The Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi was a good reminder as the 2011 season winds down of exactly how fine the line between champion and also-ran can be in Formula 1. Practice sessions saw the continued ascent of McLaren whose cars consistently ran better than Red Bull. Lewis Hamilton in particular had always been very fast at Abu Dhabi and this continued to be the case, with the assembled well-heeled masses given good reason to believe that Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull's stranglehold on pole position might well be broken.
During the final round of qualifying Jenson Button (McLaren), Hamilton, and Vettel were the last three cars on track. Button seized P1 briefly, only to have taken by Hamilton. Hamlton's time, though not as fast as it had been in Q2, was still better than any Vettel had posted up to that point in the weekend. Vettel charged through the last 10 corners of Yas Marina, hit the starting straight and....won the pole yet again, tying Nigel Mansell's 1992 record of 14 in the process.
On race day then, there was little reason to believe that a further exhibition of Vettel/Red Bull dominance wouldn't be at hand. Sure enough, Vettel jumped into the front at the start and was already starting to seperate from the pack going into Turn 2 when his back end broke loose and he left the racing surface, his right rear tire having ruptured.
As the rest of the field streaked past the excitement mounted. A comeback for the ages was going to occur, Vettel racing all the way from the back of the pack to catch up to and pass the three cars at the front: Hamilton, Fernando Alonso (Ferrari), and Button. When Vettel finally made it back to the pits, however, one push on the suspension clearly showed otherwise. It was broken and his day was done.
By Lap 15 Mark Webber (Red Bull) looked like he just might rise to the occassion and defend the team's honor, jousting heartily with Button for 3rd. Three laps later Webber was (uncharacteristically) outpitted by Ferrari and Felipe Massa to drop into P5. But he didn't give up the ghost, passing Massa to retake 4th on Lap 31.
Nico Rosberg (Mercedes) slso made a good race of it, rising as high as 3rd on Lap 44 (of 55), before Webber managed to put him in the rearview as well. Kamui Kobayashi meanwhile drove his Sauber from 16th to grab the final point in 10th.
The running order of Hamilton-Alonso-Webber held until Lap 54 when the final fly in the Red Bull ointment came home to roost. Webber had not yet run on the harder tire and had to bit during the final lap, Button retaking 3rd in the process.
Red Bull's drivers were once again up to the challenge. But as we stated in the very first post. Formula 1 is about more than just the driver. The car and the strategy both have to be sound race in and race out as well. One structural failure, one slow pit stop, and one dodgy strategy, and for the first time all year, there's not a single Red Bull driver on the podium.
With one race to go on the 2011 schedule the contest for second in the championship standings has come down to 22 points separating Button, Alonso, and Webber. Constructors Force India, Sauber, and Toro Rosso, meanwhile are separted by 16 points in sixth through eighth.
As 2012 approaches, some clouds have formed over the US Grand Prix in Austin, with the event organizers and Bernie Ecclestone engaged in a contract and monetary dispute
likely to push the innaugural event back to 2013.
The team reshuffles have also already begun. Virgin Racing
will turn into Marussia
(Russian supercar manufacturer) F1, Lotus
into Caterham F1, and Renault
into Team Lotus.
Driver standings - Top 10
374 - Sebastian Vettel (Germany) - RBR-Renault
255 - Jenson Button (Great Britain) - McLaren-Mercedes
245 - Fernando Alonso (Spain) - Ferrari
233 - Mark Webber (Australia) - RBR-Renault
227 - Lewis Hamilton (Great Britain) - McLaren-Mercedes
108 - Felipe Massa (Brazil) - Ferrari
83 - Nico Rosberg (Germany) - Mercedes
76 - Michael Schumacher (Germany) - Mercedes
36 - Vitaly Petrov (Russia) - Renault
34 - Nick Heidfeld (Germany) - Renault
Constructor standings - Teams scoring points
607 - RBR-Renault - Vettel, Webber
482 - McLaren-Mercedes - Hamilton, Button
353 - Ferrari - Alonso, Massa
159 - Mercedes - Rosberg, Schumacher
72 - Renault - Heidfeld, Petrov
57 - Force India-Mercedes - Adrian Sutil, Paul di Resta
42 - Sauber-Ferrari - Kamui Kobayashi, Sergio Perez
41 - STR-Ferrari - Sebastian Buemi, Jaime Alguersuari
5 - Williams-Cosworth - Rubens Barrichello, Pastor Maldonado
Next event: Brazilian Grand Prix - Sao Paulo - Nov. 25-27, 2011