It was both a last and a first yesterday at the Yas Marina Circuit in Abu Dhabi. It was the last race of the 2009 Formula One season but it was the first race at the Yas Marina Circuit and the first F1 race that started in daylight and ended at night. The adventure into the dusk and desert of the United Arab Emirates was about the only drama heading into this race. It wasn’t helped by Sebastian Vettel walking away for his fourth win of the season in a largely dominant victory.
It wasn’t all Vettel all the time. Lewis Hamilton started on pole and was able to stretch out a big enough lead that he held top spot after the first round of pit stops. However, he wouldn’t hold the lead for long. Just a scant few laps after his first stop, Hamilton pulled back into the pits and turned right into the garage. The team had detected a problem with the right-rear brake through the on-board telemetry and Hamilton reported a vibration so McLaren called it a day.
Vettel’s day wasn’t entirely boring. As he was about to come in for his first pit stop, Jaime Alguersuari pitted ahead of him. The rookie managed to confuse his Toro Rosso pit crew with the Red Bull pit crew that was out for Vettel. As Alguersuari pulled in to the Red Bull pit stall, crew members jumped out of the way and waved him on through. Seconds later, they pulled off a perfect stop for Vettel. Meanwhile, Alguersuari ran out of fuel and watched the rest of the race as a spectator.
The real action during the race was for second place. And by “during the race,” I mean during the final lap. It took 54 laps before any sort of racing actually happened. Mark Webber’s car fell into the clutches of Jenson Button in the final stint of the race. On the final lap, the pair were side-by-side and bobbing and weaving all over the track with Button looking for a way by and Button trying to hold him off. A couple of aggressive blocks later and Webber had the second step on the podium.
The Yas Marina Circuit was another classic Hermann Tilke design. Brilliant amenities for the assembled media and teams but not many grandstand seats. The track layout is also vintage Tilke. There’s the long straight followed by the very slow turn, lots of low and medium speed turns, and a signature turn. As with other Tilke tracks, passing is near non-existent and that track signature only captures your attention at first. If they turned the lights up full on the hotel to distract drivers, then it might have been worthwhile. Instead, it’s a gimmick that got tired by about Lap 5.
The transition of the race from day to night was fun while it lasted. I hoped that talk about how the track and cars changed as the sun set would make for interesting commentary. Sadly, with this being the first time that F1 has tried something like this, we don’t get the plentiful stories and strategy talk that comes with a day-to-night NASCAR race.
Actually, there was one pass of note during this race. After his first stop, Button came out in front of Toyota’s Kamui Kobayaski. The Toyota was light on fuel and all over the back of the Brawn. Kobayashi pulled to the inside heading into a hairpin and Button outbroke himself which gifted the position to Kobayashi. In other words, a driver whose talent has been questioned by his boss and in his second race was able to pressure the world champion into a mistake. Time to ask if Button is a worthy world champ again?
Speaking of Kobayashi, that brings us back to silly season talk. He hasn’t been guaranteed a ride next season but I would be shocked if he wasn’t in a Toyota next season. Jarno Trulli and Timo Glock are both expected to be allowed to find greener pastures next year. Glock could end up at Renault but so could ex-McLaren driver Heikki Kovalainen. Kimi Raikkonen is being targeted by Toyota and McLaren but may end up taking up rally driving full-time. And rumoured to be with all three of those teams is Force India’s Adrian Sutil though his current team was expected to exercise their contract option.
The driver market really seems to be centred on what happens at Brawn. Jenson Button is likely to re-sign with Brawn but McLaren is trying to pair him with Hamilton. Barrichello is tipped to be going to Williams and is likely to be replaced by Nico Rosberg. When the Brawn seats are filled, McLaren will name their second driver and the domino effect will fill the established teams’ seats very quickly.
As for the new teams, Campos has announced that Bruno Senna will be one of their drivers next season. I thought that a deal with Pedro de la Rosa was a near certainty but Bernie Ecclestone has other ideas. The F1 supremo says that Nelson Piquet will bring his superb crashing skills to Campos as the lead driver. Even though there will be four new teams on the grid next season, they’ll be hard pressed to fall behind this Campos lineup which is destined for Row 13 on the grid.
A while back, I did a post about what the F1 Drivers’ Championship would be like if it was done like the NASCAR Chase for the Sprint Cup. With the season over, let’s take a look at how 2009 would have gone if it had been done chase style.
Format 1 – Top five drivers with five races to go are separated by 2 points with first place at 110 points.
Qualifying – Button 110, Barrichello 108, Vettel 106, Webber 104, Raikkonen 102
Results – Vettel 137, Button 133, Barrichello 129 – Title decided in final race
Format 2 – Top five drivers with five races to go start with 100 points with a 2 point bonus per win.
Qualifying – Button 112, Vettel 104, Barrichello 102, Webber 102, Raikkonen 102
Results – Button 135, Vettel 135 – Button wins title on tiebreaker
Format 1 would have made Abu Dhabi compelling TV as the championship would have been tied with one race to go. Well, it would have been compelling right until the start of the race when Vettel stormed away Button. Format 2 would have made the race a compelling drama for most of the 55 laps. Vettel gained 4 points on Button but strategy would have given him enough points for the tie. Those six wins at the start of the season really bailed Button out in that second format. If you’re interested, Vettel outscored Button by 8 points over the last five races.
That all being said, I still prefer having the current point standings. Even though the title was clinched with a race to go, it’s better than the manufactured drama of the Chase system. If you thought the debate was hot over whether or not Button was a worthy champion under this format, imagine how much more intense it would be about a Chase champion.
Don’t forget that this was the last race for refuelling in Formula One. Many people won’t miss it because of the costs and safety concerns and influence on the race. I can see this turn out to be exactly like the ban on tire changes in 2005. The racing will be slower, passing won’t be improved, and this will be changed by 2011.
Speaking of last races, this could be the last race for both Sauber Grand Prix (currently under the guise of BMW-Sauber) and Nick Heidfeld. They’ve spent a total of seven seasons together in F1. To celebrate the end of an era, possibly for both driver and team, the Sauber team gave Nick one of his old cars.