It was ironic that Liberty Media chose to ‘unleash’ their new fan-inspired F1 logo after an Abu Dhabi Grand Prix that was without question the least fulfilling encounter of what has been a frequently gripping season.
But it was a night of nights for Valtteri Bottas as he took the victory he had lost at the start in Brazil last time out, and won the hard way for the third time this season after withstanding racelong pressure from his four-time champion team-mate Lewis Hamilton.
Both had nice things to say about their fight afterwards, as a smiling Hamilton warned his winning team-mate, “It was great to be a part of another dominant 1-2 for Mercedes, with a very strong win over Ferrari this weekend. But coming to the subject of next season, it’s going to be back to business!”
The Finn resisted everything that Hamilton had to throw at him, and barely made a significant mistake as he controlled the race throughout. No matter what Hamilton did behind him, he didn’t crack for the entire 55 laps.
“Valtteri did a great job this weekend, and also this year,” Hamilton admitted, clearly very happy for his team-mate. “It was great to have the race we had today. I think we each had one mistake today, me with a lock-up in Turn 17, and him in Turn 5, so with that pressure he did exceptionally well.”
For the two men in the cockpits, and their team, it was of course gripping stuff, nip and tuck all the way, but it was hard work for the crowd as the positions never changed.
Yas Marina is in a wonderful, romantic setting that has become a firm part of F1 these days, but the design of the track, especially in the final sector round the Yas Viceroy Abu Dhabi Hotel, does nobody any favours. As Hamilton remarked tersely over the radio at one point, “You can’t follow for shit here.”
He expanded on that later.
“I was better in the first two sectors, but Valtteri was stronger in the third. That was partly set-up, but this is a very difficult circuit on which to follow. The car was great today, the balance was spot-on, but I felt he maybe had a little more in the last sector.
“This is a great, great track, but doesn’t suit the cars very well. I don’t know if it’s exiting for you guys to watch, but for us it’s one of the worst in that you need a car advantage of 1.4s in order to be able to overtake, and the difference between us was a couple of tenths.”
“I knew Lewis was always going to be struggling when he got to sector three behind me,” Bottas smirked.
He had the edge on the ultrasoft Pirelli tyres during their opening stints, and by the time he pitted for supersofts after 22 laps he had built a lead of 2.5s over his team-mate. Hamilton then led for two laps before his pit stop, and thereafter found he could push harder on his own supersofts.
He had the gap down to 1.1s by the 29th lap, just past the halfway mark, but Bottas always seemed to have an answer and never looked ruffled as he continued to control the pace.
Hamilton had another big push on the 49th lap as they came up to lap Fernando Alonso’s McLaren-Honda. He got within half a second partway round the lap as they ran nose-to-tail, but the gap was back to 1.2s by lap 49, and soon after a vanquished Sebastian Vettel, more than 20s in arrears back in third place, had popped in fastest lap, Bottas annihilated the time on consecutive laps to pull away from Hamilton again.
In the end, he led him home by 3.8s in the most convincing race of his career, the Silver Arrows leaving Vettel a distant on a day when Ferrari had reliability, but not outright pace.
A year ago, Bottas retired his Williams here with suspension failure after six laps, and Nico Rosberg was celebrating his world championship. Then Rosberg quit, and suddenly Bottas found himself propelled into the vacated Mercedes seat. Now here he was, winning.
“It has been a bit crazy,” he admitted. “But life is. This has been an incredible season for me, and I have learned so much with Lewis and been able to find something every single race.
“I don’t say I know yet how to win the title because I have never done that, but it was a good performance in qualifying yesterday and again today, so I’m really looking forward to next year to see what it brings.”
And he laughed at the inevitable suggestion that Finnish reserve makes for dull winners.
“Just because we don’t show emotions doesn’t mean we don’t have any. I’ve had so much support from my family, and while I can’t show that emotion to you, I do have my feelings.”
On a hard day for Red Bull, as Renault beat their offshoot Toro Rosso for sixth overall in the constructors’ standings, Daniel Ricciardo lost fourth place in the race and the driver rankings when he dropped out after 21 laps with suspected hydraulic power steering problems.
That enabled Kimi Raikkonen in the second Ferrari to finish fourth and take the place by five points, after following Vettel home and keeping Max Verstappen’s sister Red Bull at bay by less than a second the finish.