Safety cars in Abu Dhabi are a rare occurrence, but Fernando Alonso has reason to curse them; they have now twice come along to upset the race strategies and both times dealt a blow to his hopes of winning a championship for Ferrari
In 2010 a Safety Car at the start of the race allowed Vitaly Petrov to pit for new tyres, enabling him to run the end of the race, blocking Alonso and wrecking his strategy.
Last weekend, the Abu Dhabi Safety Car struck again, this time to help his main rival. Red Bull had offered Ferrari an open goal by making a fuel load mistake in qualifying which demoted Sebastian Vettel to the back of the grid, but Vettel’s recovery was greatly helped by two Safety Car periods, which brought the strategy initiative to Vettel and allowed the German to make up ground and end the race on the podium. In front of an open goal, instead of making up 10 to 15 points on Vettel, Aionso made up only three.
Once again a conservative choice of soft and medium Pirelli tyres meant that the teams had the ability to do the race with only one stop, with the drivers able to push to the limit without fear of degradation or excessive wear.
Vettel’s strategy on Sunday didn’t just revolve around tyre choice and pit stop timing. Red Bull opted to take Vettel’s car out of parc ferme and to make changes to the set up, which would allow him to overtake more easily. Wings were altered and a longer seventh gear was added which would mean greater straight line speed for DRS overtaking. It improved his top speed by 10km/h to 321 km/h.
With two DRS zones on the circuit and a very fast car coming through the field, Yas Marina Circuit was no longer the overtaking desert it was for Alonso in 2010.
Vettel’s strategy was to start on the medium tyre, run a longer first stint than the others and make up some places when they stopped, then switch to the faster soft tyre for the final stint and try to pick up a few more places in the closing laps. But it didn’t turn out remotely like that. Instead he was forced into an early stop for a front wing change and this put him a half-stop sequence out from the rest of the field. This turned out to be a blessing.
By lap 9 he was already up to 12th place, when the first Safety Car was deployed. At this stage he was 23 seconds behind the leader. However he had damaged his front wing in early exchanges and then damaged it further behind Ricciardo and was forced to pit behind the safety car. This dropped him to 21st place. Having started on the harder tyre, he took the softer tyre at the first stop, which turned out to be the faster race tyre on Sunday.
Crucially, in that same Safety Car period, Grosjean also pitted and like Vettel, went from medium to soft. His plan from there was to try to get to the finish without stopping again. This would provide the barrier to the rest of the field, holding back Webber, Perez and Maldonado after their stops. As the gap widened between Grosjean and the car in front (Button) this created an opportunity for Vettel to push hard on his new soft tyres and then slot into the gap after a second stop. It meant that a minimum fourth place was up for grabs.
Red Bull spotted it immediately and although they considered not stopping Vettel again, because he managed to get into second place, ahead of Alonso and Button when they pitted, the radio messages early in the second stint indicated that they wanted him to push on the tyres, so clearly the intention was to stop again. This was the less risky option in championship terms, with a guaranteed fourth place there for the taking.
However, had Red Bull been in the mood to gamble, rival engineers believe that Vettel would have been able to do 42 laps on the softs and make it to the finish. This would almost certainly have led to a thrilling duel in the closing stages between the two world title contenders, Alonso and Vettel over second place. Alonso was very fast at the end of the race as he tried to catch Raikkonen, but Vettel’s straight line speed, even on worn tyres meant he would have been able to put up quite a fight to hold onto second place.
When the one stop pit window opened on lap 25 Vettel was in 10th place and 22 seconds behind the leader, essentially where he was before the front wing incident. But by putting himself out of synch with the other cars, this helped him at the crucial stage of the race when the pit stop window opened.
Between laps 24 and 31 he went from 10th to 2nd and then by pitting again on lap 37 he ensured that he held onto all but two of those places. Only Alonso and Button got back ahead of him due to his second stop.
The real stroke of luck was the second safety car. Vettel was very fortunate that just as he came out on fresh soft tyres the safety car came out and cut Button’s lead over him from 15 secs with 17 laps to go to nothing. That set Vettel up for the podium. Button gave him plenty of room when he made the passing move, not wanting to affect the championship. Had Vettel tried that move at the start of the season, he might have ended up off the track.
Kimi Raikkonen finally got his comeback victory in the Lotus. It had been clear from the long runs in Friday practice that once again, the Lotus was quick enough to challenge for the win. Qualifying had been the stumbling block all season but here Ferrari tripped up and then with Vettel’s penalty, Raikkonen found himself fourth.
His win was built on a stunning start, which moved him up to second place and then when Lewis Hamilton stopped, Raikkonen was able to do something he’d dreamed of all season; run in clear air at the front, as all of the seven winners in the first seven races had been able to do.
Raikkonen showed what Lotus has had to offer all season, twice building leads of ten seconds, only to have them cut by the safety cars.
TYRE STRATEGIES, ABU DHABI
S=Soft; H= Hard; N= New; U=Used; SG = Stop and Go Penalty
Räikkönen: SU MN (31) 1
Alonso: SU MN (28) 1
Vettel: MN SU (13) SU (37) 2
Button: SU MN (29) 1
Maldonado: SN MN (29) 1
Kobayashi: SN MN (25) 1
Massa: SU MN (26) 1
Senna: MN SU (32) 1
Di Resta: SN MN (1) MN (9) SU (39) 3
Ricciardo: SN MN (26) SU (38) 2
Schumacher: MN SN (27) SU (41) 2
Vergne: SN MN (9) SN (33) 2
Kovalainen: SN MN (28) 1
Glock: SN MN (27) 1
Perez: SN MN (30) MU (38) SG (44) 3
Petrov: SN MN (27) 1
De La Rosa: SN MN (28) 1
RACE HISTORY GRAPH
Kindly supplied by Williams F1 Team
Note how the Lotus pulls away from the Ferrari on the soft tyre in the first stint, but there is nothing to choose between them on the medium tyre in the second stint.