Feature F1 Unlocked
The story of the 2010 Abu Dhabi GP – when four drivers went into the season finale with a shot at the title
Abu Dhabi has seen some spectacular and controversial world championship deciders – and its first came after a gripping 2010 season.
An historic affair, it marked the first time in history that four drivers were in the fight going into the season finale: Fernando Alonso, Mark Webber, Sebastian Vettel and Lewis Hamilton. So what had brought them to this fascinating point, and what did each have to do? David Tremayne remembers that dramatic day at the Yas Marina Circuit...
Fernando Alonso – 246 points
It had been an interesting journey for the Spaniard, who lapsed into a wilderness in the years after his two world titles with Renault in 2005 and ’06.
His career with Ferrari began brilliantly in 2010 with victory first time out in Bahrain, echoing the achievements of Nigel Mansell and Kimi Raikkonen on their debuts with the Prancing Horse.
But then Ferrari’s performance slumped until a lucky second place in Spain, and there were accidents (highly unusual for Alonso), notably the costly shunt at Massenet during Saturday morning practice which so compromised his race in Monaco, and another when he was running well down in the rain in Belgium after early attack by Rubens Barrichello.
Team strategy cost him a possible win in Canada, and his own folly in passing Robert Kubica illegally in Britain and then not immediately handing the place back to the Pole cost him dear.
Then came the controversial victory gifted to him by reluctant team mate Felipe Massa in Germany, two excellent wins in Italy and Singapore – the first dominant, the second canny – and another well-judged, albeit fortunate, triumph in the rain in Korea.
Since that gaffe in Spa, the Spaniard had amassed 105 points, the highest total by far for the five races, and that was what set up his tilt at a third title.
A second place in Abu Dhabi would be enough, regardless of which Red Bull might win. But if he was third and Webber beat Vettel, it would be all over for him.
Mark Webber – 238 points
Webber’s season began poorly, with eighth in Bahrain as Vettel dominated and then an overdriven ninth in Australia. But an assured second to Vettel in Malaysia got him going and he followed up with a dominant victory in Spain that reminded everyone that his successes in Germany and Brazil the previous year had been far from fluke results.
He followed that with a wonderful victory at Monaco, and suddenly the veteran Australian was the man to beat. Unfortunately the need for a precautionary gearbox change before the start compromised his race in Canada by costing him five grid places (he started seventh instead of second).
He finished fifth there, then had that spectacular 360 degree backflip over Heikki Kovalainen’s Lotus in the Grand Prix of Europe in Valencia, after misjudging how much earlier the driver of a car with much less downforce than his Red Bull would have to brake.
He bounced back from that, and a controversial moment when team mate Vettel was given his new front wing for qualifying, to dominate the British GP and take his third win of the season. Germany brought only sixth place, but Hungary yielded another excellent win as Vettel, by his own admission, “fell asleep” during a Safety Car intervention.
There hadn’t been any wins since then, and starting problems beyond his control hurt him in Belgium before he recovered to second, Italy gave him only sixth, Singapore third and Japan second before that expensive mistake in Korea cost him his long-held points lead. He bounced back from that with second, despite an overheating engine, in Brazil.
Assuming that Alonso finished no higher than third, victory would do the trick for Webber regardless of where Vettel finished. But if Seb won with Alonso second, it would be all over for the Australian.
Sebastian Vettel – 231 points
After the way that he dominated the Bahrain and Australian Grands Prix, Sebastian Vettel seemed a shoe-in for the 2010 world title. But a spark plug problem, of all things, dropped him to third in the opening race, and then brake problems took him out in the second.
He won the third convincingly in Malaysia, before sixth in China was followed by a beaten but troubled third in Spain and second in Monaco.
His mistake in turning in too sharply as he overtook team mate Webber in Turkey was much publicised and took him a while to get his head around, then came fourth in Canada, a much-needed second victory in Valencia, a poor seventh in Britain, and a distant third in Germany.
It seemed inconceivable that the man in the best car was being left behind by a man more than 10 years his senior. Webber dished out another beating in Hungary and Vettel got a drive-through penalty for falling too far behind him (and thus holding up Alonso).
In Belgium he was a little too adventurous in his pursuit of Jenson Button and speared into the McLaren after losing control behind it in the early going. He failed to score there, but a long talk with himself saw a revitalized Vettel for the remainder of the year, with fourth in Italy, second in Singapore, and wins in Japan and Brazil book-ending engine failure while leading in Korea.
He not only needed to win in Yas Marina – if Alonso was third, even victory wouldn’t seal the championship for the young German, who needed Alonso sixth or lower. It would be okay if Webber finished second to him, because though they’d tie on 256 points, Vettel would get the title with five wins to four.
Lewis Hamilton – 224 points
McLaren began the season full of hopeful expectation. The KERS-equipped MP4-24 had been a massive disappointment at the start of 2009 but a tremendous effort by the Woking team had massaged it into a race winner by the end of it, and the Tim Goss-designed MP4-25’s gorgeous lines heralded a competitive package that helped Jenson Button to early victories in Australia and China.
Hamilton’s season began with third place in Bahrain, where it was clear more performance was needed. Australia and Malaysia yielded only sixths after fighting drives, he was second to Button on worn tyres in China, then lost a fighting second place through mechanical failure in Spain.
Monaco yielded only fifth, but then came two good wins: in Turkey after the Red Bulls crashed and he sat it out side-by-side with Button into the first corner, and Canada where he dominated. Seconds in Valencia and Britain furthered his cause and he bounced back to win in Belgium after a fourth in Germany and another retirement in Hungary.
Thereafter it all fell apart. McLaren continued to keep updating their car, but their modifications seemed less effective than either Red Bull’s or Ferrari’s, and gradually he lost crucial ground.
Non-finishes in both Italy and Singapore, following impetuous ‘racer’ clashes with Felipe Massa and Webber respectively, had a massively detrimental effect on his title hopes at a time when he really needed to be scoring. Fifth in Japan was followed by second in Korea, and fourth in Brazil just helped to keep him in the fight.
His aim was straightforward: the 2008 world champion had to win. But he also needed all three rivals to fail to score. In that highly unlikely eventuality he would take the title by a point from the Spaniard.
How it all worked out
In the end, victory fell to Sebastian, and the new youngest-ever champion admitted that despite leading every lap except during pit stops he wasn’t even aware of the overall situation until he drove past the chequered flag.
“The last 10 laps I was wondering as my race engineer Guillaume Rocquelin was trying to give some advice and trying to help me carry the car home. I was thinking, ‘Why is this guy nervous? We must be in a bloody good position.’
“Then crossing the line he came on the radio very silently and said ‘It’s looking good, but we have to wait until the cars finish.’ I was thinking ‘What does he mean?’
“And then he said, ‘Sebastian Vettel, you are the world champion, well done, enjoy it. You are the man!’”
From his 10th pole he led from Lewis and Jenson as the McLarens outdragged Fernando for third and Mark slotted into fifth.
But the outcome of the championship was effectively decided on the opening lap when Michael Schumacher spun and was mounted by an unsighted Tonio Liuzzi. As the Safety Car was deployed Mercedes crucially brought in Nico Rosberg to switch to the harder compound Bridgestone tyres, and Renault did likewise with Vitaly Petrov. Both stops would later play key roles.
Mark also stopped for the harder tyres on Lap 11 – and that was where Ferrari’s race went wrong. They called in Felipe Massa two laps later from sixth place, almost certainly with the intention of trying to get him ahead of Webber and stall him.
Mark had already lost ground behind Red Bull stablemate Vettel which had messed up his chances of undercutting Alonso, but as Adrian Newey observed, “Had Alguersuari not backed up Mark, Ferrari would not have bothered trying to cover him.”
Then Ferrari made another error of strategic calculation by calling Fernando in two laps later still. He got out still ahead of Webber, but arguably only because of Alguersuari’s intransigence – but they had now both fallen into the midfield pack right behind Petrov.
To the Scuderia’s dismay, Lewis didn’t stop until the 23rd lap, Seb the 24th. That put Jenson briefly into the lead, and while Lewis got stuck behind Robert Kubica’s swift Renault, Fernando to his intense frustration watched his chances of a third title evaporate as he was trapped behind Kubica’s team mate. Mark himself was stuck behind the Spaniard’s Ferrari as Seb raced clear.
Fernando almost got the job done on Lap 23, but he rubbed his front wing against one of Petrov’s rear tyres and slid wide. Earlier, Mark had got away with clobbering a wall with his right rear wheel on the eighth lap. But this day he didn’t have the sheer pace he had shown so often that year, and was unable to take advantage when Fernando had other momentary off-track excursions.
So lap after lap the three of them ran around nose to tail, stalemated, and since neither Nico nor Vitaly needed to stop again, it was all too clear that Fernando’s hopes were doomed even if he managed to pass Petrov, because he needed fourth overall if he was to avoid losing out to Seb on fourth place countbacks. As it was, he failed to dislodge the Russian.
As an intensely frustrated Alonso wept, Ferrari team principal Stefano Domenicali admitted: “There is a great sadness at this moment, because to come so close to our goal and to see it slip away for just a few points really hurts.
“We made a wrong decision in terms of strategy for three reasons: we marked a rival with two cars, we were unduly concerned about the wear rate of the soft tyres and we did not take into consideration the difficulty of getting past other cars on the track…”
After so much valiant effort all season, Webber’s campaign thus fell apart on the final day, and that mistake in Korea came back to haunt the Aussie battler even more.
So in the end Seb won the big prize with 256 points from Fernando on 252, Mark on 242 and second placed Lewis on 240. Red Bull had already clinched the constructors’ title, and ended the year with 498 points to McLaren’s 454 and Ferrari’s 396.
As F1’s most dramatic season in many years drew to its close there was one final irony for Sebastian’s rivals. As they had battled all year the only day on which he actually led the chase was the last. The one that mattered.