2010– Ferrari fail at Abu Dhabi as Vettel crowned champion while Alonso sits in traffic
The 2010 Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was supposed to have been a victory parade for Ferrari and Fernando Alonso. Coming into the race, the final round of the 2010 season, Alonso was firmly in the driving seat in the race for the championship.
With the Ferrari ace having the momentum after coming on strong at the end of the season as the Red Bulls and McLarens slipped up, and it seemed a Ferrari title was Alonso’s to lose. But as is always the way, protecting a lead can make teams and drivers hesitant, with the fear of losing overcoming the drive to win.
Four drivers started the day with a mathematical chance of the title. Alonso led the way with 246 points, from the Red Bull duo of Mark Webber (238) and Sebastian Vettel (231), with McLaren’s Lewis Hamilton the rank outsider (222). For Alonso, who entered the race having won 5 Grand Prix already that season, the maths meant simply if Webber won he had to finish second, or if Vettel won he would need to finish fourth. For Webber the task was also straight forward, win the race with Alonso third and be champion. So would Red Bull be using Sebastian Vettel as the blocker to hold up Alonso and allow Webber claim the driver’s title? Vettel himself had a clear path to victory, but one that looked unlikely – for Vettel to become champion he needed to win with Alonso doing no better than fifth (Vettel and Webber had won 4 races each to that point, so even with Webber finishing second in the race and tying Vettel on points Vettel would lead on race victories). Vettel’s hopes seemed to rest with the McLarens spoiling Alonso’s day then, with the Woking outfit having won 5 races themselves that year. Lewis Hamilton, who had won three of those races, could in theory be champion with another win and a run of disaster for his rivals, but most likely would be playing the spoiler, as would defending champion Jenson Button (no longer in the title hunt, but having won a couple of Grand Prix himself in the McLaren).
In qualifying, things went reasonably well for Alonso and Ferrari. Vettel took pole positon (his tenth of the season), with Lewis Hamilton alongside him on the front row. Alonso was in third, with the second McLaren of Jenson Button back in fourth place ahead of Mark Webber in the Red Bull, with Alonso’s team-mate Felipe Massa alongside Webber on the third row. So far so good for Alonso and Ferrari, everything under control.
The race was to be the last Grand Prix for tyre supplier Bridgestone prior to Pirelli taking over as the sole supplier, and would play a critical role in the race. If the race remained dry (a fair assumption!), then each driver would have to use one of each compound brought to the race, the super-soft and medium being the tyres selected.
As the race started things went wrong for Alonso, with Jenson Button getting past him on the run down to the first corner, as Vettel led from Hamilton. Still, as it was Alonso was in a championship winning position, but the seeds of disaster for Ferrari were sown on that opening lap, as behind the front runners Ferrari legend Michael Schumacher went into a spin trying to hang on around the outside against his Mercedes team-mate Nico Rosberg, the Mercedes facing the wrong way on the track and Schumacher seeing the Force India of Vitatonio Liuzzi come straight on and drive up and over him, the Force India coming to rest on top of the Mercedes. Both drivers were fortunate to escape serious injury, but the safety car had to come out. Schumacher’s accident would inadvertently start a chain of events which would lead Ferrari to their downfall. Under the safety car a number of cars dived to the pits, swapping from the super-soft to the medium tyre in the hope of going the rest of the race without stopping. The key two drivers to pit at this point would prove to be the surviving Mercedes of Nico Rosberg, and the Renault of Vitaly Petrov, not cars that would be expected to play a decisive role in the race. When the safety car pulled in on lap 5 racing resumed, with the front 6 holding station.
At this point, everything was still under control for Alonso and Ferrari, but their pre-occupation with protecting their lead was about to add another nail to the coffin of Alonso’s Ferrari title dream. Vettel was pushing at the front, while Webber was losing ground stuck between the Ferrari’s of Alonso and Massa, Alonso not matching the pace of the front runners. This suited Ferrari, with Alonso sitting pretty in fourth Vettel could not win the title. Webber was beginning to struggle on his tyres, sending sparks flying as he brushed the Armco barrier on lap 8 as he slid wide , and Red Bull decided to pit him early to get him onto the medium tyre. Webber came in on lap 11, and resumed down in 16th place, behind the Toro Rosso of Jaime Alguersuari (who had also taken the opportunity to stop under the safety car on lap 1). Surely Red Bull wouldn’t allow the Toro Rosso to hinder Webber’s title charge?
As Webber lost time stuck behind the Toro Rosso of Alguersuari, Ferrari sense the opportunity to get Felipe Massa ahead of Webber and provide Alonso with a blocker, and pulled Massa in on lap 13, but Massa’s stop wasn’t a good one, trouble with the right rear meaning he lost a second and a half in the pits on Webber, and he rejoined behind the Red Bull. With Massa setting fast sector times and Webber slowed up for another half lap before Alguersuari let him by, if Ferrari have waited another lap to bring him, or had the stop been a bit quicker, would Massa have been able to pass Webber? Either way the opportunity was gone, and Ferrari now made their crucial mistake (hindsight as the say, is 20/20 vision). Ferrari decided that having failed to get Massa ahead of Webber, and seeing Webber post impressive lap times having cleared traffic on his fresh tyres relative to the front runners, they had to bring Alonso in to cover Webber. Alonso came in on lap 15, and duly re-joined ahead of Webber. But Webber’s fast lap times were being achieved in fresh air, and the strategy meant they were both behind a number of cars on the road who would not need to stop again. Alonso and Webber were soon up to the Renault of Vitaly Petrov, and this is where the wheels finally fell off the Ferrari championship challenge. Alonso was on his tail by lap 18, and that would be that, the two leaders of the championship unable to find a way past the Renault for the remainder of the race.
To give some perspective, the Renault was damn fast in a straight line and Petrov had shown he was no shrinking violet who would meekly allow the more popular drivers on the grid to waltz past him, with Alonso having learned that lesson in the Turkish Grand Prix where he had endured a frustrating time behind Petrov, before an error from Petrov allowed Alonso to force his way through. There were no such errors from Petrov this time though, with Alonso running off the track on lap 23 as he tried in vain to force a pass, the Ferrari getting partially alongside the Renault before locking up and running wide as Petrov shut the door. That was as close as Alonso would get all day, and in the end the Ferrari would come home a frustrating 7th position, with Nico Rosberg who stopped early and also Robert Kubica in the second Renault finishing ahead of him, such was the loss of time suffered behind Petrov.
Up ahead, Lewis Hamilton waited until lap 23 to pit, with Vettel following the next lap. Vettel emerged in second on the road behind Button who had yet to stop, but Hamilton was behind Robert Kubica’s Renault, Kubica having started on the medium tyre. Just as Alonso was frustrated behind Petrov, Hamilton was unable to find a way past Kubica until the Renault driver eventually stopped on lap 46, at which stage Vettel was out of reach and had the championship in his grasp, with Kubica managing to come out ahead of the Petrov-Alonso-Webber train. When Button finally pitted on lap 39 he would rejoin in fourth behind Hamilton, moving up to the final podium position when Kubica stopped.
For Vettel, who had not led the championship at any point in the year prior to Abu Dhabi despite his impressive pace all season, it was a case of everything coming together perfectly when it needed to, the German becoming the youngest driver to win the world championship in the most dramatic fashion as Red Bull celebrated their first constructor’s title. For Ferrari, it was a shattering loss, left to rue a series of what if’s:
What if Alonso had beaten Button off the line?
What if Schumacher had not spun into the path of Luizzi bringing out the safety car?
What if the Bridgestone tyres weren’t able to last a full race distance?
What if Ferrari had managed Massa’s stop better and got him ahead of Webber?
What if Ferrari had kept focus on the front of the race and kept Alonso on the same strategy as the leaders?
What if Petrov would have only been a soft touch?
For Red Bull and Sebastian Vettel, there were no questions, only celebrations, and the marking of a new championship driver and team, and a new era in the sport had truly arrived.