F1 Abu Dhabi GP: Passing The Torch

The final race of the season didn’t need a contrived playoff format to produce proper drama in the final round of the 2010 Formula One World Championship. With the World Constructors’ Championship all wrapped up, the Red Bull duo of Mark Webber and Sebastian Vettel looked to steal the championship from Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso. Vettel did all he could to win the title by speeding away from Alonso and Webber but it took a little bit of help for the German to win the World Drivers’ Championship. A bad strategy call dropped Alonso down the standings and it was Sebastian Vettel who won the 2010 Formula One World Championship.

When he took part in Friday practice for BMW Sauber at the 2006 Turkish Grand Prix, he became the youngest driver at an F1 grand prix event at 19 years, 53 days. When he substituted for Robert Kubica in the 2007 US Grand Prix, he became the youngest driver to score points in an F1 race. By the end of the season, he was scooped up for a full-time drive by Scuderia Toro Rosso, the Red Bull junior team. That led to him setting records as the youngest pole sitter and race winner at the 2008 Italian Grand Prix.

With all these records to his credit, it was only fitting that Sebastian Vettel set another record yesterday by becoming the youngest World Drivers’ Champion in Formula One history. Vettel had been the fastest driver all season but had struggled with bad luck and inconsistency which threatened to cost him a title that he seemed destined for heading into the season. It looked like his more level-headed teammate Mark Webber or Ferrari’s new superstar Fernando Alonso would take the crown this year. However, Vettel’s clutch performances over the last two races of the season pulled him from the edge of the championship battle to the top step of the podium when the final checkered flag fell.

•••

There was a race today, by the way. Vettel scored the pole for the race ahead of Lewis Hamilton who still had a slim hope of winning the World Drivers’ Championship. Fernando Alonso qualified in third while Mark Webber started in fifth. Off the lights, Vettel led ahead of Hamilton. Alonso fell to fourth behind Jenson Button but just ahead of Webber. A safety car came immediately for a crash involving Michael Schumacher and Vitantonio Liuzzi. While under the full-course caution, several cars pitted to make their mandatory tire change including Nico Rosberg and Vitaly Petrov.

When the race resumed, the top five held station with Button pulling away from Alonso. However, if the order held, Alonso would be the World Champion by 2 points with 258 to Vettel’s 256. Webber was struggling for grip on the super-soft tires and pitted early to switch to the medium tires, this weekend’s harder compound. The safety car had bunched the field up and caused Webber to fall behind some of the cars that pitted under the safety car. Ferrari made their call to Alonso to change tires shortly afterward. Alonso was able to maintain position ahead of Webber but ended up directly behind Petrov who he would be stuck behind for the remainder of the race. He was also losing distance Nico Rosberg who was running ahead of Petrov. Being held up by Petrov also allowed Robert Kubica to pit and stay ahead of the Russian and Alonso.

The race wasn’t over yet, though. The McLarens were still gunning for the win. If they could get by Vettel for the win, it would give Alonso the title by three points despite being bogged down in 7th. Jenson Button went with an agressive strategy with a long first stint in order to either leapfrog Vettel on the exchange of pit stops or pass him on fresher rubber. However, Button only had a three-second lead by the time he stopped and couldn’t manage to hold the point.

From there, it was cruise control for Vettel. He held a lead of over 13 seconds at one point but gradually backed off to win by a comfortable 10 seconds over Hamilton and Button. Fernando Alonso finished back in seventh and fell just four points short of winning his third World Drivers’ Championship. Sentimental favourite Mark Webber finished the race in 8th and fell 14 points short of his teammate for the title.

Final Championship Standings
1. Sebastian Vettel 256 pts.
2. Fernando Alonso 252 pts.
3. Mark Webber 242 pts.
4. Lewis Hamilton 240 pts.
5. Jenson Button 214 pts.

•••

I’m sure that there is going to be some debate over the fact that Alonso couldn’t get by Petrov despite shadowing him closely for the last 40 or so laps. The cars are the cars, of course. But in retrospect, you can’t help but wonder if the lack of refuelling prevented Alonso and Ferrari from trying something to get by the Renault pair and Rosberg for a shot at the championship. Mind you, one could also call into question the layout of the Yas Marina circuit which is definitely not conducive to overtaking. But like the saying goes, if ifs and buts were candy and nuts, we’d all have a Merry Christmas. In a sport like Formula One, not everyone can have a Merry Christmas, though.

•••

Last week, I mentioned that there was a rumour that Renault was going to sell its stake in its namesake F1 team to the Lotus Group. This week, multiple reports from outside the motorsports press indicate that it’s now a done deal. The Renault motor company is going to sell its 25% stake in Renault F1 to Lotus. The remaining 75% of the team will still be owned by Genii Capital who bought into the team last season. A French business newspaper said that Lotus will also contribute €30 million in sponsorship over each of the next five seasons. The team is supposed to be rechristened Lotus-Renault after the car company and because Renault will still be supplying engines in F1. Red Bull will also continue to run Renault powerplants.

The question is where this leaves the former Lotus team. There seems to have been no reaction from the 1Malaysia group who owns the current Lotus Racing team. Tony Fernandes, the owner of 1Malaysia, bought Team Lotus Ventures Ltd who claim ownership of the Lotus racing legacy and the Team Lotus name along with it. Group Lotus still claims the exclusive rights to the Lotus name for use in motorsports. I don’t doubt that Renault can be called Lotus-Renault. It’s what 1Malaysia will be called that will make for some drama during the off-season.

•••

On a slightly lighter note, there was some good news for Lotus Racing this weekend. They won their season long battle to be ranked the best of F1’s three new teams. They finished the season classified 10th followed by Virgin in 11th and HRT bringing up the back of the pack.

Lotus team principal Tony Fernandes and Virgin F1’s namesake sponsor chief Richard Branson made a unique wager at the start of the season. The team owner whose squad finished behind the other in the Constructors’ Championship would have to serve on the winning owner’s airline as a flight attendant. That means that Branson will be serving as a flight attendant on a flight of Fernandes’ Air Asia. Fernandes even had a uniform and name tag ready for Branson when the checkered flag fell on the final race of the season.

At least you have to give credit to these guys. Not many F1 big wigs would be willing to make a bet like this, let alone go through on it at season’s end.

•••

And back to bad news, Williams GP have dropped Nico Hulkenberg from the team. He lasted only one year replacing Kaz Nakajima. The move was long rumoured to be happening but it doesn’t make a damn bit of sense to me. After all, Hulkenberg put in the drive of Williams’ season to decimate the competition en route to the pole at the Brazilian Grand Prix. We can only assume that decision was made and set in stone long before last week’s race. Hulkenberg’s future in F1 isn’t looking very good. The only mid-pack drives available appear to be Petrov’s seat at Renault and Sebastien Buemi’s seat at Toro Rosso. There is also a rumour that Jarno Trulli could be out at Lotus/1Malaysia. Hopefully the German can find a ride a seat in F1 next season because he’s shown a lot of potential this season.

Rubens Barrichello will be back for his 19th season in F1. That breaks Graham Hill’s records for most seasons active in Formual One. It looks as though he will be paired with 2010 GP2 champion Pastor Maldonado. I hope he knows what he’s getting into because the last defending GP2 champion to go to Williams got bounced after one year. Unlike Hulkenberg, Maldonado brings a wealth of sponsorship money with him from Venezuelan company PDVSA. Even a storied team like Williams needs a pay driver every now and then.

•••

A disagreement between the promoters of the Australian Grand Prix and CAMS, the Australian motorsport governing body, threatens to force the cancellation of the 2011 race. The promoters have asked CAMS to lower the fee they charge to help organize the race, believed to be around £500,000, but CAMS isn’t budging. In order to expedite a solution to the disagreement, CAMS is threatening to ask the FIA to drop the race from the calendar if things aren’t settled by Friday. The race has an apparently iron clad agreement with Bernie Ecclestone and the promoters expect him to intervene to ensure that everything  is resolved amicably. But given that Bernie isn’t too keen to keep Australia on the calendar because it isn’t run at a good time for European viewers, I wouldn’t count on his support.

•••

And that wraps up the 2010 Formula One World Championship. I won’t be until March that the F1 circus resumes in full force for the Bahrain Grand Prix to kick off the 2011 World Championship. The teams will still be hard at work with the rookie test, the Pirelli tire test and winter test. We’ll drop in periodically with testing news and breaking stories from F1.

So until the next time, don’t get stuck behind Vitali Petrov.

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