At the end of one of the most successful seasons that any Formula 1 driver has ever had, the final race of the 2022 season in Abu Dhabi could have been little more than a parade of honour for Max Verstappen.
At the end of a career spanning 15-and-a-half seasons and almost 300 races, Sebastian Vettel would climb into his Aston Martin for the final time and climb out of it a retired Formula 1 driver. One of the sport’s most successful ever competitors had one last mission for his final 58 laps – secure sixth place in the constructors’ championship for his team by beating Alfa Romeo.
At McLaren, Daniel Ricciardo was also staring down what could be his final race start – except not through his own choice. With a slim chance of chasing down Alpine for fourth place, McLaren at least had a goal to strive for with a driver they had grown so fond of over their two years together.
Of far less consequence, Sergio Perez and Charles Leclerc would line up next to each other behind Verstappen at the front of the grid. Whoever finished ahead would take second place in the championship and earn little more than bragging rights – as much as one would wish to brag about being the first driver to lose to Verstappen. But after an internal squabble between the Red Bull drivers had exploded publicly just a week earlier, Perez had every reason to be focusing more on his team mate ahead at the start than the Ferrari behind.
In the end, the fight for the race win lasted only as long as the 300-metre run from the start line to the first corner. Perez had a half-hearted look at his team mate and kept his nose to the inside of Verstappen through the left-hander, but Verstappen’s lead was never truly in doubt. Slotting in behind, Leclerc held onto third as the pack snaked up the hill and through the opening sector for the first time.
Lewis Hamilton leapt from fifth on the grid to move ahead of Carlos Sainz Jnr into the first turn, but Sainz was in no mood to follow a Mercedes for the evening. Heading down the first back straight, Sainz launched his Ferrari to the inside of turn six, with Hamilton clattering over a sausage kerb at the exit and cutting the second part of the chicane, keeping the position.
“Got pushed wide, mate,” Hamilton insisted to race engineer Peter Bonnington. But, unsurprisingly, Sainz disagreed.
“I overtook him,” the Ferrari driver protested. “He needs to give the position back. Super unfair.”
After five minutes of handwringing over what to do, Mercedes had their minds made up for them when race control – seemingly breaking with their own protocol – informed them to instruct their driver to relinquish their position or face a penalty. Hamilton obliged and the pair traded fourth place between each other for the next few laps, before Hamilton began dropping back and was picked off by Sainz and then team mate George Russell, falling to sixth place as a result.
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Verstappen led, but Perez was not falling far from his team mate in second. Having successfully made it through his final grand prix start without incident, Vettel was holding the ninth position in which he had started. His Aston Martin was so far ahead of the Alfa Romeos in the pack that he was challenging the Alpine of Esteban Ocon for eighth place.
A daring move around the outside of turn nine on lap 12 did not pay off, but Ocon headed into the pit lane at the end of lap 14, elevating Vettel to eighth, now in clear air. Meanwhile, Alfa Romeo could only watch on from the pit wall with Zhou Guanyu down in 13th and Valtteri Bottas even further behind in 17th, struggling to make any kind of progress.
By now, Perez’s laptimes started to fall away. The moment Leclerc closed within DRS range of him, Red Bull chose to pit their second-placed driver, fitting hard tyres and sending him back out on his way. Sainz and the two Mercedes soon followed suit, but Verstappen and Leclerc remained out, content to extend their opening stints longer.
With his fresh tyres, Perez had enough of a grip advantage that he quickly began to make up the gap over Verstappen despite some awkward moments as he tried to get heat into his tyres on his out-lap.
Vettel was clear of Ocon but had his mirrors full of Fernando Alonso’s Alpine instead. A decade ago, the pair battling together would have been the most important duel on the track, but in Vettel’s final race, theirs was just another midfield skirmish for the TV director to miss. Not that their scrap was anywhere near as intense as it would have been back then, Alonso later admitting he had deliberately maintained a margin to the Aston Martin to ensure an easier final race for his departing rival.
Verstappen pitted from the lead at the end of lap 20, emerging back onto the track with Perez much closer to his team mate than he had been prior. After leading a lap, Leclerc came in the next time by and also found his team mate much closer to him than anticipated upon exiting the pit lane. Of the top ten cars, only Vettel was now yet to rid himself of the medium tyres he had started on. However, he was now lapping slower than almost anyone else on track and watching cars who he had been running near in the early phase of the race fly past him having made up a full pit stop’s worth of time on him.Lando Norris cruised past him down the straight. “We’re just getting eaten up by everybody.” Aston Martin decided it was time to relieve him and pitted him at the end of lap 25 for hard tyres, committing to a single stop. When he emerged, only Nicholas Latifi was behind him – a loss of 11 places compared to where he had been running before the pit stop cycle had begun.
This apparent strategical blunder was a lifeline for Alfa Romeo, who were still not even close to the points, Bottas running an even longer opening stint than Vettel on the hard tyres.
Vettel’s recovery mission was made only slightly easier by the retirement of Alonso with a suspected water leak, bringing his season and tenure at Alpine to a close in unison. Not that Alonso seemed too distraught by this all-too predictable end to his championship – RaceFans later spotted him in the hospitality of his new team Aston Martin after the race.
Out in the lead, Verstappen was maintaining his pace. Perez had older tyres than his team mate but was hovering around two seconds from the leader. Red Bull had always planned to pit Perez twice but his higher than expected tyre wear in his first stint meant he was not pushing quite as hard in this middle phase of the race than he would have been. Behind, Leclerc was catching him. Not planning to pit again himself, his chances of beating Perez to second were looking increasingly good with every second he took out of him.
By lap 33, Perez could sense Leclerc bearing down on him in his mirrors. Ferrari chose to pivot and bring in Leclerc, telling him to “box opposite” Perez, but Red Bull beat them to it by pitting their man for a second set of hard tyres, rejoining behind Hamilton’s Mercedes in sixth. Red Bull had effectively decided Ferrari’s strategy for them, with Leclerc’s mission now to make his tyres and his 20 second advantage to Perez last the 25 remaining laps until the end of the race. Perez’s pursuit of Leclerc would later be aided by Sainz and Russell pitting together on lap 39, but Hamilton committed to the one stop.
Back in the back, Vettel was enjoying the chance to be the one moving up the order. He was gifted a place when his close friend Mick Schumacher – also racing in his final grand prix for the foreseeable future – pitted directly in front of him. While Schumacher headed into his final race for Haas with the mantra of ‘prove them wrong’, an awkward collision with the departing Latifi at the turn five hairpin did little to help his cause. It earned him a five-second time penalty and two endorsement points on his licence.
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Vettel gained two more positions from cars ahead pitting until he found the Alfa Romeo of Zhou guarding the final points-paying positions in tenth. Unsurprisingly, Zhou was far less accommodating of his team’s rival than Alonso had been, defending hard as Vettel looked to pass around the outside of the long turn nine hairpin. Vettel soon found his way by the following lap, but then had to relinquish his tenth place to team mate Lance Stroll who had already caught up to him despite starting five places behind his team mate and pitting a second time – demonstrating how ineffective Vettel’s own strategy had been.
Back near the front, Perez had almost halved the gap to Leclerc after less than ten laps. Leclerc was having to wring as much pace as possible from his over 20-lap old hard tyres while not take any more life out of them than he had to. Such was the demand on his concentration, he politely informed engineer Xavier Marcos Padros to let him work in peace, with shades of Kimi Raikkonen’s famed message to his race engineer at the same track a decade earlier.
“Xavi, stop talking to me in the corners, please,” Leclerc stated firmly. “I know what to do now. Leave me alone, please.”
Before Perez could trouble Leclerc, he first had to pass Hamilton for third. The reversal of their tense scrap 12 months ago began when Perez caught car 44 on lap 44. Perez thought he had the move done into turn six before Hamilton re-passed him with DRS to frustrate the Red Bull driver’s progress.
Two laps later, it was Perez’s turn to pass Hamilton through the second DRS zone, moving back up into a podium position. There were just 14 laps left for him to make up the just under ten seconds to reach Leclerc before the end of the race.
While Perez made steady progress in his pursuit of the Ferrari, Vettel was about to catch up to Ricciardo in tenth. The former Red Bull team mates had seen their paths diverge in very different ways since their season together in 2014, but fate had brought them back together in what could be their final ever stint in a grand prix. Despite reaching DRS range of the McLaren, Ricciardo was not proving easy for him to get around.
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Leader Verstappen was now as far out in front as he had ever been and was simply counting down the few remaining laps of the season. With six laps to go, Leclerc’s advantage was now only six seconds.
“It’s gonna be tight, buddy,” Perez’s engineer Hugh Bird told his driver. “You’re going to be on him on the last lap. You got him.”
With only three laps to go, Hamilton’s seamless shift gearbox began to develop seams. A terminal hydraulic problem had developed on Hamilton’s unlucky W13. He pulled into the pits to end his race and his least-successful season in Formula 1.
Hamilton’s retirement would prove an unintentional final gift to his friend Vettel, who was now promoted into the points in tenth. Not only that, it had put Stroll up to eighth, meaning Aston Martin now had five points in their hands, putting them level with Alfa Romeo. But they needed one more point to beat their rivals. If Vettel could find some way past Ricciardo, sixth in the standings would be theirs.
But time was extremely limited. Verstappen had done what he had done best all season and been utterly in control out in front. The world champion crossed the line to a salute of sparks to close the book on one of the most dominant seasons ever achieved.
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But behind, Leclerc could see Perez in his mirrors. Crucially, he had kept Perez from gaining DRS on the final lap and had enough life left in his tyres to hold on to second place in the race and the championship by just 1.3 seconds at the chequered flag. It was a rare strategic triumph for Ferrari over Red Bull, who have run wings around them for much of 2022.
“It was really, really tricky,” Leclerc admitted. “I think today was a really, really perfect execution from our side. I don’t think we had the pace of the Red Bulls still, and our goal from the beginning was to try and push Checo do something different, which we did perfectly.”
Perez was understandably frustrated, but had to appreciate Ferrari had beaten him the hard way. “Today, I think Ferrari and Charles did a fantastic race,” Perez said. “They have great tyre management. And they were stronger than us, especially on that first stint. At the end of the day, we gave it all.”
Sainz finished fourth with Russell in fifth, 20 seconds ahead of Norris, who sealed his place as “best of the rest” in the drivers’ standings but could not prevent Alpine from taking fourth in the constructors’ championship. But behind Esteban Ocon in seventh and Stroll in eighth, there was still late drama.
Vettel was less than a second behind Ricciardo heading into the final lap of his career, staring at the position that would win his team sixth place. Over half a minute back in 15th, Bottas was powerless.
“Okay Valtteri, that’s the chequered flag for us. Current situation: Vettel has DRS for Ricciardo – this is going to be very tight,” Bottas was informed.
“Don’t do this to me again, Abu Dhabi…” Bottas intoned, memories of his final race with Mercedes flooding back.
But as hard as Vettel pushed, he was just not close enough over the final 5.2 kilometres to force Ricciardo into a defensive position. As he took the chequered flag for the final time, he was just six tenths of a second short of his goal.
“Okay Valtteri, Ricciardo held onto P10 – we have P6. We did it,” came the happy news to Bottas.
“Ha ha, fuck!,” Bottas exclaimed in relief. “Luck does change! Well deserved. That’s only the beginning for us…”
Having fought so valiantly, Vettel could not help but be frustrated for his final grand prix to have ended in such agonising fashion.
“It was a shame we were going backwards,” Vettel said after the race. “I was really trying. I gave it all I could. But it was absolutely the wrong strategy.”
For Ricciardo, after two seasons of relative underperformance, taking solid points in his final outing for McLaren was a satisfactory way to him to leave his team and possibly Formula 1 itself. As a final instruction on the cooldown lap, Ricciardo was asked to switch to “purple default 64 X” on his steering wheel, then switch to “purple C1”. As he did, an image of the entire McLaren team celebrating his Monza victory from 2021 flashed up on his dash, a token of their appreciation for the effort he had put in for them over the last two seasons.
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“That’s really nice, thank you,” said Ricciardo. “I think you know how much I appreciate your efforts over the last two years. And thanks for this display.”
But while the day ultimately belonged to the likes of Vettel and Ricciardo – two of the best products of the Red Bull driver programme – the 2022 season was all about a third: Max Verstappen. In what may well turn out to be his most successful season of his F1 career, Verstappen ends 2022 as a record breaker, a double world champion and the driver who is clearly now at the very top of his sport.
With Verstappen locked into contract at Red Bull until 2028, there may very well be a lot more success to come for him and his team. But for now, he is allowing himself to enjoy what they have achieved together this remarkable year.
“It has been a great team effort, especially after our tough start to the year, to turn it around like that,” Verstappen said. “I would have never imagined that, like nobody in the team.
“But it’s been really enjoyable to be part of this team. We have a lot of fun. Of course, we focus on the performance but you also need to really enjoy the moment, appreciate the moment. And I think we definitely did that.”
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