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26 Nov 2018

Matt 'Trumpets' Ragsdale breaks down the story of the Abu Dhabi GP

Ambient 32° Track 34° Humidity 39% Wind 2.6 m/s

Prelude

The crushing heat that enveloped the paddock in the late afternoon at the 2018 Etihad Airways Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was shimmering away as the sun dipped towards the horizon, the lights were illuminated to fight the coming darkness and the race start approached. A last minute pneumatic top up for Carlos Sainz led the list of things that happened to be concerned about, along with a quick check of Hamilton's wiring, after changing out his Energy Store the previous evening, with no penalty as they were already in his pool of parts.

Staggeringly, with 10 minutes to go, there was a 40% chance of rain, and an even greater chance of Verstappen overtaking on lap 1, as he was the cat amongst the pigeons, the fox amongst the hens, the well, I'll stop there but you no doubt get the idea as he was the only top 6 starter on the Hypersofts and it was all going to be down to his performance on the first laps. Having seen earlier races how much of a difference softer tyres can make at launch it promised much spectacle at the start, though with a short run to T1 (300 metres) the potential for disaster also loomed for the Dutchman's strategy....

Pirelli were also announced as having won the next tyre contract, through 2023, and they had on display an 18" tyre and wheel to count coup, and in celebration the ever exciting one-stop was predicted for the 55 lap race. Lots of change in the offing but first there was a race to be run and as they rolled off on the formation lap, amidst the congratulations and goodbyes, the thrill in the air was palpable....

Summary

Lights Out!!!! Great start from Hamilton, with Bottas slotting into P2 as they entered the first turn. It was Leclerc with a fantastic launch, though, by Grosjean and dicing with Ricciardo down the long straight to T8. DISASTER for Verstappen, as he was down to P10, as it looked as if he was having some kind of massive PU issue off the line with his rain light flashing, indicating harvesting as he was on maximum throttle, shades of Rosberg in Barcelona. This ultimately left him trying desperately trying to get back round Ocon, so not at all to plan at all to plan for Red Bull. And then, just like that, Hulkenberg was upside down and into the wall on the outside of T8. He had been having a go at Grosjean into T7 and going into T8 his rear ran over Grosjean's front launching him into a series of barrel rolls. On the radio, on being asked how he was, he replied "I'm hanging here like a cow".


That moment of levity disappeared rapidly as the car then caught on fire, but with the marshals on scene it was rapidly extinguished and the car righted, as Hulkenberg was unable to extricate himself whilst it was upside down against the barriers. Post-race he himself was unsure after the fact whether the halo indeed had prevented his escape, sure to be seized on by the nay-sayers as grist for their mill.

Naturally, this incident brought out the Safety Car as well as an investigation into the contact and in no particular order, Hartley, Perez, Sainz, Ericsson, Gasly Alonso Stroll Magnussen, Vandoorne and Sirotkin all took advantage to rejigger their strategy... As they filtered through the pits, the stewards announced no further action on the Grosjean/Hulkenberg incident and the teams prepared to resume racing.

Lap 4 and the race was back on, with a nice restart from Hamilton, big lunge on Ocon from Verstappen into T7 and he got the move done, but not for long as Ocon kept on it, and was right back around and Max's compromised exit also let Perez through. Clearly something not right with the car, and Max was told to fail C3, to reset a sensor or turn it off, most likely. Hartley managed to lose the car and tag a wall, definitely a pro move to steal focus...

2 laps later it was still on as Verstappen, finally by Perez, brutally forced his way up the inside on Ocon (with a wee bit of contact) and Ocon settled in and into the next turn Ocon was back by, but with DRS the Red Bull was finally able to make a decisive move. During that spectacular battle, Raikkonen suddenly lost power and he pulled over just across the finish line and out came the Virtual Safety Car on lap 7. Potential 2 stopper suddenly possible and in came Hamilton, Leclerc and Grosjean. Ferrari was busy talking Raikkonen through a power cycle and Hamilton was back out in P5, just behind Verstappen, on the Supersoft tyre....

Lap 8 and the VSC ended, just as Bottas, now leader on the track, was on his way to T18. Hamilton was just 9 seconds back and was told by the team that he was headed to the end, 10 or so seconds to the good with his stop, but a long, long stint to go. Verstappen heard from Red Bull that he had suffered from unanticipated PU protections, hampering the start of his race. The fact that Leclerc and Grosjean pitted removed the midfielders from Verstappen's race, and that now posed a problem for Hamilton, who, stuck behind Verstappen needed a quick pass to get his race on track. He was able to get round fairly quickly but Verstappen was able to grab his slipstream and on the next straight was by and scampered off on his Hypers with an apparently sorted engine, and perhaps some foreshadowing for next season to boot.

2 laps later and Verstappen was well on his way, with Hamilton's race reduced to save the tyres and stay in the window, job on point for the moment, 9 seconds back but he was already on the radio saying he didn't think the tyres would last. Lap 13 and Sainz was doing the job on Ericsson, which after a robust defense from Ericsson finally fell the way of the Spaniard for P8.

Happily enough by that point, Verstappen was now drafting Ricciardo, just 1 second back. Lap 16 and Vettel was in, kicking it off at the front. But it was a slow stop, by nearly a second over their usual time, out on the Supers and behind not just Hamilton, but Ocon as well. This left Ricciardo P2, 5 seconds back of Bottas and trailed by Verstappen as the only leaders yet to stop. Bottas was in the next lap to fend off the undercut, and the slow stop and having to pass Ocon really put the hurt on the Scuderia. Bottas slotted in between Hamilton and Vettel, a nice empty spot with a fresh set of Supers.

Sainz had meanwhile progressed to the point of getting stuck behind Ocon, and their battle had opened the door for Ericsson to catch back up whilst the strategy battle at Red Bull had tilted in favour of Ricciardo, as Verstappen was forced to come in as his tyres had finally started to give up. Lap 18, then and Ricciardo swanned it at the front, trailed by Hamilton, Bottas and Vettel. The following lap, Ocon was in for a set of Supers, and out he went, though doomed to the tail end of the field.

At the sharp end, Verstappen was just edging into the pit window of Ricciardo, and Bottas was closing in on Hamilton, at about 0.8 second per lap and 8 seconds between them. Rain reported in the downtown area, just for fun. That didn't last long, with Hamilton upping his pace and everyone around 1:44 a lap with 34 laps to go. Danny Ricky was happy with his tyres and off into the desert night they raced, bets placed and strategies set, the only question being what tyres the Aussie would get when he finally was in for his stop.

The following lap and Verstappen was now inside 20 seconds on Ricciardo, and it was Leclerc, who looked to be virtual leader of formula B in P11 and inside the pit window of Perez who led on track, albeit yet to stop for his second set of tyres. A few drops of rain sprinkled around the track and Ocon, who had been stuck at the back, finally got round Hartley and Sirotkin, with the effect that McLaren wanted to extend Alonso's stint to take advantage of his difficulties.

Lap 26 and Ericsson, who had been struggling, announced that his car had become undriveable and lost power, and thus not with a bang, but with a whimper his F1 career was done as he quietly boxed for the final time. Hartley, taking advantage of Sirotkin doing a bit of rallycross, was able to go round the outside of T1 and gain a whole position...

Leclerc was around Alonso and Perez was in and out, ultimately retaking the track behind Magnussen, who was running very long for his race. Hamilton was on the radio, meanwhile, complaining again about the state of his tyres. Despite that, an uber slow lap for Ricciardo brought him within 3 seconds of the leader on track. Lap 29 and Alonso was in and the race was so electric that wind direction was now being featured on team radio. Vettel had lit the board purple, and the reason became clear as he had also caught up with Bottas, inside of 2 seconds and a battle for position looking very likely as lap 30 entered the books and lightning was reported in the distance. With luck, that will foreshadow the action at the end of the race.

Lap 31 and Perez was on the gearbox of Leclerc, but the action was further back, as Vandoorne, Ocon and Grosjean went 3 wide into T9, with Vandoorne coming off best and Ro-Gro forced to bunny hop the kerbs and back into P13. Ocon kept up the battle, and was by Vandoorne, although he ran off the track and seemed like a return of that spot would be called for. Or not, as there was no effort made and then it was Rogro, also by Vandoorne who had yet to stop and off in pursuit of Ocon, who had nothing at all to lose in his last race.


Or possibly, as the pass on Vandoorne wound up being investigated by the stewards on lap 34, he did have a bit of time to lose. Red Bull chose the same lap to pit Ricciardo and it was a set of Supers and 21 laps to make best use of them as he emerged just behind Verstappen, leaving Hamilton back in the lead, with Bottas 6 seconds back and 20 laps to go....

Vettel, who had been lingering astern of Bottas, chose to finally pull the trigger, perhaps due to a mistake in the middle sector by Bottas, and was by with nary a fuss, leaving Bottas to defend from Verstappen suddenly, with P3 at stake in the WDC. Lap 36 and a lock up by Bottas into the chicane was not helping him in the slightest. Ricciardo was setting fastest laps, 2 seconds a lap faster. Despite the lock up, Bottas simply ran into the run off and maintained his position, again a situation that might call for giving up a position. The maths were being run by the commentariat and it transpired that P2 wsa needed for him to take P3 from Raikkonen and doom him to the FIA gala.

Lap 39 and T12 was where Verstappen finally got the job done, into P3 with a bit of contact as befitted his driving style/personality, places given or no. Ricciardo was next to have a go at the Mercedes, and it was job done, as Bottas looked to be struggling for reasons not adequately defined, either during or after the race. Lap 40 and it was Hamilton, then, with 6 seconds over Vettel, 10 seconds over Verstappen and 13 seconds over Ricciardo as the finale of the race began to unfold. No obvious issues reported from the team side for Bottas, and it was out into the lane for the Mercedes mechanics as Valterri was in and out on the Ultras.

Vettel and Verstappen had both lifted their pace into the upper 1:42's on the same lap, and then Hamilton responded, matching their pace. But looking at the times, it was Ricciardo who was making the most ground, as he was running in the 1:41's, tearing massive chunks of time out of the lead, 2 seconds back of Verstappen but with the race lead firmly in mind. Bottas, it transpired, was boxed due to concerns about the right rear, post Verstappen contact according to Mercedes. Sainz had managed to get round Leclerc during all the drama and was now leading Formula B by nearly 10 seconds.

Magnussen was finally in, lap 43, dropping him to P12 but with the gift of fresh Ultras, looking to make much hay in the final laps. At the front, the progress was glacial with Vettel now just 5 seconds back at the end of lap 44, but the fratricidal battle between Ricciardo and Verstappen looked very much on. And then Vettel, too, appeared to be upping the pace, notching a half second out on the following lap. Ocon was then taken out by an oil leak, and with a bit of a bang there he went, Force India career done as he pulled over in the pit entry and the marshals were quick to try and push him. Nothing doing as the engine was seized and out went the yellow flags in the pits.

Gasly was the next to start smoking, down the start/finish, and it looked rather terminal for him as well. Indeed it was, and Pierre was told to pull over in a safe position, which he did very neatly. This rapid attrition left Alonso P11 and 5 seconds back of Magnussen in the final points position. Double points for HAAS was a good look for them as the last laps were queued up and ready to go, but suddenly at the front it looked to be all but over. Verstappen was suddenly going backwards from Vettel and at the front, Hamilton, who had been saying his tyres were terrible the whole race, suddenly knocked off a 1:42 dead, easily matching his rivals and making one wonder how much of his complaints had been for the strategic consumption of his rivals.

Mclaren then attempted to urge Alonso on to try and grab a final point, to which he replied, "I already have 1800 points" maintaining his acerbic radio presence. Nonetheless, he did pick up the pace and was off in pursuit of Magnussen as well as the award for radio message of the year. At first it looked possible, as he picked up nearly a second, but then it became clear a large part of that was down to him giving a chicane an entire miss after a lock up. Hopes again dashed for Macca fans....

With the appeal lodged by HAAS, points for Force India were going to be marked as provisional at the end of the race and then the stewards, to cap off Alonso's career, tagged him with a 5 second time penalty for keeping his foot in it when he missed the chicane. Vettel rocked up with a fast lap, but at 3 seconds back it was not a threat and thus they ended, with Hamilton leading the way, trailed by Vettel and then Verstappen. It was then some fairly anemic donuts from Hamilton, who was joined by Vettel in post race celebrations....

Sainz led home Formula B, followed by Leclerc, setting the stage for an interesting next season at Ferrari as the merry go round of driver change prepared to sweep through the paddock. Alonso rolled around, and then in triple unison, he, Hamilton and Vettel AGAIN engaged in making some donuts, at the urging of his team. Verstappen's podium meant he officially overtook Bottas for P4 in the WDC, and with his strong finish, Sainz overtook both his idol Alonso and Ocon, going P10 in his final race with Renault. Leclerc managed to overtake Grosjean for P13, since we're being comprehensive and that was that for the driver's side. As expected, no movement on the Constructor's side of the chart and with that, after a brief moment of sentimental radio calls that was decidedly won by Ricciardo's response to his engineer, it was off to the season of whispers, rumours, inference and everyone's favourite, bare-assed speculation as everyone's most wonderful time of the year rolled around, the time of endless argument with no available data..... Thanks for stopping by, as always, and have a great off season!!!
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