At the end of the longest season in Formula 1’s long history, teams are just as happy to see the chequered flag as anyone. With livery launches and evening entertainment to attend, there’s plenty of opportunities to catch up with key figures ahead of the final race of the year.
On Tuesday I take up McLaren’s invitation to an ‘F1 meets art’ unveiling at the Iris Restaurant on Yas Island. Sponsor Vuse commissioned Egyptian-born, locally-based artist Rabab Tantawy to deck out both McLarens in a livery that combines the team’s historic papaya colouring with local themes.
To my eye, it works: Not only are they ‘my’ colours, but I’m partial to the concept, having previously drooled over BMW’s Art Cars.
I head for the circuit for an on-site Covid test and am promised an emailed certificate – I’m still waiting for it. Although I receive a ‘negative’ message via text which is accepted for entry to the circuit but not to most malls and restaurants. Apparently, the local app-based system works in 70% of cases, a further 20% can be sorted, but the remaining 10% have no chance – despite all subjects following the same procedures.
I return to Yas Marina circuit at midday ahead of the FIA press conferences and various exclusive interviews I’d arranged, including with Red Bull’s Sergio Perez and AlphaTauri team boss Franz Tost. During the interviews Checo and Franz share their thoughts on Max Verstappen; and both reckon he’s the best on the grid right now. Such an honest opinion from a team mate is most telling.
Pirelli’s 18-inch 2022 tyre unveiling is scheduled for 6pm and en route I ponder about the day’s activities as this event marks F1’s final four-day weekend: Next year F1 switches to a Friday-Sunday format – including Monaco – on cost-saving grounds, with media sessions scheduled for the opening day before track activities start. Will we have less news to report, or will the volume remain roughly the same? Time will tell.
During Pirelli’s sundowner hour, I enquire about intermediate and wet tyre usage for this event. Although bone dry skies are expected throughout the weekend, F1’s regulations stipulate that each driver be allocated three sets of the former and four of the latter. Have these been fitted to rims, I wonder? The point being that they cannot be stripped and reused after mounting as their beads get damaged in the process.
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I’m told that one and two sets of each respectively have been mounted per driver, but Pirelli’s spokesperson adds that next year’s (18-inch) wets and intermediates are designed to be re-used and (the standard) wheel rims designed accordingly. Pirelli is not yet confident that slicks can be recycled due to higher lateral and torque forces on dry asphalt. They are, though, working on a solution.
Still, the net effect under the current regulations is that 240 perfectly good tyres – 12 tyres per driver x 20 cars – will be scrapped on Sunday evening. These will then be shredded back at base, then being shipped off to some construction site for use as binding material for concrete used in some or other high-rise building and road project. An ignominious end to these ultra-hi-tech tyres only because we’re racing in a desert.
After the Pirelli launch, I make my way along the maze-like marina in search of berth 46, where Red Bull is hosting a year-end party for select media. It turns out to be a fun evening with non-stop flow of food and refreshments and very little talk about the upcoming title battle. Indeed, the evening turns out to be the perfect antidote to the day’s press conferences and off-track tensions.
I arrive at circuit shortly before noon, then wander the paddock, where I bump into a variety of folk, including Julian Jakobi and son Alexander. They manage Perez, but amongst other drivers, Julian previously tended the careers of Ayrton Senna and Alain Prost – simultaneously. Over the years I’ve spent many happy hours listening to tales about ‘those’ days and urged him to write about a book about the back stories.
I usually request a trackside tabard for third practice but have booked one for Friday’s second (evening) session due to Abu Dhabi’s stifling afternoon heat. Thus, ahead of second practice, colleague Sandor and I head for the inside of the final turn before working our way to the halfway point, then U-turn. While watching at the hotel tunnel, Kimi Raikkonen, driving the last Friday of his career, loses it and ploughs into the barriers.
It’s always fascinating to watch driver reactions after mishap: Raikkonen sits immobile for around 30 seconds as he takes stock, then rises out of the cockpit, hops out and surveys the damage. In the process, he spots broken bits lying beside the car and chucks these into the cockpit – then awaits the Medical Car. It arrives, he hops in and off they go. It’s all over within five minutes, but too late to restart the session.
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As I make my way back to the media centre I reflect on the session: before Raikkonen’s shunt the most impressive driver to my mind is Esteban Ocon, who seems visibly quicker than the rest – so it proves when I check the timesheets: the French Alpine driver is second fastest after Hamilton, whose obviously faster car appears better ‘planted’.
At 7pm we have a special Christian Horner media session during which he suggests that there is an anti-Verstappen narrative put about by the ‘Mercedes media machine’. That may be a bit of an exaggeration, but the team had a genuine beef with Britain’s live F1 broadcaster recently.
Two of Sky Sports’ Christmas idents were taken down by the broadcaster after representations from Red Bull. Verstappen’s 51G Silverstone crash was among the footage used in the sequence which then wished viewers a ‘Merry Christmas’. They could surely have used different footage for a festive message, and I would not be surprised if the Verstappen camp refuses to be interviewed by Sky this weekend.
After the Horner session I head for the W Hotel – that multi-coloured, framed building that dominates the marina skyline – for a season-ending nibble and natter with F1 CEO Stefano Domenicali. The weekend marks the end of his first year at the helm of F1 – he could not have wished for a better finale.