You would think that Fernando Alonso would have been happy to finish second after starting from sixth on the grid at Yas Marina Circuit. But his thoughtful expression on the podium said everything about the latest turn of events in this gripping championship.
Alonso was not perplexed about Kimi Raikkonen taking his first victory since Belgium 2009 (if anything, Alonso was as pleased as the majority in F1 to see this very impressive comeback by the 2007 World Championship). Alonso’s less than enthusiastic demeanour was all about the sight of Sebastian Vettel standing on the third spot. It didn’t take much to imagine Alonso thinking: ‘How did HE get THERE?’
How, indeed. Vettel should have started from third on the grid but a technical problem at the end of qualifying saw Vettel excluded. For reasons which are still not clear post-race, Red Bull, alarmed by low fuel pressure, ordered Vettel to stop immediately during his slowing-down lap. The Renault technicians were sure this would allow the required 1-litre fuel sample to be drawn from the car by the scrutineers but, when returned to the pits, the Red Bull-Renault only produced 850ml.
In response to the exclusion, Red Bull chose to start Vettel from the pit lane rather than the back of the grid, thus removing the car from parc fermé conditions and allowing a change of gear ratios, wing settings and other adjustments to allow the overtaking attack mode Vettel would need if he was to get anywhere in the 55-lap race.
It clearly worked as Vettel slashed his way into 12th place on lap nine despite minor damage to his front wing incurred on the first lap. But then it appeared to go wrong when, during a Safety Car period, Vettel did more serious damage to the front wing by hitting a marker board while taking avoiding action during a misunderstanding with Daniel Ricciardo’s Toro Rosso. The subsequent pit stop dropped him to the back once more but the benefit of soft tyres carried the reigning champion back into contention, particularly when the cars in front made their scheduled stops much later.
Vettel’s pace was so good as he moved into second place that he was able to make a second stop and return in fourth, just ahead of a squabbling quartet that was about to trip over each other. A superb fight with Jenson Button gave Vettel third place with four laps to go. Vettel took the trouble to compliment Button on his clean tactics – which was more than could be said for some the driving that caused several untidy incidents.
The front four drove brilliantly, Alonso pushing hard as he tried to unsettle Raikkonen in the closing stages. But the ‘Ice Man’ was having none of it, berating the Lotus team in the process for giving him instructions he felt he didn’t need. And, typical Kimi, the win was accepted in a matter-of-fact manner, if only because he felt it should have come sooner in 2012.
Raikkonen had always maintained if he could qualify better, then the Lotus-Renault had the necessary race pace if he could stay ahead of the mad mid-field scramble. He did just that in Abu Dhabi, starting fourth and jumping into second at the first corner.
There wasn’t much he could do about Lewis Hamilton on pole position, Hamilton having been on top form as he threw the McLaren around like a go-kart from the moment practice started on Friday morning. Hamilton, having dealt with the first Safety Car period, was leading by 3.4 seconds when an electronic problem caused the engine to die on lap 20. This was the second time in five races that Hamilton had been denied a certain win through unreliability.
Raikkonen used all his experience to cope with the second Safety Car and immediately set the fastest lap so far to pull away from Alonso. Raikkonen became the eighth different winner this season; Lotus the sixth different team. For Alonso, the only statistic that mattered was closing Vettel’s championship lead from 13 points to 10. But you could see he felt that gap should have been even less given that Vettel was starting the race 23 cars behind.
There are two races left, starting with the United States Grand Prix on 18 November. The inaugural race at Austin will do well if it produces half the drama of this one.
Driver’s Championship standings
1. Sebastian Vettel – 255 points
2. Fernando Alonso – 245
3. Kimi Raikkonen – 198
4. Mark Webber – 167
5. Lewis Hamilton – 165
6. Jenson Button – 153
7. Felipe Massa – 95
8. Nico Rosberg – 93
Manufacturer’s Championship standings
1. Red Bull-Renault – 422 points
2. Ferrari – 340
3. McLaren-Mercedes – 318
4. Lotus-Renault – 288
5. Mercedes – 136
6. Sauber-Ferrari – 124
7. Force India-Mercedes – 95
8. Williams-Renault – 73