When Sebastian Vettel arrived in Abu Dhabi three years ago he had never even led the world championship. He went into that race third in the points, yet pulled off a shock by snatching the title from his team mate and Fernando Alonso.
That began his unbroken reign as world champion. This year arrived at the Yas Marina circuit with his fourth title already sewn up.
There’s nothing left for him to achieve this year except piling up win after win, which he did with another relentless display of superiority.
Webber loses pole advantage
That did not extend to qualifying, where a slip-up at the first corner allowed Mark Webber to take his second pole position this year. But as sure as the sun sets in the west – a party piece of this particular race – Webber can be relied upon to make a shoddy start when the pressure’s on.
Sure enough, his RB9 bogged down and Webber was grateful the run to the first corner was short. “I think we were lucky we’re not at Malaysia or Monza because it would have been even more painful,” he admitted afterwards.
“We know starts is not exactly my strong point, especially on these little babies. On the little Pirellis.”
Not only did Vettel motor past into the lead, but second place fell to Nico Rosberg. The other Mercedes of Lewis Hamilton had a look at the inside of turn one but had to withdraw from the move, allowing Romain Grosjean through.
This was one of few causes for cheer Lotus had all weekend, as trackside operations director Alan Permane noted: “What?óÔé¼Ôäós especially pleasing is that he?óÔé¼Ôäós gone from being labelled a ‘first lap nutcase’ to consistently gaining positions away from the line and through the opening sequence of corners at each race.”
Raikkonen’s rotten weekend ends early
But turn one marked the end of the race for the other Lotus. A fraught weekend for last year’s winner Kimi Raikkonen and Lotus began with revelations about Raikkonen’s unpaid salary on Friday and exclusion from qualifying on Saturday.
For Sunday the decision was taken to start him from the back of the grid, unlike Red Bull’s tactics last year in similar circumstances when Vettel started from the pits. But at turn one Raikkonen made wheel-to-wheel contact with Giedo van der Garde and his right-front suspension snapped.
Surely in Lotus’s strategy room there had been one dissenting voice, who had tried in vain to convince the rest of the wisdom of starting from the pits to avoid first-lap incidents, who was now trying not to say “I told you so”?
Mercedes slip back
Vettel didn’t need two laps to get out of DRS range of his rivals – he barely need half a lap. Not only did he streak away from Rosberg at over a second per lap but he held on to his tyres for longer as well.
Rosberg was fighting a rearguard action against Webber, who dropped back briefly when his KERS got too hot. After their first pit stops Webber responded better to the medium tyres and wound the Mercedes driver in.
As Rosberg arrived on the tail of rPaul di Resta, who was yet to pit, Webber was poised to strike. “I gave it a shot down into turn eight, used all my KERS up and I wasn?óÔé¼Ôäót able to do it,” said Rosberg, “and Mark got me on the next one”.
With one Mercedes driver demoted a place, the other was struggling to make any progress at all. Hamilton had emerged from his first pit stop behind Esteban Gutierrez but couldn’t force his way past the Sauber.
“It’s so difficult to overtake here when you are in traffic,” he said, “but we also need to figure out why I’m not getting the maximum performance from the car at the moment”. Gutierrez eventually pitted on lap 18, releasing Hamilton, but this was a race the Mercedes driver spent most of staring at the rear wings of other cars.
Tactics frustrate Massa
The first driver in the field to run longer than Vettel was Felipe Massa, who stayed out four laps after Vettel, coming in on the 18th tour. Vettel was so far ahead by this point Massa never saw the lead of the race, but as he emerged from the pits comfortably ahead of Nico Hulkenberg it looked like he was on course for a good result.
He underlined that impression by passing Hamilton, who was now stuck behind Adrian Sutil, on lap 25. He took the Force India on the next lap as well and was now running fifth with plenty of clear air.
But behind him Fernando Alonso emerged from the same traffic and, despite older tyres, was closing quickly. By lap 34 his team mate was within DRS range but couldn’t effect a pass.
Ferrari brought Massa in on lap 38 and, to his subsequent displeasure, fitted medium compound tyres. He was the last driver on a conventional two-stopper to take the harder rubber. Alonso, who came in six laps later, got softs.
“I?óÔé¼Ôäód managed to do 19 laps on them in the first stint and it would not have been a problem to do the same in the final part of the race,” complained Massa afterwards.
While Alonso stayed out Massa lost time behind Jean-Eric Vergne. Alonso arrived on pit lane the instant he had enough of a gap to come out ahead of Massa and – as it turned out – side-by-side with Vergne.
The Toro Rosso was vainly trying to hang on to a set of 27-lap-old medium tyres. As he clung to the racing line Alonso bounced over the run-off to take the position. After the race the stewards excused his off-track pass on the grounds that “neither car could avoid the incident”.
Di Resta one-stops to sixth
While Vergne abandoned his one-stop strategy Di Resta pressed on and was rewarded with sixth place. Force India were the only team to achieve this, Sutil coming home tenth with a similar strategy. In between them were Hamilton, Massa and Sergio Perez – the McLaren driver relegating Sutil on the final tour.
But it was Jenson Button who rang the longest unbroken stint. Once again his race was spoiled by first-lap contact – this time it was his own doing – and after two pit stops in nine laps the team left him to endure a mammoth 44 laps on medium tyres. His rewards was a meagre 12th behind Pastor Maldonado.
The runners behind them were disturbed in the final laps by the appearance of Vettel on their tails. He hesitated over diving into the closely-knit group, not wishing to jeopardise his victory having led by 40 seconds at one stage.
Esteban Gutierrez was the last driver to be left unlapped, ahead of Hulkenberg, whose race had been ruined by a drive-through penalty after his team released him from the pit box too soon.
Vettel equals record
Any of Vettel’s rivals would be forgiven for despairing at his seventh consecutive victory. He has tied the record for the most wins in consecutive races, jointly held by Alberto Ascari and Michael Schumacher.
Most of his opponents can console themselves with the thought that perhaps next year, with new cars and new engines, it might all be different. But at least one rival, with just two F1 starts yet to make, is ready to bow out after being crushed by Vettel for the last three years.
“When we go to this type of range of tyre it is probably a little bit more high maintenance for me to feel whether the tyre is in the race,” said Webber, who finished half a minute behind his team mate. “It?óÔé¼Ôäós a little bit frustrating but that?óÔé¼Ôäós the way it is.”
“The [mediums] weren?óÔé¼Ôäót too bad,” he added, “I didn?óÔé¼Ôäót think we were going too badly on those in terms of feeling, anyway.”
“But that?óÔé¼Ôäós the way it?óÔé¼Ôäós been the last… since 2011. I?óÔé¼Ôäóm not going to learn now. Old dog, new tricks. It?óÔé¼Ôäós over.”
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Image ?é?® Red Bull/Getty