Testing suggested it and the first race all-but confirmed it. There may have been 22 drivers on the grid when the season began at Melbourne, but only two of them had a chance to win the championship this year.
But that performance came at a price. Even at the final race of the year Mercedes had not yet mastered their machine. It was only good fortune their latest attack of gremlins did not prove decisive in the championship.
Hamilton’s sprint start
Hamilton took control of his destiny the moment the five red lights were extinguished. For the eighth time this year – and the third race in a row – Rosberg had bumped him back to second on the grid. But that advantage was eradicated before they even made it as far as turn one.
“It felt like the best start I’ve ever had,” Hamilton enthused afterwards. “Absolutely phenomenal.”
He was asked how much of the credit for his meteoric getaway belonged to the athlete and how much the car deserved. “Very little is the athlete,” Hamilton answered somewhat modestly.
“I work very closely with the engineer who works with my clutch. He came to my room before the race and asked ‘how do you want to approach this?’ I said: ‘the same as every time – we don’t need to do any more or any less”.
“When the start goes, when you do the formation lap, you get a feel for how good the clutch is at that point. You have to guide them or give them feedback whether you need more torque or more slip. Anyway, we hit is spot on. The second part, when you let out the second part and you feed the throttle, that’s when the driver comes in.”
When the lights went out the two Mercedes moved forward as if they were connected to each other – then in the second phase Hamilton’s shot decisively ahead. He drew alongside the other car so quickly there was no point in Rosberg swinging left to try to cut him off.
At the end of lap one Hamilton already had the vital one second gap in hand to keep Rosberg out of DRS range. His pursuer never got back within it.
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Bottas bounces back
Rosberg’s best hope of keeping Hamilton from the title had been to keep him behind at the start and then hope for one of the Williams drivers to get in the mix. But not only had he lost the lead, there was only one Williams in the hunt for the podium. Third-placed Felipe Massa stayed within a few seconds of him during the first stint, while a slow-starting Valtteri Bottas fell behind four of his rivals.
Among them were the two Ferraris, Kimi Raikkonen ahead of Fernando Alonso – until lap five, when Alonso slipped past at the end of the second DRS zone. Alonso then seized the initiative, calling on Ferrari to make his pit stop immediately.
Meanwhile Daniil Kvyat sprang an attack on Raikkonen three corners after Alonso had got through, and the next time around Bottas also demoted his fellow Finn. It was the beginning of a tough race for Ferrari.
At the end of that lap Kvyat and Raikkonen followed Jenson Button into the pits, and the trio resumed in the same order. But they had fallen into the traffic trap and Bottas was able to jump the lot of them by staying out four laps longer.
Ricciardo climbs the field
After his first pit stop on lap eleven Bottas rejoined in tenth place behind a trio of drivers who had started the race on the soft tyres. The Red Bull pair had reached the front half of the field having started in the pits.
Daniel Ricciardo had got himself ahead of Kevin Magnussen, who was holding up Sebastian Vettel. With his superior straight line speed Bottas was eventually able to pass all three, but it took him until lap 24 to get ahead of Ricciardo.
When Magnussen headed for the pits on lap 21 Vettel followed him in, and the pair were split by Esteban Gutierrez when they rejoined the track. But while Magnussen had plumped for the super-soft tyres, Vettel had gone for softs and found them much more to his liking, and was soon past the Sauber and the Mclaren.
Having hit clear air Vettel made progress quickly, but that came to an end when he reached the Force Indias. The Mercedes-powered cars proved too quick in a straight line to pass, and Vettel ended up falling back behind them after his last pit stop.
Ricciardo, meanwhile, had been able to break free of them while on fresher tyres after making his first pit stop on lap 27 – the last driver to do so. That left him with only the Williams and Mercedes ahead – and one of those was about to hit trouble.
Car trouble ends Rosberg’s hopes
On lap 23 a car problem struck one of the Mercedes which ultimately left it limping to the finish out of the points. By chance it was the car running in second place which hit trouble, but had it been the other car it would have swung the outcome of the championship.
Instead it left Rosberg enduring the destruction of his championship hopes in slow-motion. It began with what looked like a simple locked wheel at turn 17, but this was no mere driver error. As in Canada, Rosberg’s Energy Recovery System had failed, leaving him with a loss of engine power on the straights and a more difficult job stopping the car at the corners.
On the pit wall Mercedes scrambled to find a solution but Rosberg was in dire trouble, losing three seconds to Hamilton on the next lap. He soon had Massa bearing down on him and on lap 27 the Williams shot past him on the straight travelling over 20kph quicker.
Meanwhile Hamilton had been alerted to his team mate’s plight and quickly backed off as well, no double recalling how both cars had suffered the same problem almost simultaneously in Montreal. He made his second and final pit stop on lap 31 and rejoined on Rosberg’s tail, but easily passed his team mate within a few corners.
Desperately trying to salvage something, Rosberg’s team even briefly considered leaving him out without making another pit stop as his loss of power served to protect his rear tyres, but this was soon abandoned. Following his second stop he asked the team if he was still running high enough to be in a position to win the championship if Hamilton’s car stopped. “Not good at the moment,” came back the reply.
Rosberg’s car was now mortally wounded. He reported his throttle was “all over the place” and his brake pedal had gone long. Eventually the team suggested he retire but Rosberg chose to soldier on to the end. It was an admirably defiant refusal to give up, even when staring at certain defeat, which recalled his audacious bid for pole position at Silverstone four months ago. But this time it was not to be rewarded.
“I was rubbing the cockpit”
“I was asking the team if I could turn down the power, because I realised when the gap started to increase between me and Nico, I was thinking ‘OK I’ve got to back off, got to look after the tyres’. Look after the car, started avoiding kerbs, all those kind of things.
“A couple of moments down the straight I was rubbing the cockpit, I was saying ‘come on baby, we can make it. Stick with me.’ I really did.”
When he was warned about the growing threat from Massa during the race, Hamilton replied “I’m not racing Massa any more.” Later he urged the team not to tell him to turn up his car’s engine. But as Rosberg’s situation became increasingly hopeless Hamilton could afford to pay more attention to the Williams looming in his mirrors. “Nico looks to not be a threat now,” advised Peter Bonnington as the laps ticked down, “so we can fight for this”.
Massa’s long first and second stints and the lack of any immediate threat from behind him due to his team mate’s problems meant he could afford to take a punt on the super-soft tyres for the final stint. But even when he was taking a second per lap out of Hamilton the gap always seemed slightly too large for him to overcome.
On the 55th lap, Hamilton was still over two seconds ahead of the Williams. As he accelerated out of the final corner he lifted both arms from the steering wheel, punched the air, and became world champion for the second time.
Hamilton reclaims the championship
Hamilton was flanked by the two Williams drivers on the podium, and Ricciardo sealed a remarkable recovery drive to fourth place which had echoes of Vettel’s run to third from the pits at the same track two years ago.
McLaren will now make the decision over whether to retain Button’s services in light of the knowledge that his fifth place today was all that kept Force India from beating them to fifth in the constructors’ championship. The VJM07s scored their best result since Bahrain: Nico Hulkenberg was sixth, fuming at a five-second penalty for forcing Magnussen off the track, Sergio Perez seventh.
Vettel came in eighth ahead of the two Ferraris. Further back Sauber concluded their first ever point-less season and Will Stevens brought his Caterham home on his grand prix debut. Team mate Kamui Kobayashi retired in the pits with a vibration on his car.
And in defeat, Rosberg was a model of magnanimity and good sportsmanship. Even as he drove back to the pits and the team apologised for his ERS failure, Rosberg admitted “it wouldn’t have made a difference today anyway”. He told the world the same afterwards – Hamilton was the quicker driver on race day, as has usually been the case this year.
Hamilton was equally gracious in return, praising his team mate’s formidable qualifying performances which have repeatedly forced Hamilton to dig a little deeper in the races, and given us some memorable clashes.
The finale itself may not have been one of them, but it at least ensured the derided decision to award double points had no bearing on the outcome of the title fight.
That was something even Hamilton finally revealed he was grateful for. “Coming to the last race, knowing it’s double points, which… geez… do you think it was a good idea? Didn’t feel like a good idea when we came into it. I’ll take the points though…”
2014 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
2014 F1 race reviews
Image © Daimler/Hoch Zwei