This has been a very long Formula One season. The longest ever, in fact. We’re into the 22nd race this year, heading toward mid-December, and things just won’t stop happening. The championship might as well have come full circle to where we started in Bahrain. Just a short drive over in Abu Dhabi, the points difference between Lewis Hamilton and Max Verstappen is exactly as it was 21 races ago.
Here’s what you need to know about what’s going down around Yas Marina:
The Closest Title Fight in 47 Years
OK, look. We can’t get around this. The last time the F1 title fight went down to the wire in this way, two guys exactly equal on points, neither Lewis Hamilton nor Max Verstappen was born. And back in 1974, there were just 15 races on the calendar and only the top six drivers to finish scored points.
In 2021, Hamilton and Verstappen sit at 369.5 points each and will stay that way until the checkered flag falls on Sunday. If neither of them scores a point during the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, Verstappen will take the drivers’ title as he’s won more races this year. If Hamilton can manage to score one more point than Verstappen, it’s his—or vice versa.
In terms of today’s action, Verstappen was fastest on softs in FP1, though Hamilton was fastest on medium tires in FP2. It’s incredibly likely, given how close both Red Bull and Mercedes looked to other teams, that both of them are sandbagging. They could very well be turning down their power units to avoid the other team getting much insight into practice runs, especially as there’s plenty of data to be gathered at what’s not the same old, boring circuit we’ve been going to.
Major Track Updates
Historically, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix has been kind of a snoozefest. That hasn’t mattered for a bit because it was also a total irrelevancy, coming so late in the season that basically everything was decided beforehand.
Last year McLaren managed a frisson of excitement by taking third in the constructors’ at the checkered flag, but the drivers’ title had been done for races by then, and honestly, it hasn’t been that significant since 2016. Even then it was meh because it was just Hamilton trying to back Nico Rosberg up and there wasn’t any overtaking happening to change the order they’d end the title fight in.
The problem was, mostly, the track itself. All right angles, it was the antithesis of a flowing circuit and was both annoying to drive and really bad for any kind of racing action. To be fair to track designers, getting modern F1 cars to look like they can overtake is something the FIA’s spent years reworking regulations to do. It’s by no means all on the apexes but there are definitely things you can do to help.
This is why, after the end of last F1 season, track designers Driven International were asked to work out a way to make things better. They worked on a bunch of ideas with MRK1 consulting, headed up by a former boss of the Yas Marina circuit, to try and make the venue something that could deliver an on-track spectacle, not just an awesome fireworks display afterward.
The result is a radically different final sector that’s much more fast-flowing. Even Formula 2, F1’s feeder series, shaved more than 12 seconds off its lap times with the differences. It’s early yet after only a couple of practice sessions, but Max Verstappen beat his own pole time by more than 10 seconds following just a few minutes on track.
Fast tracks don’t necessarily mean good racing but the changes should help a bit, giving drivers more space to make moves.
The Whole Narrative of Drive To Survive‘s Next Season
There’s also no getting around this. Max and Lewis aren’t really delivering the goods, in terms of trash-talking each other, but where the drivers seem to be keeping their heads, the team bosses are absolutely not having it.
From the moment the two title contenders clashed at Silverstone, Toto Wolff and Christian Horner have weighed in to back their respective drivers. It went too far when Horner ended up called to the stewards himself for remarks about a “rogue marshal” (the people who help with track safety) and yet the situation shows no sign of being dampened as teams arrive in Abu Dhabi. Horner told Sky Sports earlier that “Mercedes have more people in their marketing department than we have mechanics in our garage,” an attempt at playing the underdog that falls fairly flat when you consider the whole Red Bull team is a marketing exercise for a multibillion-dollar fizzy pop empire.
We have to hope that the title’s decided on the line, not by appeals lodged after the champagne’s been sprayed. Although Horner and Wolff are both clearly determined to do their jobs as team bosses—and maybe go somewhat beyond that—they’re both former drivers themselves and surely want to see it settled on track.
F1’s Longest Career Is Drawing to a Close
Look away, Kimi Raikkonen fans, as the Iceman’s time in the sport is finally over. More than two decades since he arrived in F1, Abu Dhabi will be Kimi’s last grand prix. He’s, so far, appropriately set to end things by first running a message from his team that they will finally leave him alone—echoing an old radio message from Raikkonen—and ramming into a wall just at the end of second practice to get it some TV coverage.
Alfa Romeo is far from a frontrunner so expecting much from Raikkonen’s last race would be over-optimistic. However, he does depart F1 after a record 353 grand prix entries, having scored one world title, 21 wins, and 1,873 points.
…and a Crudely Photoshopped Team Owner
Haas F1 team has had to be on a kind of charm offensive for the past year after its freshly signed driver, Nikita Mazepin, disgraced himself a week after putting pen to paper. Since then there’ve been spinning tops and door memes and quite a lot more on-track conflict between Haas’ drivers than there’s been speed in the car, or hope of getting points.
To round out the year, Haas has taken the unusual measure of adding team owner Gene Haas, who presumably declined to come all the way to Abu Dhabi for a photo op, via cut and paste over someone else’s head. A return to some of Haas’ familiar territory and as team boss Günther Steiner put it in Drive To Survive, a little bit of the clown show again today.
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