Oh yeah, there was some brouhaha over a new logo or something.
It was an all Mercedes show. Valtteri Bottas took top time in FP1, while Hamilton took FP2 and FP3. Hamilton seemed to be on a roll to steal the weekend, but got snookered by Bottas when it counted. Bottas beat his teammate by 0.172 seconds. Hamilton was ahead of Ferrari’s Sebastian Vettel by 0.374 seconds.
Simple enough, they end the same way they start: Bottas wins, followed by Hamilton and Vettel. Hamilton’s fresh engine from Brazil should have given him an advantage, both in qualifying and the race. He might have a shot at the start, but after losing Brazil to a flubbed start, my gut told me Bottas was NOT letting Abu Dhabi slip away. And, after the all Mercedes lockout of practice and qualifying, there was no doubt the Silver Arrows were going to score a 1-2.
The start was nice and clean, with Bottas keeping the outside line and holding his lead. The top 6 settled into their starting positions, and the race was on! Ricciardo pitted on Lap 20 (due to a possible puncture), but a lap later was out completely with a hydraulic failure. Ricciardo seems to have hit upon a rash of bad luck towards the end of the season. The Asian swing netted him three podiums, but since then his only finish is a 6th in Brazil. A few laps later, Carlos Sainz pitted for his only pit stop. However, the team failed to secure the left front wheel nut and the wheel promptly came off when Carlos Sainz Jr. exited the pits. This marks Sainz’s fourth retirement in the last six races. Quite a shame for the young Spaniard, as the beginning of the season was going very well for him, finishing as high as fourth in Singapore. Neither Sainz nor Ricciardo’s DNFs brought out the safety car, which left the field green from flag to flag. Up front, Bottas was a bit slower than Hamilton on the straights, but Hamilton was not quick enough to make a run on his teammate. In the end, the top three finished as they started. In fact, most of the field spent their entire races looking at the back of the car they qualified behind. The most notable exception was Brendon Hartley who moved up a total of five positions (20th to 15th). Two of those were for the DNFs described above, but even a three position improvement was the best of the field.
See, the problem with the Yas Marina circuit is it has too many extremes. There are two very fast straights, coupled with some very tight chicanes. Unlike Monza, which only has two very slow chicanes, Yas Marina has an entire complex of slow corners. The cars have to run fairly light on downforce to have good speed on the straights and fast corners, but there’s no grip in the corners. Now, couple that with the effect of turbulence, making it impossible to follow in the corners and mount an attack. It ends up being 100% about qualifying and not about in-race pace. Now throw in a lack of real championship drama (the only real battles were in the midfield), and you get one of the more boring races of the year.
After pre-season testing in Jerez, I had a single prediction for 2017: it would be a thriller of a season on paper, but boring on track. For the most part, that prediction came true. Part of it had to do with tires (being too hard and far too temperature sensitive), part of it had to do with engines (with engines ostensibly forced to last 5 full race weekends, drivers were forced to turn them down to minimize engine penalties), and even more of it had to do with aero (the new high downforce cars create a lot of turbulence, affecting the other high downforce cars. With less downforce and sensitive tires, it’s not possible to follow tightly to another car). There was always a lot to dissect between races: was Hamilton getting under Vettel’s skin? Was Mercedes too used to winning to handle a competition? When would Red Bull figure out a rules package that should have easily suited their design philosophy? Would Bottas be able to handle the pressure of the 2nd best seat in F1? Would Raikkonen thrive in a spec that suited him well when he was a rookie? Yes, yes (but they figured it out), sort of, Spain (but the engines were still lagging), and no. There was a lot of hype heading into 2017 and some of it was justified, but a lot of it really wasn’t. For some reason Formula 1 and the FIA tried to convince fans that more downforce would equate to better racing, but it never has (just look at how much poorer NASCAR got when they experimented with high downforce in 2015/16, and how poor the short oval racing got for IndyCar with the aero kits). F1’s experiment might have worked if all of the aero growth wasn’t mostly relegated to topside aero. More diffuser area, and less dependence on wings and foils, would have given F1 both the improved racing and higher speeds it desired. Underside aero generally both produces less turbulence, and is less affected by turbulence from other cars. This is exactly the formula IndyCar is moving to in 2018 and the post-season testing has been quite positive.
Unfortunately, F1 doesn’t seem to be making any moves that would lead to better racing in 2018. Instead of just four engines per year, there will only be three available per car! Considering Renault and Honda both amassed more combined grid penalties than there were grid positions to lose, moving to three engines seems to be a questionable move. It is a move aimed at reducing costs to customer teams, but if the engines are as unreliable as they were this year, it isn’t going to do a thing. If anything, for a team like Red Bull, it could cost them more in lost prize money if unreliability drops them from out of 3rd in Constructor’s Points. Pirelli’s tire announcements don’t really seem to get at the crux of the problem: more tire compounds isn’t the answer, producing tire compounds the cars can use is! Both in terms of softness and temperature sensitivity. And, aside from removing the shark fins (confirmed at Abu Dhabi), there are no aero changes for 2018. None of this bodes well for those of us who want to see drivers pushing harder. It isn’t too late for F1 to allow 4 engines or find a better way of managing engine penalties, and it isn’t too late for Pirelli to improve the tires. The 2018 season opener is still four whole months away so a lot can change.
For all of the ink and pixels written about the Hamilton/Vettel title battle, it really went out with a whimper. They were pretty close for most of the season, but post-Summer break, Hamilton pulled away and never looked back (also Ferrari, as I wrote many times, fell flat on their face). It was more than a bit disappointing that there were only ever two major contenders for the title. Sure, Bottas occasionally poked his nose into the picture (and wasn’t too far off of overtaking Vettel for 2nd), but he was never a real threat to Hamilton. It was even more surprising to see Daniel Ricciardo not even have a title bid. In fact, he was so disappointed with his 2017, he explicitly told Red Bull Racing that if things didn’t turn around in 2018, he would be gone.