ABU DHABI GP DE­BRIEF

SEA­SON FI­NALE IN THE DESERT

F1 Racing (UK) - - CONTENTS -

Nico Ros­berg romped to pole and held back a feisty Hamil­ton to win. Why couldn’t he do this be­fore?

A duel in the desert, much as we had 12 months ago. Ex­cept that this time, the big­ger prize – the cham­pi­onship – had long since been set­tled, leav­ing only the mi­nor, though not in­signif­i­cant, mat­ter of a grand prix win at stake.

In truth, this race re­sult mat­tered an aw­ful lot for one of the two men most likely to win it. For Nico Ros­berg, who had face to save af­ter tak­ing a drub­bing this year, beat­ing Lewis for the third time in a row would be a huge prize – some­thing to hold onto through the com­ing win­ter months, in an­tic­i­pa­tion of another likely slugfest in 2016.

But who knew, re­ally, whether Ros­berg had raised his game in the clos­ing stages of the 2015 F1 sea­son, or whether Hamil­ton had men­tally checked out since win­ning the ti­tle in Austin?

What­ever the cause of the about-turn in form, the facts were ir­refutable: Ros­berg’s Abu Dhabi pole was his sixth on the bounce (his ca­reer 22nd) and was achieved with a slammed­down lap time of huge au­thor­ity. Thanks to bril­liant mid­dle and last sec­tors around Yas Ma­rina, Ros­berg es­tab­lished a 0.377s mar­gin to Hamil­ton, with a 1min 40.237s tour.

Ros­berg was quick. And equally quick in re­but­ting sug­ges­tions that he had found the key to im­prov­ing his per­for­mance just when it mat­tered least: “It’s not a re­vival,” he said. “I haven’t re-in­vented any­thing. It’s just progress and at the mo­ment it’s me that has the one-tenth edge. Qual­i­fy­ing has made the dif­fer­ence.”

There was talk of car de­vel­op­ment fol­low­ing a di­rec­tion that didn’t suit Hamil­ton’s driv­ing style, coun­tered by Ros­berg’s as­ser­tion that his Abu Dhabi power unit was older than Hamil­ton’s so less ‘prime’. But it’s clear that to­wards the close of 2015 Nico found a new edge to his driv­ing that let him see Hamil­ton, where pre­vi­ously he’d folded.

At var­i­ous points in 2014 and early on in 2015, it seemed al­ways that Lewis’s sharper rac­ing in­stincts would en­able to him to find a way past Nico, even when com­ing from be­hind. Think, for ex­am­ple, of Sochi 2015; of Turn 1 at Austin in 2014 and ’15; of Suzuka’s first cor­ner this year. Each time, Ros­berg ap­peared to out­psy­che him­self un­der the pres­sure of a Hamil­ton at­tack. Since Mex­ico 2015, how­ever, Ros­berg has been able to tap into a core of speed and re­silience strong enough to keep Hamil­ton at bay.

The sil­ver duo were closely matched and they raced on sim­i­lar strate­gies: two-stop­pers in su­per­soft-soft-soft se­quence. That par­layed into a seven-sec­ond vic­tory buf­fer for Ros­berg, but on lap 40, it looked as if Lewis might man­age to sneak a win with a mar­ginal counter-strat­egy.

Ros­berg pit­ted from the lead for his fi­nal set of softs on lap 32 of 55. At that point, Hamil­ton had been clos­ing him down with a charge that cut his gap from more than six sec­onds to less than two in just ten laps. Would we wit­ness a Ros­berg

ca­pit­u­la­tion? Had he taken too much out of his Pirellis in his sprint out front? Was Hamil­ton’s un­hur­ried P2 sim­ply down to tyre man­age­ment and now we would see his true pace?

Nico re­joined 18.8s be­hind Hamil­ton, who had in­her­ited the lead when Ros­berg stopped. Im­me­di­ately, Nico went purple as he was urged by his race en­gi­neer to “pick up the pace”.

Hamil­ton, mean­while, could be heard ask­ing his crew “what’s the other car on?” Yet to stop for his third and fi­nal set and com­fort­able in the lead, he was con­sid­er­ing ek­ing out his rub­ber to the flag. There was also talk of stick­ing on a set of used su­per­softs for a late sprint. Both strate­gies were risky and Lewis pit­ted for softs on lap 41 to emerge 12.5 sec­onds down on Ros­berg. Game over. They ran one-two to the flag.

The vic­tory was enough, Ros­berg ad­mit­ted, to send him into the win­ter sea­son “ec­static – very happy”. Cat­tily, Hamil­ton noted that he was “hap­pier with win­ning the world cham­pi­onship than with win­ning the race.” These two just about man­age to play nicely, but since Spa 2014, and the con­tact at Les Combes (fol­lowed by an in­team dress­ing-down for Ros­berg), there’s been a raw edge to their re­la­tion­ship that’s likely to en­dure for as long as they’re team-mates.

Be­hind them came a Fer­rari. Lit­tle sur­prise there, ex­cept that it was Kimi Räikkö­nen in third, af­ter a swift, clean run from P3, with Vet­tel a rather im­pres­sive fourth from P15 – legacy of a Q1 comms blun­der that left him with­out enough clock to set a time fast enough to progress to Q2.

Kimi mum­bled some­thing about his race be­ing “a bit bet­ter”, but it was clear he cared lit­tle about this re­sult – his third podium of the sea­son – nor the fact that it made him ‘top Finn’ in 2015. “It’s not as if there’s a Fin­nish cham­pi­onship within the world cham­pi­onship,” he with­ered.

A hap­pier re­sult was the P5 of Ser­gio Pérez – top non-works Merc ahead of both Wil­liams. Force In­dia COO Ot­mar Szaf­nauer con­firmed the race had been run largely as a test ses­sion for Nico Hülken­berg to bench-mark var­i­ous aero and set-up de­vel­op­ments against wind­tun­nel re­sults. This al­ways has been, and re­mains, a sharp lit­tle race team who punch well above their weight.

Their cars were split by Daniel Ric­cia­rdo, whose RB11 was mighty in the fi­nal sec­tor but un­able to match the straight­line grunt of any of the five cars ahead. Team-mate Daniil Kvyat trailed home tenth with brake woes be­hind Felipe Massa in eighth and Romain Gros­jean, charg­ing to the end in his last race for ‘Team En­stone’.

For these bat­tlers, the end of F1 2015 couldn’t come fast enough. For Ros­berg, though, it was over too soon. “I wish it was 2016 next week,” he said. “I’ll try to keep the cur­rent form go­ing.”

You sus­pect that Lewis Hamil­ton might have some­thing to say about that.

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