Monday, 20 November 2017

Abu Dhabi Preview - The sun goes down

The sun goes down on another F1 campaign. And with this analogy it's appropriate that the final round is the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix - F1's first and so far only day-to-night event.

In an appropriate place, the sun goes down on the
latest F1 season in Abu Dhabi
Photo: Octane Photography
And it's not only down to start time scheduling that the Yas Marina round is a world away from the previous one at Interlagos. If the Brazilian stop-off is modern F1's Bermuda Triangle Abu Dhabi's perhaps is its most standard.

While if the Brazil round possibly is the most old school on the calendar this one arguably is its most modern. Wide, smooth and open replaces narrow, bumpy and enclosed. Nearby things to hit are replaced by vast run off areas. Mighty turns are replaced by fiddly. Rustic and well worn becomes towering and gleaming. Altitude becomes sea level. Weather that can be anywhere in the range becomes that of the unchanging desert...

But there are parallels. Both tracks are two parts full throttle and one part incongruously twisty. And if all (including Mercedes) entered the Interlagos weekend worried that the twisty bit would let Ferrari and Red Bull get ahead, it in fact set the pace. And did so pretty crushingly, even if circumstance kept it away from the top step of the podium.

Then there's the more specific matter. Lewis Hamilton has long been considered a Yas Marina specialist, with him tending to be mighty through the street-circuit like final sector in particular. He's won here three times, as well as has twice more retired with a technical failure having led.

Lewis Hamilton is an Abu Dhabi specialist
Photo: Octane Photography
Ferrari as ever should be kept in mind though. This season it's always been there on pace, even recently, while it is another with a driver who thrives on the track's challenges - Sebastian Vettel also has won here on three occasions. Only twice has the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix not been won by Lewis or Seb, and up until 2013 only they had taken pole here too.

The Red Bulls' recent upturn went a little flat in Brazil, and Abu Dhabi will set them a similar conundrum - while the tightly-packed corners at the start and end of the lap as well as the low grip surface will be right up their street, it's a matter of whether the deficit on the long straights can be overcome.

Despite the local reputation there's some potential for the unusual here, not least in reliability. It's the season's final round when power units and gearboxes will be at the end of their life-cycles. You can add too that the Yas Marina track is tough on engines generally with its long full throttle sections and high temperatures (though that the race takes place in the evening, with the second part at night, takes the edge off this).

Virtually all of F1's big prizes for the year are decided already of course - even Seb's second place in the table will now require something very strange to happen this weekend to be lost. Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen in fourth and fifth are separated only by seven though.

Sebastian Vettel is another who specialises
at the Yas Marina track
Photo: Octane Photography
Further back there will be intrigue over sixth place in the constructors' standings, with Toro Rosso, Renault and Haas have just six points between them. And if you struggle to understand why that's important the difference in prize money between the three spots potentially is $12m. Or around a tenth of two of those teams' annual budgets.

Otherwise Force India has a good record at this circuit and last year qualified and finished seventh and eighth. While another team worth considering is McLaren, whose chassis at least is going well lately as is Fernando Alonso. Like Red Bull though it'll have to try to counteract in the corners what it loses on the long straights.

The strategy norm these days is one-stoppers all round, but there still may be interest. Not least from those doing a reverse strategy of starting on a harder tyre and finishing on a softer one if you start outside the top 10, or somehow get through Q2 on a harder compound, as it suits this day-to-night race and its drop in track temperature as it goes on (from roughly 30C to 19C). Back to front strategies have a history of success here, such as Vettel in 2015 starting P15 and finishing fourth.

It's not the place's only back-to-front aspect as outlined. One can hope we get something else back-to-front this weekend, and the Abu Dhabi race defies some of its reputation and gives the season an entertaining send-off.

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