The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Strategy Report podcast features Rodney Gordon from Superlicense F1 Podcast.
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix followed the prototypical script of the 2019 season: Mercedes and Lewis Hamilton delivering at a level above either frontrunners, Red Bull Racing prevailing over a disordered Ferrari, and an excitingly tight midfield scrap that earnt less attention than it deserved.
Only Valtteri Bottas’s charge to the front of the field and Charles Leclerc’s held much interest among the front six, with Ferrari combatting the rapid Mercedes with a late second stop that secured a podium finish on the final lap.
But with the championship order among the frontrunners as good as decided before the race, the fights for sixth on the drivers table and fifth in the constructors championship were the only matters really worth considering in Yas Marina, yet the sport remained inordinately fixed on the generally soporific spectacle of the leaders parading at the front.
That fight came down to the final lap with four teams in the mix running a variety of strategies. Sergio Perez took the best-of-the-rest seventh place at the flag, but Carlos Sainz’s scrabble to a single point for 10th was enough to secure him an impressive sixth in the final count. Renault, meanwhile, dodged a bullet to hold onto fifth in the standings despite failing to score for the eight race this season, Daniil Kvyat’s commendable ninth place leaving Toro Rosso just six points behind the French team.
The profile of the Yas Marina Circuit offers little to excite, particularly as the host of a dead-rubber race, but there was still some intrigue remaining regarding the order of the top three and Ferrari’s power unit in particular. For the third race in the row the data offered little in the way of a conclusive link between Ferrari’s apparent loss of straight-line speed and the FIA technical directives regarding fuel flow and other engine matters in recent months.
In qualifying Ferrari was fastest in the first two sectors — sector two especially being power sensitive, comprising two long straights totally almost 2.2 kilometres split by just five meaningful corners — but only fractionally and certainly not enough to counter Mercedes’s 0.6-second advantage in the slow final sector.
Ferrari says, as it has in the past two rounds, that it is experimenting with aero setup after a difficult season to put it on the front foot next year, trading straight-line performance for downforce. If true, it suggests the team’s combined form across three sectors suggests it’s adding bucketloads of drag for every point of downforce.
Mercedes couldn’t fully capitalise on its single-lap dominance, however, with Bottas forced to start at the back of the grid with a power unit penalty owing to his engine failure in Brazil. With the constructors championship and top two spots in the drivers standings locked down, the Finn was allowed to complete a usual qualifying program, locking in a used set of mediums in as his starting compound when he progressed to Q3. It had little to no effect on his progress in the race such was his car’s dominance.
The race-winning move
Lewis Hamilton was never sufficiently threatened to be forced into a race-deciding decision. Mercedes’s call to qualify with the medium compound in Q2, setting it as Hamilton’s race start tyre, ensured the Briton had maximum flexibility to respond to any and all challenges in the race.
By lap 25 Hamilton had a 12-second advantage over Max Verstappen in second. When Max stopped at the end of that lap Lewis covered him comfortably the next time around without losing lead. He later set the fastest lap of the race on lap 53, sealing his sixth grand slam — pole, fastest lap, every lap led and race victory — of his career, putting him just two behind Jim Clark’s tally of eight.
To stop once or twice
Leclerc’s early stop on lap 12 despite starting on the medium tyre set him up to be vulnerable to the fast-finishing Bottas at the end of the race, the Finn making it until lap 29 to make his sole stop, by which point he was fourth and dropped to only sixth place.
He rejoined the race 39 seconds behind Leclerc, but he took 15 seconds out of that advantage in just nine laps.
Realising Leclerc would be defenceless on his ageing hard tyres, he was stopped a second time on lap 38 for the soft tyre. He emerged from pit lane only three second ahead of Bottas, though he built that up to a nine-second buffer by lap 45. From lap 47, however, the red rubber began expiring. Bottas smelt blood but closed to within striking distance only on the final lap, running out of time to try to execute a move.
It was perfectly judged by Ferrari on an otherwise ordinary afternoon. It started with a stewards summons on the grid after accidentally overfilling Leclerc’s car — the team was fined €50,000 for the error — and featured a botched double-stack on lap 12.
Leclerc’s tyre change was seamless, but Vettel behind him lost 4.3 seconds with finger trouble. It lost him places to Nico Hulkenberg and the recovering Bottas that ultimately left him out of touch with the podium fight.
He was also stopped on lap 38 with Leclerc, dropping from fourth to sixth. He passed Alex Albon for fifth, making the strategy neutral given Bottas was almost certain to sweep past him on fresher tyres had he stuck it out.
No DRS brought the overcut into play
The first part of the race was made marginally more interesting by the lack of DRS, which was deactivated for the first 17 laps due to a system crash. It meant Bottas made slower progress than expected, but it was felt most significantly by the midfielders who made their stops early.
The battle for the bottom four points-paying places was underway between McLaren’s Lando Norris and Carlos Sainz and Renault’s Daniel Ricciardo and Nico Hulkenberg. The first three made their stops on laps eight, 12 and 11 respectively without net position change, but Hulkenberg set himself up to overcut all three of them by running competitively until lap 18.
The Germans strong stint was undone, however, when Bottas charged up behind him on lap 13. Hulkenberg lost time defending until his lap-18 stop, estimating the time loss at around two seconds, and when he rejoined from the pits he slipped behind Lando Norris.
That still made for a net gain of two places, but behind the obstinate McLaren he wore away tyres, making him easy meat for the two-stopping Sainz and Ricciardo at the end of the race plus two midfielders on alternative strategies rising from outside the top 10.
Perez sensational, Kvyat almost denies Renault singlehandedly
Those two late risers were Sergio Perez and Daniil Kvyat, who benefitted enormously from starting 10th and 13th and therefore being able to avoid the delicate soft tyre the McLaren and Renault drivers were forced to start on.
Both drivers deserve credit for strong opening stints on the medium and hard tyres respectively. Kvyat’s white-striped rubber proved to be the better choice, if only marginally — the Russian lost three places at the start to run 16th during the opening laps but was threatening Perez by the time the Mexican stopped on lap 37.
Perez dropped from seventh to 12th with his stop but made up two places when Sainz and Ricciardo made their second stop. He moved past the weary Hulkenberg easily on lap 44 and began his assault on Norris on lap 48. He managed to pass him in what the Mexican described as the best move of his carer on the final lap.
Kvyat made similarly rapid progress but was less at home on the medium tyre. He lost time to Perez until the Mexican became enthralled in his battle with Norris, which brought him back into the fold, but was left without enough to time to pass the McLaren, leaving him ninth.
Perez and Kvyat were clearly on the stronger strategy, and had their teammates, Lance Stroll and Pierre Gasly, not tangled with each other on the first lap and eliminated themselves from points contention, it seems likely all four would’ve scored points.
McLaren was the chief beneficiary in the race, but Renault is most lucky for their rivals’ misfortune — had Toro Rosso scored more heavily, Renault’s non-score would’ve left it vulnerable to slipping to sixth behind the Red Bull development team in the constructors standings. Instead it clung on by six points.
Sainz snatches sixth
Carlos Sainz arrived in Abu Dhabi tied with Pierre Gasly for sixth in the standings, the Frenchman ahead by virtue of his Brazilian podium. With Gasly out of points contention after the first lap, all Sainz had to do was finish 10th to take the place.
He looked comfortably in the points for much of the race, but the rise of Perez and Kvyat threatened to demote him to 11th.
Some quick thinking from the cockpit saved him. His reading of the race led him to ask McLaren to stop him for a fresh set of tyres on lap 41 to try to break the stalemate with Hulkenberg, who was then also on ageing hards.
The team obliged — Renault covered him with Ricciardo on the following lap but left Hulkenberg out to take a bet each way — and he fell to 14th with a 22-second gap to Hulkenberg, then in eighth. He caught the German with two laps to go and made a pass stick on the final tour, defending against Ricciardo at the same time to take the final point and sixth in the standings, the first driver not from the top three teams to finish so high since 2015.
The winner’s strategy
Lewis Hamilton: medium (used) to lap 25, hard (new) to lap 55.