Lewis Hamilton broke his nine-race pole position drought with a dominant performance at Yas Marina to put himself in an ideal position to win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Of course with teammate Valtteri Bottas qualifying second by starting last with a power unit penalty the most serious threat to Hamilton converting pole to victory is neutralised, with neither Red Bull Racing nor Ferrari likely to challenge in race conditions.
Certainly that was the case in qualifying, after which Max Verstappen (P3 classification) and Charles Leclerc (P4 classification), were 0.36 and 0.44 seconds off the pace. Verstappen said he had nothing left to give, and though Leclerc was unable to complete his final qualifying lap thanks to a Ferrari timing bungle, he was already up on teammate Sebastian Vettel, suggesting there wouldn’t have been much more to come.
The final qualifying order is a convenient summary of the season overall: Mercedes out in from, Red Bull Racing close to striking distance and Ferrari bumbling its way to a perplexingly distant third.
Ferrari’s half-second deficit is intriguing in terms of the irrepressible speculation about the disappearance of its power advantage, allegedly curtailed by a series of FIA technical directives in November. Mattia Binotto insists his car’s missing straight-line performance is largely down to aero experiments to boost downforce and partly down to profile of the preceding few circuits, but Yas Marina should’ve given the team a chance to silence the doubters, at least in the first two power-sensitive sectors.
Ferrari was indeed fastest in those first two sectors, but only fractionally, up on Mercedes by 0.121 and 0.073 in sectors one and two respectively. Both Mercedes and Red Bull Racing drivers then dominated the red cars in the final sector, Hamilton besting Leclerc by a mammoth 0.636 seconds.
That Ferrari isn’t quick in the twisty final sector isn’t surprising, but the fact it holds barely an advantage in the second sector in particular, which is flat for almost 2.2 kilometres and comprises just five genuine corners, is unexpected.
With this being the last race, we’re unlikely to ever get definitive confirmation either way about Ferrari’s seemingly missing power, but it certainly adds extra spice for 2020.
|2019 ABU DHABI GRAND PRIX GRID|
Distance: 5.554 kilometres
Lap record: 1:40.279 (Sebastian Vettel, Red Bull Racing, 2009)
Tyre stress: low
Lateral load: medium
Asphalt grip: low
Asphalt abrasion: low
Safety car probability: 20 per cent
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 358.2 metres
Pit lane time loss: 16.119 seconds
Fuel use: 1.87 kilograms per lap
Tyres: C3 (hard), C4 (medium), C5 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta: hard–1.0 second–medium–1.0 second–soft
If Hamilton gets off the line cleanly, there’ll be precious few ways for Verstappen in second or — less likely still — one of the trailing Ferrari drivers to overhaul him to close the season with a win.
|Soft (C5), 5 laps|
|Red Bull Racing (4 laps)||1:43.156|
|McLaren (5 laps)||1:44.288|
|Haas (4 laps)||1:44.632|
The Mercedes car seemed happy on both the soft and the medium tyre during Friday practice, while data from across the season suggests the team will have little to fear from the hard tyre that’s likely to form the backbone of a near-certain one-stop strategy at the unabrasive Yas Marina Circuit.
The undercut serves as the principal overtaking opportunity at a track around which passing is difficult, and while Pirelli rates the medium tyre — the starting compound for all the frontrunners bar Vettel — as good for up to 18 laps in the opening phase of the race, the lack of degradation means the pit window will be wide. It’ll be fascinating to see who has most faith in their ability to take the admittedly very durable hard tyres to the end on a long final stint and pulls the undercut trigger — if indeed anyone’s close enough to do so on Hamilton.
|Medium (C4), 6 laps|
|Red Bull Racing||1:43.238|
|Renault (4 laps)||1:43.328|
|Haas (4 laps)||1:44.300|
|Alfa Romeo||No data|
Sebastian Vettel offers an interesting point of difference, however, with Ferrari splitting its strategies. Vettel is on the theoretically faster soft-hard strategy as opposed to Leclerc’s medium-hard. It’ll give the German a handy grip boost off the line, albeit from the dirty side of the track, but if he can use the first handful of laps to put himself behind Hamilton before the soft begins rapidly losing pace, he would be perhaps best placed of all to try the undercut.
Ferrari was the only of the three frontrunners to do much work with the hard tyre, but its pace was impressive over a six-lap run — comparable in fact to Mercedes on the medium tyre. With everyone else on the same strategy, this is Ferrari’s best way to snatch an unlikely victory.
Further down the order, the Renault and McLaren drivers will all start on softs in what has become a private midfield battle, but Renault will be cautious of Toro Rosso despite the Italian team’s lowly 11th and 13th-place grid slots. Both Pierre Gasly and Daniil Kvyat will get free tyre choice and therefore the option to bypass the delicate soft tyre, which could give it a slender chance to close the eight-point gap to fifth in the constructors standings. Given Renault’s patchy reliability record this season, the French team can’t take much solace from its pace advantage this weekend.