F1: Round 19 – Yas Marina, Abu Dhabi – November 14

So, here we are. The sun setting over the glorious hi-tech Yas Marina circuit was a fitting visual metaphor for the sun setting on the 2010 Formula 1 season. But before the day and the year could be done, there was one final all-important piece of business to attend to: the crowning of the new world champion.

Ahead of the green lights, the smart money had to be on Fernando Alonso, ahead in the points and able to clinch his third title just by finishing fourth or better. Mark Webber had the best prospect of the Red Bull drivers and there was a hint that Sebastian Vettel might have to lay down his own title bid for that of his team mate should the opportunity and need arise. And then there was Lewis Hamilton, still mathematically in with a chance, but realistically needing a first lap disaster to take out the others to have a genuine shot.

Four contenders, one race, one champion.

Vettel had the critical advantage of starting from pole, but that also meant that he had to deal with Lewis Hamilton starting alongside him. Hamilton rarely gives any quarter, and the risk for Vettel was that they could take each other out and leave it wide open for Alonso to claim the title.

Both drivers got good starts, and both aimed for that first turn apex. Vettel was careful to leave enough but not too much space for the Mclaren, pinching him across the corner – and Hamilton blinked, having to lift off to avoid losing his front wing which got the lightest brush of the Red Bull’s tyres. Vettel was away, in the lead, and his destiny was well and truly in his own hands.

Hamilton managed to hold on to second despite losing momentum, and would have been surprised to find the big challenge from behind was not from Alonso who has been third on the grid, but Jenson Button getting a flier from fourth. That pushed Alonso down to fourth – not ideal, but still okay in terms of the championship especially with Mark Webber one further place back in fifth.

Racing came to an abrupt and premature pause a few seconds later, however, when the two Mercedes went into turn 5 side-by-side – and Nico Rosberg gave a slight touch to Michael Schumacher’s car which sent the veteran driver into a spin, leaving him face-on into the traffic. Most of the cars following through were able to react and avoid the blockage, but then Tonio Liuzzi arrived on the scene. Unsighted, he reacted too late and the Force India ploughed right into the Mercedes, climbing right over and up the front in a shower of debris. Despite the relative low speed of the accident, it was a chilling vision: the front wing heading straight toward the one part of the driver’s helmet that was exposed. Fortunately the F1 safety features coped with even this worst case scenario, and Schumacher was soon out of the car and walking away with Liuzzi.

The mess the crash had created needed a safety car, and the cars were sent round a detour while the shards were gathered up. It also gave some of the cars lower down the running order a chance to pit for their mandatory tyre change, and in came Nico Rosberg, Vitaly Petrov, Jamie Alguersuari, Bruno Senna, Lucas di Grassi and Christian Klien

But up front, it was still Vettel leading the field at the restart – and backing the field up so abruptly that at one point Hamilton overshot and almost passed him. There were shades of stewards intervention affecting the outcome of the world championship, but fortunately sensible heads prevailed and no action was taken. The race was back underway, and Nick Rosberg claimed first blood at the restart with a start line move on Timo Glock for 16th, and seconds later Robert Kubica made a daring, brilliant move to overtake Adrian Sutil for 9th; up front, Vettel had a clear edge over Hamilton, but Lewis was hanging in there just a second off the lead.

Mark Webber was in the most uncomfortable position, sandwiched between Alonso in front and Felipe Massa behind and needing to get in front of Alonso if his title bid was to have any possible chance of success. He pushed hard – and on lap 9 almost too hard, the backend stepping out through turn 19 and brushing the armco barrier in a shower of sparks. Fortunately it seemed to have done no serious damage, but it certainly underlined the fact that Webber wasn’t going to get past Alonso on track especially as he was soon struggling with the supersoft tyres wearing badly.

Red Bull reacted by calling an early pit stop for Webber on lap 12. It was truly a make or break decision: by putting him back out on fresh rubber in relatively clear air with easy targets like Alguersuari to dispatch for 16th, Webber could put his foot down and punch out some fast laps to jump Alonso and who knows how many others before the other leaders came into the pits.

Ferrari was quickly aware of the danger of the situation, and after a couple of laps of apparent indecision they called in Felipe Massa to the pits. Massa had been trying to put in fast laps of his own and hopefully come back out ahead of Webber, but the opportunity never materialised and Massa was back out on track behind the Red Bull. Now the threat was whether one or both of those cars would end up ahead of Alonso come the world championship contender’s own stop: Ferrari’s hand was forced, and they called in Alonso on lap 16 to make sure he was out again in front of them both despite Webber setting a fastest lap in the meantime.

Ferrari had covered Mark Webber, who appeared at that point to be the major threat to Alonso claiming the title. But they had been deceived: he was back out in 13th place and suddenly locked up in traffic. Worse, among that traffic were cars that had pitted under the safety car and would not be coming in again for the rest of the evening. Could Alonso get past them and work his way up again, or would he get stuck?

Upfront, Vettel and Hamilton had also been struggling for tyre wear on the supersofts, but they had enough of a lead over a lonely Jenson Button in third to tough it out, and by lap 19 the tyres were coming good again and they were able to continue running without adverse effect through to lap 25. It kept them well out of trouble, although Button gave them both a brief scare by extending his stint much further and at one point approached the kind of lead that would allow him to get in and out of the pits and take position; but McLaren kept him out past this tipping point, the lead declined, and when he finally pitted on lap 40 his advantage had ebbed away and he returned to the track safely in third. One might almost conjecture that McLaren had planned it that way, to keep Lewis Hamilton in front and his remote championship chances alive until the very last moment.

The full disaster of the situation was suddenly dawning on Ferrari: with Vettel in the lead, and looking beyond any challenge, suddenly the threat to Alonso’s title bid wasn’t Weber who was still contained and neutered behind them. No – it was now Vettel himself, who no longer had to give any thought or consideration to the prospect of team orders and whether he would have to do anything to help out Webber.

Alonso was soon stuck behind the Renault of Vitaly Petrov, who had the benefit of straight line speed boosted by an effective F-duct that gave Alonso few opportunities to attack. From lap 19 until the end of the race, Alonso would find himself staring at the back end of Petrov’s car, probing for overtaking chances – and finding none.

Alonso’s frustration would tell come the chequered flag, when he gesticulated to Petrov on the cool-down lap to tell the Russian driver that he had cost Alonso the championship – not exactly true, but understandable in the heat of the moment before calming down for the post-race press interviews. But it all meant that Alonso’s bid was done: when the final pit stops filtered through, he was to find himself in a remote 7th place. Not nearly good enough.

Alonso was out of the running, then; so was Webber behind him, and Hamilton despite running second still needed everyone else to retire. So it was all down to Sebastian Vettel, and all Vettel needed to do was to get to the chequered flag. We’ve seen in the past that this is no assured deal, that the car could blow up or break down at the final moment, or the tyres could wear and fade.

But instead, the moment seemed preordained: after tense lap followed by tense lap, it was finally here – the chequered flag and the end of the 2010 season. For a few seconds there was deathly quiet on the Red Bull pit wall as they held their breath, mindful of the way that in Brazil 2008 Ferrari had started celebrating prematurely only to see the title slip away because of a last corner change of position in the midfield that had given the title to Hamilton over Massa. They wanted to see the results on the screen before they celebrated, to make sure that Alonso hadn’t somehow made up four positions in the final seconds.

He hadn’t, and finally the Red Bull pit wall exploded. The radio comms delivered the news to Vettel, who hadn’t even been sure of the situation until then; and from his strangled, high pitched voice over the air waves there was no doubting the emotion there, too. Vettel had come into this race third favourite at best, but he had pulled it off.

And so at last, we had a new world champion – and it was the youngest ever, 23-year-old Sebastian Vettel. Fittingly he took the top step on the podium, but strikingly it was a podium of world champions with Lewis Hamilton in second and Jenson Button hanging on to a fine and well deserved third. Suddenly the era of Michael Schumacher’s dominance seemed a very, very long time ago.

The best season of Formula 1 of all time? It’s easy to overreach into hyperbole on the adrenalin of a season finale, but 2010 has certainly had enough highlights to make it a strong candidate. But perhaps more importantly than that is the prospect of 2011: with five world champions in the field (Vettel, Button, Hamilton, Alonso and Schumacher), with 20 races at 20 impressive and ever-improving facilities, and with the rules and technical regulations in flux once more (good bye Bridgestone, hello Pirelli; farewell F-Duct, welcome back KERS and greetings to adjustable rear wings) there is no way of predicting whether next year’s champion will be driving a Red Bull, or Ferrari, or McLaren, or Renault – or perhaps something completely out of the blue like Brawn GP last year.

We’ll start the journey to find out in 120 days, when the next generation of F1 cars take to the track in Bahrain.

Race results

Pos Driver       Team                 Time
 1. Vettel       Red Bull-Renault     1:39:36.837
 2. Hamilton     McLaren-Mercedes     +    10.1s
 3. Button       McLaren-Mercedes     +    11.0s
 4. Rosberg      Mercedes             +    30.7s
 5. Kubica       Renault              +    39.0s
 6. Petrov       Renault              +    43.5s
 7. Alonso       Ferrari              +    43.7s
 8. Webber       Red Bull-Renault     +    44.2s
 9. Alguersuari  Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +    50.2s
10. Massa        Ferrari              +    50.8s
11. Heidfeld     Sauber-Ferrari       +    51.5s
12. Barrichello  Williams-Cosworth    +    57.6s
13. Sutil        Force India-Mercedes +    58.3s
14. Kobayashi    Sauber-Ferrari       +    59.5s
15. Buemi        Toro Rosso-Ferrari   +  1:03.1s
16. Hulkenberg   Williams-Cosworth    +  1:04.7s
17. Kovalainen   Lotus-Cosworth       +    1 lap
18. Di Grassi    Virgin-Cosworth      +    2 laps
19. Senna        HRT-Cosworth         +    2 laps
20. Klien        HRT-Cosworth         +    2 laps
21. Trulli       Lotus-Cosworth       +    4 laps

Fastest lap: Hamilton, 1m41.274s

Not classified/retirements:

Driver     Team              On lap
Glock      Virgin-Cosworth       44
Schumacher Mercedes               1
Liuzzi     Force India-Mercedes   1

F1 World Championship standings after round 19

Drivers                 Constructors   
 1. Vettel      256   1. Red Bull-Renault     498
 2. Alonso      252   2. McLaren-Mercedes     454
 3. Webber      242   3. Ferrari              396
 4. Hamilton    240   4. Mercedes             214
 5. Button      214   5. Renault              163
 6. Massa       144   6. Williams-Cosworth     69
 7. Rosberg     142   7. Force India-Mercedes  68
 8. Kubica      136   8. Sauber-Ferrari        44
 9. Schumacher   72   9. Toro Rosso-Ferrari    13
10. Barrichello  47       
11. Sutil        47       
12. Kobayashi    32       
13. Petrov       27       
14. Hulkenberg   22       
15. Liuzzi       21       
16. Buemi         8       
17. De la Rosa    6       
18. Heidfeld      6       
19. Alguersuari   5
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