Abu Dhabi Grand Prix 2016: Winners and Losers from Yas Marina Race
Nico Rosberg secured the 2016 Formula One world championship in Sunday's Abu Dhabi Grand Prix at the Yas Marina Circuit.
Nursing a 12-point advantage over Mercedes team-mate Lewis Hamilton ahead of the final race, Rosberg knew a 16th podium finish of the season would be enough to secure his first world title.
The German started and finished second in a tense race under the lights, beating Hamilton—who won the race from pole position, claiming his 10th victory of the year—to the title by five points and following in the footsteps of his father, 1982 world champion Keke.
Joining the Mercedes drivers on the podium was Sebastian Vettel, who ended a difficult second season with Ferrari on a high by finishing third.
With a look at McLaren-Honda's Jenson Button, Red Bull's Max Verstappen and the Toro Rosso team, here are the main winners and losers from Abu Dhabi.
Winner: Nico Rosberg
Of all the criticisms directed at Rosberg in recent years, two have stood out above the rest.
The first is that he lacks the skill, bravery and judgement of his closest rivals in wheel-to-wheel combat.
The second? Following an untidy end to 2014 and that unforced error while leading the 2015 United States GP, he has an unfortunate habit of cracking under pressure at pivotal moments.
Those were said to be the biggest hurdles preventing Rosberg from making the leap from a serial race winner to a world champion, and—on his day of destiny—it was almost as though he took it upon himself to clear them both at once.
To prove they were nothing more than myths, and to demonstrate just how far he has come.
Rosberg had seemed set to take the lead during the first round of pit stops, when Hamilton's slow stop opened an opportunity for the No. 6 car.
But a slow stop of his own—a function of his mechanics' desperation to avoid an unsafe-release penalty as Vettel trundled down the pit lane—saw a potential first place become third and, all of a sudden, his race was not quite as comfortable as it appeared.
When it became clear Verstappen had adopted a one-stop strategy, Rosberg was informed over team radio how it was critical to overtake the teenager and—in a move reminiscent of Button's series of now-or-never passes at Brazil 2009—he wasted little time.
Battling the most creative, aggressive racer in F1, he beat Verstappen on the brakes into Turn 8, avoided locking up, muscled himself alongside the boy wonder, breezed past the underpowered Red Bull on the straight that followed and then switched across the track to guard against a counter-attack.
At that point, it seemed Rosberg had already done enough, only for Hamilton's tactics to put him in the most difficult position in the closing laps, when he watched his rear-view mirrors almost as much as the track ahead.
With the four leading cars running too close for comfort, Rosberg knew the slightest error would be enough to lose those two positions and, with them, the championship, but he remained composed to finish second and finally finish the job.
It wasn't just a champion's drive—it was a day for clearing hurdles, for breaking down walls, for taking that final step.
Loser: Lewis Hamilton
Having seen his reign come to an end, Hamilton—convinced he is the moral champion of 2016, per the Telegraph's Oliver Brown—will blame his reliability issues for his failure to win a fourth title this season.
But ask yourself this: Why did it take him until mid-October to solve a problem that had plagued him from the very beginning of the year?
Since his most recent poor start at the Japanese GP, Hamilton's destiny had been out of his hands and—with Rosberg requiring only a smattering of podium finishes to secure the title—the three-time world champion could only do what he could and hope for the best.
He did what he could in the United States, Mexico and Brazil, and he did what he could in Abu Dhabi, claiming a fourth consecutive pole-to-flag victory.
But it was too little, too late.
In Thursday's FIA press conference, Hamilton ruled out the possibility of backing Rosberg into the chasing pack, arguing a more "painful" blow would be to go down fighting by winning by the largest possible margin.
As the race progressed, however, his tactics altered significantly as he—fairly and justifiably, it must be noted—attempted to make his team-mate as uncomfortable as possible, dropping his pace to allow those behind to catch up and apply huge pressure.
Had Rosberg been swarmed by Vettel and Verstappen or locked up and ran wide, Hamilton would now be praised for his ruthlessness, for manipulating his way to a third successive title.
Yet his team-mate's passing of the final test has left Hamilton—having ignored several requests to increase his pace over team radio—facing serious questions over his sportsmanship and his team spirit.
Such is the way of the world in this sport where individuals compete within a collective environment.
Winner: Sebastian Vettel
Make no mistake, 2016 has been a very damaging year for Vettel.
He had appeared to have addressed those lingering doubts about his true greatness during his first season with Ferrari in 2015, when his three classy victories took the Prancing Horse to within touching distance of Mercedes.
But a difficult second season, when he has made uncharacteristic errors and failed to convincingly beat team-mate Kimi Raikkonen, has reopened the debate about where Vettel really does stand among the Lewis Hamiltons and Fernando Alonsos of this world.
That was why it was important for Vettel—more than any other driver—to end this season on a high, to offer a reminder of his qualities and to demonstrate what he really can do when he performs at his best.
Although the nature of his race meant it took a little time, the four-time world champion—still the most decorated driver on the grid in terms of titles won—did that in Abu Dhabi.
As he told the team's official website, Verstappen's error in the closing seconds of qualifying meant Vettel lost a little concentration at the end of his own flying lap, leaving him stuck in fifth place when third was there for the taking.
Indeed, Vettel was the last of the leading cars in the opening phase of the grand prix, but his race came alive in the second stint.
While his fellow two-stoppers made their final stops between Laps 24 and 29, the German spent a grand total of 29 laps on a set of soft-compound tyres before switching to the faster supersofts on Lap 37.
With fresher rubber, Vettel quickly deposed of Daniel Ricciardo and Verstappen—completing a bold move around the outside of the latter into Turn 11—and soon caught the dueling Mercedes cars.
As Vettel told the team's official website, Hamilton's attempts to back his team-mate into the chasing pack only had the effect of giving Rosberg a tow, preventing the No. 5 car from benefiting from DRS.
That meant Vettel was unable to rescue the Prancing Horse from a second winless season in three.
But as long as they provide him with a decent car and rekindle the more relaxed atmosphere of a year ago, Ferrari won't suffer another barren year under his leadership.
Loser: Jenson Button
It was a sad way for Button's 17-year F1 career to end in the Abu Dhabi GP, but, in a perverse way, it was also rather appropriate.
Despite his status as one of the five world champions on the Yas Marina grid—six, now Rosberg has joined the club—Button's career has been defined more by the crushing disappointments than the fleeting triumphs.
And as he climbed into the cockpit of his McLaren-Honda, wearing a crash helmet painted in the colours of his championship-winning 2009 lid, there was one last issue waiting for him.
Having been demoted to ninth by Sergio Perez on the long back straight on Lap 12, Button followed the Force India through the chicane and clonked the inside kerb of Turn 9.
As he told the team's official website, McLaren rarely suffer failures of this kind and, in any case, we have become accustomed to modern F1 cars taking huge hits and carrying on their merry way.
But on this day of all days—on this car of all cars—the suspension snapped, and the front-right wheel went all floppy, leaving Button with no option but to crawl back to the pits.
There was no happy ending, nor was there a long goodbye like we saw following Felipe Massa's retirement in Brazil.
It was all over. Just like that.
Not that Button—who psychologically departed the sport many months ago—cared too much, though.
"It doesn't matter," Button later told NBCSN (h/t Motorsport.com's David Malsher), insisting his final race weekend was "about enjoying the emotions with friends and family."
And, with his friends and family by his side, he happily walked out of the paddock and out of F1.
Winner: Max Verstappen
After producing the worst performance of his rookie season at Yas Marina a year ago, it felt like we had finally found a "bogey track" for Verstappen after qualifying.
More than anyone else, the boy wonder was the driver both title protagonists would have feared, the one who had the potential to become the spoiler and alter the destiny of the world championship.
Rosberg, in particular, would have breathed a huge sigh of relief when a mistake on the Red Bull driver's final qualifying lap left Verstappen stranded in sixth.
And when the No. 33 car slid into Nico Hulkenberg and spun at Turn 1 on the opening lap, the chances of the teenager interfering with the title battle seemed non-existent.
Yet, as we witnessed a fortnight ago Brazil, Verstappen seemingly views setbacks and mistakes as opportunities to further underline his own brilliance.
His spin prompted furious calculations on the Red Bull pit wall, which switched him to a one-stop strategy that Verstappen—criticised by Dr. Helmut Marko for his poor tyre management after the United States GP, per F1i.com's Phillip van Osten—pulled off superbly.
Rosberg's slow first pit stop saw the No. 6 car rejoin behind Verstappen, who was typically feisty but fair when the move eventually came.
His ability to stretch his opening stint on the supersoft tyres, which were not expected to last much longer than the delicate ultrasofts, as far as Lap 21 rescued his race, although a 34-lap final stint left him vulnerable to the two-stoppers.
Verstappen was powerless to prevent Vettel sailing past in the closing laps and struggled to keep up with the three leaders at the end, giving Rosberg a small but vital time cushion.
But in a race that began with him pointing in the wrong direction, Verstappen still recovered to a comfortable fourth—just 1.685 seconds behind the race winner.
Loser: Toro Rosso
The first sign that not all was well at Toro Rosso came in final practice for the United States GP, when Carlos Sainz Jr. suffered two rear punctures in quick succession.
And, more than a month later, things got so bad at Yas Marina that the team's very participation in the Abu Dhabi GP was in doubt at one stage.
As Sainz explained per Autosport (h/t Eurosport), Daniil Kvyat's two rear-left punctures on Friday caught the attention of FIA technical delegate Jo Bauer, who made a joint decision with the team to halt Toro Rosso's running in second practice.
The attempts to put an end to the tyre failures—caused by a brake drum, as John Booth later told Sky Sports' Ted Kravitz—continued into Saturday practice, leaving the drivers unable to get to grips with the track and complete valuable setup work.
And, in truth, they never made up for that lost track time.
At a circuit where they could have defied Toro Rosso's lack of straight-line speed to spring a surprise, Kvyat and Sainz qualified 17th and 21st, respectively, with the team's struggles continuing in the race.
While Kvyat was put out of his misery with an early gearbox failure, Sainz recovered well given the circumstances to run 14th before being hit from behind by Renault's Jolyon Palmer in the latter stages.
That collision damaged Sainz's gearbox, with a double-retirement ending a season when Toro Rosso have often threatened to do something special but have never quite managed it.