2016 F1 Abu Dhabi GP Preview
By Bob Constanduros
So this is the big one, the decider, the denouement, the finale. Everyone’s asking who will win, but who should win? We know who is the fastest, who is the wisest, who has the better racecraft, who is leading the championship. We all know what Nico Rosberg has to do to clinch the championship and what Lewis Hamilton needs to do to clinch the championship. (Incidentally, both GP2 and GP3 championships also have to be decided this weekend).
And the two Formula One contenders particularly have to deal with whatever their rivals can do to insert themselves into the championship battle. Hamilton, Rosberg and Sebastian Vettel are the stars of the Yas Marina Circuit statistically. Hamilton has two poles but failed to finish from either; however, he has qualified second four times and twice won from there.
Rosberg has twice qualified on pole, and won from there last year. Vettel has twice qualified on pole and won from each time – and has another two wins making four in all. Otherwise, only Mark Webber(one pole) and Kimi Raikkonen (won in 2012) have featured at the front.
In theory, then, it’s a Mercedes circuit – well, that’s not really news, most – if not all of them – are. It has two massive straights and some tight and twisty street circuit stuff in the final sector. In fact the fastest corner is turn two at 260kph but of the other 20 corners, six are below 100kph – only Monaco and Singapore have more. Turn seven is the slowest at 72kph.
But then 41% is total straight, four straights at over 285kph, 59% full throttle with the longest straight being 1.2kms and there are two DRS zones. Even so, overtaking is difficult. The hairpin at turn seven is key because it affects the following straight and its DRS zone, so traction is vital too. But then braking is quite severe with three hard braking zones into slow corners, 18% per cent of the lap spent braking.
Pirelli have brought the three softest compound tyres here: the purple ultrasoft, red supersoft and yellow soft, the fifth time and first since Singapore this combination has been chosen. Last year they brought supersoft and soft with the first eleven cars making two stops each, most around lap 10 and laps 30-40. The two championship contenders have made exactly the same tyre choice; Nico Hulkenberg has made the most aggressive choice with eight sets of ultrasoft.
The grip level is roughly medium in that the asphalt is quite smooth but affords some grip but the circuit is so slow in the corners that mechanical grip is at a premium. The other factor is that track temperatures can reach 40 degrees but then drop by 15 degrees when the sun goes down around the start of the race. However, there is a relatively low level of tyre wear and degradation.
It is the seventh Abu Dhabi Grand Prix and the seventh longest circuit on the calendar. This very well maintained and presented circuit has four unique features: the pit lane passes under the circuit and exits on the inside of the first corner, 360m in length and taking about 22s. The garages are air conditioned although the heat isn’t as oppressive here as it has been recently at other circuits. It has the largest permanent lighting system in the world and that’s because the race starts in twilight and ends in darkness. There have been no safety cars for the last two years and there were 19 finishers last year.
It is, of course, the last race for the 2016 specification cars before we see wider tyres in 2017 with more downforce, giving lap times some five seconds faster. We shall also be saying goodbye to Felipe Massa after his 250th race and Jenson Button takes a sabbatical too. Will he return to F1?
I was in Bahrain last weekend for the final round of the World Endurance Championship where six of the 11 championships were still to be decided. And at the kart circuit beside us, they were holding the World Kart championships as well. It was a weekend of WEC goodbyes in Bahrain too, with Audi surprising the championship and their own employees with their pullout only a few weeks ago; one employee said that they were well advanced on their 2017 car. Mark Webber got onto the podium for his final professional car race (for the moment) and he was supported by his protégé Mitch Evans, compatriots Daniel Ricciardo (watch out for the haircut) and Mick Doohan (whose son was karting) plus Fernando Alonso who sent a cryptic message for the final gala dinner saying ‘you haven’t waited for me’ which suggests the Spaniard is heading in that direction in the future.
(Incidentally, I was staggered at a couple of Australian journalists who had a freebie to see Mark making his final appearance for Porsche but admitted that they couldn’t be bothered to organise themselves to extend their trip by a few days and see Daniel at Abu Dhabi. No wonder Mark was always so pissed off with the Aussie press who wanted so much of him for one race a year.)
Over at the kart track there was a massive turnout – and they’d been testing there a couple of weeks before. Most of the competitors should have been at school anyway. Many of them had at least two karts available and I’m sure one guy had four chassis on hand. I was staggered to find a bespectacled, cigar-smoking Ralf Schumacher running his kart team – nephew Mick won a couple of the MRF support races on the main circuit. There was a huge Lewis Hamilton awning – with or without Lewis I don’t know, and Marcus Ericsson was due to support his younger brother over the weekend.
Meanwhile at Macau there were the usual controversies and far too many race stoppages. From an outsider’s point of view, there is something radically wrong with this event now when competitors and cars travel thousands of miles for a three lap race due to accidents. And I note that various other national classes were squeezed into the programme which now boasts more and more FIA rounds or stand-alone events. I wasn’t there so I’m looking forward to talking to those who were but it’s no longer an event which can be relied on to give a true result because of the likelihood of stoppages. Having said that, I was glad that Antonio Felix da Costa won the F3 race; he’s a driver who has shown immense promise and yet has never had the right breaks. He deserves more.
And back at base, a wunderkind of another sort has finally come into land. Zak Brown, PR and marketing guru, has been suggested for every role in F1 (apart from Ferrari) in the last few weeks including Liberty Media, FOM and motorsport.com but now he has been hired by McLaren Technology Group as their executive director to start soon. In fact he will continue to advise motorsport.com of which he is chairman and of course will run his United Autosports team with Richard Dean, as well as an advisory role on the board at Cosworth. If you don’t know, he’s an American who has been running his JMI marketing and PR agency here in the UK for around a decade or more but has much respect in many quarters. He also races with United Autosports and has a great love of the sport. Indeed, his new role has all the feeling of a kid in a big toyshop – although I’m sure his expertise will ensure professionalism and dedication to duty.
And so we go into the final round of the championship with a title at the end of it: the first for Nico Rosberg, or the fourth for Lewis Hamilton? We shall soon know.