Six things we learned from the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix

The bright lights of Abu Dhabi marked the F1 circus’ final stop of 2015 before the teams turn their undivided attention to 2016 and focus on preparing their new challengers for next season. 

With the whole grid eager to end the season on a high note, and with a few scores that needed settling, it was no surprise that the race weekend produced several points that warrant further discussion… 

Mercedes need to reconsider their driver management

For as long as Mercedes have been Formula One’s leading team they have allowed their drivers (for the most part) free rein to race each other while making it clear that the lead driver would be given the optimal strategy. In recent times, however, Lewis Hamilton has made clear his unhappiness with his team’s approach to strategy and expressed a desire for greater variation in the strategies that Mercedes employ for their two drivers. 

In Abu Dhabi, Mercedes seemed to meet Hamilton halfway, asking the Briton to extend his middle stint in an attempt to secure the victory. In the end, however, this idea did more harm than good to Hamilton’s ambitions.

After initially falling several seconds behind teammate Nico Rosberg, Hamilton closed to within a second of the German and seemed in a position to pounce. Mercedes called Rosberg into the pits, but instead of asking Hamilton to follow suit in order to allow him to emerge from the pits just behind the German, they asked him to extend his stint in order to give him fresher tyres for his final stint, allowing him (theoretically) to put pressure on his teammate. 

In reality, the strategy left Hamilton with an unassailable gap to bridge and instead of being forced to respond to the pressure, Rosberg managed the gap to win by a comfortable margin. Mercedes would do well to remember that just because a strategy is predictable does not mean that it is wrong, and that variation simply for the sake of variation is not the best approach.

Vettel comes full circle

Despite not finishing the final race of the season on the podium, Sebastian Vettel produced a drive that placed a stamp on a strong 2015 season. Starting towards the back of the grid after a miscalculation saw him drop out in the first segment of qualifying on Saturday, the German made the most of his opportunities and his Ferrari’s strong race pace to finish in fourth place, which was the best he could have hoped for. 

In 2012, Vettel, then at Red Bull, found himself in a similar situation, starting from the pitlane after being excluded from qualifying.  Although he went on to finish third on that occasion, he was helped along the way by the timely intervention of the Safety Car and nearly threw everything away several times as he came a little too close for comfort to other drivers. 

In 2015, the German produced a far more measured, mature and mistake-free drive, highlighting how far he has come since the days where many doubted his abilities despite his successes. 

The disgruntled Spaniard

Despite his continued insistence that his McLaren-Honda team can make the progress necessary to return them to the sharp end of the grid next season, and despite firmly denying team boss Ron Dennis’ claims that he may not drive for McLaren next year, Fernando Alonso’s dejection reached a new low on Sunday. 

After being involved in a first lap incident with Pastor Maldonado, the Spaniard insisted over the team radio that he would retire his car unless the safety car intervened. While he did eventually finish the race, albeit well out of the points, such statements from the two-time World Champion are shocking.

Alonso is known as a fighter, a man who will bully even the most uncompetitive car to its limits, something he was often required to do during his stint at Ferrari. Ron Dennis is certainly not known to beat around the bush, and his public statement that Alonso might not pilot the 2016 McLaren make it clear that such an outcome, while probably unlikely, is not entirely off the table. Alonso’s words and actions have frequently been at odds with each other over the course of the season, and we all know which of the two speak louder. 

Another costly error from Williams

In addition to slipping down the pecking order towards the end of the season, Williams have not done themselves any favours by making mistakes at critical times and losing valuable points as a result. Abu Dhabi produced yet another example of this, with Valtteri Bottas losing his front wing after the team released him straight into the path of Jenson Button during his pitstop on lap 9.  To make matters worse, the stewards chose to investigate the incident and did not deliberate for very long before laying the blame firmly at the door of the Grove-based squad. 

From there, any hopes Bottas and Williams might have entertained of finishing ahead of Kimi Räikkönen in the Driver’s Championship standings evaporated, with the Finn being forced to endure a trying evening under the lights of the Yas Marina circuit. 

In Formula One, the teams are forced to deal with many variables that are outside of their control, and making constant mistakes when it comes to things within your own control is not the way to win races or championships.  

Force India (possibly) say goodbye on a high

As rumours continue to persist that Force India will soon become Aston Martin, the team capped off their 2015 season with a fine haul of points as Nico Hülkenberg and Sergio Perez finished seventh and fifth respectively. The result cements what was already a comfortable and secure fifth place finish in the Constructor’s Championship. 

With the team now having competed in their 150th (and perhaps last) race, they represent an admirable success story. Long gone are the days when Adrian Sutil and Giancarlo Fisichella were sent out first in the first segment of qualifying to clean the track for the big boys. Since then, the team have made steady progress and despite some financial difficulties along the way, their results have certainly improved over the years. 

If the Force India name is really to disappear from Formula 1, it can certainly do so with its head held high. If, on the other hand, the team does not undergo a name change, they certainly have a good foundation for 2016.

No questions about the order at Toro Rosso

The talents of Max Verstappen certainly do not require any further discussion in light of his impressive debut season. Less has been said about the efforts of his Toro Rosso teammate Carlos Sainz, who has performed strongly despite not grabbing as many headlines as his teammate. 

On Sunday, however, the Faenza-based squad made clear where their loyalties lie at present. Despite outqualifying Verstappen on Saturday and leading his teammate in the early stages of Sunday’s race, Sainz received a rather firm instruction from the pitwall to let the young Dutchman past in order to allow him to attack Daniil Kvyat, who was ahead of the duo and struggling with his brakes. 

In response to the Spanish youngster’s reply that Verstappen was too far behind and that he would let him through on the next lap, the rather blunt answer was “Let him through this lap.  Let him through now, Carlos.”  

Team loyalty can be difficult to sway once it has gathered momentum in a given direction, and Sainz will certainly have to produce some memorable performances in 2016 in order to displace Verstappen as the Number One at Toro Rosso.  

Adriaan Slabbert

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