Sebastian Vettel led from start to finish in the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix to be crowned the 2010 Formula One world champion.
The German did a lot of the hard work needed to overhaul both Ferrari’s Fernando Alonso and Red Bull team-mate Mark Webber in qualifying on Saturday, but was wheel-perfect in the 55-lap encounter under the stars at Yas Marina to ruin Alonso’s mid-season prediction that he could win the championship for a third time.
Of course, Vettel required his rivals to run into problems even if he won the race, and both Alonso and Webber hindered their own chances by making early pit-stops for fresh Bridgestone rubber. With both McLarens and, unexpectedly, a host of other cars thrusting themselves into the mix, the strategy did not pay off for the championship pacesetters, allowing Vettel the vault from third to first in one sweet bound.
The German had to fend off a fast-starting Lewis Hamilton into the first turn – the Briton needing a win and a miracle to reclaim the title – but came out in front, and was able to manage a comfortable advantage as the Red Bull RB6 again proved to be the car to have.
Vettel’s RB6 was the car to have, as Webber, having ensured that he held on to the disappointing fifth place in which he qualified, was never able to match his pace in the opening few laps. It wasn’t as if the Australian didn’t have motivation in his sights, as Alonso – whom he needed to beat – was beaten to turn one by Jenson Button and slotted in right in front of the Red Bull.
While a straightforward championship battle still appeared to be on, however, an incident triggered by the two Mercedes drivers at the turn 5-6 chicane threw an extra spoke in the wheel. Although Michael Schumacher spun across the pack, his car did not appear to be too damaged – until Vitantonio Liuzzi was left with nowhere to go and mounted the WO1, perilously close to the seven-time champion’s helmet.
With both cars, and the resultant debris, needing to be cleared away, the safety car was summoned, prompting several midfield runners – including Nico Rosberg, Vitaly Petrov and Jaime Alguersuari – to make their mandatory tyre change.
At that point, it appeared that they may be a good bet for points, but things took an unexpected turn when, on lap eleven, Webber reported that his rear tyres were beginning to give up the ghost. The Australian – who, like Vettel, had run three or four more laps than the McLarens and Ferraris in qualifying – had already touched the turn 14 barrier heavily with his right rear, and pitted almost immediately.
The stop dropped Webber to 16th, crucially behind Rosberg, Petrov and Alguersuari, but, although Ferrari suffered the same fate when it decided to cover the move with Felipe Massa – the Brazilian resuming directly behind the Red Bull – the Italian team repeated the tactic by bringing Alonso in on lap 16.
It was touch-and-go whether the Spaniard would resume ahead of the man closest to him in the standings but, ironically, Webber was delayed just enough by Toro Rosso’s Alguersuari – before the Red Bull protégé moved over for him – to allow the Ferrari back in front.
The pair were now running directly behind Petrov but, despite their supposed performance advantage – and the Russian’s propensity for off-track moments – the Renault held firm for lap after lap, effectively destroying two championship ambitions in one.
The least Alonso needed to combat a Vettel victory was fourth on the road but, with both McLarens running strongly, and Robert Kubica making the most of missing the pole position shoot-out to start on the harder Bridgestones and run deep into the race, the Spaniard’s chances unravelled.
Hamilton and Vettel pitted a lap apart, on the 23rd and 24th tours respectively, allowing Button to assume the lead, but the German’s in-lap pace and Red Bull’s efficiency in pit-lane allowed him to emerge, not only in front of his British rival, but also with Kubica between them. With the pressure removed, Vettel was able to control the remainder of the race.
He did not return to the front of the field for another 15 laps, as Button again used his trademark smooth style to coax his supersoft tyres well into the second half of the race, but, when he did, only a misfortune of Korean proportions was going to deny him.
Button could have been on for second place, moreso ironically if he had pitted a couple of laps earlier, but returned to the track behind his team-mate, with McLaren eventually assuming second and third places once Kubica finally made his stop just nine laps from the chequered flag.
The tactic did not quite pay off for the Pole, as he also dropped to fifth behind Rosberg, the Mercedes man showing the benefit of stopping under the safety car. Similarly, Petrov benefited from his early tyre change, frustrating Alonso and Webber to the end – and appearing to endure the Spaniard’s wrath as they returned to parc ferme. Ferrari-powered Alguersuari, meanwhile, kept Massa at bay to claim two points for Toro Rosso.
Vettel, understandably, was tearful as he crossed the line, the German replacing Lewis Hamilton as the youngest champion in F1 history and handing Red Bull its first drivers’ title just a week after the Milton Keynes team clinched the constructors’ crown. As he peeled the hologram helmet from his head, the balaclava underneath bore the legend ‘Monza’ – the venue for the 2008 race at which the German convinced observers that he was a champion in waiting.
The final margin was four points, with Alonso ending the season ten ahead of Webber, who only just survived being overhauled by Hamilton. The Spaniard was more magnanimous in parc ferme, vowing to bounce back next season having won as many races as his young rival but, having had a taste of top spot, Vettel will be a hard man to beat.