Beyond the benefit of keeping a convenient early-afternoon start time for European viewers, the twilight setting for the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix acts as a visual metaphor for the concluding of each Formula 1 season.
After 55 uninspiring laps had elapsed, the same groups of six drivers that started on the front three rows of the grid had finished in the top six positions – with only two having swapped places.
While the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix may have been distinctly lacking in action, it still served as the final stanza for a number of chapters in the sport and signalled the end to a season which was remarkable in many ways.
On his 17th attempt, Max Verstappen had finally broken through the silver ceiling in qualifying to take his first pole position of the season in the final race. With Verstappen, Red Bull had threatened many times this year to offer a genuine challenge to Mercedes but had only triumphed once. The key question heading into the final Sunday of the year was whether Red Bull would be able to convert their first pole of the season into their second win.
The Mercedes of Valtteri Bottas lined up alongside Verstappen as, behind, world champion Lewis Hamilton returned to the grid following his one race absence caused by contracting Covid-19 in Bahrain. Despite having full medical clearance to race, Hamilton admitted he did not feel at his best as he returned to the cockpit.
“I’m not 100%,” he warned on Saturday. “It definitely won’t be the easiest of races, physically, but I will manage and give it absolutely everything I’ve got.”
As the conventional wisdom in the paddock before the race was that Pirelli’s soft compound tyre was to be avoided if at all possible, the top three had all successfully qualified on medium tyres to try and make a one-stop strategy viable. With overtaking notoriously tough around the luxurious yet languid Yas Marina circuit, Verstappen would have a genuine shot at victory should he keep the Mercedes at bay at the start.
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As the final race of 2020 began, Bottas was only able to draw within a metre of Verstappen on the short shoot down into turn one as the Red Bull swept into the lead. Bottas’s car twitched under throttle at the exit, offering Hamilton behind a brief sniff of second place, but was able to hold on through turns three and four.
Verstappen duly led away, pulling 1.7 seconds to the chasing Mercedes by the end of the opening lap in a manner unlike anything we’d seen over the previous 16 races, barring the highly unusual Turkish Grand Prix. Further back, the two Ferraris of Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc swapped positions while, on the second lap, Esteban Ocon was passed by Pierre Gasly for ninth place on the run into turn eight.
Lando Norris – who had equalled his best qualifying of the season with fourth – found himself under pressure from Alexander Albon’s Red Bull from the moment that the lights went out. As the pair blasted down the back straight for the sixth time, Albon used DRS to great effect and was able to close down a gap of multiple car lengths to dive past the McLaren into turn eight and up into fourth.
By lap eight, Verstappen’s advantage stood at three seconds over Bottas behind. Mercedes were becoming increasingly aware that if they were to beat Verstappen, they needed to take the fight to him.
Bottas was given the hurry up. “Show us your pushing level,” he was told. “Let’s start to close that gap.” But despite the order to push, Bottas began losing further time to the Red Bull ahead.
Towards the back of the field, Sergio Perez was making his way up the order after starting from 19th place and falling to last on lap one. Formula 1’s newest grand prix winner was in the midst of a rollercoaster farewell from Racing Point having scored a long-awaited maiden victory the previous weekend, before being doomed to the back of the grid thanks to an engine penalty.
With the knowledge that this could well be his final grand prix for some time – and potentially even the last of his career – Perez was on a mission to demonstrate that his talents were still deserving of a place on the grid for 2021.
On lap nine, however, that mission was cruelly cut short when his Mercedes power unit shut itself off automatically having detected a loss of oil pressure. Perez was left to cruise under the elaborate Yas hotel until he could find a place to pull off circuit and climb out of his Racing Point for the final time.
As a dejected Perez cursed his misfortune, the race was suspended with the intervention of the Virtual Safety Car. With 46 laps remaining, it was still too early for the hard tyres to comfortably last the distance, but with one-stop strategies the order of the day, most of the field streamed into the pit lane.
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Verstappen, Bottas and Hamilton all switched onto the hard tyres and retained their positions. Having started on hard rubber, Daniel Ricciardo opted to stay out as it was still far too early for him to pit. Ferrari also chose to keep both Vettel and Leclerc out on circuit, figuring they had nothing to lose being trying something different to the rest of the field.
With Perez’s stricken car stuck on circuit and requiring a recovery vehicle, a full Safety Car was deployed, bunching the field back up again. The majority of the 19 remaining participants were now on new hard tyres with no further scheduled stops, making the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix a 40-lap ‘sprint race’ – or, more realistically, ‘tyre nurse’ – to the flag.
At the restart, Verstappen made no mistake and led the field out once more. Carlos Sainz Jnr used his fresh rubber to immediately challenge Leclerc along the first back straight and slipstreamed by the Ferrari before the pair had reached turn eight to move into eighth place.
Verstappen wasted no time in reasserting his dominance out front, setting a new fastest lap of the race on his first green flag lap to move 1.5 seconds clear after just a single tour. Unbeknown to the chasing Bottas and Hamilton, Mercedes had opted to turn their power units down on both their cars to help shield against possible MGU-K reliability issues.
“It’s not fully understood yet but there have been failures related to the K on Mercedes engines in the last couple of events,” Mercedes trackside engineering director Andrew Shovlin explained later. “We are operating the power unit in a way that’s as conservative as we can be in order to try and avoid a problem.” However he said it probably cost them less than a tenth of a second per lap.
With no further pit stops planned, the question was now whether the hard tyres would hold until the end of the race. Verstappen had doubts. “I think, for everyone, it will be quite difficult to get to the end,” he opined. Hamilton agreed. “I don’t think these tyres are going to get to the end.”
By now, Verstappen’s lead was increasing at a steady, consistent rate every lap with Mercedes having no answer to the Red Bull’s sheer pace.
The main intrigue came in the three-way scrap between Racing Point, McLaren and Renault for the prize of third place in the constructors’ championship. Racing Point’s hopes of holding onto the place had been dealt a heavy blow in the loss of Perez and were compounded further when Pierre Gasly dived by Lance Stroll into turn 11 to take ninth place.
Ricciardo was doing an admirable job in fifth place keeping ahead of the two McLarens on old tyres. But with the Renault due to stop, his future team McLaren looked increasingly likely to snatch third in the final race of the season. Ricciardo eventually pitted on lap 40 and was able to rejoin behind the McLarens in seventh.
With Verstappen pulling ever further away and Hamilton seemingly unable to mount any challenge to his team mate in second place, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was already looking like a foregone conclusion.
On the world feed broadcast, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff was briefly shown to be far more absorbed in what was on his phone than by any of the data or live TV feeds in front of him. “The amount of messages I got during the race with the sleeping emoji was the most I ever got,” he later admitted.
Someone else on the Mercedes pit wall clearly wanted more action, however, and so Bottas was given encouragement to try and close the gap to the leader and “give everything you’ve got”. And for the second time in the race, that order was met by Bottas falling even further behind from the leader. Almost immediately, Bottas dropped from lapping in the 1’41s into the 1’42s, falling further adrift of Verstappen who continued to drive with almost robotic consistency.
As the final few laps monotonously ticked by, the only person able to match Verstappen’s pace was his team mate, Albon. Over the course of the final 15 laps of the race, he gradually eroded Hamilton’s 10 second advantage. At the end of a tumultuous season for Albon, the racing gods were presenting a final opportunity for him to stake his claim to his seat for next season.
With five laps remaining, the gap was just five seconds and fell to just two with three laps to go. Feeling racy, Albon asked for pointers as to where the Mercedes look weakest, but, in typical Yas Marina fashion, any potential for an actual battle failed to materialise by the time the chequered flag was in hand.
It had been a frustrating season in many ways for Verstappen, despite being arguably his strongest and most consistent year-long performance so far. But once more, the 23-year-old had made the most of an opportunity for victory when it had presented itself and he crossed the line to a shower of sparks as he closed out the 2020 season with his second win. Having led every lap from pole, it was as dominant a performance as any from Hamilton this season.
Beyond the satisfaction of victory, Verstappen had given Mercedes something to think about as they head into the winter. For Verstappen, who hailed Red Bull as having done “everything right” that weekend, the result just showed how important it is that Red Bull are able to mount a similar challenge to Mercedes from the moment the team arrives at Melbourne next season.
“I just hope that we learn from previous years that we have to be stronger in the beginning of the season to be able to give them a little bit of a harder time,” he said.
Despite another uneventful race in second where he was unable to put up a fight for the win, Valtteri Bottas was satisfied with his weekend’s work. After another season of securing second in the championship, far adrift from his team mate’s points tally, Bottas took solace from beating Hamilton, even if the world champion may not have been performing at his peak.
For Albon, fourth place was perhaps one of his strongest results of the season and the kind of performance Red Bull both expect and need to be able to offer a more genuine fight to Mercedes in 2021. Albon described his weekend as his best of the season in terms of performance and will be encouraged to learn team principal Christian Horner echoed that sentiment. With a decision still to be made over the fate of the team’s second seat for next year, Albon had finished the year as strong as he could.
Some 40 seconds further back, the two McLarens of Norris and Sainz were greeted with jubilation from their team upon reaching the chequered flag, thus securing third in the constructors’ championship. A post-race investigation into Sainz driving too slowly in the pit lane under Safety Car quickly acquitted the departing Spaniard and confirmed the team’s best result since Hamilton’s final season with the team in 2012.
Sainz later credited McLaren CEO Zak Brown for the team’s turnaround in fortune, but said that after celebrating that evening with the team, his focus would turn immediately to his future with Ferrari.
With Sainz incoming, Vettel’s bittersweet final season with the Prancing Horse had come to an end. Vettel was magnanimous about his tenure with the team he holds so dear to his heart and expressed special gratitude to the team’s mechanics.
For Ferrari, the chequered flag signalled the end of the team’s worst season in 40 years. Sporting director Laurent Mekies described the season as “extremely difficult”, but claimed their midfield exploits had emboldened the team by forcing them out of their comfort zone.
Ricciardo took sixth in his final race for Renault before his move to McLaren. He admitted that his evening’s work had “felt like a time trial” rather than a race, but was still satisfied with securing fifth in the drivers’ championship after his strategy had been compromised by the early Safety Car. Ricciardo signed off in style, producing the fastest lap of the race to bag an extra point on the final lap.
Renault’s pain at missing out on third in the constructors’ championship paled in comparison to Racing Point, who had come agonisingly close to their best ever result since the team’s initial guise as Jordan. It was also a heartbreaking way for the team’s stalwart driver Perez to reach his end with the team he had helped to save from collapse just two years before. After 10 seasons in the sport, the question of whether Perez will be on the grid for an 11th will surely be answered soon.
Out of all drivers, Gasly likely had the most fun on his way to eighth place. On a track regularly pilloried for being preclusive to overtaking, Gasly had made more on-track passes than anyone – and later claimed to have prepared especially for it.
“We practised a couple of things in testing last year particularly for this track,” explained Gasly. “I had the chance to really put it on track now in real racing and it helped us to pass today.”
Arguably the most satisfying pass of the day was performed by Esteban Ocon, who sliced past Stroll on the final lap on the run to turn 11 as the pair rounded out the final points paying positions of the year. It was a frustrating end to a year of ups and downs for Stroll, who had suffered many setbacks throughout the years as well as having shown flashes of true ability at times. His demeanour when Ocon greeted him in the television pen after the race made plain his discomfort at ending the year being passed by the driver he replaced two years ago.
At the back of the field, Haas had decided to bid farewell to a truly forgettable season by gifting both Kevin Magnussen and Pietro Fittipaldi the opportunity to enjoy their likely final laps in Formula 1 on fresh rubber. While Magnussen had nothing but well wishes for the team and said that he would be “rooting for them” in the years ahead, he also could not hide his excitement at the prospect of fighting for wins in IMSA GT next season.
And so, the 2020 season had come to an end. The history books will forever mark this year as one of Lewis Hamilton’s most crushingly dominant campaigns where he both equalled and surpassed Michael Schumacher’s most prestigious achievements. But under the extraordinary circumstances of this year, 2020 was always likely to live long in the memory.
Despite the greatest logistical challenges the sport had ever seen, Formula 1 had still succeeded in producing a full season’s worth of racing. The unexpected inclusion of a wealth of new venues on the calendar had only served to make the voices calling for more ‘traditional’ circuits in the sport louder. The soporific conclusion at Yas Marina pressed that point home harder.
Until Covid-19 intervened, this was intended to be the final race under the current aerodynamic regulations. With 2021 set up in many ways to be ‘part two’ of the now concluded championship, Verstappen’s victory provides a tantalising tease for what could be a fascinating prospect for next season, already less than 100 days away.
But as the two Mercedes filled the pit grid with tyre smoke in synchronised celebration of their season-long success, it was, in many ways, a tribute to everything the sport had achieved. In a year where the world had been brought to a standstill, Formula 1 had found a way to continue on, safely and respectfully.
Hopefully we won’t be left to wait quite as long for the next season of racing to begin.
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