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Graham Read
Formula 1 Correspondent
5:03 PM 26th November 2023
sports

Mighty Max Eases To Victory In Abu Dhabi

 
After all the glitz, glamour, early controversy, and then the thrilling racing that encapsulated Formula 1’s return to Las Vegas just days ago as Red Bull passed Mercedes’ 2016 record for the most wins in a season, the current campaign concluded today with the now-traditional finale in Abu Dhabi. At the chequered flag at the end of F1’s sell-out 15th visit to this venue, it was Red Bull’s Max Verstappen who comfortably claimed the top step on the final podium of the year after his 19th victory of the season, as Mercedes finished second in the Constructors’ Championship just three points ahead of Ferrari.

Max Verstappen was quietly thrilled to finish an amazing year in style
Max Verstappen was quietly thrilled to finish an amazing year in style
With the punishing travel schedule of the closing part of the season and the fast approaching winter break, news stories were in relatively short supply as everyone convened in the Middle East, with all agreeing that the eight-hour time difference between the UK and Las Vegas, followed immediately by a 12-hour time difference in the opposite direction to Abu Dhabi, would be best avoided in the future if possible.

On a separate front, the American Andretti/General Motors potential new F1 entry issue rumbles on with nothing as yet confirmed regarding power unit suppliers and a possible start date, if at all. There has at least been news from the Italian-based AlphaTauri team that it will definitely have a new and as yet to be revealed Red Bull-related name and branding with effect from 2024, incorporating a couple of new sponsors after a prospective deal was finalised in Las Vegas.

2023 Formula 1 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

1 Max Verstappen (Red Bull) 1hr27m2.624s
2 Charles Leclerc (Ferrari) +17.993s
3 George Russell (Mercedes) +20.328s
4 Sergio Pérez (Red Bull) +21.553s
5 Lando Norris (McLaren) +24.284s
6 Oscar Piastri (McLaren) +31.487s
7 Fernando Alonso (Aston Martin) +39.512s
8 Yuki Tsunoda (AlphaTauri) +43.088s
9 Lewis Hamilton (Mercedes) +44.424s
10 Lance Stroll (Aston Martin) +55.632s
11 Daniel Ricciardo (AlphaTauri) +56.229s
12 Esteban Ocon (Alpine) +1m6.373s
13 Pierre Gasly (Alpine) +1m10.360s
14 Alex Albon (Williams) +1m13.184s
15 Nico Hülkenberg (Haas) +1m23.696s
16 Logan Sargeant (Williams) +1m27.791s
17 Zhou Guanyu (Alfa Romeo) +1m29.422s
18 Valtteri Bottas (Alfa Romeo) Lapped
19 Kevin Magnussen (Haas) Lapped
20 Carlos Sainz (Ferrari) Retired
An extraordinary spat developed. In the build-up to this weekend, longtime Red Bull team principal Christian Horner revealed that the father of Mercedes’ Sir Lewis Hamilton had sounded him out earlier this year with a general query about possible seat availability in the future. This was while his son was still in protracted contract renewal negotiations with Mercedes before eventually signing a new two-year deal. However, Hamilton quickly seemed to deny in Abu Dhabi that this was true, claiming that it was Horner who had contacted him. The bottom line is that all drivers and teams ought to always be keeping an eye on which seats and which drivers might be available, and so too much should not be read into the Horner/Hamilton issue as such things happen all the time in the F1 paddock.

One thing we know for certain, though, is that on Thursday of the Abu Dhabi weekend, Mercedes team principal Toto Wolff and his counterpart at Ferrari, Fred Vasseur, were summoned before the stewards about the inappropriate language they had used during a fiery press conference after Free Practice 1 in Las Vegas. Both were given formal warnings about their future conduct.

The Yas Marina circuit in Abu Dhabi is an impressive affair, particularly as the sun goes below the horizon, but over the years it has also acquired a reputation for at times less than thrilling racing. A mix of both single and double stop strategies has been adopted in the past, with overtaking assisted by the two DRS zones between Turns 5 and 6 and Turns 8 and 9, and every team was aware that in the last five races here we’ve witnessed three Safety Car interventions and three Virtual Safety Car periods.

Charles Leclerc was the best of the rest in both qualifying and today’s Grand Prix
Charles Leclerc was the best of the rest in both qualifying and today’s Grand Prix
This year’s Drivers’ and Constructors’ Championships have long been settled in favour of Verstappen and Red Bull, but Mercedes and Ferrari still had much to fight for in Abu Dhabi as they were separated by only four points in the battle for the Constructors’ honours. Bragging rights were of course at stake, but crucially, approximately eight million pounds is the difference in end-of-season prize money payouts between finishing second or third in the final rankings. No wonder Mercedes was unwilling to be sympathetic towards any idea of Ferrari’s Carlos Sainz having his unfortunate ten-place grid penalty in Las Vegas rescinded.

...as the sun was beginning to set and, after those famous red lights had gone out for the final time this year, we had a clean start as Verstappen just held off Leclerc, with brilliant driving from both,
In Friday’s opening free practice period, it was Mercedes’ George Russell who comfortably topped the timesheets ahead of Aston Martin’s Brazilian reserve driver Felipe Drugovich, but the session was largely irrelevant in terms of being an indicator of pace for today’s Grand Prix as 10 rookie drivers were given an opportunity to show what they can do in current F1 machinery. These included the 24-year-old Pato O’Ward, who finished fourth in this year’s IndyCar Championship in the USA and who has been signed by McLaren as a reserve driver for Lando Norris and Oscar Piastri in 2024. The Mexican will combine this with racing for Arrow McLaren in the next IndyCar season. Another McLaren-related snippet from Abu Dhabi was the announcement on Friday that the Woking-based team has extended its Mercedes power unit contract to the end of 2030, clearly having opted to seek continuity when the new F1 regulations arrive in 2026.

Following the conclusion of opening practice, there was a test of some new software designed to automatically trigger the red rain lights at the rear of each car when Race Control officially determines that the track conditions warrant it. To date, these lights have had to be manually put on by each driver, and sometimes this hasn’t always been done as quickly as desired from a safety perspective. Friday’s second practice session began at 17.00 local time, but two red-flag stoppages significantly reduced the amount of running time. Firstly, Sainz spun his Ferrari into the barriers at Turn 3, with the resultant TecPro damage taking 27 minutes to repair, and then Nico Hülkenberg hit the wall at the exit of Turn 1 after losing control of his Haas. The limited time remaining resulted in Ferrari’s Charles Leclerc setting the fastest time, with Norris, Verstappen, and Alfa Romeo’s Valtteri Bottas the best of the rest.

In yesterday’s final practice session, Russell led the way ahead of the two McLaren drivers, and come the later three-part qualifying hour, there was a surprise when Sainz was eliminated at the first hurdle after suffering from traffic issues before Hamilton failed to survive for the top ten shootout. After the latter, it was that man Verstappen who added another pole position to his CV as Leclerc earned the right to join him on the front row for the start of today’s Grand Prix, with row two set to be occupied by Piastri and Russell. It was a real positive for the competitive nature of current F1 that the leading quartet on the grid represented four different teams.

Mercedes’ George Russell enjoyed finishing the season on the podium
Mercedes’ George Russell enjoyed finishing the season on the podium
The formation lap for today’s race began at precisely 17.00 Abu Dhabi time as the sun was beginning to set and, after those famous red lights had gone out for the final time this year, we had a clean start as Verstappen just held off Leclerc, with brilliant driving from both, and Norris claimed fourth position from Russell. Soon, though, this year’s champion started to edge clear out front, leaving Leclerc and the two McLarens to battle for second place. With Norris quickly usurping his young Australian teammate, the latter and Russell then had a close battle for fourth before the Mercedes driver found a way past approaching Turn 9 on lap 11.

During the opening phase of initial pitstops, a delay for Norris enabled Russell to take third place from him further down the running order. Hamilton made contact with the rear of Pierre Gasly’s Alpine, slightly damaging both cars. Out front, Verstappen was the first of the leading pair to pit, switching from medium to hard specification tyres, before Ferrari reacted instantly by bringing Leclerc in for the same change. This left Verstappen still in command, with a five-second gap ahead of Leclerc, Russell, and Norris.

Red Bull’s Sergio Pérez had started only ninth on the grid, but the Mexican was up to fifth by the halfway stage of the Grand Prix before a second round of pitstops ensued. In an attempt to assist his teammate, Verstappen volunteered to let Pérez stop first for fresh rubber, and the offer was gratefully accepted. This all left Verstappen still totally in control, with Leclerc, Russell, and Norris completing the leading quartet and Pérez sixth behind AlphaTauri’s Yuki Tsunoda, who was doing his upmost to give the outfit’s retiring team principal Franz Tost a suitable final parting gift.

...this year’s champion started to edge clear out front, leaving Leclerc and the two McLarens to battle for second place.
However, on lap 44, Pérez swept past Tsunoda to finish fifth, and four tours later, there was a controversial incident as the Red Bull pedaler made contact with Norris while fighting for fourth place. The result was a slightly harsh five-second penalty for Pérez for causing a collision, and this would be added to his race time.

This did not slow him, though, as, with just four laps remaining, he then passed Russell for third position behind Verstappen and Leclerc. On the final tour, Leclerc deliberately slowed to let Pérez pass into second place in the hope that the latter might be able to build a five-second gap ahead of Russell, knowing that the application of Pérez’s penalty would give Leclerc the runner’s-up spot anyway. The Monégasque’s clever thinking was motivated by a desire for Ferrari to claim second in the Constructors’ Championship from Mercedes, but ultimately Russell finished fourth on track but still third after Perez’s penalty. This left Pérez, Norris, and Piastri to complete the top six finishers, with the veteran Fernando Alonso battling to seventh for Aston Martin ahead of Tsunoda and Hamilton, who were disappointed to complete a second consecutive winless season. Meanwhile, the victorious Verstappen also claimed the extra point for today’s fastest lap.

McLaren’s Australian rookie Oscar Piastri has had an outstanding first year in F1
McLaren’s Australian rookie Oscar Piastri has had an outstanding first year in F1
And so, the sun has set not just in Abu Dhabi but also on another season of Formula 1. Despite the combined brilliance of Verstappen and Red Bull’s RB19 masterpiece, it’s still been such a fun ride, both on and off track, and I hope you have enjoyed the experience just as much as I certainly have. Everyone in Formula 1’s large travelling circus will be happy to have reached the end of an at times gruelling season and be content to not climb onto too many planes for a while other than to perhaps head to holiday destinations. Before we know it, though, it will be February, and the 2024 car launches will be in full swing, with testing to follow ahead of the first Grand Prix in Bahrain on March 2nd. I’ll be keeping an eye out for any major developments during the short close season, but I want to wish you all a slightly premature Merry Christmas and a healthy and happy New Year.




2023 Formula 1 Drivers’ Championship

1 Max Verstappen 575
2 Sergio Pérez 285
3 Lewis Hamilton 234
4 Fernando Alonso 206
5 Charles Leclerc 206
6 Lando Norris 205
7 Carlos Sainz 200
8 George Russell 175
9 Oscar Piastri 97
10 Lance Stroll 74
11 Pierre Gasly 62
12 Esteban Ocon 58
13 Alex Albon 27
14 Yuki Tsunoda 17
15 Valtteri Bottas 10
16 Nico Hülkenberg 9
17 Daniel Ricciardo 6
18 Zhou Guanyu 6
19 Kevin Magnussen 3
20 Liam Lawson 2
21 Logan Sargeant 1
22 Nyck de Vries 0


2023 Formula 1 Constructors’ Championship

1 Red Bull 860
2 Mercedes 409
3 Ferrari 406
4 McLaren 302
5 Aston Martin 280
6 Alpine 120
7 Williams 28
8 AlphaTauri 25
9 Alfa Romeo 16
10 Haas 12