The Yas Marina Circuit was the setting for F1’s climatic event. As has often been the case since Abu Dhabi cliched the rights for the season finale, the championship was over and the race was forgettable. Something about this generation of F1 car and the track design that snakes around Yas island doesn’t really work, and 2020’s event demonstrated this fully.
It was single file through the opening lap, with no cars making contact and no one running wide. Bottas didn’t get away too convincingly but still was ahead of his teammate Hamilton at the first corner. The only first lap incident came courtesy of the inexperience of Pietro Fittipaldi. The Haas driver, in his second race substituting for Romain Grosjean, locked up his tyres into the first corner. Luckily, he got away with his mistake and twenty drivers remained in twenty undamaged cars by the end of the first lap.
Polesitter Max Verstappen was unchallenged off the line and remained so for the next 42 corners as he extended his lead to 2 seconds by the start of the third lap. A crucial step for his chance of victory with DRS being activated then.
Behind the leaders, Pierre Gasly had overtaken the Renault of Ocon on the initial back straight and did well to defend on the inside on the second. All the remaining overtakes in the early laps were thanks to the backmarkers as Magnussen and Perez made moves forwards. Last weeks race winner, Perez had started from the back thanks to taking on new power unit parts.
Alex Albon did his part for Red Bull’s strategy team by taking Lando Norris for fourth-place on lap six in a DRS pass. The McLaren driver didn’t fight the move too much, seemingly hopeful that the second DRS section would give him the position back. But Albon hung on by defending the inside line well into turn 11. Meanwhile, Daniel Ricciardo was gifted tenth place by team orders instructing that instructed Ocon to make way for the departing Aussie driver.
With the battle for third place in the constructors’ championship and all the money it brings raging on until the final round, Racing Point would’ve been smiling when Lance stroll took P7 from Daniil Kvyat while simultaneously Perez, on the hard tire, took 14th place from Kimi Raikkonen. It had taken Perez until just lap 9 to make his way past the three 2020 backmarker teams of Williams, Haas and Alfa Romeo.
These middle positions had a Noah‘s Ark feel to them. The two AlphaTauris were ahead of both Renaults who in turn led two Ferraris. Unlike their French counterparts in yellow, AlphaTauri didn’t invoke team orders on their drivers meaning Pierre Gasly had to fight his pay past Kvyat. There was little sympathy from Gasly as he took eighth place from the Russian who may have been racing in his final F1 Grand Prix.
Any earlier smiles from Racing Point turned to heads in hands. But while it was frustration back in the pit lane, it was heartbreak in the cockpit for Sergio Perez who had his second mechanical retirement in three races. The disappointment was evident in the Mexican’s body language as he smacked his steering wheel in what may be his last Formula One race for a year, if not ever.
A virtual safety car followed and most of the front runners decided to take advantage of the slowdown. All the leaders down to Ricciardo pitted for fresh rubber. The timing was good for those who had planned for a one-stop race with hard tyres in the second stint. The notable outliers that chose to stay out were Daniel Ricciardo and both Ferraris. Giovinazzi and Magnussen also remained on their original Pirelli’s, clearly hoping for a second VSC or a safety car later on. But whatever problem caused Perez’s Racing Point to stop was more serious than initially thought. The marshalls were unable to recover the RP20 and a crane was brought to get clear the track, triggering the full safety car.
The running order of the top ten was now Verstappen, Bottas, Hamilton, Albon, Ricciardo, Norris, Vettel Leclerc, Sainz and Stroll. Should those around them need to pit, things looked promising for the Scuderia and Ricciardo.
As the drivers slowly traced their way around the track waiting for the green flag, Lewis Hamilton criticising their decision to pull him into the pits. Ordinarily this season it has been both Mercedes versus Max Verstappen, but with Alex Albon behind the champion, the Mercedes team had to keep an eye on the Thai driver, too. Hamilton also seemed to be struggling with balance and asked his race engineer, Bono, to see if there are any floor damage on his W11. Not the triumphant return for Lewis after his COVID-19 induced week away.
When the safety car pulled in, the top ten stayed as they were, with the exception of Carlos Sainz who had warmed his tyres up sufficiently to take P8 from the Charles Leclerc. The Monegasque had spent his race up to then staring at the rear of his teammate. He now instead had his future teammate’s exhaust to look at.
The little post-safety car action in the race was behind the front four. Lando Norris was closing in on his new McLaren partner Daniel Ricciardo, for fifth place. Daniel had not yet stopped on his hard compound Pirelli‘s. Sainz was also on the move as he took Sebastian Vettel making it two Ferrari victims. The two scarlet cars continued on without stopping but didn’t look to have any pace on their old rubber.
Although Sainz was making moves forwards, he found himself under investigation for unnecessarily slowing the pack down ahead of his pit stop. His close running to Lando Norris ahead meant the Spaniard wanted to give his McLaren team as much time as possible to double-stack their pit stops.
Otmar Szafnauer, the Racing Point team principal, told the Sky commentators his team raised the alarm to the stewards. With only one car left in the race, any opportunity for the pink panthers to clinch that all-important P3 in the constructors’ was a chance worth taking. Szafnauer suggested that the delay by Sainz impacted on Stroll, who lost a place to Gasly and had to battle with Vettel instead. Otmar believed his Canadian driver should’ve been fighting with Norris further up the running order.
And while the future Ferrari man of Sainz was in trouble with the stewards, the existing Ferrari driver of Leclerc was in trouble on the track. Charles slipped further and further back as his old tyres had given up. Leclerc made it to lap 23 on his mediums before calling it a day, emerging in last place after his stop. Ferrari’s gamble to keep both their cars out during the safety car hadn’t worked at all.
The latter half of the race was as uneventful as one expects from Abu Dhabi. The late stoppers of Ricciardo and Vettel barely made any progress on their fresh rubber. Vettel had lost out to his teammate who jumped him by pitting earlier. Ricciardo fared much better by jumping up to P7 and running behind the McLaren pair. The Renault driver had made his hard tyres work much better than Leclerc or Vettel and took advantage of the earlier VSC.
Verstappen won the race by fifteen seconds ahead of Bottas and Hamilton, with Albon only 1.5 seconds behind the podium trio. Max almost secured a maximum point day, too, but Ricciardo snatched the fastest lap point on the final lap of the season. Behind the top four, the stewards cleared Sainz of wrongdoing. The decision ensured McLaren took third in the constructors’ championship as the Woking team continue their turnaround from the Alonso days.