I was there… for the very first Abu Dhabi GP
Hall of Fame Journalist David Tremayne has attended every race on the Grand Prix calendar since the beginning of 1988. Here, he looks back at the 2009 Abu Dhabi GP – F1's first visit to Yas Marina with its glitz, glamour and a memorable battle between Brawn and Red Bull.
They say that you never forget your first time. Well, Emiratis certainly never forgot the first Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, which was held on November 1st, 2009 on the Yas Marina Circuit.
Despite all the opulence, however, and the signature Yas Hotel which spanned the track and whose roof featured rainbow colours that flickered dramatically as day turned to dusk in the inaugural day/night race here, it was Jenson Button’s late charge after Mark Webber’s second place that made the inaugural twilight race, which otherwise never quite reached the spectacular heights of its surroundings.
I’d gone out there feeling excited. I’d never really ‘got’ the Middle East until I attended a motorsport symposium in Sakhir in the week leading up to the Bahrain GP in 2008. Later that year my best friend left F1 and moved to Dubai, and I’d visited her twice in the intervening months and come to love the place. Now, here we were in the parent emirate, finding it a little less glitzy and spectacular than its offspring, a little more refined and mature.
Clearly no expense had been spared to make the Yas Marina Circuit something special. Some of us groaned to see so many typical low-gear corners, teasing that track designer Hermann Tilke was obliged to include them to render trackside advertising more visible, and to be honest the general verdict before the action started was that it was like a giant Scalextric track. But the paddock was impressive, as was the rest of the infrastructure.
This was going to be F1’s first twilight race (as opposed to Singapore’s night race), so the new timetable took a bit of getting used to. But I think we all fell in love with the paddock when the harsh sun had gone down and the floodlights came on. Like Bahrain’s, it rated as one of F1’s most romantic.
The first half of the season had belonged to the upstart Brawn team, born out of Honda in a cross with Mercedes, at the 11th hour. It had been a real Cinderella story as Jenson Button had exploited double diffuser aerodynamics to trouser six of the first seven races – Australia, Malaysia, Bahrain, Spain, Monaco and Turkey - before he went into a bit of dip just as Sebastian Vettel and Red Bull were gathering pace. Seb had won in China, Britain and Japan. Team mates Mark Webber and Rubens Barrichello had respectively won in Germany and Brazil, and Valencia and Italy.
Jenson never won again as he wobbled after Turkey and gathered only fifths, sixths and sevenths before following Barrichello home in a Brawn 1-2 at Monza. But fifth in Brazil had been sufficient to clinch him the title.
I remember somebody smacking their lips as they swigged wine and said how wonderful everything was, and me exploding verbally that the death of two F1 teams wasn’t my idea of wonderful
That meant that everyone was relaxed in Abu Dhabi, which had a kind of end-of-term feel to it.
It had been a tough year for Lewis Hamilton. When I’d gone to the launch of McLaren’s MP4-24 at the team’s Woking factory in February there had been two surprises. One was that Ron Dennis was handing the reins of running the team over to Martin Whitmarsh. The other was that they seemed to have built an Indycar by mistake. The new contender - the car with which Lewis would defend the world championship he had won in only his second season - looked huge!
It turned out not to be a great car, yet Lewis had won with it in Hungary and Singapore, and taken poles in Italy and Singapore before doing the same here, as a reminder of what he could do with a decent machine.
He grabbed the lead from Seb, and was going away when he began to experience brake problems before he refuelled on the 17th lap. Twice he had run wide in Yas Marina’s faster sweeps, and when Seb ran three laps longer before stopping he was able to negotiate the unusual underground pit-lane exit to emerge comfortably in the lead. Soon afterwards Lewis’s challenge ended when McLaren had to withdraw his car after the telemetry revealed a problem with the right-rear brake pads which were suffering from excessive wear.
I remember Lewis looked and sounded philosophical afterwards. “I had a good start, but I realised early on that something wasn’t right with the brakes,” he told us. “After three or four laps, it became clear that there was a problem with my right-rear brake pads, so I couldn’t open up the gap back to Sebastian and Mark.
“When the problem got worse, the team radioed me and told me to stop at the end of the lap. It’s a shame that we couldn’t show the performance we’d had throughout the weekend – but sometimes that’s racing. But I think we can be really proud of our efforts: who’d have thought we’d finish third in the constructors’ championship at the start of this season? It’s been an incredible year, and now I can’t wait for next season to start so I can fight for the world championship again.”
After that Seb had no competition as he led Mark home in a season-ending Red Bull 1-2, cementing himself second place overall.
“It was a fantastic race,” he told us later with his trademark grin. “I had a very good launch at the start even if it was not good enough to out-accelerate Lewis. But down the long back straight he pushed the magic KERS button that we don’t have and disappeared into the distance. But I was soon able to stay close enough. The car was a dream today, and I was always catching him quite a lot. That was the secret. There was a lot of pressure on me when I was going into pit lane and I went wide, then there was the scary exit, but I was fast enough to go past him.”
I want to enjoy this - we often look too far into the future, and I just want to savour it
Lewis’s demise elevated Mark to second and, initially, he looked safe, but then Jenson began to charge. We’d all been happy to see him win the title, especially after the explosive form he showed in the opening races. But there was a hint of uncertainty about him thereafter, partly because Brawn hadn’t got the budget to develop the BGP 001 as Red Bull came on strong. But all weekend he’d looked like his old self, relaxed, happy, assured, and thankfully he started to exorcise the ghosts of all his shaky performances to enliven what had hitherto been a rather tepid affair.
Rubens had run ahead of him on the opening lap but clipped Mark’s left-rear wheel with the right-hand endplate of his front wing, creating understeer. Jenson overtook him and chased after Mark, though just after his first pit stop he had temporarily to give best to impressive rookie Kamui Kobayashi whose fuel load was much lower.
“It was a fun race,” Jenson said with a huge grin. “The harder, prime Bridgestone tyre was not my favourite tyre. In hindsight, two stints on the softer compound option tyre would have been better and might have let me get closer to the Red Bulls, but we didn’t expect it to be that way. The prime had been better up until today and it was the better tyre for qualifying.”
But as the track and ambient temperatures dropped as twilight fell, he ran into a lot of understeer on the primes in his first two stints as it became more and more difficult to get heat into the front tyres.
“In the second stint Rubens was behind me, sitting on my tail. But then the soft tyre transformed the car in the final stint and suddenly I was able to pull Mark in. Suddenly I had this great front end, with lots of grip on initial turn in, and I could then carry more speed into the corners.”
That switch coincided with Mark struggling on his option tyres, which he said did not give him much feel or confidence, and suddenly what had been a seven-second gap began shrinking at an alarming rate. In the modernistic press room, with its giant information screens up on the walls, we began to wake up again.
On the final lap Jenson actually drew alongside Mark at the end of the 1.2 km back straight, but the Australian handled the situation beautifully, hogging the inside line and forcing the Englishman to go to the outside. They ran side by side for a while, but Mark was able to keep his second place by 0.6s.
“When you’re getting caught you really have to make sure you don’t make any mistakes and give the guy something,” he said, “so I just had to make sure he had to work for it.”
“It was a good tussle, a fair fight,” Jenson said. He was happy to have redeemed his reputation with a feisty, fighting drive, and we were happy for him. “But though I got alongside I just couldn’t quite make the move stick. I thought I might pull it off but Mark is always difficult to overtake. It was clean but on the edge. And it was great to end my championship year with a podium finish.”
On the Saturday night there had been a wonderful party in the balmy paddock, where it overlooked the marina. It was like Monaco, and yet it had a character all its own. It was quite an emotional weekend for me, on a personal level and a couple of others. One of these was that it was the 10th anniversary of promising Canadian racer Greg Moore’s death. Another that both BMW and Toyota were pulling the plug on their F1 efforts. I remember somebody smacking their lips as they swigged wine and said how wonderful everything was, and me exploding verbally that the death of two F1 teams wasn’t my idea of wonderful. Monisha Kaltenborn was a party to that conversation, and I remember the shock on her face, as I’d always managed to be reasonably well-behaved in her hearing. But I’d worked for Sauber from 1997 to 2005 and loved the team, and the idea of it going down the pan because of BMW was too much to contemplate in the mood I was in. It was as if an old friend was lying unseen, drawing their last breath, as the rest of the world yukked it up and partied.
Sunday nights are always a war for us, as we hammer out our various race reports and stories. That Sunday was no different, but there was a friend to see, and I wanted to find John Button. We’d had a big hug in Brazil, of course, where time was even shorter to get things done, and this time we were able to have a longer catch-up. I still remember Sloop Jon B standing there, drink in one hand, in his trademark pink shirt and white trousers, and the look of happiness on his face as he watched his boy celebrating.
“Now I want to go and celebrate what I’ve achieved this season,” Jenson had said. “I want to enjoy this. We often look too far into the future, and I just want to savour it.”
In retrospect JB was probably also contemplating what his son would do when he left Brawn to go to McLaren, but at that stage none of us was aware of that impending bombshell.
It was a great evening, that Sunday. There was hope for Sauber, after all. And there we were, in the Middle East, happy that a long season was over. Savouring the atmosphere, the family spirit, the camaraderie and shared passion that had brought most of us to this place, that inner feeling of pride and contentment to be a part of something extraordinary, something very special.