Sunday 3 November 2013

Abu Dhabi GP Report: Wonderfully predictable

The tiny departure from the usual script resultant of yesterday's qualifying was corrected almost immediately. By the first turn we were rapidly back into a performance we've seen many times before: Sebastian Vettel out front; Sebastian Vettel in command. And, almost inexorably, an hour and a half later it was Sebastian Vettel: winner of the 2013 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.

We've been saying for a while that we're in one of those periodic spells - that all sports get into and not just F1 - wherein only the very unusual can deprive one of the competitors of victory; we indeed didn't get the very unusual in today's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, and sure enough just as night follows day we did get the anticipated victory for Seb.

Abu Dhabi was just the latest of Seb's familiar triumphs
Photo: Octane Photography
The race for first place as mentioned lasted as long as turn one. Vettel - unexpectedly - missed out on pole position thanks in part to a small error on his final effort. But Seb reminded all in today's race that they cannot count on such faltering, however minor, becoming a regular occurrence. He took the lead at the start, pole man Webber slipped behind Nico Rosberg, and everything from that very moment on in terms of first place seemed mere formalisation. Yet even if Webber had led off the line, such was Vettel's command on race pace you feel that almost nothing would have deprived him of the win ultimately.

In that familiar way of his, at the end of lap one Seb was just shy of two seconds to the good, and the gap grew almost inevitably from there. Then it multiplied as those closest behind (a relative term) peeled into the pits early, emerging in among those stretching out their initial stint, with overtaking never straightforward on this Yas Marina circuit. By the time Webber, by now ahead of Rosberg, cleared them Vettel had pitted himself (rejoining still first, natch) and was close to half a minute up the road. And despite apparently spending much of the race trying to go slowly, judging by the radio communications with his engineer, Vettel won in the end by 30.8 seconds. This was no less than another rout.

If it seemed routine that's because it was. Today's latest triumph made it a mere seven race wins in a row for Seb - the last time he was vanquished was all the way back in July - and in so doing equalling a mark set by Michael Schumacher in 2004. Next in his sights is the nine Grandes Épreuves victories without interruption of Alberto Ascari in 1952-1953, a record set over upwards of a calendar year, a record before now reckoned so untouchable to barely being considered as a target by the modern F1 pilot. Yet now, would you bet much against Seb matching that one too come Brazil?

For the second time in a week,
Nico Rosberg quietly had a great race
Photo: Octane Photogrpahy
Today was indeed like groundhog day - but despite the borderline-obnoxious repetition of it we shouldn't lose sight of the mastery Vettel is displaying right now. Whatever the advantage he has with the machine underneath him no one in the current sport has the contemporary formula and what is required to prevail in it sussed to the same extent. No one else in the sport would you back ahead of him to make the best of a race to save your life. No one else makes the race for the rest an exercise in futility as quickly. And, as his reaction to his minorly sub-optimum qualifying run yesterday demonstrated, despite having won everything there is to win and for what seems like forever, his intense motivation to prevail has not diluted even by a decimal point.

Many adjectives are thrown around to describe Seb's vice-like grip on first place in recent times: some positive, such as dominant, awe-inspiring; some negative, like predictable or even boring. But, as Marc Priestley pointed out after today's latest victory, 'faultless' is by far the most appropriate.

As is often the case also though, the race for second far behind the imperious Seb (shall we now call it the 'non-Seb class'?) had enough to keep us occupied in the thrill stakes. The fight for runner-up was one for three players, Mark Webber prevailing ahead of Nico Rosberg and Romain Grosjean. For the second time in a week Rosberg, quietly it seemed, had a great race, this time keeping Webber's Red Bull in sight throughout and again leaving his stable mate far behind, by a mammoth 45 seconds on this occasion - Lewis having a frustrating time of it mainly bottled up in traffic.

Fernando Alonso was mighty on race day again
Photo: Octane Photography
There was another big gap back to fifth, which was fought between Lewis, the Ferraris, and the one-stopping Force Indias. It was Fernando Alonso that topped it, displaying all of his usual fighting spirit to come home fifth via a long middle stint and last gasp sprint on soft tyres, surviving a post-race investigation for passing Jean-Eric Vergne off the track upon emerging from his final stop. To me, it looked slightly more like a case of Vergne crowding Alonso off rather than Alonso passing off the track (and by the precedent set by allowing Adrian Sutil to pass two cars off the track earlier Alonso's move was as clean as a whistle). And it was a reasonably good day of damage limitation for Ferrari in the constructors' battle (Massa came home eighth) on a weekend wherein on Friday and Saturday the team looked to be staring down the barrel. While Alonso against all probability made ground on his two rivals for runner-up in the drivers' standings

Paul di Resta continued his recent-improved form
Photo: Octane Photography
As mentioned the Force Indias, uniquely, one-stopped today, and Paul di Resta made the best of it in that way of his by finishing sixth. After a conspicuously and much trumpeted run of crashes from di Resta he's now made it three very good drives in a row (his team, not for nothing, called it a 'masterclass'). And di Resta needs it as he isn't bringing much (or any) in the way of money and is fighting for seats for next year in a midfield in which those said seats increasingly are being bought. Whatever is the wider case, his result this time - with Sutil's tenth place - continued the team's momentum reverse on the resurgent Sauber in the constructors' table, and - maybe just maybe - Force India can start to look upwards towards McLaren again (Sauber had a frustrating time today: Hulkenberg finishing P14 after a drive through penalty for an unsafe pit release; Gutierrez finishing but one spot ahead). Certainly the Silverstone team seems now to have worked out how to make its car's existing virtues applicable to the new breed of tyres brought in mid-year.

Sergio Perez built on his better performance last week in India with a ninth place finish. And as for Kimi Raikkonen? And his much-anticipated rise from the back? Well, it lasted roughly as long as the suspense over first place, as Kimi rather clumsily it has to be said tagged a Caterham at the first turn, which damaged his front corner sufficiently for him not to continue.

But even with his latest title in his pocket one who is continuing exactly like before is one Sebastian Vettel - inexorably so it seems. And in more ways than one: just like last week upon his victory he performed some doughnuts on the way back to parc ferme after the chequered flag. Priestley suggested that if Seb totals enough reprimands for these acts of frivolity he'll get a ten-place grid drop. He also suggested that it might be the best and most likely way of creating any suspense over who is to prevail in the remaining races of 2013. Everyone knew what he meant.

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