It would be hard to judge 2009’s inaugural Abu Dhabi Grand Prix - won by Red Bull’s Sebastian Vettel with trademark aplomb - as anything other than a dazzling success, and not just because of the impressive Yas Marina Circuit’s vast array of floodlights or its luminescent, multi-hued, track-spanning hotel.
No, what really illuminated the twilight event was the late-race scrap over second place between Vettel’s team mate Mark Webber and Brawn GP’s newly-crowned world champion Jenson Button.
For much of the race it seemed as though the fans in Abu Dhabi were going to be denied a dramatic finale. In fact, to put it in more blunt terms, it looked like another fantastic season of F1 racing was going to end with a whimper rather than a bang - Webber ran a distant second as Vettel comfortably controlled things up front, while Button, sitting in an equally comfortable third place, struggled with his car’s balance on the harder of Bridgestone’s two tyre compounds.
But everything changed 13 laps from the flag when Button pitted for the second and final time and took on the softer tyre.
“The car felt transformed and suddenly I had a great front end and could carry more speed into the corners,” the Briton would later explain. “That’s why I was able to close down Mark…”
To say Button ‘closed down’ the Australian would be an understatement, for he homed in on Webber like a heat-seeking missile. He was five seconds down when he re-emerged from the pits, but over the final 13 laps he tenaciously chipped away at that advantage, slashing tenth after tenth off the Red Bull driver, who was experiencing a similar, albeit negative, performance swing on Bridgestone’s softer rubber.
“I didn’t have much of a feeling on the option tyre and it was the same for me on Friday,” said Webber. “I was quite slow on that and preferred the stability of the prime. Towards the end of the race, Jenson was able to close the gap to me and I thought ‘this is going to be tight…’”
With six laps to go Button, his distinctive white and yellow Brawn sliding underneath him as he cajoled it around each turn, had more or less latched onto Webber’s gearbox. But it wasn’t until the final two laps that the Briton’s incessant harrying manifested itself in a genuine passing attempt.
First Button had a tentative look up the inside of the Red Bull into Turn 11, then another into Turn 14, but it wasn’t until the duelling duo raced up to Turn 8 on the final lap that, with the aid of a mighty tow, the Brawn driver was able to draw alongside Webber.
Instinctively the Australian moved left to protect the inside line, forcing Button into an unsuccessful lunge around the outside – but the battle was far from over. On the rapid run down to Turn 11, Button again broke out of Webber’s slipstream, and even managed to pull marginally ahead for a split second, but once again the Red Bull driver hogged the inside line, was perfect on the brakes and managed to keep him at bay.
There was still time for Button to have one final look into Turn 14, but when Webber forcefully closed the door for a third time, the Brawn ace could do no more than closely shadow the Australian through the final corners, eventually crossing the line just 0.6s back.
“I was giving everything to take second place from Mark,” said Button afterwards, still pulsing with adrenalin, “but I couldn't quite make the moves stick. He's a very difficult guy to overtake but it was a good clean fight and we were really on the edge. I'm a little bit disappointed not to get second but it's still great to finish on the podium.”
That Webber and Button never actually swapped positions was neither here nor there, for this was racing approaching its finest: fast, fair and breathless. Not only that, but it was - in the end - the perfect way for F1 to sign off on another captivating season.