LEWIS’S DESERT STORM AS NICO CLINGS ON

Hamil­ton threw ev­ery­thing at it but came up short in the long run

Motor Sport News - - Abu Dhabi Gp Report - BY AN­THONY ROWLINSON

T o the desert, and an F1 ti­tle show­down be­tween the two Mercedes driv­ers for the sec­ond time in three years. It was Nico Ros­berg’s to lose, but no way would Lewis Hamil­ton let his life­long ri­val take his crown with­out a fight.

Qual­i­fy­ing

With a nod to Ayr­ton Senna and firmly tuned in to Chan­nel Zen, Hamil­ton sim­ply mar­malised his no­tional op­po­si­tion in this, part one of the fi­nal chap­ter of F1 2016. Had he ever made qual­i­fy­ing look as easy as he did at Yas Ma­rina on Novem­ber 26? Had he ever fore­hand-smashed his way to pole po­si­tion with quite such dis­mis­sive, oblit­er­at­ing dom­i­nance?

The true an­swer to that ques­tion is, of course, ‘yes, many times’. But talk about de­liv­er­ing when it mat­ters… Hamil­ton came to Abu Dhabi know­ing his best course to a world ti­tle hat-trick and his fourth in to­tal was to win the race from pole. That still might not be enough, he knew, but no mat­ter, he was go­ing out guns blaz­ing, shout­ing from the rooftops that – ti­tle or no – he was still the big­gest gun in town. A Fer­nando Alonso in a com­pet­i­tive Mclaren might have some­thing to say about that, as might Seb Vet­tel in a bet­ter Fer­rari, or ei­ther of the Red Bull hus­tlers with a slightly more punchy Re­nault en­gine. On this Satur­day though, un­der a dip­ping desert sun, Hamil­ton drove a se­quence of laps for the ages. No-one got close.

In Q1 he was early into the 1m-39s – the first man to post a sub-1m4-0s lap and the fastest of those that did, with a time of 1m-39.487s. He headed Q2, too, a tenth faster on 1m-39.382s.

Then the coup de grace: a 1m-38.755s in Q3 for pole num­ber 61 and his 12th this sea­son. ‘I can’t con­trol the destiny of the ti­tle,’ he seemed to be say­ing, ‘but don’t dare think I’m not the fastest.’ No-one else cracked 1m-39s.

The grace and con­trol of his driv­ing were some­thing to be­hold. Line-ac­cu­rate and ef­fort­lessly fleet, there was a poise, en­ergy and ac­cu­racy about his car con­trol be­yond his peers. The com­par­isons are al­ways made to Senna, Hamil­ton’s idol, whose mark of 65 pole po­si­tions Lewis is fast ap­proach­ing; but the calm of his driv­ing, his soft per­sua­sion at the helm, seemed if any­thing more Alain Prost-like.

Hamil­ton’s self-pos­ses­sion later, when de­scrib­ing his laps, went be­yond any­thing ei­ther of those two greats had ever mus­tered. His ut­ter­ances were de­liv­ered in a muted, al­most trance-like state: “It’s kind of crazy to think I have 61 poles,” he mum­bled. “That’s four more to go to try and catch Ayr­ton. I came here say­ing that if I per­formed at my best I could walk away feel­ing proud. I’ve man­aged to bat­tle through this sea­son and I’m re­ally proud of that.”

Who knows where Lewis Hamil­ton’s mind goes to when he’s in the zone and re­turn­ing from it, but at mo­ments like this there’s a sus­pi­cion that he’s re­ally not like the rest of us.

His oth­er­world­li­ness – and oth­er­worldly tal­ent – for once looked to have Ros­berg rat­tled, as if, now, at the last, the enor­mity of the prize al­most within his grasp was fi­nally sink­ing in: not just the prospect of be­com­ing world cham­pion, but of fin­ish­ing ahead of Lewis to achieve that goal. Nico sim­ply had no an­swer to Hamil­ton’s qual­i­fy­ing blitzkrieg, de­spite his best ef­forts. His fi­nal flyer in Q3 started well: he edged his team­mate in sec­tor one, but Lewis was faster through sec­tors two and three, to work a mar­gin of 0.303s.

Ros­berg looked un­char­ac­ter­is­ti­cally pale and tense post-ses­sion, stick­ing with dour re­solve to his ‘one race at a time’ mantra and in­sist­ing he would “talk about the cham­pi­onship as much as you want on Mon­day.”

But was the line fi­nally wear­ing a lit­tle thin? Had its use­ful­ness ex­pired? With P2 in the bag af­ter a lap he de­scribed as hav­ing “a good buzz”, Ros­berg looked like noth­ing more than a man who wanted a good night’s sleep and to get the whole darn thing over and done with.

Not so Daniel Ric­cia­rdo, who as so of­ten, was the life and soul. He dropped his RB12 onto P3 and looked primed to cause a lit­tle trou­ble on Sun­day, know­ing that he and team-mate Max Ver­stap­pen (P6) had pro­gressed through Q2 on su­per softs. With all the the other top-10 run­ners start­ing on ul­tra softs, there was a chance of the bulls run­ning two or three laps longer to their first stops and gain­ing a de­ci­sive track po­si­tion ad­van­tage.

“We’ve got to try some­thing,” he said of the strate­gic curve­ball. “It seems to be a bit of a trend this year – if we are in a po­si­tion to qual­ify on a dif­fer­ent tyre, then we’ll try and see if it gives us an op­por­tu­nity.”

First though, they would have to be sure of clear­ing the Fer­raris, pun­chily com­pet­i­tive at a cir­cuit whose long straights and cool track tem­per­a­tures pe­nalise less the aero in­ef­fi­cien­cies and high rear tyre wear of the SF16-H. Kimi Raikko­nen fourth, Seb fifth, they’d been there or there­abouts through­out prac­tice and qual­i­fy­ing, with Kimi dis­ap­pointed not to have snatched third. “The car be­haved well all day,” he said, re­fus­ing to rule out a race-day chal­lenge to Mercedes.

Force In­dia locked out row four, Nico Hulken­berg ahead, then Alonso and Fe­lipe Massa up­held Q3 hon­our for Mclaren and Wil­liams.

If that left the top 10 look­ing pre­dictable, Satur­day closed with a tin­gling air of ex­pectancy in the late-cool­ing Yas pad­dock. A ti­tle show­down lay ahead; surely there were Sun­day sur­prises in store.

Race

His­tory will record the 2016 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix as an­other Mercedes 1-2 fin­ish with Lewis Hamil­ton to the fore.

It will also note that Nico Ros­berg se­cured enough points to win his first For­mula 1 world ti­tle and fi­nally tri­umph over his ca­reer-long spar­ring part­ner, Lewis Hamil­ton. What those bald re­sults will fail to do, how­ever, is tell the story of an exquisitely in­tense fi­nale to a fraught sea­son; of a race-man­age­ment mas­ter­class by Hamil­ton, but also of a ri­val who proved him­self ca­pa­ble of with­stand­ing the most in­tense pres­sure and emerg­ing ul­ti­mately vic­to­ri­ous.

As the laps ticked down around the Yas Is­land cir­cuit, Ros­berg, in P2 and tail­ing Hamil­ton by around a sec­ond, was a wal­nut in a vice. Hamil­ton was lap­ping at a pace of less than 1m 46s and do­ing so with some ex­cep­tion­ally sub­tle race­craft. Through sec­tor one, down the pit straight and through T1 to T4, he was on it, keep­ing enough of a gap to Ros­berg to pre­vent his team-mate from clos­ing to within DRS range. There­after, through the T5/T6 chi­cane, the hair­pin, then T8/T9, he was achingly slow, glid­ing the car on part-throt­tle at the points of the cir­cuit where he knew Ros­berg would be un­able to mount an at­tack. Then he’d sprint away along the sec­ond straight. In this fash­ion, and de­spite re­peated urg­ing from his team to up his pace by al­most a sec­ond, he was re­vers­ing Ros­berg into the clutches of Ver­stap­pen and the fast-ap­proach­ing su­per­soft-shod Vet­tel.

This was Hamil­ton’s in­ten­tion, of course. Win­ning the race would not be enough to se­cure him a fourth ti­tle; he also needed Ros­berg to fin­ish fourth or lower – and al­low­ing both Max and Seb to at­tack Nico was the best chance of mak­ing that hap­pen.

Ros­berg was clearly re­luc­tant to take Lewis on in a fight and risk let­ting slip the ti­tle on which he had al­ready placed a hand. Nei­ther did he want to be­come em­broiled in a tus­sle with Vet­tel or Ver­stap­pen, both of whom could sniff the chance of an against-the-odds vic­tory. Nico had no de­sire to be the col­lat­eral dam­age of an­other man’s all-or-noth­ing lunge, so this would be no cruise to the crown; Hamil­ton was go­ing to put him through the wringer.

The in­ten­sity of the last 10 laps was such that Paddy Lowe, Mercedes’ ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor (tech­ni­cal) fi­nally is­sued the call on lap 52: “Lewis, this is Paddy. We need you to pick up the pace. That’s an in­struc­tion.”

Mercedes’ fear was that a 1-2 might be lost, with the ad­vance of the hard­charg­ing Vet­tel a par­tic­u­lar con­cern. Hamil­ton didn’t see it that way and was clearly ad­her­ing to the Juan Manuel Fan­gio maxim of win­ning at the slow­est pos­si­ble speed. “I don’t think I did any­thing dan­ger­ous to­day,” he said. “We are fight­ing for the world cham­pi­onship. I’m in the lead, I con­trol the pace. That’s the rules.”

Vet­tel, though, de­scribed Hamil­ton’s tac­tics as “dirty tricks” and Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff later said Hamil­ton had “un­der­mined the struc­ture of the team in pub­lic.”

“We agree these rules of en­gage­ment,” Wolff added, “and Lewis was part of mak­ing them, but to­day a prece­dent was set. An­ar­chy does not work.” Reper­cus­sions can be ex­pected. So while Hamil­ton was the win­ner on the day – and con­sum­mately so in terms of the sheer rac­ing ex­per­tise he flaunted – the spoils went else­where, to a man maybe not as gifted as Lewis, but who man­aged to max­imise ev­ery other as­pect of his sea­son to emerge with the high­est points tally.

And that, said Vet­tel, a con­tented podium fin­isher, was what should not be for­got­ten af­ter a mem­o­rable sport­ing con­test. “In my point of view, you don’t win a cham­pi­onship by luck,” he said.

“Over the course of the year you col­lect a lot of points and some­times you have a good sea­son, some­times it’s bad. To­day was Nico’s day and it’s a sign of re­spect to give him that.”

The strain this long and in­tensely pres­suris­ing sea­son has placed on Ros­berg be­came ev­i­dent the mo­ment he stepped away from the race track.

On the podium he was close to drown­ing in a flood of re­leased ten­sion; when ad­dress­ing the press he ap­peared touched and hum­bled at the warmth of the re­cep­tion that greeted him as a new world cham­pion. He looked ex­hausted, pale, bone-tired and ut­terly spent af­ter the tri­als of the past rac­ing year.

‘One race at a time’ had sus­tained him al­most till the last, but when, ul­ti­mately, that ‘one race’ had be­come a shoot-out for the ti­tle, he had no longer been able to hide from its sig­nif­i­cance.

The pres­sure, he ad­mit­ted, had be­gun to catch up with him in qual­i­fy­ing, when, af­ter be­ing within a tenth of Hamil­ton through­out prac­tice, he’d found him­self 0.3s adrift of Lewis’s pole time. “For sure I didn’t do my best job yes­ter­day,” he said, voice tight with emo­tion. “It’s just dif­fi­cult when the pres­sure is on like that.”

He did, though, have enough in re­serve, enough of that spare Fin­nish Sisu to make a hugely im­por­tant pass on Ver­stap­pen for sec­ond place on lap 20.

With race en­gi­neer Tony Ross urg­ing that the pass was “crit­i­cal”, Ros­berg launched an out­side-in­side move through T5 and T6, be­fore out-drag­ging Ver­stap­pen out of T7.

It was fin­ger­tip-crit­i­cal stuff – a hard, on-the-limit rac­ing ma­noeu­vre, whose suc­cess en­sured the chas­ing Fer­raris would not be able to un­der­cut Ros­berg and po­ten­tially in­sert them­selves as a P2-P3 buf­fer be­tween him and Hamil­ton.

“It was one of the best passes of my ca­reer,” he said. “Max didn’t give me an inch and it was in­cred­i­bly in­tense. The feel­ing in the car was amaz­ing. Hon­estly I have never felt like that in a car be­fore.”

Those who sug­gest Ros­berg ‘got lucky’ this year, thanks to a bet­ter re­li­a­bil­ity record than that en­joyed by Hamil­ton, might also, now, look to the harder edge Nico brought to his driv­ing this sea­son: in Spain (vs Hamil­ton), in Austria (again vs Hamil­ton), in Malaysia (vs Raikko­nen) and this against F1’s hottest tyro.

“Austin last year [where Nico lost the race lead and world ti­tle to an ag­gres­sive wheel-bang­ing pass by Hamil­ton] was the turn­ing point for me,” Ros­berg re­flected. “I never wanted to feel like that again, so I took my­self away for two days after­wards to think about it and then I won the next seven races.”

Just over a year later, For­mula 1 has a new world cham­pion.

Ros­berg fol­lows Hamil­ton over the line for the ti­tle

Sus­pen­sion woe halted But­ton

Best of ri­vals: Lewis and Nico Vet­tel re­turned to the podium

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