The Grand Prix at Yas Marina: the final showdown in Abu Dhabi

To call this race the final showdown in a cliff-hanger of a season would be to underestimate the tension in the warm air of Abu Dhabi tonight. The greatest strain will be felt in the Ferrari garage where a big helping of luck is needed if Fernando Alonso is going to become World Champion on Sunday. Despite his amazing strength of character and heroic late-season run of success he cannot be viewed as the favourite for the title. The series of wins and podiums that have put him in the lead of the championship perhaps obscures the simple fact that the Red Bull cars are comfortably the fastest this season, with an advantage of the same magnitude as that which the Brawn team enjoyed at the start of last year, but in this case without any sign of their rivals catching up and matching their speed.

Ferrari, just like McLaren, will be hoping that their final development push will have given them more pace. But there will be nobody in any garage tonight who thinks that the two Red Bull drivers will fail to secure the first two positions on the grid tomorrow. But they will still be hoping. Perhaps Alonso will put together a single perfect lap and split the two Red Bulls? Or if he is third it could be that he will launch well and muscle past one of them at the start? Either way, so long as it is Vettel on pole, Fernando and Ferrari have a chance to control the race and Red Bull will be unable to exercise a team decision to favour Webber. Then, you might argue, even if the two Red Bulls are lying first and second, there is no certainty that Vettel would let Webber past even if that is what his team expect of him. A third place for Alonso might be enough if Vettel has sufficient dislike for Webber to refuse to forego victory for the sake of a team-mate who he feels behaved outrageously and robbed him of a win in Turkey. And perhaps it might rain. In which case a chaotic race would reduce the chance of a simple lockout of the first two spots by the Red Bull team. And, in spite of the high track and air temperatures in Abu Dhabi, tyre temperature issues were haunting the teams today. So Ferrari must have some small hope that, if they can manage this issue better than Red Bull: an appropriate pit stop strategy might allow a less compromised out lap and get Fernando ahead of whichever of the Bulls is immediately in front of him during the race.

Against this must be weighed the reality of the situation. Even with a fast and well-balanced Ferrari in the hands of a confident and inspired Alonso, the Red Bulls are odds-on favourites to dominate a dry qualifying session. A determined Lewis Hamilton with a faster McLaren this weekend would be more likely to qualify ahead of the Ferrari than ahead of the Red Bulls as well. Robert Kubica might step up again and have a great qualifying run, which again could push Alonso down the grid but would be unlikely to trouble either Vettel or Webber. What a situation. I am aware of the various permutations of the points of course but, as I prefer the simple logic of a championship table based purely on results, I will not discuss all the possibilities here. Suffice to say that, although he leads the World championship on points, Alonso faces another steeply uphill task to beat two rivals who enjoy the benefit of a much faster car in qualifying at least. If he can win the race it is mission accomplished. To do so he has to beat two top drivers in faster cars….

Another outbreak of Red Bull unreliability is another straw at which Ferrari can clutch. Sebastian Vettel would be well ahead in the championship if his car had not been so fragile earlier in the year, and Mark Webber’s own mistakes have prevented him from clinching the title already. But while Ferrari say that they are going into the last race with their emotions in check to avoid mistakes, it may be significant that the team made a pit-stop error in the last race. The problem with Massa’s loose wheel is ominous, as was the occurrence that stranded him on the track today. Whether it was literally running out of fuel, or some issue with the fuel feed, the Scuderia must be crossing their fingers and hoping that no similar problem hits Alonso’s car.

I find that I have little support when I promote the ‘medals’ system of scoring the World Championship. But the interesting thing is that on this occasion it has produced an equally tense situation in the last race. Both Hamilton and Button are out of contention already under this hypothetical scoring system. If Webber wins, Alonso cannot equal the four second place finishes of the Australian so Mark will be champion. If Vettel wins, Fernando would be champion so long as he is second or third. If none of the three contenders win, Alonso would be champion as he has more victories already. So, under this system (see: Medal-System Championship) both Red Bull drivers have to go for victory. A purer situation, and no less tense than the one that is real.

Motor racing is a nerve-wracking game. This race will test the three contenders to the maximum degree. I only leave Lewis out of my reckoning because his is only a mathematical chance of gaining the necessary points on Sunday. Whatever he does he must rely on disaster striking all three of his rivals. A very unlikely possibility.

I had one of the most unpleasant road trips of my life yesterday. Unexpected snow on the Col de Balme and the Forclaz left me struggling to keep a grip-less BMW 3 series on the road. Hard compound summer tyres have virtually no grip in this situation. Getting up the mountains was tough, but coming back down them was lethally dangerous without winter tyres. The dynamic stability control had to be switched off as it was fighting me, and the ABS was equally unhelpful and could not be disabled without delving into the electrics and pulling the fuse. Which is hard to do as you skate sideways downhill unable to slow the car much or at all. On one occasion I had to take a full line through a blind corner and simply hope that nobody was coming the other way. I seemed to have even less grip than Jensen Button’s McLaren has enjoyed recently (and Jensen must be wondering why his own car has plumbed such depths of poor set-up just at the time his team-mate has needed a clear run in the races). Later, torrential night-time rain on the Belgian motorways, with the spray hanging in the air between the trees which line them, was an illustration of the appalling visibility the F1 drivers experience when it is wet. And some say that rain is forecast in Abu Dhabi this Sunday. I thought that my drive from the Alps to the Eurotunnel was a bit too much of an adventure for one day. Three men will start this weekend anticipating that their long journey around the Yas Marina will be even more testing. On Sunday evening one of them will have the consolation of knowing that it was well worth the danger and the stress.


PS: I had intended to post some thoughts on the technical aspects of this season’s cars. But how could I do that on the eve of such a dramatic weekend? Next time. Oh, and did I forget to say that I had the pleasure of watching the first Grand Prix of the year in the media room of a top McLaren executive? I was shocked by the raw hatred of Alonso that was expressed during the race (although the spontaneous outburst was immediately and rather unconvincingly withdrawn). So Ferrari are racing a Red Bull team intent on winning because they are tough competitors and a McLaren team perhaps intent on spoiling their slim chance of victory out of sheer malice.

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6 Responses to The Grand Prix at Yas Marina: the final showdown in Abu Dhabi

  1. Uzair says:

    I was thinking the exact same thing. Red Bulls are really quick they will lock out the front row. Schmacher said “car development is the only thing which makes you win a world championship” or something to that effect. I really don’t think Vettel will let Webber through unless its very very clear that he won’t win and I don’t see that happening. We have seen there are so many variables during the race. It can easily happen that if Vettel is slowing down to let Webber through Alonso is right behind him and when he lets his teammate through, having lost momentum, there is a danger that Alonso will also overtake him.
    And I just finished watching the 2007 season all over again. It’s not hard to see why there would be raw hatred for Alonso. Though I don’t know what they think he did wrong and why they don’t see it was their Boss who put them in that position.
    Glad to know that you got down okay. What a situation it must be. ‘Unpleasent’ would be an understatement when you turn in blindly and pray no one’s coming the other way.
    If you think Massa would leave, who do you think would come in to replace him? I really don’t think he would but it may also depend on how the Pirelli tests go.
    P3 and Qualifying today. Cant wait….

    • peterwhite17 says:

      Well I am supposed to be a good skier. But in a car?!! I suppose that if someone had been coming the other way they would have been moving very slowly. We did pass a French Ferrari (with local Chamonix registration) which was creeping along at a walking pace. The driver must have had a long morning. I know from Maranello that the cars need to have the traction control switched off in these conditions. Then use idle and the rear diff will ease the car safely through surprisingly slippery conditions, even though the tyres cannot warm up. The clever traction control, if left on, will simply stop the car from moving forward at all, just as ABS will leave you completely unable to stop on an icy road. Not many people realise how bad these ‘driver aids’ are in snow. Those that do remove the ABS fuse whenever conditions are bad.
      I guess I will discuss Massa after the race. But I really don’t think he is fully recovered from his head injury. He really did reach a peak of excellence in 2008 and 2009, and now Mark Gene, the Ferrari test driver says that he is half a second slower than Alonso on every lap at every circuit. Alonso is a great driver but a margin like that would be impossible if Massa was completely fit. Remember that Nelson Piquet (senior) admitted years after his qualifying crash at Monza (after which he was angry that Sid Watkins had not allowed him to race) that he had suffered from severe headaches and sleeplessness for twelve months following the shunt. That was a simple concussion. Massa suffered an even more traumatic brain injury. I think that he will continue to recover for at least another year, but whether he will ever return to the form that so nearly won him the World championship (and actually did so on the ‘medal-scoring system’) is another open question.

  2. Uzair says:

    Wow. I really had no idea. Fortunately ABS system is perfect for where I drive. Desert, dusty highways, rash drivers and no speed limit. Well there is but it’s badly enforced. Most of us get away with speeding.
    Well for Massa, if that’s the case, then he has to be one of the unluckiest drivers. So nearly missed out on Championship and then he gets life threatening injury.
    Webber totally lost it yesterday. The pressure really showed.
    Btw you must’ve heard about the new Senna movie… here’s the trailor.

  3. Uzair says:

    Hello Peter .. while you are away.. this is a piece from Tony Dodgins article in autosport online… i thought this might be of interest to you…

    Red Bull is frustrated with a lack of power from its Renault V8s, yet the factory Renault team’s straightline pace left Ferrari frowning in Abu Dhabi. Tony Dodgins delves into F1’s engine rivalries

    It was Friday morning in Brazil. If it had been a big fight the boxers would have been into their last round of insults, trying to shift those last tickets and boost their purses, with a grateful media lapping it up. None of that here, surely…

    But hang on. What’s that Stefano Domenicali has just come out with? If Ferrari had Red Bull’s car they have won the championship aeons ago…

    Not bad, much more newsworthy than anything likely to be thrown up by FP1, so off everyone goes for a response from Christian Horner. You could imagine the bored indifference. It was probably just an off the cuff remark made at an unguarded moment when he replied that if Red Bull had Ferrari’s engine they would no doubt have done likewise…

    Christian’s timing, though, probably wasn’t his best. It coincided with everyone’s inboxes pinging with Renault’s announcement of the two-year extension to its Red Bull deal together with the inevitable mutually ingratiating quotes. Oops… The Italians, at least, thought it was very funny but I can’t speak for the French.

    Truth is, it’s hard to assess the strengths of the various engines in F1 given the different chassis and you get a different opinion depending who you talk to. One experienced F1 technical man I was chewing the fat with in Singapore nodded in the direction of Adrian Newey’s Red Bull and said, “It’s a bloody good job that thing hasn’t got a Mercedes in the back of it…” Then, a bit mischievously, he nodded towards the Mercedes and added, “and if that had a Renault in it, it would be fighting with the Toro Rosso…”

    Cosworth’s Tim Routsis, asked at Monza for a frank assessment of where his company was on its first season back in F1 after a three season break, said: “I think all the engines are extremely close and the best measurements we’ve been able to take say that everyone is within about four per cent and I think we’re towards the front of the pack.”

    That assessment squares pretty much with Newey’s: “All our analysis suggests that we are at least four per cent behind a Mercedes,” he said. Which doesn’t sound a lot but, he added, “at most circuits that’s getting on for half a second a lap.”

    We’re talking outright power here. Things such as driveability are important too but give a designer a choice and he’d take the grunt every time.

    Red Bull, of course, tried hard to do a Mercedes engine deal in 2009 but it was blocked by McLaren. Which, in fairness, you can understand. Thanks to Rob Smedley, ‘magnanimous’ probably became word of the year in 2010. And even if Felipe Massa doesn’t know what it means, Martin Whitmarsh certainly does, and it describes pretty well his actions in giving Brawn GP a Mercedes when Honda pulled out at the end of ’08.

    And didn’t that turn around and bite him in the bum! A few months later Brawn had won the world championship and Whitmarsh’s commercial partners bought a controlling stake in Brawn’s team!

    Imagine someone coming along right then and saying, “Listen, Martin, Adrian Newey’s busy optimising that thing that’s already the quickest thing on the circuit and he’d love to put our engine in it…” You can quite easily see why the conversation would be a two-second one.

    Renault power hasn’t been viewed as the strongest in recent years © LAT
    Under the conditions of the F1 engine freeze, any hint that Renault is a little down on power is no reflection on the company’s ability to do just as strong a job, it dates back to what they did or didn’t do before the engine specification was frozen.

    Says Newey, “Mercedes has blocked all conversations with regard to Renault being able to retune or redress the balance. They’ve systematically gone through FOTA and blocked all that. It was a very frustrating position to be in because some people argued that if they gave us an engine performance upgrade, then we should have given them our front wing, for instance. That’s been one of the conversations with a senior person at Mercedes!

    “All very well and good but we weren’t stopping Mercedes or McLaren from developing a front wing that’s the same as ours, whereas they were stopping Renault from developing an engine to match the Mercedes.”

    With that going on in the background, and given the irony of the Domenicali/Horner exchange in Brazil, the circumstances of the Abu Dhabi decider must have absolutely delighted Renault. Not simply the fact that it took both titles with Red Bull. For over an hour millions around the world watched a driver with the reputation of Fernando Alonso with his Ferrari engine and the championship at stake, powerless to overcome a relative unknown like Vitaly Petrov and his Renault.

    The fact that it had little to do with their respective V8s will have been lost on many. As Kubica fended off Lewis Hamilton and Petrov dealt with Alonso, even people really close to the sport were saying, ‘Blimey, that Renault’s got some grunt…’

    It didn’t have. What the car did have, by Abu Dhabi, was a highly efficient F-duct.

    “A lot of teams did the F-duct much quicker than we did,” explained Renault’s technical chief James Allison. “That was just a straightforward decision I took to push on with all our other developments. We were planning to introduce it at Silverstone but when we tried it in the tunnel we couldn’t make it work reliably. I’d seen lots of other teams bring it out quickly and then struggle for a couple of weekends, so we canned it and chose a different direction, which pushed it back to Spa, where it worked very well.”

    It certainly did, even if it gave Kubica a fright on lap one as he struggled to take Eau Rouge one-handed with a full tank of fuel, got into a tank-slapper and almost took out Vettel!

    Petrov kept marching away from Alonso on the straights in Abu Dhabi © LAT
    For the rest of the season, the Renault was right there in sections of a circuit where the F-duct was important. Maybe Renault sometimes ran a tad less fuel in FP3 but in Korea the Red Bull men looked at Kubica’s FP3 sector one time, shrugged, and admitted, “we can’t do that…”

    It was good to see the under-pressure Petrov earn some plaudits too. An F1 rookie season beside Robert Kubica? No thanks… Remember Timo Glock a year ago? A Renault seat alongside Kubica or Virgin Racing? Apparently Timo had had enough of corporate Toyota and yearned for a return to the small-team intimacy and involvement of a team like his old iSport GP2 set-up, but I wouldn’t mind betting there was another reason he didn’t fancy Enstone…

    “Vitaly has been up against a fiercely good team-mate without much testing,” Allison says. “It’s a very tough point in F1 history to be a rookie – and particularly tough for him. He ebbed and flowed. Some weekends he was absolutely first rate, others he struggled. Many things are much to be admired – he’s a brave and committed racer and he’s not easily flustered in a race.” As Fernando found out…

    Alonso had actually discovered it in Turkey, where he managed to barge Vitaly out of the way, but not this time. There’s always been good people doing a good job at both Enstone and Viry. I kind of liked the way it worked out…

  4. Pekka says:

    Kimi Räikkönen is back. Hopefully we get Peter’s comment on this.

  5. Pekka says:

    Räikkönen is back for good.

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