Valtteri Bottas kept Mercedes teammate Lewis Hamilton at bay to win the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit.
The Finn avoided a repeat of the sluggish start from pole that ultimately cost him victory at the preceding Brazilian Grand Prix with a textbook getaway, controlling proceedings throughout and only losing the lead during the pit stop cycles. Hamilton followed home in his wake, less than four seconds behind at the end of the 55-lap race, while Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel finished third to ensure he claimed the runner-up position in the Drivers’ Championship standings.
It was a frustrating and dull race for spectators, drivers and teams alike. While a state-of-the-art venue, the Yas Marina circuit once again underscored that its Hermann Tilke design is wholly unsuitable for Grand Prix racing.
Beaten home by his teammate, Hamilton was the most vocal in his criticism of the circuit after a race spent on the heels of the Finn.
“It’s a great, great track but unfortunately it doesn’t suit the cars very well,” he reflected afterwards. “In the last sector you just can’t follow. It’s one of the worst tracks in the sense that you need 1.4-second advantage to pass the car in front.
“And we’ve got the same car, we’ve a couple of tenths between us so I was never going to overtake unless he made a big mistake and went off – and even then they have massive run-off areas and you can still keep it on [track].”
Hamilton’s criticisms should not detract from a controlled and masterful drive by Bottas, who chalked up the third Grand Prix win of his career and his first since his victory in Austria. Consistently quicker than Hamilton through the twistier and highly technical final sector of the lap, he built enough of a gap to ensure Hamilton couldn’t threaten for a pass along the circuit’s back-to-back DRS zones.
Having built up a two-second gap after the start, Bottas pitted first to switch from Ultra Softs to Super Soft tyres for the run to the chequered flag. Hamilton tried the ‘overcut’, staying out three laps later and posting the quickest lap of the race so far, but couldn’t make the strategy work and emerged from the pits behind his teammate once again.
He closed to within DRS range and briefly seemed poised to challenge Bottas, but a lock-up at Turn 17 served to highlight the difficulties the circuit’s design presents in being able to follow another car closely. Bottas would also have a momentary wobble, but he had enough in hand and again put the hammer down to keep Hamilton at arm’s length.
Ferrari’s threat that it had a quicker car in race trim never materialised, consigning Vettel to a lonely race to third place ahead of teammate Kimi Räikkönen.
Räikkönen would leapfrog Daniel Ricciardo to claim fourth overall in the Drivers’ Championship standings after the Australian retired before mid-distance with a loss of hydraulic pressure. With his power steering affected, Ricciardo brushed the wall at Turn 19. Fearing he had a puncture, he made a sudden call to pit and despite catching his team off guard he managed to keep Räikkönen behind.
With the issue proving terminal, Ricciardo pulled off the track a few laps later to chalk up his third DNF in the last four Grands Prix. Joining him a few laps later at a near identical spot of the track was Renault’s Carlos Sainz Jr., who was released from the pits without his front-left wheel being properly attached.
Ricciardo’s retirement left Max Verstappen as the sole Red Bull Racing entry on track, and despite having superior pace to Räikkönen he couldn’t find a way by the 2007 World Champion and crossed the finish line just 0.8 seconds behind the Ferrari.
Nico Hülkenberg finished sixth in the sole Renault to help the French outfit overtake Scuderia Toro Rosso for sixth in the Constructors’ Championship standings. The German controversially cut the Turns 11/12 chicane fending off Force India’s Sergio Pérez and a protest from the Silverstone squad saw Hülkenberg handed a five-second time penalty to serve at his pit stop.
Given the circuit’s poor overtaking reputation it was a woefully inadequate penalty in the circumstances, allowing him the chance to pull clear enough of Pérez to mitigate the penalty. Even a slow wheel-gun change proved no obstacle, and he emerged ahead of the Mexican.
Pérez and teammate Esteban Ocon finished seventh and eighth, giving the Force India team its sixteenth double-points finish of a truly impressive season. Despite running a contra-strategy with a long opening stint, the two drivers were firmly planted in the midfield and consigned to quiet races.
Fernando Alonso ended the McLaren-Honda partnership with a few final parting shots at the team’s engine partner, but once again delivered a fighting race to net ninth place. As was the case in Brazil, the Spaniard waged a spirited battle with former Ferrari teammate Felipe Massa, but he would deny the Brazilian a retirement gift this time around.
After harassing the Williams driver in the opening stint of the race, Alonso pitted before Massa and forced the Williams team to respond to cover position. Although Massa emerged fractions ahead, Alonso forced his way by the retiring driver with a neat passing move on the back straight to get ahead.
While much of the race was a ‘follow the leader’ affair, Romain Grosjean was another driver to feature in an entertaining battle earlier in the race. His target was the second Williams of Lance Stroll, with the pair trading places over several laps in a great wheel-to-wheel scrap for thirteenth place. The Frenchman eventually came out on top and would go on to finish eleventh, while Stroll showed his relative inexperience by locking up after being overtaken and flat-spotting his first tyre set which forced an early visit to the pits.
The Canadian teenager would have a race to forget and struggled for the remainder of the race, pitting two more times as the tyre warm-up issues which have plagued him all weekend continued. He finished well and truly in 18th and last place.
A few other drivers struggled with their cars during the race, but fared rather better in the final wash-up. Stoffel Vandoorne likened his McLaren’s handling to a “rally car” during the race (an issue later attributed to floor damage) but hung on grimly to finish twelfth.
One spot behind was Kevin Magnussen in the second Haas, who had a wild opening lap. The Dane was lucky not to trigger a crash at the first corner, but ruined his race when he spun just two corners later and dropped to last place. A recovery drive to thirteenth was a good effort, all things considered.
Scuderia Toro Rosso got both cars to the finish for the first time in three races, with Brendon Hartley crossing the line in fifteenth after teammate Pierre Gasly had a wild spin early in the race. The Frenchman finished one spot behind his teammate, despite being the quicker of the two all weekend. The duo were sandwiched by the Saubers of Pascal Wehrlein and Marcus Ericsson.
The Italian team was clearly frustrated at being overhauled by their works engine partner in the Constructors’ Championship standings, but – recent and well-published engine reliability issues aside – the STR12 simply hasn’t had the pace or development in the second half of the season.
With Formula 1 leadership using the post-race celebrations to unveil a new logo, the grid will use the off-season to regroup and plan for a fast-approaching 2018 season. The packing up will be delayed by a few days, with the cars firing back into action for the end-of-year Pirelli tyre test where the company’s new-for-2018 tyre compounds will have their first hit-out.
Image via Mercedes AMG Petronas F1 Team