Key Takeaways from the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix Heading into the F1 Offseason

Matthew Walthert@@MatthewWalthertFeatured ColumnistNovember 29, 2015

The spectacular Yas Marina Circuit hosts the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
The spectacular Yas Marina Circuit hosts the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.Peter J Fox/Getty Images

Nico Rosberg completed a hat-trick of victories to end the 2015 Formula One season in a relatively uneventful race on Sunday in Abu Dhabi. Even with those three wins, though, in Mexico, Brazil and now the United Arab Emirates, Rosberg finished the year 59 points adrift of his Mercedes team-mate, back-to-back world champion, Lewis Hamilton.  

With 25 points awarded for a victory, that gap underscores (but also undersells) Hamilton's dominance over the course of the year and is something we should keep in mind over the offseason and as the teams and drivers prepare for 2016.

When Hamilton clinched the drivers' championship a month ago in the United States, he was 80 points ahead of Rosberg (Ferrari's Sebastian Vettel was 76 points behind Hamilton at the time) and had won 10 races to Rosberg's three. And Rosberg's total includes a win in Monaco that should have been Hamilton's, were it not for a race-strategy blunder.

The post-Austin gap is a truer measure of the difference in performance between the two Merc drivers than the end-of-season totals.

Since the 2014 Italian Grand Prix—the first race after Rosberg controversially clipped Hamilton in Belgium—Hamilton has thrashed his team-mate. Aside from these last three garbage-time races, Rosberg has legitimately beaten Hamilton on track just three times in the last 23 grands prix.

No one should get any ideas from Abu Dhabi and the two preceding races that Rosberg is closing the gap to Hamilton. Rather, Hamilton has not been as aggressive as in past races, particularly at the starts, and his off-track focus has also drifted.

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Nico Rosberg pulls away from Lewis Hamilton and the rest of the field at the start of Sunday's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.
Nico Rosberg pulls away from Lewis Hamilton and the rest of the field at the start of Sunday's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix.Paul Gilham/Getty Images

In the week before the Brazilian Grand Prix, Hamilton had a small car accident in Monaco and admitted, "It was a result of heavy partying and not much rest for a week-and-a-half. I am a bit run down. I have been nonstop and trying to fit training in at the same time and not getting a lot of sleep," per the Telegraph's Daniel Johnson.

Rosberg has taken advantage of Hamilton's waning motivation—and good for him. But expect the dominant Hamilton to return as soon as the championship battle is renewed in Australia next March, as he seeks to become just the fifth man in F1 history to claim four drivers' titles.

In fact, the biggest threat to Hamilton next year might not come from Rosberg at all but from Vettel and Ferrari. And that brings us to another takeaway from the Abu Dhabi race: Ferrari are getting closer, but they are not ready to usurp Mercedes...yet.

The Scuderia made a huge performance leap from 2014, where they managed just two podiums, to 2015, where Vettel won three races and combined with Kimi Raikkonen for 16 top-three finishes. Even so, the Silver Arrows finished 275 points clear of Ferrari in the Constructors' Championship this season.

In terms of raw speed, the Mercs claimed 18 of 19 pole positions this year, with Vettel nabbing one in Singapore, as Mercedes struggled around the street circuit. Clearly, there is still a huge gap to make up.

Sebastian Vettel
Sebastian VettelANDREJ ISAKOVIC/Getty Images

For an example of the gap remaining between the Mercedes F1 W06 Hybrid and the Ferrari SF15-T in race trim, let's examine the lap times Vettel, Rosberg and Hamilton were producing late in the Abu Dhabi race.

The following chart shows Vettel's five laps following his final pit stop, where he took on a new set of supersoft tyres, as well as Rosberg's times over the same laps. Rosberg's tyres were not only eight laps older, but he was using soft tyres which, according to Pirelli's race preview, were one-to-1.2-seconds-per-lap slower than the supersofts.

Hamilton's lap times following his final pit stop are also included to show what the Mercs were capable of on a fresh set of soft tyres late in the race. (Although his final stop was two laps later, so he had burned more fuel and his car was slightly lighter when he set these times.)

Abu Dhabi GP Lap Time Comparison
LapVettelRosbergLapHamilton
411m 45.156s1m 45.912s431m 44.713s
421m 45.684s1m 45.951s441m 44.517s
431m 45.708s1m 45.476s451m 45.130s
441m 45.542s1m 45.669s461m 44.773s
451m 45.255s1m 45.490s471m 44.983s
FIA.com

On newer and quicker tyres, Vettel was generally faster than Rosberg (except for Lap 43), but not by much—not by the second or more predicted by Pirelli. And Hamilton, also on the harder tyres, was significantly quicker than the Ferrari over those laps.

Of course, that is just a tiny piece of the overall picture. But as some of the last data we will get until 2016 testing begins, it is still an ominous reminder of Mercedes' advantage.

Ferrari had a great season, especially considering how far back they were in 2014. But it will take another big leap for them to challenge Mercedes at every race next year.

Finally, Abu Dhabi reminded us that, as talented as Toro Rosso's Max Verstappen is and as great a rookie season as he had, he is still an 18-year-old kid with a lot to learn.

Verstappen had two amazing fourth-place finishes in Hungary and the U.S., and he outscored his team-mate, Carlos Sainz Jr., 49 to 18 on the season. But in Abu Dhabi, Verstappen was penalised for two separate incidents. Not only that, but the three penalty points he received mean that if he collects four points in the first five rounds next year (assuming the provisional calendar is confirmed as is), he will face a one-race ban.

At Yas Marina on Sunday, Verstappen received his first penalty point for overtaking Jenson Button outside the circuit limits and then not immediately giving the place back. The young Dutchman then received two more points for ignoring blue flags and not yielding to Hamilton as the Mercedes driver was trying to lap him.

Max Verstappen
Max VerstappenMark Thompson/Getty Images

These incidents, while not particularly dangerous, are signs of carelessness on Verstappen's part. But this is just his second full season of single-seater racing and he will only get better. The raw talent is there and has been on display throughout the season—including on Sunday when Verstappen pulled two sublime overtaking moves on the Sauber drivers—it just needs to be refined.

So anyone seeking to anoint Verstappen as the second coming of Michael Schumacher or Ayrton Senna (remember, Red Bull adviser Helmut Marko made that comparison last year) should pump the brakes. Verstappen will find his way to the front of the grid sooner or later. But the Abu Dhabi race reminds us that he would benefit from another year of mid-grid competition with Toro Rosso before he goes wheel-to-wheel with the top drivers in the sport on a weekly basis.

Despite its overall predictability, the 2016 season provided plenty of exciting moments and surprising twists—much like the Abu Dhabi Grand Prix itself—which turned into another Mercedes victory parade. But it also featured some exciting racing through the field and some unpredictable results. (Probably not too many people figured Force India's Sergio Perez for a fifth-place finish before the weekend started.)

Now as the F1 world enters a quiet period heading into the Christmas holidays, our outlook shifts to next year.

Will Mercedes maintain their huge advantage through the offseason? Will Ferrari be able to close the gap? Who will emerge as a new, perhaps unforeseen, breakout star in 2016? Abu Dhabi provided some clues, but we will not receive any real answers until the lights go out in Melbourne, just 113 days from today.

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