Mercedes entered the Abu Dhabi finale only four points ahead of Ferrari in the constructors’ championship. Given the Italian team’s strong form in the last few rounds, Ferrari were optimistic they could snatch the place at the 11th hour, a feeling that was only enhanced when Charles Leclerc qualified on the front row, two places ahead of George Russell’s Mercedes.

    Even though Carlos Sainz’s contribution to the task was potentially compromised by his failing to make it out of Q1, so too was Lewis Hamilton’s at Mercedes after going out in Q2. The focus was very much on Leclerc vs Russell.

    READ MORE: ‘Emotional’ Verstappen praises Red Bull for ‘incredible season’ after scoring 19th win of the year in Abu Dhabi

    Plan A for both Leclerc and Russell was to one-stop with a medium-hard sequence, but knowing that they could be pulled into stopping again if the tyre degradation was higher than anticipated. Because the race was potentially just on the cusp between one and two stops, everyone had retained both sets of hard tyres.

    Leclerc maintained his grid position at the start, Russell dropped a place to fifth as Lando Norris’ McLaren got around his outside in Turn 1-2. Leclerc’s opening lap was quite aggressive as he attempted to wrestle the lead from Max Verstappen on a couple of occasions but by the time DRS was enabled on the third lap, Verstappen was already out of range.

    ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26: Third placed George Russell of Great Britain and
    Russell's P3 was enough to clinch second overall for his team - but it was a very tight run thing

    It was important not to over-stress the tyres while so heavily-fuelled and so Leclerc settled into a managed pace, helped by the fact that the two McLarens behind him were managing their tyres too, but at a slightly slower pace than the Ferrari. With Russell stuck behind the McLarens, Leclerc was able to ease away from his main rival.

    It was arguably Kevin Magnussen’s offset tyre strategy for Haas towards the back of the field which pulled the race into a two-stop for almost everyone. His plan was always to make his first stop for hards very early – at the end of Lap 5 – in an attempt at making the undercut on the cars around him to boost his track position while the field was still tightly-packed.

    READ MORE: ‘P2 is all that mattered’ – Leclerc explains late-race tactics with Perez in bid to help Ferrari overhaul Mercedes

    Combined with Daniel Ricciardo’s enforced early stop to have a tear-off visor removed from the AlphaTauri’s brake duct on Lap 7, it created gaps for the front runners to potentially drop into a few laps later. Early enough to tempt some to attempt undercuts.

    ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26: Charles Leclerc of Monaco driving the (16) Ferrari
    Leclerc drove his heart out after starting P2 on the grid

    The first to be tempted was Aston Martin with Fernando Alonso, running in seventh place with Yuki Tsunoda and Oscar Piastri just ahead of him. This was at the end of Lap 12, far too early for a one-stop. He was told to do the opposite of whatever Tsunoda did and as the AlphaTauri stayed out (he was sticking to the one-stop plan), so Alonso pitted, rejoining in the 9s gap of clear air between Sargeant and Ricciardo towards the back.

    This had a cascading effect, as McLaren chose to defend Piastri’s track position and so brought him in on the next lap, getting him out just ahead.

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    Meanwhile, Mercedes had been planning for Russell to make an undercut attempt on Norris, but that plan was spoilt by McLaren bringing in Norris to prevent him being undercut by Piastri and Alonso. It meant Norris and Russell pitted together on Lap 14 – but George was able to pass the McLaren regardless because of a 2s delay suffered by Norris in the pits. This Alonso-Piastri-Russell-Norris sequence of early stops towards the front pulled the race decisively into a two-stop.

    2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: Leclerc lets Perez past in bid to beat Mercedes in the constructors battle
    2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: Leclerc lets Perez past in bid to beat Mercedes in the constructors battle

    Verstappen and Leclerc had both been feeling their front-right beginning to open up, probably as a consequence of their first lap dice and Verstappen’s subsequent push to be out of Leclerc’s DRS range. They came in on Lap 16 and 17 respectively. Tsunoda remained resolutely on his one-stop plan, pitting from the lead on Lap 22 to exchange his mediums for hards and rejoining in the midfield, having been undercut by the two-stoppers Alonso, Sergio Perez and Hamilton.

    Russell was now running third and, having pitted three laps earlier than Leclerc, was now much closer to him – almost within DRS range. Russell briefly tried to push up into that DRS reach but was discouraged from persevering with this when Leclerc responded and opened out the gap once more.

    READ MORE: Russell delighted to seal P2 in constructors' for Mercedes as Abu Dhabi podium concludes 'challenging season'

    The Ferrari definitely had the edge on speed and seemed to be looking after its tyres just as well as the Mercedes. But if they finished like this, Leclerc’s 18 points vs Russell’s 15 would not in itself be enough for Ferrari to deprive Mercedes of that valuable second place.

    2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: Leclerc left gutted as Ferrari lose out to Mercedes
    2023 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix: Leclerc left gutted as Ferrari lose out to Mercedes

    In which case, the fortunes of Sainz and Hamilton could be the decider. Sainz’s day was going very badly. Starting on the hards, Ferrari had planned to one-stop him, which should have allowed him to gain lots of track position places from his lowly 16th place start. But the hards were absolutely finished after just 23 laps and in being forced to pit so relatively early, the 35 laps remaining was far too long for the medium tyre to be able to cover.

    As this meant he was consigned to a two-stop, he was fitted with another set of hards. The late second stop for mediums he was obliged to make to conform to the two compound requirement dropped him out of the points even before he was retired with a PU problem. So Leclerc’s strong second place just wasn’t going to be enough – especially as Hamilton looked set to finish in the lower end of the top 10 to take more points to add to Russell’s haul.

    READ MORE: No regrets for Tsunoda as AlphaTauri narrowly miss out on P7 in the championship to Williams

    But then came opportunity for Leclerc, in the unlikely shape of Perez. Checo had been making good progress from his ninth place starting position. The Red Bull’s tyres were hanging on better than most and he’d made a late conversion from his one-stop to a two, coming in for his second stop on Lap 42, nine laps later than Russell.

    He thus had a big tyre advantage in the last stint and made good use of it but had incurred a five-second time penalty along the way for contact with Norris. With just four laps to go he was catching the Mercedes fast and Russell was powerless to prevent him surging by in the DRS zone up to Turn 9. But so long as Russell could remain within less than five seconds of the Red Bull in the remaining four laps, the place would still be officially his.

    ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - NOVEMBER 26: Second placed Charles Leclerc of Monaco and Ferrari
    The rivals were able to smile at the end of a very close season between their teams

    Leclerc was ready for just such an opportunity. If he could allow Perez to pass him on the road, it might enable the Red Bull driver to pull out more than 5s on Russell. If this happened it would cost Russell three points. So long as Leclerc then remained less than 5s behind Perez, his second place would score him six more points than Russell’s fourth. With Ferrari needing just five more points than Mercedes for the constructors’, suddenly it was game on.

    But there was a complication: Hamilton. He was running in eighth, but if he could pass Tsunoda for seventh, he’d take six points rather than four. Which would be enough to secure Mercedes the position even if Russell was demoted by Leclerc’s plan.

    READ MORE: Norris hails ‘exciting times ahead’ for McLaren after team clinch P4 in constructors’ in Abu Dhabi

    That was how it was poised going into the last lap. Leclerc backed off and allowed Perez past but didn’t then back off significantly to delay Russell and crossed the line only 1.5s behind Checo. Given that Russell was 3s behind, he was still able to push hard enough that he was within 3.9s of Perez at the flag.

    Which was just as well – because although Hamilton had succeeded in getting past Tsunoda into Turn 9 on the last lap, he couldn’t hold onto the position, running wide on the exit.

    That was how Mercedes’ second place in the constructors’ was secured by 1.1s on the very last lap of the season.

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