F1: Round 17 – Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi – 1 November

And so we arrive at the end of the 2009 F1 season. The titles decided, all that remained was one exhibition race – at the visually astounding new Yas Marina circuit. But would the racing match the location? And how would the drivers and teams – Button and Brawn especially – fare now that the pressure of the championships was over?

After dominating practice and qualifying, all the money was on Lewis Hamilton to win. And even more than that, to disappear into the distance and never be seen again. Well, that dream was quickly dispelled, since Hamilton – despite getting a good start – quickly realised that he was unable to pull away from Sebastian Vettel in second despite his faster pace, KERS and lighter fuel load. If he couldn’t pull out a gap before his early pit stop then Vettel would jump him for the lead.

Hamilton put everything he could into the effort, dragging out the odd tenth here or there, but Vettel was making it hard work indeed. And then on lap 12 the McLaren locked up and ran wide at turn 17 losing the outgoing world champion some 0.8s and putting him right back in Vettel’s clutches. Sure enough, come the pit stops, Hamilton emerged from the unique pit tunnel exit to find himself demoted to second, but at least he’s done enough to hold off third placed Mark Webber.

But then a couple of laps after his pit stop, Hamilton received dread news from the team: they were picking up a right rear brake problem. It explained much about his performance thus far, but the news was even worse than that: with the diagnostics indicating imminent brake failure, the team could not risk the driver, car and bystanders with an uncontrolled 200mph failure and crash. They had no choice but to clear a spot in the garage and call Hamilton in to the pits to retire, which he did on lap 21.

With Hamilton out of the way there was no risk to Vettel in the lead, and Mark Webber looked secure in third place. Behind them were the two Brawns, going well enough but not startlingly and no apparent threat. Rubens Barrichello had started ahead of his team mate, but in the opening corner of the race he has been cut off by Mark Webber who clipped the edge of Barrichello’s wing. The end plates flew off – one of them landing on Button’s cockpit – and Barrichello’s pace seemed initially affected and it allowed Button to get past for position in the ensuing corners and pull away. But Barrichello was soon matching the race leaders for pace and starting to reduce the gap again, and when the pit stops came around there was no move to change the front wing on the Brawn GP, so all was well. Webber also was fearing some sort of damage or puncture, but here too all seemed okay.

Coming up to that first round of pit stops, Button was told to push or risk falling behind Kamui Kobayashi who was having a brilliant drive making the most of a one-stop strategy. Button did manage to emerge from the pit tunnel in front, but Kobayashi was in a lighter car on hot yres and he pressed Button for all he could, finally making Button run off line onto the dust and then outbrake himself into the chicane. Kobayashi needed no second chance, passed the Brawn and scampered off into the distance on his way to an eventual 6th place after his own pit stop, by far the best of the single stoppers in the afternoon despite labouring under heavy fuel tanks and half a race on the soft option tyres. Assuming Toyota do appear on the grid in 2010, it’s impossible not to believe that Kobayashi hasn’t secured his seat in one of the cars next season with this drive and the equally eye-catching one in Brazil.

Frankly, the race settled into a bit of a lull in the middle part of proceedings; as feared, the track was simply too scientific and clinical to match the exuberance of a circuit such as Interlagos, at least when the championships are not at stake, and things became rather processional.

However, excitement sparked back into the race in the closing dozen laps as it became clear that Button was scything through Webber’s huge lead at the rate of three-quarters of a second per lap. What had appeared a safe run to the podium now became a fraught all-out fight between the two, as Weber struggled on the softer tyres but Button’s smooth drving style suited them to a tee. Webber’s “body language” showed that he was clearly rattled, struggling to limit mistakes that presented Button with any opportunities, and it was nail biting stuff with Button coming within inches of pulling it off on the final lap. Ultimately however it was another demonstration of how it might be easy to catch someone, but another thing altogether to pass them – and Webber held on by the skin of his teeth to claim second and make it a Red Bull one-two. Webber and Button was talking excitedly all the way up to the podium about the battle, and it seemed like the best fun either of them had enjoyed all year.

Overtaking moves that we did see pulled off included Robert Kubica staging a key move on the heavier car of Jarno Trulli early on, but the Pole faded badly as the race wore, fighting with one-stopping Heikki Kovalainen after his own pit stop and then clashing with Sebastien Buemi which ended with contact sending him into a spin, dumping him out of the points in 10th place. Adrian Sutil proved intermittently pacey, including one great battle through the chicane with Romain Grosjean, but nonetheless finished a lap off the pace; and Giancarlo Fisichella made up lots of positions early in the race by opting to take the soft tyres at the start, but who struggled later in the race and found his race mortally wounded by a speeding drive-thru penalty after his first stop.

Other than Hamilton, the only retiree of the evening was Toro Rosso’s Jaime Alguersuari. Suffering from a gearbox problem, Alguersuari came into the pits before the crew was out to receive him on lap 18; however, the Red Bull crew were all deployed for the race leader Vettel. Making the same mistake that commentators and spectators had been making all season long, Alguersuari confused the Red Bull livery with the Toro Rosso one and pulled in to Vettel’s box, only to find himself quickly ejected and thrown back out by the gesticulating crew. By the time he was back on track and worked out what had happened, the car was in its death throes and he came to a halt out on track.

In the end it was a curiously uneven race: thrilling in parts, dull in others, visually stunning but somehow missing something underneath, and yet managing to provide at the very end an amazing flourish and celebration of wheel-to-wheel, edge-of-the-seat racing together with an excellent win for Sebastian Vettel who was flawless today, surely a world champion in waiting.

There are far worse ways to see out the end of the season and send us into winter hibernation, and for a début/inaugural outing, Abu Dhabi overall delivered the goods.

And now all eyes turn to Bahrain in 133 days or 19 weeks. What will happen in 2010? Will Red Bull carry on the momentum they enjoyed at the end of 2009 where they chalked up a hat-trick of consecutive wins? Will Brawn successfully defend their world titles? Will McLaren and Ferrari be resurgent? Will there be another astonishing upset with a no-hope team suddenly smashing all expectations?

At this point we don’t even know all of the teams that will line up on that starting grid, and as for the driver line-up – amazingly, only six seats have been confirmed. Even Jenson Button is still a free agent. That’s likely to change pretty quickly in the next few days and weeks but it’s surely surprising that so much is still up in the air this late in the year. Although Abu Dhabi is the last on-track action of the year, it feels very much as though we’re still in the middle of the story and that the fade-out on the weekend’s coverage should end with a “To Be Continued” caption.

Watch this space!

Race results

Pos  Driver        Team                    Time
 1.  Vettel        Red Bull-Renault        1h34:03.314
 2.  Webber        Red Bull-Renault        +    17.857
 3.  Button        Brawn-Mercedes          +    18.467
 4.  Barrichello   Brawn-Mercedes          +    22.735
 5.  Heidfeld      BMW Sauber              +    26.253
 6.  Kobayashi     Toyota                  +    28.343
 7.  Trulli        Toyota                  +    34.366
 8.  Buemi         Toro Rosso-Ferrari      +    41.294
 9.  Rosberg       Williams-Toyota         +    45.941
10.  Kubica        BMW Sauber              +    48.180
11.  Kovalainen    McLaren-Mercedes        +    52.798
12.  Raikkonen     Ferrari                 +    54.317
13.  Nakajima      Williams-Toyota         +    59.839
14.  Alonso        Renault                 +  1:09.687
15.  Liuzzi        Force India-Mercedes    +  1:34.450
16.  Grosjean      Renault                 +     1 lap
17.  Fisichella    Ferrari                 +     1 lap
18.  Sutil         Force India-Mercedes    +     1 lap

Fastest lap: Vettel, 1:40.279

Not classified/retirements:

Driver        Team                    On lap
Hamilton      McLaren-Mercedes        21
Alguersuari   Toro Rosso-Ferrari      19

World Championship standings after round 17

Button’s strong third place emphasised the amount he finally won the 2009 world title by, while a deflated Rubens Barrichello was usurped for the runners-up slot by Sebastian Vettel – not that the number two position meant all that much to either driver, and Vettel will be far happier with the GP win than the academic matter of world championship standings.

Given that the constructors’ championship decides pit lane positions, car numbers and most of all money, there was far more riding on this side of things than on the drivers. Brawn and Red Bull were safe in first and second before Abu Dhabi, of course, but the race result meant that McLaren held off Ferrari by a single point for third place “best of the rest” standing. BMW were able to finish in 6th in their final F1 appearance, just holding off Williams.

Drivers:                    Constructors:             
 1.  Button        95        1.  Brawn-Mercedes        172
 2.  Vettel        84        2.  Red Bull-Renault      153.5
 3.  Barrichello   77        3.  McLaren-Mercedes       71
 4.  Webber        69.5      4.  Ferrari                70
 5.  Hamilton      49        5.  Toyota                 59.5
 6.  Raikkonen     48        6.  BMW Sauber             36
 7.  Rosberg       34.5      7.  Williams-Toyota        34.5
 8.  Trulli        32.5      8.  Renault                26
 9.  Alonso        26        9.  Force India-Mercedes   13
10.  Glock         24       10.  Toro Rosso-Ferrari      8
11.  Kovalainen    22       
12.  Massa         22       
13.  Heidfeld      19       
14.  Kubica        17       
15.  Fisichella     8       
16.  Buemi          6       
17.  Sutil          5       
18.  Kobayashi      3       
19.  Bourdais       2  
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