The season ends with a twist: Max Verstappen has at long last taken a pole position off Mercedes in 2020, rewarding Red Bull Racing for its work closing the gap to the German marque over the last 17 weekends.
The margins were fine: Verstappen beat Valtteri Bottas by just 0.025 seconds, with Lewis Hamilton a further 0.061 seconds back. But a pole’s a pole, and in Abu Dhabi, where overtaking is difficult and the last five winners have started at the head of the grid, it could be very valuable indeed.
But before we herald the resurgence of Red Bull Racing ahead of a rules-stable 2021, let’s apply the necessary caveats.
First those pertaining to this weekend’s race: Mercedes failed to get the soft tyres in the operating window in time for Q1, and both cars are down on power owing to an MGU-K detuning to guard against the terminal faults experienced by Sergio Perez and George Russell in recent rounds.
But there are further provisos to be added here too. Mercedes hasn’t brought a major upgrade to the car since August, whereas Red Bull Racing has continued adding bits to the RB16 in an effort to cure the rear-end instability that has plagued it this season, an understanding of which now will be key to dialling it out of next year’s machine.
All that considered, it’s therefore unsurprising Mercedes has been progressively caught over the last three or so months with only fine-tuning at its disposal with its current equipment. And it should be similarly germane to see the German marque re-establish a gap at the start of next season.
As a signal to this, consider that Mercedes spent more time trialling Pirelli’s 2021 tyre construction during FP2 than any other team. It illustrates a real internal confidence in the team’s direction.
But that tyre test along with a fiery Kimi Raikkonen power unit failure late in second practice — the only representative practice session at this twilight round, with the other two run in full afternoon sunlight — meant that there was scant little long-run simulation to analyse race pace, which means predicting the outcome of this grand prix will come down to form and starting tyre more than anything else.
Elsewhere, especially intriguing will be the battle for third in the constructors standings, with Racing Point, McLaren and Renault all closely matched but spread through the grid.
Combined with Verstappen’s dash for last-race glory, it should make for a tense finale in Yas Marina.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 5.554 kilometres
Lap record: 1:39.283 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2019)
Track record: 1:34.283 (Lewis Hamilton, Mercedes, 2019)
Lateral load: medium
Tyre stress: low
Asphalt grip: low
Asphalt abrasion: low
Safety car probability: 20 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 358 metres
Pit lane time loss: 16.1 seconds
Fuel consumption: 2 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C3 (hard), C4 (medium), C5 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.3 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.5 seconds
Considering first the battle for victory, the top three will start on the medium tyre, neutralising the strategy to some degree. Combined with this being a straightforward one-stop race owing to a lack of real demand on the car and tyre here, and the equation is simple: emerge from the first pit stop in the lead and win the race.
Assuming, then, that neither Red Bull Racing nor Mercedes has a decisive pace advantage, guarding against being undercut will be crucial as the pit stop window opens.
Max Verstappen starts at the disadvantage of having his teammate start fifth rather than among the top three, and Alex Albon may have to be a key role if the Dutchman is to have a shot at victory.
This is Albon’s last confirmed race for Red Bull Racing and his last chance to convince the team to retain him. The Thai driver reckons he’s felt something click for him this weekend, and despite starting fifth and on the soft tyre, he has been closer to Verstappen all weekend.
Starting on the soft tyre isn’t the enormous disadvantage it’s been in previous rounds. A one-stop strategy is still achievable for Albon from here, so he can still play an obstructing role against Mercedes assuming he can get past Lando Norris early enough in the race not to be dropped by the front three.
The estimated pit stop window difference between those starting on soft and medium is only around four laps, which is an achievable gap to bridge, but there’s still be pressure on Albon to extend past whenever the midfielders behind him pit for fresh rubber to ensure he doesn’t get caught behind those slower cars running longer than him.
That’s because passing is notoriously difficult as Yas Marina. Cast you mind back to last year when a DRS fault deactivated activation for everyone, which meant the overcut became more powerful than the undercut because it meant not having to navigate cars running long.
While a working DRS loop makes passing slower cars easier, it’s still by no means straightforward, and extended running in dirty air on this largely negatively cambered circuit can really take the best out of fresh tyres.
So assuming he can jump Norris, keep with the front three and extend his opening stint just a little, he should be in with a shout at a podium place and a crucial aid to get Verstappen onto even footing in the battle for the win.
But while a novelty non-Mercedes win to round out the season will be interesting, the battle for third is where the money is, and this is poised to go down to the wire.
Racing Point holds the place 10 points ahead of McLaren, but the pursuing team has a substantially more favourable landscape today. Lando Norris starts fourth ahead of teammate Carlos Sainz in sixth. Lance Stroll is back in eighth, while Perez will start 19th with a power unit penalty.
If they were to finish where the qualified, McLaren would claim third by just six points.
But Perez will have free tyre choice owing to his lowly starting place, and while Abu Dhabi is no Bahrain in terms of conduciveness to racing, let’s not forget he won last weekend’s grand prix after running last at the end of the first lap.
How will Perez approach this race? Most of the bottom-10 starters will open on the medium tyre, but with the Mexican starting so far down, might the team roll the dice? Starting on the hard tyre — only 0.3 seconds slower but substantially more durable than the medium — will ensure he has a long overcut in the bank to jump him past the midfield.
If the soft tyre is found to have held up in the opening stint of the race, he might then lock in a massive pace offset by switching to the reds late to make up places with an aggressive conclusion.
Perez will also have the advantage of a fresh engine, which will presumably have been set in an unusually high mode in qualifying given it requires only a single-weekend life cycle.
A similar effect might be found starting on the medium compound by leaning on Perez’s renowned deft touch with the Pirelli tyres.
But even if the contrastrategy proved extremely powerful — unlikely given this is typically a straightforward one-stop race — McLaren has this base covered thanks to Carlos Sainz making it through to Q3 with the medium tyre. Assuming a good start, it’ll give Sainz the opportunity to run in clean air at the head of the midfield behind the leading cars, which will allow him the flexibility to cover Perez’s first stop if need be.
Renault of course is a mathematical shot at third in the standings, albeit 12 points behind McLaren and 22 behind Racing Point. Esteban Ocon and Daniel Ricciardo will start 10th and 11th — each promoted by Charles Leclerc’s grid drop from a penalty incurred last weekend — with free tyre choice.
But given Sainz at very least ought to be able to cover the yellow cars — and considering Ricciardo’s downcast review of the weekend so far — the French team seems unlikely to play a part in this battle in ordinary circumstances.
A fight for pride at the head of the field and championship position — and cold hard cash — in the midfield. The season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand Prix will be a high-stakes race to close out a season like no other.