Many said this would finally be the race where Mark Webber won. The Aussie got the better of his teammate in qualifying not through misfortune or luck, but on sheer pace. That was what everyone was clinging to just before the lights went out to start the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Once Sebastian Vettel took the lead at the first corner, the race might as well have ended. From there, Vettel’s seventh consecutive win was just a formality, as the German pulled upwards of a second per lap on the rest of the field.
It was Vettel, Nico Rosberg, Webber, Romain Grosjean and Lewis Hamilton in the top-five after the first lap. Vettel, however, was off in the distance immediately, making a bold statement by staying out longer than the rest of the front-runners in the first stint on his soft tires. He was serenely driving along, only pushing the limits of the car on his in-and-out laps and boasted a monumental 23-second gap to the two Ferraris before they had to stop.
Behind Vettel, however, two interesting battles were taking place. The first between Webber, Rosberg and Grosjean. This fight for the podium ensued for the entirety of the race, only subsiding later on after Webber passed Roberg on track.
Behind them, Hamilton was stuck behind the Sauber of Esteban Gutierrez. The Mexican was making life very hard for the Mercedes driver, often pushing the limits on defensive driving as Hamilton tried again and again to get by. This went on for several laps, allowing the trio of Rosberg, Webber and Grosjean to pull away at an alarming rate, and for Hulkenberg to catch up behind and add further pressure.
Vettel finally came in at the end of lap 14, emerging from the pits still in front of the Ferraris of Felipe Massa and Fernando Alonso. For their one-stop strategies to really work, those two would have needed to be in front. The Force Indias of Paul di Resta and Adrian Sutil were also attempting one-stop strategies, but with a bit more success.
Massa and Alonso pitted on lap 18 and 19 respectively. This left Rosberg and Webber stuck behind di Resta, who was on very old soft tires. Rosberg got a run on di Resta on the second back straight, but Webber got a better one, utilizing his DRS to perfection to pass the German on the outside for third.
In fifth place, Sutil was still able to keep Hamilton, Massa, Alonso and Hulkenberg at bay for several laps, until Massa finally got past. Hamilton was by soon after, followed by Alonso the next lap. Hulkenberg decided he had enough of following this jostling train and pitted on lap 28. When emerging from his pit box, however, he found himself right in the path of Sergio Perez.
Contact was just barely avoided, but the German driver was immediately put under investigation by the stewards and then given a drive-through penalty. His promising day was over.
Webber and Rosberg made their final stops on lap 34, with Grosjean coming in four laps later. The superior tire preservation of the Lotus would be the key to hunting down those two for the final podium position. Vettel came in a lap after Grosjean, his 40-second gap to the Frenchman more than enough to ensure no loss of position.
From then on, the day was characterized by the Ferrari charge. Their one-stop strategies failed in the end, but by being able to pit late in the race, they were the fastest drivers on track in the closing laps. Alonso’s charge ended at fifth place, as the 30-second gap to Grosjean was insurmountable. Posting the fastest lap was a small consolation.
We didn’t see much of him during the race, but I can assure you Vettel was there. He was never pushed, never hassled. It doesn’t look like anyone can stop the young German as the Formula One circus heads to Austin, Texas in two weeks.