Feature F1 Unlocked
Elbows out and Logan's last chance – What To Watch For in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix
There's just one final chance to go racing for these Formula 1 cars in 2023 and it’s set to be a tense evening in Abu Dhabi for the teams with final championship positions still up for grabs for eight of the 10. Ahead of the season finale, Chris Medland highlights some key areas to look out for on race day at the Yas Marina Circuit…
1. Verstappen facing multiple threats
Once again it is Max Verstappen on pole position, and while he has often faced a clear threat from one team at each venue, this weekend it feels like there are three who could put the pressure on him in the race.
Charles Leclerc secured a spot alongside Verstappen on the front row and it was only a week ago that the pair were sliding off track together at Turn 1, with Leclerc very much in the fight for victory in Las Vegas.
This weekend Leclerc is in the mix again but he’s joined by McLaren, with Oscar Piastri the nearest threat in third and Lando Norris disappointed to be starting fifth. Norris felt he had the car for the front row or even pole position, but a slide in the final sector cost him over 0.3s.
That opened the door for George Russell to secure fourth place and a second-row starting spot, and Russell has looked comfortable in Abu Dhabi after topping two of the three practice sessions.
Any one of those three teams could provide a stern challenge for Verstappen, particularly if they can get ahead of him on the opening lap as it will put him in the middle of a group of quick cars. If he’s going to make it 19 wins this season – and a 54th career victory to move ahead of Sebastian Vettel on the all-time list – then he might not have it easy.
2. Constructors’ championship permutations
The final standings in the constructors’ championship are important for more than just pride, because they define how much each team receives in terms of prize money. Gaining a position – or losing it – can be worth in the region of $10million, and that has a significant impact on the following season’s budget.
Only Red Bull and Alpine are already confirmed in their positions of first and sixth respectively, with Mercedes and Ferrari fighting it out for second place, separated by just four points. McLaren have an 11-point advantage over Aston Martin for fourth overall, and then there are four teams scrapping for the final four places.
Williams currently sit seventh and have a seven-point lead over AlphaTauri, but Alfa Romeo (12 points back) and Haas (16 adrift) are both still in with a mathematical chance of finishing in that seventh-place spot. And by extension, that means all four could also theoretically finish bottom of the standings, although that would take a remarkable set of results to come to fruition.
Either way, the culmination of a whole season of racing comes down to a final round where one surprise result can totally transform a team’s finishing position.
3. Sainz on the charge, again
Carlos Sainz was faced with a challenge to fight through the field from 12th in Las Vegas after a grid penalty last weekend, and this time around he faces an even bigger task.
A crash in FP2 in Abu Dhabi heavily damaged his car and cost him most of Friday’s representative running, so it wasn’t exactly a surprise to see him slightly further off the pace on Saturday. But dropping out in Q1 was unexpected, as he ended up 16th on the grid.
The Spaniard blamed traffic for hurting his lap and said he wasn’t surprised to be eliminated, but he doesn’t have the car advantage that he had in Las Vegas this weekend, even if team mate Charles Leclerc secured second on the grid.
With Ferrari needing to outscore Mercedes by those four points mentioned above, Sainz will be on the attack when the lights go out.
4. Logan Sargeant’s final chance
Only one seat remains unconfirmed on the 2024 grid, and it’s that of Logan Sargeant at Williams. Team principal James Vowles has been clear for a number of months that he will only make a decision on Sargeant’s future after the end of the season, and he’s sticking by that stance despite an upturn in form from the American rookie in the past few races.
Sargeant secured a career-best sixth on the grid in Las Vegas and also scored his first point in Formula 1 in Austin, but he enters Sunday’s race with it potentially being his last Grand Prix for the foreseeable future if Williams do opt to make a change.
Vowles set out a number of targets for Sargeant to hit to try and secure his future, and the fact that a decision has yet to be made would suggest that some of those targets still need to be met, or other pitfalls need to be avoided.
That naturally adds pressure that the 22-year-old has so far handled well in the latter part of the season, but it appeared to show in qualifying as he exceeded track limits at Turn 1 on both of his Q1 laps and ended up without a time despite being quick enough for Q2. The knowledge that Sunday is his last opportunity to stake his claim will only ramp that up further.
5. Elbows out!
Following on from Sargeant’s position, it’s still the last opportunity for all of the drivers to go racing in anger this year – and to end the season on a high.
There’s no next week to worry about, and many parts won’t need repairing to use again (although there will be crossover with the 2024 components in some cases). That’s not to say drivers are going to be reckless and not wanting to take care of their machinery, but if ever there is a time that they can just take that tiny bit more risk than normal, it’s this weekend.
So keep an eye out for some feistier battles than usual and potential contact as drivers don’t quite give the space they might have a few weeks ago, knowing that the final result will be the one they are carrying into the winter and through to Bahrain in 2024.