Final race of gruelling, thrilling season has four drivers in championship contention
After 220 days without rain in Abu Dhabi, clouds appeared over the parched sands this week. Since a wet track is a factor almost as essential as a hint of skulduggery to enliven any grand prix, observers were tempted to detect the influence of Bernie Ecclestone in creating freak conditions for the showdown to the 2010 season, the first time in six decades of world championship history that four drivers have gone into the final race of the year with a chance of winning the title.
On Tuesday, as the members of the grand prix circus began assembling at this futuristic circuit, built on a man-made archipelago close to the capital of the richest of the United Arab Emirates, they were greeted by a brief shower. Yesterday morning came a downpour that soaked the circuit and kept most of the Formula One cars in their garages as they waited for the track to dry. The weekend forecast indicates 1mm of rain tomorrow, although there is no guarantee that its arrival will be delayed until 5pm local time (1pm in the UK), when the race, which begins in daylight and ends under floodlights, is scheduled to start.
No season has ever been launched with higher expectations, based on the promise of a battle royal between a field containing four world champions, among them Michael Schumacher, making an unexpected return from retirement. The comeback of the seven-times champion turned out to be an anti-climax, as did the opening race at another desert circuit, in Bahrain. Since then, however, the season has pulsated with incident, spectacle and close competition, and now Ecclestone is able to repay the Abu Dhabi rulers’ huge investment by bringing the show to their track with the title still at stake and no shortage of intrigue in the paddock.
Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso, viewed by most of Fleet Street as the sport’s very own pantomime villain, is the favourite to be celebrating his third championship tomorrow night. Mark Webber, lying eight points behind the Spanish driver, needs to win the race in his Red Bull, with Alonso finishing no higher than third, in order to grab the opportunity of becoming the third Australian to hold the title. For that, however, he may require the co-operation of Sebastian Vettel, his team-mate, who will start the race with his own chance of entering the record books as the youngest ever champion but has hinted that if he is not able to win it himself, he may be ready to give in to the pressure to hand victory to a man 11 years his senior.
The fourth contender, Lewis Hamilton, lies 24 points behind Alonso, 16 behind Webber and nine behind Vettel, which leaves him needing snookers, or at least the sort of chaos generally brought about by a sharp shower early in the race, if he is to win his second title. His silver McLaren glittered under the lights as he set the fastest time in yesterday evening’s second practice session, which was an encouraging start.
So the stage is set for an epic shoot-out. After 18 rounds and more than 2,600 miles of racing across four continents, the issue will be settled over 55 laps of a 3.45-mile track which winds around a harbour, under a seven-star hotel enclosed in a glass bubble and past spectacular canopied grandstands. Unstained by the blood and grime of history, the Yas Marina circuit resembles an airbrushed setting for a video game and could hardly be less like such traditional battlegrounds as the Belle Epoque amphitheatre of Monaco, the majestic flat-out challenges of Spa-Francorchamps and Monza, the open countryside of Silverstone or the howling, passion-filled cockpit of Interlagos.
But this, by Ecclestone’s decree, is Formula One’s future. In resolutely following the scent of new money, the sport’s ruthless impresario has fulfilled his ambition to turn grand prix racing into a genuinely worldwide enterprise. Next year there will be a race in Delhi, followed by one in Austin, Texas in 2013 and another in Sochi, Russia a year later.
The first world championship, in 1950, was decided over seven rounds, all but one in Europe. This year there have been 19, involving each member of the eight UK-based teams in a travel itinerary totalling just over a quarter of a million miles, 54,000 of them in the past eight weeks as the campaign reached its climax with a hectic succession of trips to the far east, South America and the Persian Gulf.
This weekend most of the teams’ workers are running on empty, relying on a squirt of adrenaline to see them through to the finish. Not all, however, will admit to exhaustion.
“Not this year,” Ole Schack, a 32-year-old Dane who is the No2 mechanic on Vettel’s car, said yesterday in Abu Dhabi’s spacious paddock. “Not at all. We’ve had a fantastic season and when you go from one strong result to another, you look forward to the next race – even if it’s a tight schedule and you’ve got a lot of work to do in between.”
The two Red Bull drivers have won eight of the 18 races between them, scoring maximum points for a one-two finish in Sao Paulo last weekend as the Milton Keynes-based team, who took over the Jaguar infrastructure in 2005, wrapped up their first constructors’ championship. “That means a huge amount to us,” Schack said. “It’s what every team works towards, and in six years we’ve achieved the biggest prize in Formula One.”
Not, of course, the most glamorous. It is the drivers’ title that engages the emotions of the sport’s global audience, but Schack was adamant that no special tensions are evident in the Red Bull camp this weekend as Vettel and Webber prepare to fight it out with Alonso and Hamilton. “The pressure’s always there,” he said. “You prepare to be the best you can, and this weekend is no different.”
For Andy Latham, who has spent this season as Hamilton’s race engineer, and who says he will only allow himself to feel exhausted once the season is over, the year’s fortunes have been more fluctuating. The McLaren team began with the surprise package of the innovative F-duct, but took time to get into a winning stride.
“For me the high point was Lewis’s win in Canada, which was strategically a tough race,” said Latham. “The low point was the crash with Webber in Singapore – our second failure to finish in a row, which made the championship look a lot more difficult. Lewis was a little bit down after that. We all were. The car was a match for anything at that point and he was driving fantastically.”
The reference point has been the speed of the Red Bulls. “All three of the leading teams have been battling hard to upgrade their cars all year,” Latham said, “and we’ve done a good job to be where we are. But they’ve been the class of the field in terms of ultimate pace for most of the season, to be honest.”
Of all the contenders, Hamilton and Latham have the most straightforward task. “We’ve got to win the race,” the 32-year-old engineer said. “We can’t do a lot about what happens to the rest. It’s just got to be a perfect weekend.”
For Ferrari, who are sponsored by one of Abu Dhabi’s investment companies and who launched their vast theme park – complete with a 150mph rollercoaster ride – next to the track this week, the perfect weekend would involve a championship for Alonso in his first season with the team. The four horsemen of this season’s F1 apocalypse topped the timing sheets under the lights last night, with Hamilton ahead of Vettel, Alonso and Webber. Were they to finish the race itself in that order, the title would be the Spaniard’s.
“We need to do the things we normally do,” Stefano Domenicali, the team’s 45-year-old principal, said last night, knowing that the Scuderia Ferrari long ago outgrew a reputation for imploding under pressure. “We don’t need to think too hard or make too many strategies, otherwise you get lost.
“Every one of us is trying to control the emotions that we feel inside,” he concluded, speaking for his own team but echoing the thoughts of all those with a stake in this most compelling of Formula One finales.