Sunday 26 November 2017

Abu Dhabi GP Report - Living down to expectations

And so Abu Dhabi lived down to expectations. F1 in 2017 went out rather with a whimper.

Valtteri Bottas ended the year with a win
Photo: Octane Photography
As expected the Mercedes were in a different race. As expected in a Yas Marina race a lot hung on the start, and that didn't change the order. Poleman Valtteri Bottas led from his Mercedes team mate Lewis Hamilton. There wasn't much to be done afterwards. They finished just like that.

As if to underline the general point, the entire top 12 circulated in grid order for the whole of the 15 lap opening stint. And it felt that way watching on.

Still it didn't appear mere formation flying from the Mercs. Lewis always seemed to be pushing and indeed Sebastian Vettel next up was left a whole 22 seconds adrift of the warring pair. More typical of this track it all reflected that cars struggle to get near each other.

Lewis kept trying, got fairly close at points. But a fastest lap from Bottas with four to go, then another a couple of laps later, extended his lead to over four seconds, and that was that.

"Impossible to pass here, man," Hamilton was heard saying in the podium ante room afterwards. "I think they've got to change this track." Quite.

Bottas led off the line, which was vital
Photo: Octane Photography
He took up the subject later. "I was giving it everything," Lewis said. "They say you have to have 1.4 seconds' advantage on the car in front. We've got the same car - there's not 1.4 seconds between us in ability!

"Once you get to the 1.2-1.4 second window you just lose downforce and there's nothing you can do."

Not that Bottas will care. He thus ends the season by ending his difficult run, including some (what this author thought rather over the top) criticism for ceding the win to Vettel in Brazil last time out. As Martin Brundle for one noted beating Lewis in a straight fight will be quite the boost to go into the winter with.

"It is a really important win for me after having a pretty difficult start to second half of the year," Bottas said on that very subject.

"Working hard on all the issues and getting better and better with everything. This weekend, pole and win, couldn't be happier to end the season like this. I'm third [in the table] this year and hopefully better next year.

"I was managing the pace and the race and that was a nice feeling. I had a lock up when approaching one of the lapped cars but otherwise no issues. The last five laps I managed to go quicker and build the gap."

Sebastian Vettel had a lonely race to third
Photo: Octane Photography
It wasn't enough to get second in the drivers' table though as Vettel made it to the finish, and in third place. The other Ferrari of Kimi Raikkonen was even further back - 26 seconds shy of Vettel - in fourth.

"It was lonely, not the most exciting race...," noted Seb aptly.

"You saw today we weren't quick enough."

Max Verstappen as is his way tried to add some excitement and shadowed Raikkonen for most of the way. But he had the same problem Lewis had and fifth was his lot.

"It was actually very boring," he said, the word 'actually' entirely unnecessary. "We were quite a bit faster but this track didn't give the opportunity to pass."

The other Red Bull of Daniel Ricciardo also removed some potential for fun by dropping out just after its pitstop with a hydraulic problem. "We were pretty spread out, it wasn't particularly exciting," Ricciardo added in the same vein.

It left not much to look at beyond the fight for sixth place in the final constructors' table. And Renault leapfrogged Toro Rosso for the place thanks to Nico Hulkenberg finishing sixth when seventh was all that was needed.

Nico Hulkenberg got sixth place in the
constructors' table for Renault
Photo: Octane Photography
He looked clearly quickest of those outside the 'big three' teams, though most thought his five second penalty for passing Sergio Perez off the track on lap one was lenient, as he seemed to gain more from the corner cut overtake all in. Force India chief operating officer Otmar Szafnauer reckoned it "makes a mockery of this sport".

Carlos Sainz in the sister Renault likely would have scored too, as he did amazing overcut pace on old tyres that would have got him P9, but his team didn't attach all the wheels at his stop and thus he dropped out.

It left Renault on a tightrope, but Hulkenberg did what he needed. "It's what I'm here for," he noted typically.

One wonders if Toro Rosso now reflects on its decision to let Sainz go to Renault a few rounds ago - it wasn't clear what it got out of the deal and left it a sitting duck with two inexperienced (in F1) drivers; ultimately it cost the team millions. Today both Faenza cars were well out of the points.

Haas never looking like entering the equation either; particularly not when Kevin Magnussen spun in the opening corners. Romain Grosjean at least battled hard and got up to P11 on an offset strategy. But no cigar.

The rest of the points-paying places were filled first by the ubiquitous Force Indias in P7 and P8 with Perez ahead, then the ever-aggressive Fernando Alonso in P9. He got ahead of Felipe Massa by outdragging him (really) just after Massa pitted. Massa got the final point on his curtain call.

But the biggest take out from this is the same as before. Indeed the same one since the early months of 2014. Mercedes's foes have plenty to do to topple the silver squad; today's race underlined as much. There are few technical changes for next year so the feed-in will be strong, plus Merc has relatively easy gains to make given the conspicuous 'diva' weakness of its current machine.

The air is rich of talk of change in F1 right now. But some things, maddeningly, remain the same.

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