The 2020 season ended with an easy Max Verstappen win, the Dutchman in his Red Bull Racing car having the measure of Mercedes from qualifying and throughout the race.
It was at least a consolatory change of pace to end a year of Mercedes domination, even if the race itself offered scant action. For this we have a lap-10 virtual safety car to thank, pushing almost the entire field onto an identical one-stop strategy that killed almost all possible racing for the final 45 laps.
There were a few attempts to break that mould and freelance strategy, but only another superb drive from Daniel Ricciardo could squeeze anything from a strategic offset.
But in a sense the real winner here was Formula One, which despite the lacklustre finale was able to celebrate the completion of a 17-race calendar after the season was virtually called off in March. The championship spanned 14 circuits in 12 nations across two continents and was completed in just 24 weekends. No other sport has achieved quite the same feat this year, and F1 managed it while keeping the paddock largely free of COVID-19.
It’s a great credit to the ambition and drive of the sport’s management, the FIA, the teams and all others involved that such a gruelling schedule could be completed.
The Yas Marina circuit is about as sanitised a track as you can get in Formula One. It’s only middling in its demands on a Formula One car, the circuit itself is too smooth and consistent to throw any curve balls for the tyres and the weather is dependably warm.
Only the twilight running of qualifying and the race, throwing first and third practice into the unrepresentative conditions, could be described as particular challenges, but with this race coming at the end of a season, when teams’ understanding of their cars is at their greatest, even this does little to shake up the order.
But Max Verstappen’s pole and victory were a welcome change of pace, and this was down to a handful of peculiar elements at play.
Mercedes’s difficulty switching on the soft tyre for qualifying was the team’s first problem, but more significant for the weekend overall were concerns for its MGU-K, which had been the source of fiery failures for Sergio Perez and George Russell in recent weeks.
With power units at the end of their life cycles at the last race of the year, the team turned down the power unit, leaving the team at an unusual power disadvantage to the Honda-powered Red Bull Racing that proved crucial to the fine difference in qualifying and the race.
Combined with that too is that Mercedes isn’t pretending it’s been doing anything other than focussing on 2021 since August, the last time it brought a major update to its car. Red Bull Racing, on the other hand, has continued building on the RB16 to cure its rear-end weakness. As if to emphasise the point, it spent more of the crucial second practice session using Pirelli’s 2021 tyre construct than any other team, eschewing data gathering for this weekend’s race.
Add to the mix Lewis Hamilton suffering the fatiguing after-effects of COVID-19 after missing last weekend’s Sakhir Grand Prix with the disease and Mercedes was unusually vulnerable to defeat.
That’s to take nothing away from Red Bull Racing and Max Verstappen, who together were faultless in their execution. But we’ve seen the team close in on Mercedes towards the end of the last few seasons only to fall back substantially at the dawn of the following season, so hope for a RBR title challenge in 2021 should remain tempered for now.
Verstappen’s slick getaway from pole position and his excellent safety car restart, leaving both Mercedes drivers for dead on each occasion, underpinned his victory.
The challenge to winning here was always going to be avoiding being undercut in the event the RB16 and W11 were closely matched in race trim. That never came into play thanks to almost the entire field’s synchronised pit stop on lap 10 during the virtual safety car — called to clear Sergio Perez’s stopped Racing Point car — and Verstappen had an undercut buffer from early in each stint to guard against the possibility anyway.
The last potential threat was Bottas or Hamilton switching late to a two-stop strategy, ending the race on the faster medium or soft tyre to try to catch Verstappen. The Dutchman’s advantage at the front of the field would’ve made this difficult in the first place, but Alex Albon trailing closely the Mercedes duo for most of the race meant a second stop would mean a guaranteed position loss on pit exit and an extra car to pass around a circuit that makes overtaking difficult.
It’s the first time Albon has played a genuine and effective spoiler role to Verstappen’s benefit this season.
With the soft tyre susceptible to thermal degradation early and even the medium tyre wanting some love to go the distance, Renault opted to start Daniel Ricciardo from 11th with the hard tyre to give him a chance at a long overcut.
The reasoning was sound: with overtaking so difficult in Abu Dhabi, pitting into the closely matched midfield and getting caught behind slower cars was a real risk to strategy, but that chance could be mitigated against by running long, rising above the fray and then hopefully losing fewer places at your stop, using the softer, fresher tyre offset to your advantage late.
The glut of stops on lap 10 helped him by promoting him into clear air in fifth early in the race, from where he could control his pace as required. His la-39 stop cost him only two places, and although by then McLaren was already too far up the road to catch, he also held a handy advantage over the rest of the midfield and was able to cruise to the finish in seventh, setting the fastest lap on the way.
Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel and Charles Leclerc started on the hard and medium compounds respectively and were running 12th and 13th at the virtual safety car. Having expected to run deeper into the race, neither stopped, and the pair rocketed up to seventh and eighth for the restart.
But the car’s lack of pace saw them slip inexorably down the field. Leclerc stopped first, taking the hard, while Vettel ran until lap 35 before switching to mediums. They reversed order and recovered to 13th and 14th, losing a place only to the early-stopping Kimi Raikkonen.
With nothing on the line and a difficult car, it was worth the gamble. Leclerc in particular showed the pace to make it work, pressuring Raikkonen for most of the second stint, but the difficulty he had making a pass demonstrated why offset strategies are risky around a circuit that makes passing so difficult.
Antonio Giovinazzi tried a similar strategy and lost no net places, having slipped behind George Russell on his ageing tyres before his stop.
Max Verstappen: medium (used) to lap 19, hard (new) to lap 55.