Whether it was the thought of the impeding winter break, the absence of a title battle, or the fact that half of the drivers are still looking for a seat next year, Formula One’s first ever twilight grand prix was a relatively tame affair – the last few laps aside – when compared to the carnage of the opening few laps in Brazil a fortnight ago.
For a brief moment it looked as though Hamilton and his McLaren team, fittingly graced by the presence of Ron Dennis at the season finale, would finish the 2009 season as they had intended to start it: quick, reliable mightily dominant.
Then on Lap 21 of the inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix it became clear that they would finish the season exactly as they started it as poor reliability intervened to prevent the Hamilton-McLaren package undoing some of the damage that a year of frustration, poor pace, and missed opportunity has inflicted.
The raw underlying pace of the McLaren MP4-24 around the demanding new Yas Marina circuit, marking the team’s sizeable turnaround in performance, was of little consolation to Hamilton as he was instructed to tour into the pitlane with a suspected brake problem. A short justification and apology from team principal Martin Whitmarsh to his driver marked the end of a frustrating season for the Woking team.
That enabled Vettel – who in fairness to Red Bull had already leapfrogged Hamilton at the first round of pitstops after hounding the McLaren driver through the opening laps – to canter to the chequered flag ahead of Mark Webber, sealing the team’s third 1-2 finish of the season.
Vettel, who remained an outside contender for the title going into the Brazilian Grand Prix – and arguably could have clinched the championship with better reliability from his Red Bull car – said the result was the perfect way to finish the season.
“It was a fantastic race,” he said in the post-race press conference. “We had a very good launch, a good start. It was not enough to out-accelerate Lewis but it was close, I was surprised.”
“Then going on the long back straight he pushed the [KERS] button and that was it, he disappeared into the distance. I was able to stay close, we knew we were heavier but I was able to keep with him. There was a lot of pressure in the pitstops.
“After that he retired but it was a fantastic race. I had a gap to Jenson and Mark behind so I was able to pace myself, but the car was fantastic on both tyres. It was a pleasure to sit in the car tonight.
“To sum up the season, it is up and down. The second half we have been very strong, fourth 1-2 for Red Bull, so congratulation to the team. They have been pushing a lot, working a lot. It is a perfect way to finish the season on a high.”
Newly crowned world champion Jenson Button conceded that there was little he and Brawn could have done to stop Red Bull winning the race.
“I was struggling a bit with the prime tyre but I tried to make the best out of it,” he said. “After the second stop I found I had very good grip and had good initial turn in and that was why I was able to close down Mark.”
Speaking of his assault on Mark Webber in the closing laps, Button added: “I couldn’t make the move stick. I was very excited by that battle but Mark is a very difficult person to overtake. We were clean but on the edge. It’s disappointing not to get second place but I enjoyed the fight.
“Today was a bonus after winning title in Brazil, I enjoyed driving this weekend. After Brazil it would have been easy to say let’s enjoy ourselves and not worry about Abu Dhabi – but we did.
“We should be proud of what we achieved. But [Red Bull] had the legs on us so we could not challenge.”
Vettel meanwhile was quick to congratulate Button and Brawn for their achievement across the season.
“Obviously I think there was a misunderstanding in Brazil that I didn’t have the chance, so congratulations to Brawn and Button,” he said.
“After Brazil, coming here we knew we had a very, very strong package and the priority number one was to secure second in the drivers’ championship, and we succeeded. To do it with victory is the best possible result.”
“It would be very good to continue like that,” he said. “Now we face a long winter, especially for all us drivers, there’s long break with no testing. Back in England, back in the factory, the guys are pushing very hard. The cars do not change much until next year but you cannot refuel, so it is a bit unknown.
“This season was very special, I remember a couple of years back those two were driving and I was watching. Hopefully the next one will be as exciting as this one. I’m definitely looking forward.
“We had a very, very good season, some positive but some things we did wrong. It is not a shame, we just need to know and understand why that happened and come back next year.”
Abu Dhabi was Button’s opportunity to assert himself and demonstrate that he has what it takes to stand alongside the likes of Alonso, Hamilton and Raikkonen when the predicted McLaren-Ferrari line-ups are confirmed next year.
To that end, Button could have delivered more. Out-qualified by his teammate again and perhaps not aggressive enough against Webber in the final few laps, the man from Frome will have to up his game in 2010 when McLaren and Ferrari will no doubt close the performance gap.
Elsewhere, Kamui Kobayashi impressed in only his second race for Toyota with an auspicious passing move on Jenson Button on the back of a duel down the long back straight.
Nick Heidfeld may just retain his seat at BMW Sauber next year following his charge to fifth place, but doubt looms over Heikki Kovalainen. A five place grid penalty set him back but a rather unspectacular climb to eleventh place did little to get him noticed.
Ferrari struggled badly at the new Yas Marina circuit. Kimi Raikkonen who finished in twelfth place behind Kovalainen will no doubt be hoping to get that McLaren contracted sorted out sooner rather than later.
Renault’s miserable season was compounded with Alonso climbing to fourteenth place after getting knocked out of opening qualifying, while questions continue to be asked about the
Forced India seemed to take a step back in performance with Toni Liuzzi finishing in fifteenth place with Sutil ahead of his ex-teammate Giancarlo Fisichella in seventeenth.