Kimi Räikkönen took his first Formula One victory of the season with a controlled drive for Lotus in a thrilling Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Behind him Fernando Alonso pushed all the way in his Ferrari to finish second but perhaps the happier – or most relieved – driver on the podium was Red Bull Racing’s Sebastian Vettel who emerged from a torrid 24 hours with his title aspirated not seriously diminished.
Vettel’s race had been badly compromised before it began: demoted to the rear of the grid on Saturday evening for a breach of the technical regulations during qualifying. The
championship leader opted to start the race from pitlane, thus allowing Red Bull mechanics to set up his car specifically for a hard-charging attack from the rear of the field and start him on the medium compound tyre.
He wasted no time: up to 18th by the end of lap two, and to 12th by the close of lap nine. His advancement did not come without a price: He clashed with Bruno Senna at the start, resulting in damage to his front wing. The damage would get worse when the safety car made it’s first appearance, following an incident involved Nico Rosberg and Narain Karthikeyan. Karthikeyan slowed dramatically after a mechanical failure and Rosberg ran into the back of him at high speed. Both drivers walked away unscathed from the crash.
Following Daniel Ricciardo in the safety car train, Vettel had to swerve to the right to avoid the Toro Rosso as Ricciardo aggressively maintained the temperature in his brakes. Vettel collided with a polystyrene barrier, damaging his nose further. Red Bull opted to pit the German for a new nose and a set of soft Pirellis.
Dropped down the field again, Vettel faced another battle through the order but by lap 38 he had risen to fourth, despite another stop for a second set of soft tyres. The gap to the top three of Jenson Button, Alonso and Räikkönen was great, however, and it looked as if Vettel would have to settle for fourth.
Then came a second safety car period, which again closed up the field. Trying to take advantage of a tussle between Romain Grosjean and Paul Di Resta for fifth place, Sergio Pérez attempted to around both. He went off track but carried on a hyperbolic path, rejoining at racing speed, straight into the path of Grosjean. The Lotus driver had few options and strayed inadvertently into the path of Mark Webber’s Red Bull. The clash dumped out both Grosjean and Webber. Pérez received a stop-go penalty.
When racing resumed, Vettel began to pressure Button for third. Initially, the tactic failed as Button defended stoutly, but on lap 52 Vettel shouldered his way past around the outside of Turn 11 and claimed the final podium spot.
“Usually it’s hard enough to fight your way once through the field but we did it twice today,” said Vettel speaking later in the FIA post-race press conference. “I think it was a fantastic race. I had a great fight with Jenson at the end. It was very close with him but I enjoyed the fight a lot, tried a couple of times and finally made it. He was very fair. You can’t do that kind of move with all the drivers on the grid.
“After that there were not enough laps left to catch up with Kimi and Fernando but it was still a great result in the end. It was a big chance to lose out a lot today, but we didn’t lose anything, so I’m very happy.”
It was the last real action of the race. With only a few laps remaining, Vettel was unable to set about Alonso or Räikkönen who were having their own duel several seconds ahead. Alonso refused to concede defeat but the Finn had enough pace in his Lotus to maintain a gap of over a second, crucially keeping outside the DRS envelope.
Räikkönen’s race had been made at the start, when a superb getaway saw him jump from fourth to second, passing Pastor Maldonado and Webber. He slotted in behind pole position man Lewis Hamilton, briefly challenged for the lead on lap two and then consolidated his position in second when Hamilton proved too strong.
Hamilton was the fastest man on track throughout the first stint. He set his latest in a string of fastest laps on lap 20 – but then coasted to a halt on lap 21 as his McLaren lost all power. Räikkönen swept through to take the lead and thereafter began to forge his own gap to the chasing pack. His advantage was erased by the safety car period in the aftermath of the Pérez-Grosjean clash but Räikkönen held on for his 19th F1 victory and his first since the Belgian Grand Prix of 2009.
“I’m very happy for the team,” said Räikkönen. “At least we’ve got one win now, so we’ll keep trying to push still and see what we can do in the next race.”
Alonso was also a climber at the start, moving up from sixth to fifth off the line, passing Webber for fourth with straight line pace and then making a brave move on Maldonado to take third. He advanced into second following Hamilton’s retirement. “I’m very happy, I think we were not super competitive this weekend,” said the Ferrari driver. “We started seventh, sixth with Sebastian’s penalty, so we had to fight all the way through the race.
“A very good strategy gave us the ability to fight at the end for the victory,” he added. “In the last couple of laps Kimi was a little bit slower, so we attacked. But second, I think, was the maximum today, so a perfect Sunday again for us and we kept fighting until the end.”
The result means that Vettel keeps control in the championship battle but now with a slimmer advantage over Alonso. He leads 255-245 going to the penultimate round.
Button finished fourth and fifth went to Maldonado. Kamui Kobayashi took sixth, ahead of Felipe Massa and Bruno Senna. The final points positions went to Paul Di Resta and Daniel Ricciardo. Massa’s six points were crucial to deny Red Bull the Constructors’ Championship: they now lead Ferrari 422-340, and need a maximum of four points in Austin to secure a third consecutive constructors’ title.