The finale of the F1 season gets held at the Yas Marina International Circuit, and 2020 was no exception. The circuit designed by Hermann Tilke, situated on Yas Island, is the venue for farewells and goodbyes as drivers and mechanics move on to other ventures or teams for the next season.
This year was no different with a host of changes happening in 2021. Renault F1 and Racing Point F1 would race under the names of Alpine Racing F1 and Aston Martin Racing F1 next year. The drivers who would call it a day with their current teams were - Vettel at Ferrari, Perez at Racing Point, Sainz at McLaren, Ricciardo at Renault, Magnussen at Haas, Kyvat ( probably ) at Alpha Tauri. While Vettel, Sainz and Ricciardo had their future contracts locked in, uncertainties remained over Perez, Kvyat and Albon with Magnussen taking a sabbatical from the series.
Mercedes unveiled a special livery for the weekend, featuring the name of each person who has been a part of their success. Offtrack, McLaren announced that it had sold a minority stake ( in its F1 team ) to a consortium of US-based investors including MSP Sports Capital ( valued at 185 million pounds ).
Romain Grosjean, who had suffered a life-threatening accident at the Bahrain GP was unable to recover for the season finale and Fittipaldi, the reserve driver, got another opportunity in the Haas. Hamilton's availability ( due to COVID 19 ) was still a question mark. The reigning World Champion, however, tested negative in Bahrain on Wednesday, travelled to Abu Dhabi on Thursday where he produced another negative test, thus fulfilling the protocols of the UAE government and confirming his participation of the Final GP of the year. Russell returned to Williams while Aitken got re-assigned to the Reserve Driver Role.
The battle for P2 in the Drivers' Championship wasn't over, and neither was 3rd place in the Constructors'. Bottas, who had a mediocre showing against his stand-in team-mate ( Russell ) in Sakhir, hoped for a better showing in Abu Dhabi. Verstappen's charge got brought to a halt when he crashed on the opening lap ( at the Sakhir GP ), but Bottas' poor result kept him in the hunt for 2nd in the Championship.
Racing Point, who celebrated their maiden win and double podium were on the backfoot with Perez starting at the back of the grid due to a power unit change ( over and above the allocation ). Magnussen in the Haas was another driver to suffer a similar fate. Meanwhile, Leclerc carried a three-place grid penalty for his misdemeanour at the Sakhir GP.
So, who reigned supreme in the lights of the Yas Marina International Circuit? Time for a quick recap!
Free Practice 1 got underway with drivers trying different setups and exploring the limits of their cars. The teams also brought in 2021 parts to gather data and understand real-world results. Mick Schumacher, the 2020 F2 Champion and Haas F1 Driver for 2021 replaced Magnussen during FP1 while Kubica got another Friday drive at Alfa Romeo, taking Giovinazzi's place. Albon suffered a spin entering the marina section while Ricciardo ground to a halt with a fuel pressure problem that ruled him out of further participation in FP1. Meanwhile, Hamilton had a brake issue and had to sit out half of the session. It was Verstappen who topped the timesheets at the end of FP1, three-hundredths clear of Bottas. Ocon was 3rd for Renault ahead of Albon, Hamilton and Stroll who completed the top 6. Perez was 7th in the other Racing Point followed by the Alpha Tauris of Kvyat and Gasly who were having a strong second half with Raikkonen, the fastest Ferrari powered car in 10th.
Leclerc split the McLarens of Sainz and Norris followed by his team-mate Vettel in the other works Ferrari. Kubica was 15th from Russell and Latifi with the Haas cars of Schumacher and Fittipaldi completing the rear of the field. Ricciardo didn't set a lap time in FP1.
Pirelli had brought in the 2021 tyres for testing to Abu Dhabi, and the drivers were obliged to run eight timed laps on those sets. Raikkonen escaped a fire at the back of the Alfa Romeo in FP2, the Finn trying his best to assist the marshalls in finding the source of the flames. Smoke was still billowing when the car got extricated near the end of the session. Russell was another driver to suffer a power unit related issue, and the Williams crew exercised extreme caution as they tried to find the source of the problem since the car was leaking current. Albon had an eventful FP2, running wide several times and having his lap times deleted, and almost had a coming together with Ocon on a DRS straight.
Meanwhile, Gasly suffered a spin at turn one while Vettel locked up his hard tyres at the same spot. The brake issues on Haas cars didn't seem to go away with Fittipaldi locking up both his tyres. The fastest time of FP2 belonged to Bottas, the Finn three-tenths clear of his team-mate, Hamilton. Verstappen led the two Red Bulls followed by Norris in 5th. Three-thousandths of a second separated Ocon, Perez, Leclerc and Ricciardo with Stroll completing the top 10.
Sainz was in an Alpha Tauri sandwich of Kvyat and Gasly ahead of Raikkonen and Vettel. Magnussen was the fastest Haas car in 16th followed by Giovinazzi and Russell. Fittipaldi and Latifi completed the rear of the field.
The Red Bulls reigned supreme in FP3 with Verstappen half a second clear of his team-mate Albon. The Renaults of Ricciardo and Ocon popped in a surprise with the 3rd and 4th fastest times followed by Norris and Hamilton. Stroll was 7th for Racing Point, ahead of Sainz in the other McLaren with Bottas and Perez completing the top 10. The Alpha Tauris of Kvyat and Gasly had Leclerc splitting them with Vettel another three-tenths adrift. Russell got ahead of the Alfa Romeos while Latifi was in a Haas sandwich at the back of the field.
It seemed to be a close affair between Mercedes and Red Bull, and the battle of "fine margins" continued in the midfield.
Q1 got underway with the entire field choosing the soft tyres for their first runs. Ocon decided to stay in the pits and go "out-of-sync". There was drama in the pit lane with Verstappen having to slam the brakes to avoid hitting Latifi who got released out of the box by Williams, just ahead of the Dutchman. The incident got flagged for investigation by the stewards. Verstappen suffered a flat-spot on his tyres and expressed his displeasure. Giovinazzi and Hamilton had their lap times deleted for exceeding track limits at turn 20. Hamilton straddled over the kerbs and requested the team to check for floor damage. The top 6 at the end of first runs were - Bottas, Perez, Albon, Stroll, Sainz and Leclerc.
Hamilton and Verstappen managed only the 7th and the 10th quickest times, respectively. However, Verstappen improved to 2nd with 5 minutes remaining on the clock.
Raikkonen was on the cusp of elimination with Magnussen, Fittipaldi, Russell, Latifi and Giovinazzi in the drop zone. The Red Bulls, Racing Points, Sainz and Ricciardo chose to stay in the pits while the rest of the field came out on a fresh set of soft tyres. The lap times improved with track evolution, and Hamilton ended Q1 with the quickest time, followed by Bottas and Leclerc. Verstappen, Norris and Perez completed the top 6. Giovinazzi made it into Q2, eliminating his team-mate Raikkonen with Magnussen, Russell, Fittipaldi and Latifi being the other eliminations at the end of Q1.
Tyre choice was pivotal at the start of Q2, and there was a mixture of strategies adopted by the drivers. Mercedes, Ferrari, Red Bull, Renault sent their drivers on mediums while Alpha Tauri and Giovinazzi ( Alfa Romeo ) chose the softs. McLaren split the strategy with its drivers, Sainz choosing the mediums and Norris the softs.
Albon and Ricciardo had their lap times deleted for exceeding track limits at turn 21. Hamilton, Bottas, Norris, Sainz, Verstappen and Gasly were the top 6 at the end of the first runs with Ocon, Giovinazzi, Albon, Ricciardo and Perez in the drop zone. Although Perez was to start at the back of the grid, the Mexican exited the pits to complete an installation lap on the soft tyres.
Verstappen and Leclerc exited the pits with another set of medium tyres while the rest of the field chose softs for their final runs of Q2. Despite having fresh tyres, the majority of the drivers were unable to improve on their lap times. The top 6 at the end of Q2 changed to Hamilton, Bottas, Verstappen, Albon, Norris and Leclerc with Ocon, Ricciardo, Vettel, Giovinazzi and Perez getting eliminated.
It was time for the top-ten-shootout, and the Alpha Tauris and Norris were on a used set of soft tyres for their first runs of Q3. A tenth and a half separated the top four drivers with Bottas on provisional pole from Verstappen, Hamilton and Albon. Sainz and Norris were 5th and 6th, followed by Stroll, Leclerc and the Alpha Tauris of Kvyat and Gasly.
Everyone was on a fresh set of soft tyres in the final minutes of Q3. Hamilton set blistering sector times and seemed to have bagged pole before Bottas relegated him to 2nd. However, a few seconds later, Verstappen crossed the finish line and pipped Bottas to pole! Norris catapulted his McLaren into 4th with Albon slotting in at P5. Sainz was 6th in the other McLaren followed by Kvyat and Stroll on row 4 and Leclerc and Gasly in row 5.
It was the first time in 2020 that a non-Mercedes car had bagged pole! Verstappen had pipped Bottas by two-hundredths and Hamilton by eight-hundredths of a second for the best starting position on Sunday. Celebrations erupted in the Red Bull garage, their months of hard work finally coming to fruition on Saturday. Verstappen had the perfect launch pad to fight for 2nd place in the Championship. Bottas was looking sharp all weekend while Hamilton was still getting back up to speed after his ten-day layoff due to COVID. Mercedes knew it wasn't going to be a leisurely Sunday evening drive.
In a tight midfield, McLaren had a great chance of outscoring the Racing Points with their 4th and 6th place in Qualifying. Once again Red Bull didn't have both its cars in the top four but hoped to see Albon challenge the Mercedes since he would start on the faster and grippier soft tyres.
Kvyat admitted that this was the best qualifying effort of his career as he looked to capitalize on Sunday. Stroll was Racing Point's best hope since Perez needed to carve his way through the field and needed an optimal strategy. The team was already on the backfoot in its defence for P3 in the Constructors' Championship. A stellar qualifying effort by Leclerc ensured Ferrari representation in the top 10. Gasly was 10th, and it was rare to see him getting out-qualified by his team-mate.
The biggest surprise of Qualifying was the Renaults. The duo had exceptional pace in FP3 but came up short in Qualifying. A free tyre choice, combined with a good strategy, could tip the balance in their favour. Vettel's travails continued on his farewell weekend, and the German was glad that only the race remained for his ordeal to end. Giovinazzi proved the doubters wrong by out-qualifying his more experienced team-mate Raikkonen and winning the team-mate battle for the season. Sunday was the day that mattered though. Haas and Williams remained stuck in the backmarker battle with Magnussen and Russell being the drivers on whom their hopes were riding.
The race would be long and demanding, but it was time for one final push in 2020!
Sunday arrived, and it was time for the final race of 2020. C3, C4 and C5 were the compounds provided by Pirelli in what seemed to be a one-stop race.
Norris, Albon, Kvyat, Stroll and Gasly were the drivers inside the top 10 who started the race with their ( soft ) tyres from Q2. Those in the latter half of the field chose the mediums with Ricciardo, Perez and Magnussen opting for the hards.
The drivers took a knee in the fight against racism, stood in honour of the national anthem before handing Chase Carey, the outgoing CEO of F1 a helmet signed by all the drivers on the grid. It was then time for the formation lap, and the drivers got themselves ready for the final bout under the lights.
The race got underway, and it was a clean getaway for Verstappen, the Dutchman comfortably fending off any challenge from the Mercedes into turn one. Bottas had a slower exit out of turn one but was able to hold onto 2nd despite the pressure from Hamilton. Further down the field, Ocon was able to jump Gasly for 10th while Vettel and Raikkonen overtook their team-mates for 12th and 14th, respectively. Magnussen moved up three positions from the back of the grid, and it was an incident-free opening lap.
Verstappen wasted no time in building a gap to the Mercedes and was 1.7 seconds clear at the end of lap 1. Gasly recovered 9th from Ocon on lap two at turn 9. Verstappen set the fastest lap on lap three while Perez, who had started 19th after the engine change, got past Fittipaldi for P18. Norris was holding off Albon in the battle for 4th, and the latter quipped that Norris was overdriving and might not be able to complete the race with a single stop.
Verstappen, Bottas, Hamilton, Norris, Albon, Sainz, Kvyat, Stroll, Gasly and Ocon were the top 10 at the end of lap 4.
Perez relegated Russell to 17th ( lap 5 ) and Giovinazzi to 16th ( lap 6 ) while Renault instructed Ocon to let Ricciardo by ( for P10 ) a lap later. The battle for 4th culminated with Albon getting the better of Norris with DRS assistance. The Racing Point drivers were making overtakes on track with Stroll getting past Kvyat for 7th, and Perez completing a move on Raikkonen for 14th. Kvyat then lost 8th to team-mate Gasly while the VSC got deployed due to an incident in sector 3. Perez had ground to a halt at turn 19 ( lap 10 ), retiring from his final race with Racing Point.
It was still early for a pit stop, but the teams decided to utilize the VSC period to pit their drivers. The Ferraris, Ricciardo, Giovinazzi and Magnussen chose to stay out while the rest of the field pitted for a fresh set of hard tyres. Sainz got flagged for investigation ( post-race ) for driving unnecessarily slowly in the pitlane. The marshalls needed more time for extrication, and the VSC got changed to a full Safety Car. As the field got bunched up again, Hamilton complained about balance issues on his car. Perez and his mechanics at Racing Point were distraught, and they knew the ramifications of this retirement in the battle for 3rd in the Constructors'.
The Safety Car returned to the pits at the end of lap 13, and it was a clean getaway by Verstappen again. Raikkonen got past Magnussen for 15th while Sainz relegated Leclerc to 9th on lap 14. Giovinazzi, one of the drivers who chose to stay out, lost 12th to Ocon while Stroll got past Leclerc for 9th, only for the Monegasque to fight back and retake the position at the end of the straight. Giovinazzi continued to fall backwards with Kvyat and Raikkonen getting past the Italian in the space of 2 laps while Sainz overtook Vettel for 7th ( lap 17 ).
Leclerc suffered a similar fate and got overtaken by Stroll, Gasly and Ocon, warning the team that he needed to pit if he wanted to salvage something from the race. He finally pitted from 12th on lap 23, for a set of hard tyres, rejoining in 19th and last. On the track, Russell got past Giovinazzi for 15th while Stroll was honing in on Vettel for 8th, but ran wide at turn 11, allowing Gasly to reduce the deficit to him instead.
Verstappen, Bottas, Hamilton, Albon, Ricciardo, Norris, Sainz, Vettel, Stroll and Gasly were the top 10 at the end of lap 26.
Leclerc began to recover the places he had lost with overtakes on Fittipaldi, Latifi and Magnussen for 18th, 17th and 16th respectively. Giovinazzi pitted on lap 29 for hard tyres, rejoining in 19th while Latifi got past Magnussen for 16th. Verstappen was lapping six-tenths quicker than the Mercedes duo and extended his lead to 7 seconds at the front.
Stroll, who had failed to get past Vettel, now found himself defending 9th from Gasly. The defence didn't last long, and Gasly was up into 9th on lap 30. The Frenchman then closed in on Vettel and got past him for 8th, but the latter put up a dogged fight, his tyres unable to provide the levels of traction like Gasly's though. Further down the field, Magnussen lost 17th to Fittipaldi. The Haas driver finally pitted for mediums on lap 33, rejoining in last. The battle for 14th was an intense one between Russell and Leclerc, and the latter was able to get the job done on lap 35.
Hamilton reported that he had suffered a flat-spot on his tyres while Vettel finally pitted for a set of medium tyres on lap 36, rejoining in 15th behind Russell. Latifi did the same on lap 37, rejoining in 17th. The last of the drivers to pit, amongst those who had started on the hard tyres, was Ricciardo. The Australian pitted from P5, having held off Norris long enough, for a fresh set of mediums on lap 40, and rejoined in 7th. Leclerc was now on the tail of Raikkonen for 12th and had an opportunity to pass on lap 41, but Raikkonen fended off the challenge, his experience coming to the fore.
Vettel got past Russell for 14th on lap 42 while Mercedes asked Bottas to start pushing and close the gap to Verstappen in front. However, Verstappen responded with quicker laps of his own, extending his lead by another two seconds.
Verstappen, Bottas, Hamilton, Albon, Norris, Sainz, Ricciardo, Gasly, Stroll and Ocon were the top 10 at the end of lap 45.
Leclerc got a Black and White Flag for exceeding track limits at turn 21 multiple times. Haas pitted both its drivers with Magnussen switching to new mediums and Fittipaldi to softs on laps 49 and 50 respectively. Giovinazzi was honing in on Russell in the battle for 15th as Albon started to catch Hamilton for the final podium position, reducing the deficit to less than 2 seconds. Ocon closed up on Stroll and got past him for P9 on the last lap.
Verstappen took the Chequered Flag and Victory at the 2020 Abu Dhabi GP. The Dutchman could have completed the "Grand Slam" but for Ricciardo to take the point for the fastest lap off him on the last lap. Bottas and Hamilton came home in 2nd and 3rd for Mercedes, followed by Albon in the other Red Bull and the McLarens of Norris and Sainz. Ricciardo, Gasly, Ocon and Stroll completed the top 10.
Kvyat was 11th in the other Alpha Tauri, followed by Raikkonen in the Alfa Romeo. The works Ferrari team could only manage 13th and 14th followed by Russell and Giovinazzi. Latifi, Magnussen and Fittipaldi were the final classified finishers.
While Verstappen celebrated with Red Bull on parc-ferme, Hamilton and Bottas performed their customary season-ending donuts on the start-finish straight. Magnussen did the same in the final sector as the Dane returned to the pits, his last race in F1. The radio channels got flooded with emotional exchanges between teams and drivers, some bidding farewell and some thanking their mechanics for the season, vowing to return re-energized for the challenge in 2021.
Verstappen had given it his all, but Bottas' 2nd place was enough for P2 in the Drivers' Championship. Albon did all he could in the other Red Bull, but the final decision about renewal for 2021 rests with the team. Hamilton had recovered from COVID-19 but not to full fitness, and it showed. The Mercedes duo was managing an MGU-K issue which explained their lack of pace against the Red Bull of Verstappen. Norris and Sainz' 5th and 6th place finish combined with Perez's retirement in the race allowed McLaren to jump Racing Point in the Constructors' Championship. The investigation on Sainz ended with "no action taken", and McLaren had bagged 3rd place in the Championship.
Perez didn't get an ideal farewell with Racing Point, but finishing 4th in the Drivers' Championship makes his CV for 2021 stronger. It had been an eventful year for Racing Point, from its RP20 being called the "Pink Mercedes" to having 15 points docked in Constructors' Championship. Despite the penalties dished out to them, they had accomplished a lot in 2020.
Renault had another double-points weekend, and they would miss the services of Ricciardo who is McLaren bound for 2021. They were locked in an intense battle all season long, and 5th was the best they could achieve. Alpha Tauri had a strong second half and got close to outscoring Ferrari. Gasly was the star of the show and with Honda backed F2 driver Tsunoda coming in, things can only get better in 2021.
Raikkonen had a strong end to the season, finishing the highest of the Ferrari-powered cars in the season finale. Giovinazzi out-qualified his team-mate, Raikkonen, and would be looking to produce more points-scoring finishes in 2021. It was back to the drawing board for Ferrari, the Maranello-based outfit ending the season a dismal 6th in the Constructors'. Russell carried a thank-you tribute on his helmet for Sir Frank Williams and Claire Williams and would be hoping to bring Williams further up the grid next year. His team-mate Latifi would also need to step up his performances. Magnussen said goodbye to the sport, having spent the majority of his career in the midfield, his talent never getting the recognition it deserved. It was a good learning experience ( in the final two rounds ) for Fittipaldi who would take up the role of reserve driver again in 2021.
Verstappen controlled the race from start to finish, kept it clean and reaped the rewards at the end. Hamilton and Bottas had no answer to his pace and looked second-best throughout the weekend, but they had already accomplished what they set out to achieve. Nevertheless, this win helped Verstappen and Red Bull sign off 2020 on the right note and carry the momentum into 2021.
2020 had been a tough year for the world, and the likelihood of having a sizeable F1 season seemed improbable at the onset of the pandemic in March. However, the FIA, FOM and Liberty Media planned an elaborate yet hectic calendar of 17 races and accomplished the task. Kudos to them! The sport returned to some classic tracks besides visiting venues where F1 had never raced before. Some even welcomed fans. The 2020 Season had been unique in that way. There were 78000 COVID Tests throughout the season, and the protocols set in place got followed to the T.
The start of the 2021 F1 Season is less than 100 days away, and the battle will resume in March, Down Under!
Till then, Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!