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GP Week : Issue 108
No doubt it occurred to him and his race engineer, Ciaron Pilbeam. Problem was, they had tried this as recently as Singapore. Mark had lost much time in traffic that night, under the lights. On balance it had been a mistake. And so the moment passed. The leaders all stayed out. Drivers like Nico Rosberg and Vitaly Petrov did stop – and they were to beat Webber to the chequered flag and to define the race for Ferrari – suggesting that on this day, in these circumstances, Webber, at least, should have done likewise. Instead, kind of realizing the missed chance, Webber came in a few laps later – on lap 11. The option tyres were always going to be a bit iffy once they’d reached their peak; and, besides, Webber was trapped behind Fernando and had Massa uncomfortably close to his rear wing What was there to lose? The pit stop dropped Webber right into the mid-field – first behind the Toro Rosso of Jaime Alguersuari (who had also stopped behind the SC!) and then the Renault of Vitaly Petrov. You’d think that Red Bull in these circumstances (the championship finale) would have some sort of influence over their B-team – but not a bit of it. Jaime raced (held up) Webber as if Mark was a major competitor, just like the others. By the time Ferrari had brought Fernando Alonso in for a similarly early stop, Webber (purple for a sector or two) had lost any momentum that he may have generated: Fernando emerged in front. Alonso stopped four laps after Mark, motivated first by wanting to ‘cover’ the Red Bull driver but then also by the problems Ferrari had experienced on the Bridgestone options in practice. On a heavy-fuel run on Saturday morning, Fernando had been quickest on his first flying lap (1min 46.452sec) but had then felt the tyres fall away quickly. Three laps later he was in the 1min 48s and he finished the run in the 1min 49s; Red Bull, by contrast, were in the 1min 47s even at the end of their runs. So Fernando joined Mark in amongst the rabbits – behind said Petrov, as it happened – behind a Renault that was indecently fast in a straight line and a Russian driver who was finally learning how to string a race together, as distinct from a series of quick laps. And, all the time, Seb-V was pulling away. No-one at this point believed that Fernando wouldn’t be able to recover, or that Fernando wouldn’t find the race opening up for him as the leaders came in for primes, but it was an interesting turn of events; you could say that. Time passed. Laps passed. The sun went down over the Yas Marina. Flashlights blazed. Suddenly – around half-distance – it began to be clear: Fernando could be in trouble. There was no way around Petrov... “Use the best of your talent, Fernando,” came the radio message from Stefano Domenicali. “ We know how big it is...” Of course, it’s one thing to send words of hope and support from the pit wall; it’s another thing for the drivers to respond on circuits like Abu Dhabi. The start aside, there were only four passing moves at this race last year; that puts AD in the Monaco category of ‘monoline’ circuits – which is very sad, I think, given that Hermann Tilke by now has enough experience to know exactly what it takes to create overtaking zones. Itwasnodifferentin2010.Fernando Alonso couldn’t pass Vitaly Petrov; Mark Webber had to struggle to squeeze past the Toro Rosso; and Lewis Hamilton, on fresh prime tyres, ran up against another yellow barrier called Robert Kubica’s Renault (on worn primes). All this meant that Fernando in the second half of the race agonizingly saw his championship slip into nothingness. The TV cameras panned away from the Ferrari garage and pit wall. King Carlos of Spain was there, for Pete’s sake – as were Luca Montezemolo and Piero Lardi-Ferrari. The F1 business world, most of which craved a Ferrari victory, began to look embarrassed and to put cell phone connections at a premium: “Get the pilot. See if we can get an earlier take-off slot...” Forhispart,MarkWebbercoulddo nothing but watch Fernando lose time and position behind the Petrov Renault. Mark had been quick in practice, on Friday and Saturday morning, but in qualifying it had been a struggle, particularly (oddly) on left-handers like Turns 1 and 2 and also on Turns 6 and 7. The upshot of the poor exit from seven was an absurdly slow exit onto the straight and thus a very disappointing sector two. Here he was slow relative to his rivals by the gaping margin of 0.3sec. In the remaining sectors – where there are some decent corners – Mark was right there in front row territory. So why the problem? No-one seemed to know. Maybe it was a rogue set of tyres. If it was, there was no way of back- to-backing: Vettel, Webber (and the two Mercedes drivers) chose on Saturday to run a different Q3: instead of an initial ‘banker’ run, followed by a quick stop and a switch to a final set of options for a ‘pole’ run, Red Bull (and Nico and Michael) opted for just one run on one set. If traffic was to be an issue, being out there would maximise the chances of finding a free lap; equally, because of the way they could use the tyres, RB particularly seemed well able to exploit this advantage. Vettel did so by starting Q3 very late and thus scheduling three quick laps; Webber came out a little earlier and went for a four-lap run. The plan worked perfectly for three of the four drivers: Seb took a brilliant pole on his second flying lap, and almost matched it with his third, and both Merc drivers were relatively quick throughout their runs. Webber, though, was never happy – and it was too late now to try another set. Possible causes? Due to his height, Webber regularly has about 10kg less with which to play in terms of ballast; equally, Webber was in chassis 06, the car in which he felt slightly uncomfortable (in terms of handling and feel) when he first raced it in Singapore. Webber’s race for the title therefore ended initially with that P5 qualifying position and then terminally when he made his early stop; Fernando, meanwhile, should either have used the Safety Car for his switch to primes or stayed out there for much longer. He didn’t do either of those things because he was covering Webber and was also very wary about losing too much time on the options. The championship’s other contender – Lewis Hamilton – was similarly stymied: his remote hope was to win the race and to have the others strike trouble. From lap one, as it happened, this race belonged to Seb-V. Even so, Seb had to wait until his slow- down lap was half-over before the radio erupted. Rosberg, Kubica and Petrov crossed the line – then Fernando and Webber. Seb had done it. He had won the race and he had won the World Championship. “I didn’t know what was happening,” said Seb afterwards. “I didn’t want to know. I just wanted to concentrate on my job. Then, after I took the flag, there was silence. I thought something must be up and then Rocky told me that I had won the championship...” On his slow-down lap, Fernando Alonso pulled up alongside Vitaly Petrov and gave him the finger. And so the contrast was complete: a young man of charm and not a little talent had for the first time in 2010 taken the lead of the world championship – and had won the title; his older team-mate – a fighter and a gentleman – had smiled and had offered his congratulations; and Ferrari’s Alonso, who would have been the classiest act in all of sport if he had not accepted Felipe Massa’s invitation to win the German Grand Prix – and who already has two World Championships behind him – had been beaten into unseemly submission by the tenacity of a Russian rookie. 30