Max Verstappen will start on pole in the race of his life, but Lewis Hamilton from second will have the more favourable strategy to fight for the title in the season-ending Abu Dhabi Grand prix.
Hamilton seemed all but assured of pole through the three practice sessions, especially after Red Bull Racing appeared to encounter yet more troubles with its low-downforce rear wing during FP3, but Verstappen strung together a blistering lap in Q3 to dominate his title rival en route to a crucial pole position.
Every Yas Marina pole-sitter since 2015 has gone on to win the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Verstappen had the benefit of a Sergio Perez slipstream on his pole lap, the tow perfectly executed down the back straight to give the Dutchman a boost, but his margin was equally large in the slower and twistier final sector, where he defied his car’s low-downforce package to post a field-beating time.
Hamilton admitted afterwards he had no answer to his rival’s pace, and he’d be forgiven for being frustrated Mercedes didn’t use Bottas for a tow of his own. He and the team reasoned Bottas would be more useful the higher he qualified and so allowed him to focus on his own session, but the Finn nonetheless ended up a low-key sixth and behind Perez in fourth.
But there is a glimmer of hope to come from qualifying for Hamilton. Whereas he and Bottas will start on the medium tyre, Verstappen and Perez are locked into starting on the soft compound after using it in Q2 — Verstappen flat-spotted his mediums after setting his Q2 time, and the team thought it safer to start on an undamaged set of softs.
Will it be enough to swing the strategic pendulum towards Hamilton in the race and win him an eighth title? Or is Verstappen’s blistering pace enough to earn himself a first crown? Formula 1 in 2021 is set for a thrilling conclusion.
|PROVISIONAL STARTING GRID|
Distance: 5.281 kilometres
Lap record: NA
Track record: 1:22.109 (Max Verstappen, Red Bull Racing, 2021)
Lateral load: medium
Tyre stress: medium
Asphalt grip: low
Asphalt abrasion: medium
Safety car probability: 40 per cent (old layout)
Pit lane speed: 80 kilometres per hour
Pit lane length: 358 metres
Pit lane time loss: 19.2 seconds
Fuel consumption: high
Tyres: C3 (hard), C4 (medium), C5 (soft)
Estimated tyre delta
Hard–medium: 0.4 seconds
Medium–soft: 0.6 seconds
SETTING THE SCENE
Abu Dhabi has been reconfigured ahead of this year’s race in an attempt to improve the ability for cars to follow one another and boost passing chances, and while Yas Marina 2.0 isn’t going to suddenly turn this notoriously stale grand prix into a festival of overtaking, the tweaks have at least created some unknowns going into Sunday.
Chief among them is how well the tyres will stand up to the heightened lateral forces generated by the faster layout. What is typically an easy one-stop race has been made more difficult to judge.
A one-stop strategy should still be comfortably achievable with a stint on the hard tyre — particularly given the overtaking-boosting changes are still unproven, making any unnecessary stops deeply unattractive — but the big question is how the soft and medium compounds will compare. Despite the soft being 0.6 seconds quicker on its first laps, will it last long enough to stand up against the medium tyre without a compromisingly long second stint?
The estimate is that the window to stop off the soft tyre for a one-stop race will be around lap 15, while the medium should be able to run an extra 10 laps competitively in this extended 58-lap race around the shortened circuit.
That’s going to be the principal consideration of the Mercedes and Red Bull Racing pit walls en route to the chequered flag.
WHY VERSTAPPEN COULD WIN
With that in mind, it’s tempting to think Verstappen has the worse hand to play in this race starting on the less flexible soft tyre, but there’s reason to be hopeful for his chances.
First of all, starting from pole position will give him the best opportunity to control the race pace as required on the softs, leaning on the fact overtaking will still be difficult at this circuit and relying on his skinnier rear wing to keep him just free from pressure as the race finds its rhythm. He should also get the better launch with the gripper tyre on the racing line.
But, more than that, Red Bull Racing is confident in its race pace on both compounds. The team split its run plans during FP2, giving Sergio Perez the mediums and Verstappen the softs; the former was only fractionally slower than Hamilton on average, while Verstappen’s pace was quicker over a similar number of laps.
Not only is that reason to be optimistic, but it also means Verstappen has some crucial additional knowledge to get him through the crucial opening stint. And, anyway, as mentioned, the soft tyre shouldn’t be the disadvantage Mercedes, among others, is suggesting it could be, with a one-stop still easily possible.
There are more factors in Verstappen’s favour aside from tyres and strategy too. The first is Perez, who qualified fourth and will start directly behind Hamilton on the grid, which puts the second Red Bull Racing car right in the window to interfere with Hamilton’s strategy.
If Hamilton wants to pull the undercut trigger early, he’ll have to get through Perez first, who’ll be able to delay him. Perez starting ahead of Bottas also means the Mexican can be deployed to hold up the second Mercedes car’s progress to open a pit stop worth of time behind the leaders, enabling Verstappen to pit without dropping into traffic.
There’s also the case of Yuki Tsunoda, who qualified eighth as the only other top-10 runner to open the race with the medium compound. Tsunoda running long could present Hamilton with a second hurdle to overcome
Lastly, Verstappen has the advantage of leading the title thanks to his greater win count. It makes pole position that much more valuable, empowering him to cut across the apex knowing that Hamilton will be keener to avoid an accident than he will be. It also means his defensive work — or offensive forays should he find himself behind — can be more robust than Hamilton will counter.
Pieced together, it’s a formidable cocktail of advantages in the final race of the season.
WHY HAMILTON COULD WIN
But that by no means Hamilton is down and out, and with the unknown qualities of the circuit still in play and the start of the race taking place in daylight, when the RB16B was less strong and worse balanced, the door is still plenty open for him to snatch victory from the pole-sitter.
Starting on the front row and with a straight shot to the apex is his first opening, but assuming he can’t take the lead at the start, the medium tyre will be his principal weapon in this grand prix.
The yellow-walled rubber can run longer and harder than the softs, which will enable Hamilton to pressure Verstappen early without overly compromising his own strategy.
That will give him two strategic options: go aggressively early with the undercut or run long and race for a photo finish.
The first will get him track position only if he’s on Verstappen’s gearbox and Mercedes is confident the RB16B has nothing in reserve. With the soft-stop window opening somewhere around lap 15, the first stop would have to be very aggressive to beat Verstappen to the punch, and if Hamilton captured the lead, he would have to defend hard near the end of the race.
In a one-stop race with cars evenly matched, running second on the road can be valuable for having the unpredictability of pulling the undercut. Verstappen wielded this advantage to his benefit in the United States Grand Prix after being beaten from pole to the first corner.
Alternatively, if Verstappen stops too early for Hamilton to beat him, running long will be Mercedes’s only option. Not only will that keep the unlikely safety car window open, but it will give Hamilton the chance to run harder in the second stint and pressure Hamilton in the second half of the race. Ironically this is also similar to the race in Austin earlier this year, albeit Hamilton’s final stint, which started eight laps later than Verstappen’s and brought them together in the final laps, albeit unsuccessfully for the Briton.
On balance Verstappen has more tools at his disposal and should be considered favourite to win the race, particularly with pole position in his pocket, but Hamilton is better placed to be reflexive as the rhythm of the race reveals itself. A strong start by Bottas and a poor one from Perez could also swing matters in Hamilton’s favour on the first lap, evening the two drivers tactically.
The bottom line is that track position is king in Abu Dhabi, so the first lap and the pit window will be absolutely decisive in the result. Whichever team and driver better judges their level of aggression in the first 20 or so laps will take home the drivers championship.