Alonso leaves f1, but for good?
The champion caps his season in fine style
The final act of the 2018 season was a fitting tribute. After the chequered flag had fallen on the Abu Dhabi GP, the three multiple world champions in the field came to the finish line and orchestrated a series of donuts. They sent tyre smoke pouring into the grandstands, packed with cheering fans.
Race winner Lewis Hamilton led the pirouettes accompanied by second-placed Sebastian Vettel and the departing Fernando Alonso. The Spaniard was once again nowhere near the podium. He finished the race in 11th and amusingly was struck with three five-second time penalties for cutting the chicanes on his final laps…
Although the margin of victory at the end was just 2.5s, it was a comfortable win for Hamilton, his 11th of the season and 73rd of his career. Perhaps more remarkably – since the current points system was introduced in 2010 – Hamilton has become the first driver to break the 400 points barrier. He finished on 408.
His Mercedes team-mate Valtteri Bottas was set for second around the floodlit Yas Marina track, but 20 laps from the end made a mistake, locking-up into the Turn 5/6 chicane. That enabled Vettel to swoop past before Turn 8.
Three laps later, Max Verstappen was also through, the pair making slight contact at the Turn 12-13 chicane. That sealed the podium for the Dutchman as Bottas suffered a slow puncture on his right-rear and pitted for a second time, putting him behind the second Red Bull of Dan Ricciardo in fifth place.
This was Mercedes’s fifth consecutive front-row lock-out of this circuit and the 83rd pole position of Hamilton’s career. When he stepped out of the cockpit of the W09, he revealed a little bit of emotion with his championshipwinning car, knowing this would be the last time he’d get the chance to nail a qualifying hot-lap in it.
“I’m probably the closest to this car than I’ve been with any car,” said Hamilton. “It’s been a real privilege to work with her this year and I’m just grateful to my team for putting it together.”
Hamilton’s margin over his Mercedes team-mate was 0.162s, with Vettel a further 0.169s back. The Ferrari man qualified ahead of his team-mate Kimi Raikkonen and the two Red Bulls.
Once again, one of the stars of qualifying was Charles Leclerc, who managed to haul his Sauber into the top 10, along with Romain Grosjean, Nico Hulkenberg and Esteban Ocon.
Q2 was strategically the most interesting session on Saturday with the top two teams, Mercedes and Ferrari setting their fastest laps on the ultrasoft tyre. In contrast, Verstappen, who was about to be eliminated, piloted his Red Bull to safety on his final run on the hypersofts. Ricciardo too, sitting in 10th, switched to the hypersoft, but backed out of his lap when his team knew he was safe – he could start on the ultra.
Further back, there was hope that Alonso could achieve something special in qualifying on his final Formula 1 outing. He did manage to haul his recalcitrant Mclaren out of Q1 at least, giving him a 21-0 qualifying whitewash over his team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne in 2018 (it’s actually a 26-race streak that goes back to the 2017 Malaysian Grand Prix). Unfortunately, the Spaniard could manage no better than 15th, behind Sergio Perez, Kevin Magnussen, Marcus Ericsson and Carlos Sainz.
At least Alonso made it into Q2. The same couldn’t be said for the hapless Brendon Hartley, who missed the cut by just fractions of a second. The margin between Magnussen – who was safe – and the New Zealander was 0.060s.
The second Toro Rosso also failed to escape Q3 as Pierre Gasly’s power unit shut down as he was accelerating out of the last corner on his final lap. He joined Vandoorne and the two Williams drivers Sergey Sirotkin and Lance Stroll at the back of the grid.
The effects of a long season in combination with so many drivers leaving their respective teams, meant Sunday had a sense of ‘last day of term’ about it.
Guards of honour were given to Alonso, Ricciardo and Raikkonen by their mechanics, while over at Mercedes there was time for some theatrics with a video posted online with Hamilton literally tied-up. The culprit was the movie actor Will Smith who dressed up in Mercedes overalls and pretended to take his race seat.
“We were doing some filming 10 minutes before I got in the car, which I never, ever do because that’s usually the time where I get ready,” said Hamilton after the race. “So I was going into the race and I had completely changed my pattern...”
Will Smith was not done with generating publicity for himself, as soon after he was seen waving a giant flag of the Emirates to send the cars off on their formation lap. But the real drama came half-way into the first lap…
With the sun setting at the back of the circuit, Hamilton led Bottas away from the line and the Ferraris duly followed in formation. But Verstappen was slow away in his Red Bull with an engine sensor problem and dropped four places.
As the pack filed down the main straight, Leclerc got a run past Ricciardo for fifth as they approached the braking zone for the Turn 8-9 chicane. Immediately behind, Hulkenberg dived late on the brakes to snatch seventh from Grosjean.
As the pair ran wide and approached the right hander at Turn 9, the Haas driver stayed on the inside and hugged the apex. Hulkenberg was running alongside as they turned in and didn’t realise the Haas was still there. The front-left of Grosjean clipped Hulkenberg’s right-rear and sent the yellow Renault tumbling through the air.
Hulkenberg rotated alarmingly onto his roll-over hoop, then spun over again and landed upside down, partially propped up by the barriers. A small fire broke out at the rear of his car which the marshals extinguished, but given his angle to the tyre wall and possibly with the presence of the halo, did not immediately climb out from underneath his car.
Thankfully a team radio message was broadcast that clearly explained he was alright, but had to be bleeped out to hide his inevitable shock and frustration. The safety car was instantly deployed and with the arrival of the medical car, Dr Ian Roberts was able to help advise the marshals to return the Renault to its wheels, which enabled Hulkenberg to extract himself unaided.
“When you are upside down, it’s not so easy to find all the buttons because everything feels very different,” said Hulkenberg. “It was the first time for me to end in the car upside down.”
Grosjean was concerned for his fellow competitor, but not to blame as the stewards decided that no further action was warranted for the incident. After four laps behind the safety car, racing resumed with Hamilton ahead of Bottas, Vettel, Raikkonen and the fast-starting Leclerc.
Behind them, Verstappen was eager to make up lost time and was robust in his pass on his Brazilian GP nemesis Ocon, lunging past the Racing Point Force India at the Turn 7 hairpin. But with DRS favouring the Frenchman, he was back past the Red Bull on the next straight.
For the next couple of laps, attention was focused on this on-track duel and the TV broadcast even replayed their Brazilian collision as if to emphasise the potential for another clash. Verstappen finally made the move stick – again with a forceful, elbows out shove – at Turn 7.
Up ahead, Leclerc was ahead of Raikkonen for fourth, which was partly explained when the Ferrari lost electrical power coming out of the final corner. Stationary on the start-finish line, there was no choice but for race control to activate the virtual safety car to recover the Finn’s stricken machine.
Taking advantage of the reduced time lost while pitting under the VSC, Mercedes radioed Hamilton into the pits for his solitary stop. He emerged fifth behind the Red Bulls, as both Leclerc and Grosjean employed the same strategy.
On lap 15, Ferrari attempted the ‘undercut’ on second-placed Bottas and called Vettel in for his pitstop, but as the right-rear was slow to come off his car, the plan was scuppered. Bottas stopped one lap later (likewise Verstappen another tour later) and he kept his position ahead of the Ferrari.
The second Red Bull of Ricciardo inherited the lead and the team decided to keep the Australian out for a longer stint as his lap times were still competitive.
As the race neared half-distance reports came in of thunderstorms nearby. In this dry and arid land, a few sprinkles of rain fell onto the circuit and if it had increased for the need to take intermediate tyres, then Ricciardo was in a prime position to take advantage. On lap 21 he was leading Hamilton by 6.4s and was the only one of the top six not to make a pitstop.
Red Bull left Dan out, knowing that another VSC would be beneficial. But by lap 33, with no VSC or significant rainfall, he pitted and emerged in fifth behind Verstappen.
A lap later, Bottas suffered a lock-up into Turn 5 and was passed by Vettel for second place. Three laps later Verstappen made another of his trademark robust moves and muscled his way past Bottas at the Turn 12-13 chicane, banging wheels and causing the Finn to suffer a slow puncture.
With three laps to go, the retiring Alonso was elevated to 11th and just 3.3s off Magnussen for 10th. His race engineer Will Joseph told the Spaniard to “go and get a point”, to which a typically blunt response emerged from the cockpit of the orange Mclaren. “I’ve already got 1,800.” Not to be outdone, the pitwall replied with: “Well make it 1,081 for me.”
In the final laps, Alonso decided to cut the chicanes in his charge to get a point and – like a video game – was struck with three penalties worth five seconds each. In the final classification, he kept 11th but it was an extraordinary end to a race and a career.
And for the record, Alonso has 1,899 points, so it would have been nice to have achieved 1,900. But it wasn’t to be. Ironically, Alonso has made his final point to F1: give me a decent car and I’ll be back…
Hulkenberg’s final outing of the season ended in dramatic style
Verstappen was forced to fight back after a botched getaway
Alonso’s final race for Mclaren in F1 was celebrated after the event