Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2015: Winners and Losers from Yas Marina Race
Nico Rosberg claimed his third consecutive Formula One victory in Sunday's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix, the final round of the 2015 season.
After winning from pole position in Mexico and Brazil, the German once again controlled the race from start to finish at the Yas Marina circuit, with his sixth victory ensuring this year has been his most statistically successful in F1 to date.
Rosberg's best, however, still wasn't good enough to beat Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton to the title. Despite losing the battle of Abu Dhabi, the British driver has won the war, ending 2015 as a three-time world champion.
While the race was hardly a classic, the final 55 laps of the season saw a number of impressive performances as Ferrari's Kimi Raikkonen ended a difficult season on a high and Romain Grosjean signed off in style at Lotus.
And on a day Fernando Alonso sank to McLaren-Honda's level, here are the winners and losers from Yas Marina.
Winner: Nico Rosberg
As noted ahead of the race, the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix was always bound to be the most crucial of these supposedly unimportant, end-of-season events for Nico Rosberg.
Not only due to the bad memories of the 2014 season finale and Lewis Hamilton's exceptional record at the track, but because this weekend felt like the final hurdle he needed to clear to prove beyond any doubt that, following his victories in Mexico and Brazil, he was back to his best.
The differences between the Mercedes drivers—Hamilton's heart-on-the-sleeve approach versus the more cerebral, cunning system preferred by Rosberg—have been stark since the beginning of last year.
But at Yas Marina, Nico performed his finest impersonation of Lewis to claim a third consecutive victory for the first time in his Formula One career.
His last-gasp lap in qualifying—particularly his performance in the final sector, where Hamilton has been traditionally strong—was a case study in judgement and the positioning of a racing car, with his time advantage over Hamilton confirming his return to full confidence.
The German's latest strong start from pole position was the kind of getaway he would have craved at the same point 12 months ago, and his building of a six-second lead across the first stint strengthened his control on the race.
When he found himself struggling with front-tyre graining at the halfway stage and his advantage soon evaporated, Rosberg—had this race taken place just weeks ago—may have reverted to his old habits and made mistakes, such as locking up his brakes or running wide.
But the very fact he remained resilient and calm under mounting pressure and weathered the storm was yet more evidence of how much progress he has made in such a short period of time.
And while it is still unclear whether he could beat Hamilton over the course of a 19-race season, Rosberg has offered more reasons to believe in the last three races than at any other stage over the last two years.
Loser: Lewis Hamilton
The Yas Marina circuit was decorated in No. 44 logos over the Abu Dhabi weekend in celebration of the 44th National Day in the United Arab Emirates.
And with Lewis Hamilton, still searching for his 44th grand prix victory, behind the wheel of the No. 44 car, it felt as though the stage was set for the three-time world champion to cap his best-ever season with a return to winning ways.
But at a place where he is normally so fiercely strong, Hamilton was once again mysteriously disappointing.
He has grown accustomed to starting behind Rosberg in recent months, yet the sheer deficit to the other Mercedes in qualifying—0.377 seconds, per the official F1 website—was his most alarming defeat yet, while an uncharacteristically poor start condemned him to another race spent dancing to his team-mate's tune.
Most concerning, however, was the fact that he found himself challenging his team over pit-to-car radio for the third race in succession—as heard over the FIA television feed—debating his tyre strategy and seemingly refusing to change an engine setting before eventually obeying his employers' wishes.
Perhaps it is a direct result of his frustration with his sudden loss of form—or maybe, given his astronomical success in 2015, he now feels he has a divine right to beat Rosberg—but there has been a certain prickliness about Hamilton since he claimed his last victory at October's United States GP.
And it was telling that as his fellow competitors completed donuts on the slow-down lap, the champion returned to parc ferme as quickly as possible, disappearing into the shadows in the minutes prior to the podium ceremony.
The winter break has unquestionably come at the right time for Hamilton, preventing him from doing something he may live to regret and saving him from himself.
Winner: Kimi Raikkonen
Even as his team-mate sat in 15th position on the grid, it was debatable whether Kimi Raikkonen, despite starting from third, would end the 55-lap race ahead of Sebastian Vettel.
It was a sad reflection of how far Raikkonen has fallen in 2015, that a driver once so consistent and dependable—someone who broke the record for the most consecutive points finishes in F1 history just two years ago—can no longer be trusted to deliver.
But any doubts over his competence as a front-running performer were erased in Abu Dhabi as Raikkonen ended what he told a pre-race FIA press conference has been a "pretty average" season with his most convincing race in some time.
Without any technical issues to harm his pre-race preparations, Raikkonen was able to establish a rhythm. He carried it through the weekend, making no errors and enjoying a clean, if lonely grand prix—Ferrari were second best to Mercedes but comfortably ahead of the chasing pack—to finish in the top three, claiming his third podium of the season.
The level of Raikkonen's performance—on a weekend he, as a result of Vettel's elimination from the second segment of qualifying, was Ferrari's main focus—raises questions over the team's management of the 2007 world champion.
Does Maurizio Arrivabene, the team principal, show Raikkonen enough affection and make him feel valued in an environment clearly constructed around Vettel? Or do Ferrari simply take Kimi, despite all his achievements, for granted, regarding his presence as little more than a positive influence on Seb?
And if it's the latter, could the several on-track incidents Raikkonen has been involved in over the course of 2015 be a direct result of overdriving, trying too hard in his efforts to prove that he too is worth the team's time and effort?
If Ferrari can instil a little more belief and faith in Raikkonen, they might see these kind of results on a more regular basis in 2016.
Loser: Fernando Alonso
Among the biggest storylines of the Abu Dhabi weekend concerned Fernando Alonso after Ron Dennis, per Motorsport.com's Jonathan Noble, suggested the two-time world champion may take a sabbatical in 2016.
While Alonso dismissed the McLaren-Honda chairman's claim, once again telling BBC Sport's Andrew Benson that he would fulfil his three-year contract with the team, he drove like a man already on his holidays during the season-ending race.
As team-mate Jenson Button qualified 12th on Saturday, Alonso was once again eliminated from Q1 after suffering a rear-left puncture on his final flying lap.
His performances in racing conditions often make up for his shortfalls in qualifying, but his weekend went from bad to worse at the start when he squeezed Felipe Nasr's Sauber in a manoeuvre akin to his daring move on Kimi Raikkonen at Suzuka 2012, which ultimately cost him the third world title he still pursues today.
On a circuit as wide as Yas Marina, it was a needless risk and Alonso, after colliding with Nasr, slammed into Pastor Maldonado at Turn 1, taking the Lotus out of the race and stopping for repairs before receiving a drive-through penalty.
His mid-race radio plea, as heard over the FIA TV feed, for the team to put him out of his misery by retiring his car revealed much about his lack of commitment to the lost cause at the end of the most humiliating of seasons.
Popular opinion suggests that Alonso, still regarded as the most complete driver on the grid, deserves a much better car—and, indeed, a much better team—to achieve the results his talent deserves.
But at the end of the year in which the Spaniard, by his own admission, has driven relatively poorly, perhaps McLaren and Alonso deserve each other after all.
Winner: Sergio Perez
After his off-weekend in Brazil, where he was locked out of the top 10 in both qualifying and the race, Sergio Perez returned to form to end the most impressive season of his career in style.
On the pace throughout the weekend—he finished inside the top four in both FP2 and FP3—the Mexican was arguably the star performer of qualifying, with his lap for fourth on the grid just 0.133 seconds slower than third-placed Raikkonen, per the official F1 website.
His strong start may have seen him pass Lewis Hamilton for second place at Turn 1, but where he would once lunge down the inside and risk taking a number of drivers out with him, the new-and-improved Perez was sensible enough to slip back into fourth.
The pace of the Mercedes and Ferrari cars was such that Perez—despite his knack of securing surprise, out-of-the-blue results—was always bound to be vulnerable to Sebastian Vettel.
But his ability to withstand late pressure from Daniel Ricciardo to secure fifth only reinforced his status as the best defensive driver in F1.
It was shortly after a limp performance and a ninth-placed finish in the 2013 Abu Dhabi GP that McLaren took the decision to replace Perez with a rookie for the following season, throwing his entire F1 career into jeopardy.
Yet after his fourth top-five result in nine races, Perez's recovery is comparable to that of Romain Grosjean's two years ago. Twenty points ahead of highly rated team-mate Nico Hulkenberg in the drivers' standings, he has established himself as Force India's No. 1 driver ahead of 2016.
But more significantly, he has finally found redemption.
As Felipe Massa and Valtteri Bottas wrestled with their uncooperative, unresponsive cars throughout the Abu Dhabi GP weekend to finish eighth and 13th, respectively, it was hard to believe that this was the same team who came within three seconds of winning the race 12 months ago.
But despite recording only four podium finishes, compared to nine last year, and scoring fewer points over the course of 2015—even if we are to discount the double-points finale of 2014—there appears to be a genuine feeling within Williams that they are getting better and better with each passing grand prix.
After Sunday's race, Rob Smedley told the Grove-based outfit's official website that Williams "shouldn't dwell on this race too much" after claiming third place in the constructors' championship for the second consecutive season, adding he was "incredibly proud of the way this team is constantly growing and improving."
Yet behind the rhetoric, it is obvious Williams are not on course for bigger and better things but, in fact, have fundamental problems.
And Williams saved one of their best until last at Yas Marina, where Bottas—after running as high as fourth at the time of his first pit stop—was released into the path of Jenson Button and damaged his front wing after hitting the McLaren in the pit lane.
As half of his front wing sat mournfully in the pit-exit tunnel, the Finn—who rather naively failed to stop in the pit lane after the collision, allowing his mechanics to pull his car back to make repairs—was forced to complete half a lap at slow speed before receiving a replacement, and he was then given a five-second time penalty for good measure.
Such an embarrassing error is hardly the sign of a rapidly evolving, much-improved team, and Williams must eradicate these mistakes if they are to stand a chance of remaining in the top three in 2016.
Winner: Romain Grosjean
Ahead of his 83rd and final appearance as a Lotus driver, Romain Grosjean vowed to go out with a bang, telling the official F1 website how he would be "fighting all the way" and "racing (his) heart out" to claim a strong result.
He also promised to turn his engine "up to 11," which proved to be counterproductive when a gearbox problem brought his car to a halt at the beginning of Q2, as confirmed by the team's official website.
That issue, and the accompanying five-place grid penalty for a gearbox change, threatened to ruin Grosjean's goodbye ahead of his move to the new Haas team.
But after starting 18th, his performance in Abu Dhabi encapsulated how much the Frenchman has matured over the course of his four seasons with Lotus.
The 23 laps he spent on the soft tyres at the start of the race was the exact amount of time Sebastian Vettel—embarking upon a recovery drive of his own but, crucially, behind the wheel of a Ferrari car extremely sensitive toward its rubber—stayed on the same compound.
Having kept himself in contention at the halfway stage, Grosjean became the aggressor in the final stages after fitting the theoretically faster super-soft tyres with 12 laps remaining.
His pass on Carlos Sainz Jr. effectively sealed Lotus' sixth-place finish in the constructors' standings ahead of Scuderia Toro Rosso, with his overtake on Red Bull's Daniil Kvyat for ninth place his final gift to the team who raised him like a son.
They'll miss him now he's gone.