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View from the Pit Lane: Abu Dhabi GP

Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen ended 2018 on the podium at Yas Marina.

By Karun Chandhok, C4F1 technical analyst 

We had a real end-of-term atmosphere across the paddock in Abu Dhabi this weekend. Both world championships were already settled and, without the tension of a title battle, one of F1’s longest seasons headed to the 21st and final hurrah of 2018 with teams and drivers all feeling a bit more relaxed, and tired, than on some previous occasions.

The race itself wasn’t a classic but there were various points in the final results that were particularly symbolic. Having Lewis Hamilton, Sebastian Vettel and Max Verstappen on the podium together at the end was a nice way to end the season, as I do think that they will be the three main title contenders next year.

Seeing Carlos Sainz and Charles Leclerc score points underlined Renault and Sauber’s progress this season as well as their quality as drivers, while the reliability issues for drivers throughout the weekend showed just how close to the edge the engines were being pushed to make it through the 21 races.

Looking back across the season, we had seen a titanic battle between Vettel and Hamilton in the first half of the year.

Last year, Ferrari looked like a strong challenger to Mercedes and they arrived at pre-season testing this year with an even more competitive package underneath them. At the opening round in Melbourne, however, Hamilton and Mercedes stamped their authority on the field with a dominant pole position but then a miscalculation for the pit-stop time under the safety car meant that they gifted Vettel victory.

Once we got to Bahrain, however, it was game on. With every race that passed, the battle seemed closer than ever before and it seemed like we were in for the best season-long fight that we’ve had in this V6 hybrid era that’s been dominated by Mercedes since 2014.

Ferrari genuinely looked like they had a car in every condition that was a match for Mercedes, and their high-power modes in qualifying in particular seemed very potent. This was always an area where the Mercedes-powered cars had an edge until 2018, and all of sudden we had some fascinating cat-and-mouse games going on, with neither team wanting to show their hand until we got to the final part of qualifying.

The championship lead ebbed and flowed between the two quadruple world champions, both chasing hard in the race to become only the third F1 driver to claim a fifth crown.  

The points lead swapped hands five times throughout this year, and at the halfway point after the British Grand Prix, the German led the title battle by a mere eight points, having won four races to the Brit’s three, but critically it looked like Ferrari were starting to edge ahead in terms of car performance.

But then came a run of races that completely took the wind out of Ferrari’s sails, and the championship challenge from the Vettel camp just fell apart.

It started with the German’s home race at Hockenheim, a mere 20 minutes from his hometown.

Sebastian was out in front with a big 12-second lead while Hamilton, having started way down in 14th place after a problem in qualifying, was up to fourth and catching. When the heavens opened, the Ferrari man made the smallest of errors under braking for a hairpin, but with big consequences.

He ended up off the track and in the barriers and all of a sudden, a potential extension to his championship lead turned into a 17-point deficit.

Hamilton then went on a brilliant run – between Germany and Japan in October, he won six out of seven races, with a second place to Vettel at Spa the only black mark on an otherwise faultless series of results from him and the team.

What made this all the more impressive is that at weekends such as Hungary and Italy, the Ferrari was the faster car but it was Lewis who put the pressure on them, delivered strong pace when it mattered either in wet qualifying or the races, and then took the wins.

In contrast, Ferrari and Sebastian have made a catalogue of errors this year.

Apart from the crash in Germany, in Baku Vettel out-braked himself when going for the lead and finished fourth, in France he crashed into the back of Valtteri Bottas at the first corner, and then in Japan and Austin he made risky lunges to overtake a Red Bull and ended up spinning.

Throw in grid penalties in Austria and the USA caused by driver error and that adds up to a significant number of points lost.

But perhaps the weekend that summed up the second half of the season was Monza.

Ferrari had – slightly – the faster car that weekend but in qualifying, instead of backing their No 1 driver, they bizarrely allowed Kimi Raikkonen to be in Vettel’s slipstream, which was worth enough time to give the Finn pole position.

Then, instead of having a chat with Kimi on race-day morning about letting Sebastian past easily and playing rear gunner, they inexplicably told him that he was getting sacked at the end of the season!

Understandably Raikkonen wasn’t particularly keen on helping his team-mate on the opening lap and when Hamilton pounced on the German at the second chicane, Vettel chose to fight him hard which resulted in the Ferrari spinning and rejoining at the tail of the field.

Hamilton then did a brilliant job of managing his tyres with some strong race pace, causing Kimi to blister his rear tyres as he tried to push on. This put Lewis in the driving seat and he duly took what I believe to be his best win of the season.

Outside of the top-two teams, Red Bull Racing have had an up and down season.

There have been plenty of arguments with their engine suppliers Renault, finally resulting in a divorce after Abu Dhabi following 12 years together, but the team showed that when it comes to a weekend where it’s a less power-sensitive track, their chassis is still pretty awesome.

Wins in Monaco and Mexico underlined that, as did strong races in Singapore and Brazil, while Daniel Ricciardo’s victory in China showed that the Milton Keynes squad are excellent when it comes to left-field and opportunistic thinking strategically.

Verstappen had a messy start to the season, but he’s been exceptional since June’s Canadian Grand Prix. In fact, in the second half of the season, from Germany onwards, Max has scored more points than either Ferrari driver, despite a less competitive car.

If Honda can give them a power unit boost in 2019, both he and the team will be championship contenders.

Abu Dhabi was the last time we will see Fernando Alonso racing in F1.

The double world champion has had an increasingly miserable time since 2012 when he was last a title contender. His final season at Ferrari in 2014 wasn’t a good one and the move to McLaren just hasn’t worked out for a driver who was arguably one of the top three on the grid for the past 15 years.

It will be sad to see him leave F1 without the stats to back up the talent, but that’s how life works out sometimes.

People often quote the stat of Fernando being eight points away from being a five-time world champion, but sadly hypotheticals don’t really hold up as much as reality in this sport. For example, Lewis is seven points away from being a seven-time world champion!

All in all, I’ve enjoyed the 2018 season. There have been plenty of stories up and down the paddock as per usual.

Sauber have been the most improved team of the season, Force India have managed to maintain a very respectable level of performance and pace despite a very rocky year away from the track, Honda have started to show the first signs of genuine progress, while former F1 grandees McLaren and Williams have had awful years.

To end my final column, I thought I’d open up a bit of a debate by listing my top five drivers of the season:

1. Hamilton: Error free, superb qualifying laps when it counted, won the races that he shouldn’t have like at Budapest, Hockenheim and Monza but also played nice publicly with the team when they made various strategic errors this season.

2. Leclerc: Had a shaky start to his F1 career but worked hard to change his style to suit F1 cars, was exceptional from round four in Baku. Great mental strength to cope with the pressure of being the heir in waiting at Ferrari – he’ll need it when he gets to Maranello next year.

3. Verstappen: Recovered from an error-prone start to the season and has been utterly brilliant since Montreal. In the same vein as Senna, Schumacher or Hamilton’s early years, there’s always an expectation that something dramatic is going to happen around Max. He basically forced Ricciardo, a top-quality driver, to walk away from the fight to another team – which says it all.

4. Alonso: Sadly for McLaren, they averaged the ninth-fastest car across this season. The fact that the team finished sixth in the championship and Alonso was 11th in the drivers’ standings having out-qualified team-mate Stoffel Vandoorne 21-0 shows just how much they relied on his brilliance this year. The sport will miss him, but I suspect the team will miss him more.

5. Vettel: Had the tools to potentially win the world championship but didn’t for the second year in a row. Seb drove some strong races like in Bahrain and Canada, but overall his season will be remembered for the mistakes rather than the highs. Scoring fewer points than his 39-year-old team-mate, who’s just been sacked, in the 10 races between Germany and Brazil doesn’t look good. But Seb is a quality driver and just needs to rediscover his mojo this winter, otherwise Leclerc is going to be a real thorn in his side next season.

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