ABU DHABI GP DEBRIEF
SEASON FINALE IN THE DESERT
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.