back from the car you were chasing.
Max Verstappen finished fifth, just 0.8s behind fourth place Raikkonen with Nico Hulkenberg sixth to secure sixth place in the constructors’ championship for Renault and 10th in the driver’s championship, having picked up 43 of Renault’s 57 points. Sainz, meanwhile, scored six points in his four races with the team – helping him to stay ahead of Hulkenberg and finish ninth in the drivers’ standings.
Perez finished seventh, 6.8-seconds ahead of Force India team-mate Esteban Ocon.
Alonso closed out the McLaren-Honda partnership with ninth place, securing the team’s third consecutive points finish.
Massa completed his 269th and final Grand Prix in the points in 10th and joined Bottas and Hamilton in celebration of the Night of the Perpetual Donuts after the chequered flag.
Valtteri Bottas proved he could stand and deliver, taking the fight to Hamilton by becoming the top points scorer in the final three races and coming away with pride against a four-time World Driving Champion. He needed to up his game, his pace and his ruthlessness. There, he accomplished two of the three. To beat Hamilton, he will need to move into an uncomfortable spot for such a modest, and quiet gentleman, but move there he must if he wants to take the best car on the grid that he shares with one of the best drivers in the history of the sport and defeat him.
By the end of November, Williams will have tested Robert Kubica and Sergey Sirotkin for the Abu Dhabi Pirelli tyre test, alongside current race driver Lance Stroll. On day one Robert Kubica will drive the FW40 in the morning session before Lance Stroll takes over in the afternoon. On day two Sergey Sirotkin will test in the morning and afternoon sessions before handing over to Robert in the late afternoon.The test aims to evaluate 2018 candidate tyres on behalf of the Formula One tyre supplier Pirelli. The real TEST here is who will drive alongside Stroll in 2018. Word has it that what is being calculated is repaying Kubica’s insurance payout for “losing his ability to drive a race car.” Once that’s settled, and with Kubica showing pace, the seat is his to take. Stay tuned.
Many will call the 2017 Abu Dhabi the last time F1 cars looked beautiful. The FIA Halo is coming, and more than a few fans have stated on social media sites that they are leaving the sport because of it. Add to this, Liberty Media’s ideas on the reduction of costs, prize monies and long-time perks and, in short order, F1 might not resemble the F1 of our impassioned youth, let alone the quieter engines, limited access and low competitiveness of today. For better or worse, it’s time for the smartest, most passionate F1 gurus in the sport to stand up and do the right things to return F1 to what we want it to be: competitive, aspirational, unpredictable, loud and difficult to drive.
Renault is substantially investing funds in reshaping and reviving their once hallowed name in Formula 1. Their Enstone headquarters will be above max-occupancy as the pride of France pushes very hard to re-inject the power of winning in their team and partners (McLaren and Red Bull) engines while it releases its first entirely new chassis in this new era. Many of the members from Alonso’s twin championship years (2004-2005) remain on the team and still intimately understand how to make an F1 machine go like lightning. What remains is the engine which will challenge the might of Mercedes and Ferrari. Renault knows where that power is hiding; they need to find the reliability to keep it under control. But the danger lies in going for greatness and choosing how much they want to risk to achieve it.
It’s now on to the countdown: seventeen weeks until the start of the 2018 season and its 21 races. Germany returns as does France.
I can’t wait!