Just when it seemed that this Formula One season had settled down into a moderately understandable pattern, Sebastian Vettel and the Red Bull team had their worst day of the season.
Vettel missed most of the third free-practice session with brake issues, having only a handful of laps to get used to the soft tyres.
And it showed.
Vettel clipped the wall in the first session and, although it did no damage, it was clear that he wasn’t quite comfortable in the car, and he never looked like matching either his teammate Mark Webber or the flying Lewis Hamilton.
But then it got worse.
As the chequered flag came down on qualifying, Vettel stopped on track and had to be given a lift by the medical car back to the post-qualifying press conference.
He was unable to answer the obvious question at the interview, only saying that he had been told to stop the car immediately.
According to ESPN, there was a problem with the fuel system—apparent on the telemetry system—which ordinarily would have been sufficient to escape penalty. Yet when the car was taken back to the pits, it became apparent that there was less than the mandatory one litre of fuel left in the tank.
Red Bull had, it seems, fallen for the sort of self-sabotaging, ridiculous mistake that McLaren have made a habit of succumbing to on a regular basis—it managed to do the same thing to Lewis Hamilton at this year’s Spanish Grand Prix.
The error sees Vettel disqualified from qualifying, and Red Bull has decided that they will start him from pit lane to allow it to pull the car from parc fermé and allow it to work on the car overnight.
When Hamilton was in the same position, he managed to bring his car home in eighth position to secure at least some points.
Vettel may not be so lucky.
Abu Dhabi is a notoriously difficult track on which to overtake. It was the track where Fernando Alonso saw his title hopes evaporate in 2010 when he was stuck behind Vitaly Petrov’s Renault for what seemed like the entire race.
But that was before the reintroduction of KERS and the introduction of DRS and Pirelli tyres.
Vettel will have his work cut out for him and, worse still, he has to be careful picking his way through the pack as he has so much to lose. He can’t afford to be too aggressive, but he has a fast car, can choose his tyres and can maybe recover to gain some points.
His only threat for the title, Fernando Alonso, did not qualify well and will start from the third row of the grid behind a number of competitive cars, but we all know that Alonso is a different animal when it comes to racing.
The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix just got a whole lot more interesting.