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View from the Pit Lane: Abu Dhabi

Lewis Hamilton takes the chequered flag in Abu Dhabi - but Nico Rosberg wins the 2016 title

By Karun Chandhok
C4F1 technical analyst

It was a high intensity weekend in Abu Dhabi and C4F1 had all hands on deck with Susie Wolff, Eddie Jordan and Mark Webber on board apart from the usual “full timers” Steve Jones, David Coulthard, Ben Edwards, Lee McKenzie and me.

It was fun to get the gang back together for the final race of 2016 with the drivers’ world championship still at stake.

Mark had been in this position himself, heading into an F1 title fight between four drivers in Abu Dhabi six years ago. It didn’t work out for him on that occasion but it was fantastic to have him around to talk about what he went through and his build-up to the race.

You could see the pressure at the Mercedes camp was steadily building through the weekend.

It’s hard to underplay what strain Nico Rosberg has been under for the last six months. Ever since winning the first four races of the year, people have expected him to go and be crowned champion.

That really cranked up the pressure on him to deliver and was very reminiscent of Jenson Button’s scenario fighting for the title with Brawn in 2009.

Lewis Hamilton’s job was much more straightforward – he just had to go and win the race and that’s what comes naturally to him.

He also loves having people around him like his Mum, Rita Ora, Drake – or any and every celebrity – and he genuinely gets energy from having them around. He is a bit of a showman like Nigel Mansell in that respect.

On the other hand, Rosberg didn’t want anybody at the track – his Mum, his Dad or his friends. He just wanted to get on with his job.

The two Mercedes rivals had very different approaches because they are very different characters but neither is right or wrong, just different.

Hamilton fastest man

Hamilton had a clear game plan in Abu Dhabi of ‘if I’m not going to become world champion then I’m going to show the world that I am the fastest driver on the planet’.

He approached every single session flat out, wanting to be the fastest man, wanting to blitz Rosberg at every opportunity.

Hamilton looked like he genuinely made a massive effort in every practice session and was fastest in all but final practice, when Sebastian Vettel set the mark, and then went on to utterly dominant qualifying.

From Rosberg’s standpoint there was no reason for him to get embroiled in a wheel-to-wheel struggle with Hamilton in Abu Dhabi.  There was nothing for him to gain from that, so his task was very much about protecting second place.

I think that his approach in qualifying was to do a 95% lap and make sure he closed it out with no dramas. He was three tenths away from Hamilton but it was enough to be second and he did what he had to do.

Race day pressure

On Sunday, I was standing in front of the Mercedes garage when both drivers were heading out to the grid and you could see pandemonium as camera crews, photographers and guests swarmed around them.

The pressure gauge was again being ramped up.

Then I went to the grid and stood on the front row between the two guys and you could see they were trying to stay in their zone and cut out the outside world, Rosberg in particular.

Mark and I had both talked about the start – would the pressure get to Rosberg? He couldn’t afford to have one of those bad starts that we’ve seen from Mercedes on many occasions this year.

But in the end both drivers made identical getaways. If you look at the overhead camera angle, the gap between them stayed identical.

I believe that the most important moment of the Grand Prix for Rosberg was that start because he could have got into so much trouble on the opening lap – but he didn’t.

It did become a bit trickier after that because Max Verstappen got into a spin at the start of the race and had to make another incredible recovery - but we’ll come back to him later.

Rosberg ended up in the situation where he was racing Verstappen - and he mentioned to Lee after the race that was the last thing he wanted because he sees Verstappen as being a little bit unpredictable!

Throughout the grand prix, Rosberg held his nerve. Hamilton was backing him up and it would have been so easy for Rosberg to break his front wing or get embroiled in a scrap with Verstappen or Sebastian Vettel.

But Nico did a really mature job of holding his nerve and making it through a minefield of things that Hamilton was throwing at him.

To back up or not to back up? That is the question

Hamilton’s race has created a lot of divisive opinions and debates seemed to be raging across the internet on Monday.

My view is this – Hamilton was backing Rosberg into the pack because he was playing the one card that he had to try and win this world championship. There was no other way he was going to retain his title.

I genuinely believe that any good racing driver would have all done exactly the same.

I think Hamilton drove a really intelligent race. At no stage did he look like he was going to lose the win and at no stage did he look like he was going to crash into Rosberg, which would have benefited his rival.

Hamilton was also very good at making sure that in Sector One he had the gap to Rosberg so he couldn’t attack him under DRS. He just cruised his way through the narrow chicane at Turn 12 and 13 which backed Rosberg up into Vettel.

To be honest the only thing I’m surprised about is that he didn’t do more of it!

We heard those radio exchanges with Hamilton’s race engineer Pete Bonnington and then with Mercedes technical chief Paddy Lowe warning him to pick up the pace but by that stage Hamilton had obviously decided to take the decision into his own hands.

So if he was going to disobey the team and argue it later, he may as well have gone the whole hog and backed Rosberg up even more and had the argument later. He could definitely have done more of it on the last three or four laps but perhaps he was a bit conflicted given the radio chat with the team.

Hamilton showed hunger

I really don’t get why people are complaining about Hamilton’s tactics because in my book it was a brilliant grand prix.

For those that said F1 races were dull then here was a guy doing something tactically interesting to spice up the show.

I’m very confident that if the roles were reversed, and Rosberg had been in Hamilton’s position, he would have backed Hamilton up into the pack as well. That is what any driver thinking of the world championship would do.

It shows Hamilton’s hunger to become world champion, and it was a sign of a guy who is not willing to settle for second best, and that is the mark of a champion.

David and Mark spoke to Niki Lauda on the grid and he said Hamilton wouldn’t be backing Rosberg into the pack and so after the race Lauda and Toto Wolff weren’t too happy about it.

But don’t forget Toto has raced a little bit, Lauda is a three-time world champion, Rosberg now a world champion and they can all as racing drivers – as can I – vibe with what Lewis did.

As a racing driver you are wired to be selfish and think of yourself first so they will understand Hamilton’s position.

Reliability is part of the game

There are also a lot of people saying Rosberg only won the world championship because of Hamilton’s engine problems and, in particular, the failure in Malaysia.

But it’s worth remembering that when Hamilton won his first world title in 2008, his title rival Felipe Massa’s engine blew up in Budapest when he was leading with only three laps to go.

Oh, and coincidentally, on that occasion also Massa won one race more than Lewis, the championship winner.

Reliability problems have always been a part of F1 and sometimes the luck is in your favour and sometimes it isn’t.

I’m not at all saying that Hamilton hasn’t been more unlucky this season, I’m just saying that is the way it goes sometimes in F1.

A deserving world champion

Rosberg absolutely deserves to be crowned the 2016 world champion.

He has had the season of his life and has driven a lot of good races. He also knew this was his golden opportunity to become world champion and he wasn’t going to screw it up.

Rosberg coped with the pressures of 2016 extremely well. His Dad Keke – himself a world champion – told the media on Sunday that he has been hugely impressed with how his son has coped with it for such a long period of time. It was really admirable and that can’t be under-estimated.

The people around him - his manager Georg and his close family – also helped him manage the tensions extremely well. You could see it all being released after the race on Sunday. Hats off to his entire team!

Fond farewells

All eyes were on the world championship battle this weekend but there were a few other stories in Abu Dhabi.  

Jenson Button and Felipe Massa were taking part in their final race weekends and both drivers had great tributes from McLaren and Williams.

The race didn’t end the way Button wanted it to on Lap 13 but there was a lot of love for the 2009 champion over the weekend.

He and his family also really entertained everyone on Channel 4 when they had chat with David and Mark after the race.

Verstappen wows again

Verstappen signed off his first season for Red Bull with another tremendous drive in Abu Dhabi.

I bumped into Mark Webber around Lap 18 when all the other drivers had stopped for tyres but Verstappen was up in second after coming from last.

He was running on really old super soft tyres by that stage and Mark just said to me: “Mate, how is he doing this?!”

We were both flabbergasted that Verstappen was able to run at that pace on used tyres compared to everyone else around him.

That set him up to do a one-stopper and, OK he got done by Vettel at the end because his tyres were shot but, to come from last to finish fourth ahead of Daniel Ricciardo and Kimi Raikkonen was pretty remarkable.

Once again it showed he’s going to be terrifying for the opposition when he has a bit more experience and maturity and especially if Red Bull give him a car that can win the world championship – which could be as soon as next year!

The final spot on the podium went to Vettel but it hasn’t been a vintage season for the four-time world champion.

He’s been out-qualified by Raikkonen 11-10 and was beaten by his old Red Bull teammate Ricciardo by 44 points for third place in the championship.

It’s not been a great season for Ferrari either, who failed to win a race, made some strategic errors and have been hammered by Red Bull.

But new rule changes in 2017 means it is all to play for – can the Prancing Horse fight back?

What will 2017 bring?

All three teams tops are together on track for the first time with 2017 tyres at a Pirelli test in Abu Dhabi this week and I can’t wait to see how the cars roll out in Barcelona next March.

What is really exciting is that Rosberg is going to come to the opening test in 2017 full of confidence and with a spring bounce in his step. I hope he also chooses to use the No.1 on his car.

I remember seeing an Ayrton Senna interview in 1991 where he talked about how looking at the No.1 on his car in the garage gave him a special feeling inside of ‘I am the world champion, I am the benchmark, I am the man to beat’.

It will also be a subtle reminder that Rosberg can send to the other side of the Mercedes garage.

I’m really interested to see how the intra-team battle shapes up at Mercedes in 2017.  We haven’t seen Lewis lose to his teammate in a world championship battle before and I’m intrigued to see how he takes it.

The C4F1 team will also be back in 2017 too and we hope you enjoyed watching our first season of Formula 1 on Channel 4. Until the next time…