Abu Dhabi GP re­port and anal­y­sis

There was no let-up in the five-time world cham­pion’s vic­to­ri­ous mo­men­tum in Abu Dhabi as he un­leashed his ‘new psy­che’

Autosport (UK) - - CONTENTS - EDD STRAW

For Se­bas­tian Vet­tel, who chased him in vain, Max Ver­stap­pen, who ended the race with a face­ful of oil from the Honda en­gine he’s plac­ing his ti­tle hopes in, and Valt­teri Bot­tas, who fin­ished more than 45 sec­onds down, there was lit­tle hope to draw from what hap­pened. This was Hamil­ton un­der­lin­ing that, far from be­ing more vul­ner­a­ble next year or rest­ing on his plethora of lau­rels, he in­tends to be un­break­able. “I re­ally wanted to end the sea­son strong, and on a per­sonal note I was able to do that,”said Hamil­ton.“i wanted to end the way that I plan to start next year; that was kind of the new psy­che. It’s been a strong week­end, which I’m re­ally happy with.” Hamil­ton with a new, bet­ter psy­che? Any of his ri­vals hear­ing that com­ment can­not fail to carry it in the backs of their minds through­out the win­ter. And per­haps that’s not only the point of Hamil­ton’s de­ter­mi­na­tion to fin­ish pow­er­fully, but also the rea­son why he pointed it out, be­cause psy­cho­log­i­cal war­fare is some­thing he also does very well. Hamil­ton, in his present form, leaves no stone un­turned, knows he can­not re­lent even for one mo­ment and that the next bat­tle starts be­fore the last war even ends. The Mercedes driver clinched the world cham­pi­onship in Mex­ico, with two races to spare. But af­ter his Este­ban Ocon-as­sisted vic­tory in Brazil two weeks ear­lier, he signed off with an em­phatic 11th win of the year in Abu Dhabi. It was a tri­umph that en­cap­su­lated much of what has made Hamil­ton so ex­traor­di­nary this sea­son, mak­ing things look far more straight­for­ward than any­one else would.

YOU WOULDN’T HAVE BLAMED LEWIS HAMIL­TON FOR US­ING THE FI­NAL TWO RACES OF THE 2018 For­mula 1 sea­son to wind down, revel in the glory of cham­pi­onship vic­tory and drop his guard. But this is a driver at his peak and, af­ter spend­ing much of the sea­son grind­ing the op­po­si­tion to dust, his Abu Dhabi Grand Prix tri­umph was not a vale­dic­tory one. In­stead, it was the start of the next cam­paign.

Sev­eral of the key char­ac­ter­is­tics that have made Hamil­ton’s sea­son the best of his ca­reer were show­cased around the twists and turns of the Yas Ma­rina cir­cuit. A bril­liant qual­i­fy­ing lap, find­ing half a sec­ond on his fi­nal run in Q3, blew Mercedes team­mate Bot­tas out of the wa­ter and left Vet­tel a dis­tant third. He then made a per­fect start to hold onto the lead, re­peat­ing that at the safety-car restart ne­ces­si­tated by Re­nault driver Nico Hulken­berg’s world be­ing turned up­side down on the open­ing lap. Then there was the de­ci­sion to pit un­der the vir­tual safety car trig­gered by Kimi Raikko­nen park­ing his Fer­rari on the main straight, which rel­e­gated Hamil­ton to fifth place and a spell at the back of the lead bat­tle. As we’ve heard many times this sea­son, he ques­tioned the call and won­dered if the team re­alised just how much traf­fic he had been plunged into. But he didn’t let his head drop, as he oc­ca­sion­ally did in his younger days, and spent the next 26 laps pa­tiently star­ing at the rear end of a Red Bull, first Ver­stap­pen’s, then Daniel Ric­cia­rdo’s. His re­ward was the lead once his ri­vals pit­ted. And amid re­peated ques­tions about whether his set of su­per­softs would last to the end of the race, and protes­ta­tions that he didn’t have the same pace as Vet­tel – the for­mer 2018 ti­tle ri­val who passed Bot­tas to close to within 2.6s at the che­quered flag – Hamil­ton man­aged those con­cerns bril­liantly. This was mea­sured, cal­cu­lated, a clas­sic ex­am­ple of the great mak­ing their achieve­ments seem al­most mun­dane. Just to un­der­line how good Hamil­ton was, Bot­tas ended up a dis­tant fifth – robbed even of fastest lap by the Fer­rari of Vet­tel late on – prov­ing that a driver who can be de­scribed as‘very good’can eas­ily end up with a far less spec­tac­u­lar re­sult. It shows how dif­fi­cult it re­ally is to win a race like this, some­thing Hamil­ton does rou­tinely. The key mo­ment came when Raikko­nen ground to a halt with an elec­tri­cal fail­ure, park­ing on the start/fin­ish line at the end of the sixth lap. The vir­tual safety car was de­ployed, and Mercedes de­cided to call in leader Hamil­ton, who was then run­ning com­fort­ably ahead of Bot­tas. He was the only driver not to have started on hy­per­softs to stop (Charles Le­clerc and Ro­main Gros­jean also came in), so by def­i­ni­tion this was the al­ter­nate strat­egy. But it made sense for Mercedes to split its cars, and had he not come in there’s ev­ery chance Vet­tel or a Red Bull would have done. “We knew that the su­per­soft would go to the end,”said Mercedes team boss Toto Wolff.“it could ac­tu­ally cover a whole race dis­tance, so we wanted to cover against an un­der­cut or no Vsc/safety car later

on. Know­ing that the tyre could go to the end with a lit­tle bit of man­age­ment, it was the safer strat­egy.” This put Hamil­ton back to fifth place be­hind Ver­stap­pen and he set a jus­ti­fi­ably con­ser­va­tive pace. The only de­mand the team put on him was to en­sure he didn’t fall 10 sec­onds or more be­hind new leader Bot­tas, for this would have al­lowed the other Mercedes to stop un­der the safety car and stay ahead. It wasn’t a dif­fi­cult task, and Hamil­ton just had to be pa­tient and wait for the cars ahead to pit. Vet­tel blinked first at the end of lap 15 and pit­ted from third place, mean­ing Mercedes re­sponded with Bot­tas a lap later to in­sure against a Fer­rari un­der­cut. Once Ver­stap­pen, who was com­plain­ing ex­ten­sively about his front-right Pirelli, came in from be­hind team-mate Ric­cia­rdo on lap 17, Hamil­ton was up to sec­ond and be­hind only the Aus­tralian. Hamil­ton in­evitably closed in on Ric­cia­rdo, who was in his farewell out­ing for Red Bull, but held the gap at around 2.5s to avoid get­ting close enough to suf­fer any tyre dam­age. He had Bot­tas cov­ered, and just needed to wait for Ric­cia­rdo to stop. The ar­rival of light rain threw a po­ten­tial curve­ball into the mix, but it was never any­where near heavy enough to make a switch to in­ter­me­di­ates a pos­si­bil­ity. Red Bull opted to ex­tend Ric­cardo’s stint while the lap times held up in the hope of get­ting safety-car as­sis­tance, which at one stage could have earned him sec­ond place, and to in­crease his tyre ad­van­tage in the sec­ond stint. But he was called in af­ter 33 laps, once Bot­tas and de facto third-place man Vet­tel moved in­side that win­dow. At this point, a Mercedes one-two seemed likely but Bot­tas was in trou­ble. When he emerged from the pits, he had an ad­van­tage of 3.6s over Vet­tel. He was com­fort­ably keep­ing the Fer­rari at arm’s length when he locked up into the first chi­cane, just be­fore the hair­pin, and lost time. This al­lowed Vet­tel to pass him on the long run out of the hair­pin with the as­sis­tance of the DRS. Once Vet­tel had taken sec­ond from Bot­tas, he was 6.9s be­hind Hamil­ton but had to spend a cou­ple of laps re­group­ing thanks to the amount of bat­tery en­ergy used to chase and pass the Mercedes. But he did have a pace ad­van­tage, and with the gap at 7.680s at the end of lap 36, he had 19 laps – on su­per­softs eight laps younger – to make an im­pres­sion on the leader. “I tried ev­ery­thing un­til the last lap, I re­ally en­joyed it,”said Vet­tel of the chase.“catch­ing a lit­tle bit, a lit­tle bit, but he con­trolled the pace at the front.” And he cer­tainly threw the kitchen sink at it. For the first 18 of those laps, Vet­tel was the fastest on track and lap­ping an av­er­age of 0.206s quicker than Hamil­ton. But it wasn’t enough, and he started the fi­nal lap still 3.981s be­hind. Hamil­ton gave away a fur­ther 1.4s cruis­ing to the flag, mean­ing the fi­nal gap of 2.6s ex­ag­ger­ated the close­ness. He had it ab­so­lutely in hand. “Lewis had the pace, you could see it at the end when he saw Vet­tel com­ing closer,”said Wolff.“he was able to in­crease the pace just in the way it was nec­es­sary.” Be­hind, any hope of two Mercedes driv­ers on the podium ended

when Ver­stap­pen at­tacked into the left/right/left at the end of the sec­ond back straight. Bot­tas held the in­side line and got into the cor­ner ahead, be­liev­ing him­self to have cov­ered the move, only for Ver­stap­pen to carry great speed into the cor­ner and get around the out­side of the Mercedes in the right-hand part. Bot­tas turned in on the Red Bull at the left-hand el­e­ment and con­tact was made, but the Red Bull driver was through. When Ric­cia­rdo then took fourth place, it made sense to bring Bot­tas in – es­pe­cially given con­cerns about his right-rear wheel. As a re­sult, he fin­ished in no man’s land be­tween the top four and the best of the‘class B’run­ners – Car­los Sainz Jr’s Re­nault. “Over­all, the race sums up the sea­son quite well,”said Bot­tas. “It started off quite well and then ev­ery­thing turns to shit. I had ini­tially a lock-up into Turn 5, when Se­bas­tian got close, and then he got DRS and over­took me. Ini­tially, I thought it was purely my mis­take – which in the end it was – but the wind sud­denly turned around, so for the wind I would’ve had to brake a bit ear­lier. “But at the same time the team could find on the rear-right brake some vi­bra­tion and some is­sue, so some­times the front brakes had to work harder than the rear brakes to com­pen­sate and that meant there were sud­den lock-ups. Same thing hap­pened when I went straight and Ver­stap­pen got close. So we still need to in­ves­ti­gate what was ex­actly the is­sue with the brakes. And when I touched with Max there was quite big floor dam­age.” So, if your first ti­tle ri­val is your team-mate, Hamil­ton has rea­son

“THE RACE SUMS UP THE SEA­SON. IT STARTED OFF QUITE WELL AND THEN EV­ERY­THING TURNS TO SHIT”

“I THINK WE’VE UN­DER­STOOD WHAT WENT WRONG. WE’LL TRY TO DO A BET­TER JOB NEXT YEAR”

to be happy to have com­pre­hen­sively out­per­formed him in what we might call‘race zero’of the 2019 sea­son. As for Vet­tel, his big­gest ti­tle ri­val this sea­son, the Fer­rari driver is al­ready think­ing about how much progress needs to be made to get onto the same level as Mercedes and its spear­head next year. “It’s a big op­er­a­tion, so a lot of small things need to come to­gether, but I think ev­ery­body’ s there ,” said Vet t el .“ob­vi­ously, we lost our path a lit­tle bit half­way through the year. Things didn’t come to­gether so we did a step back to­wards the end of the year, which en­abled us to be more com­pet­i­tive again, but I think we’ve un­der­stood what went wrong. We’ll ob­vi­ously try to do a bet­ter job in the fu­ture. “On the other hand, we had a lot of les­sons. It was a tough year in gen­eral and I think the team is strong and the team has po­ten­tial, but surely it was a lot of things that hap­pened in­side the team. The pass­ing of our chair­man, Mr [Ser­gio] Mar­chionne, had an im­pact so it’s up to us to look into ev­ery sin­gle de­tail and make sure we come out as a stronger group, en­abling us to build a stronger pack­age for next year and for the fu­ture.” And that stronger pack­age in­cludes Vet­tel rais­ing his game. Hav­ing been out­classed by Hamil­ton over the sea­son, he needs to recharge over the win­ter and come back not just at his best, but bet­ter than he has ever been be­fore, to have a chance of beat­ing Hamil­ton. As for Ver­stap­pen, who cel­e­brated a fifth con­sec­u­tive podium fin­ish, spend­ing the clos­ing stages of the race strug­gling to see through oil on his vi­sor spilled by Toro Rosso driver Pierre Gasly’s fail­ing Honda en­gine is a re­minder that the Ja­panese man­u­fac­turer needs to make a big step. “I find that a re­ally dif­fi­cult ques­tion, be­cause you’re so de­pen­dent on the pack­age in F1,”said Ver­stap­pen when asked about his prospects of a ti­tle push in 2019. And with the Red Bull RB14 prob­a­bly the strongest chas­sis of this sea­son, that means the ball is in Honda’s court. But at least it was a strong race to fin­ish the sea­son af­ter tyre trou­bles in qual­i­fy­ing, then a slow start – caused by the en­gine over­heat­ing fol­low­ing a long hold on the grid – briefly rel­e­gated him to 10th. Of the six driv­ers who fin­ished be­hind Hamil­ton, down to Le­clerc – who also gave a taste of 2019 by dic­ing with the lead­ers early on – in sev­enth place, all but Sainz have re­al­is­tic de­signs on top­pling the Mercedes driver ei­ther next year or, in the case of Ric­cia­rdo, fur­ther down the line with Re­nault. But what Hamil­ton has done by dom­i­nat­ing what he sees as the first race of next year is avoid giv­ing any of them any more hope than they al­ready have, or show the slight­est chink in his in­creas­ingly im­preg­nable ar­mour. “Next year, we fight back,”said Vet­tel on the slow­down lap, speak­ing for ev­ery­one de­feated by Hamil­ton and Mercedes in 2018. What Hamil­ton did this week­end proves just how hard it’s go­ing to be to get close to him, let alone knock him off his perch.

Strug­gling Bot­tas runs wide try­ing to fend off Ver­stap­pen

Ver­stap­pen racked up fifth con­sec­u­tive podium fin­ish

Vet­tel was san­guine in de­feat, join­ing in post-race donuts

Hamil­ton had set out to fin­ish the sea­son on a high, his vic­tory a state­ment of in­tent for 2019

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