Raikkonen and Lotus shine in the desert night
A perfect start off the grid put Kimi Raikkonen into 2nd place in Abu Dhabi, and when race leader Lewis Hamilton succumbed to electrical issues the Finn seized his chance for glory.
A dramatic 2012 F1 Grand Prix of Abu Dhabi finally delivered the long-awaited maiden win for Lotus F1, when Kimi Raikkonen put himself in the perfect position to benefit from another case of heartbreak for Lewis Hamilton and the McLaren team.
But the attention was also on the championship battle, with Fernando Alonso doing everything he possibly could to take advantage of the opportunity that had presented itself overnight with Sebastian Vettel's relegation to the back of the field for the start of the race following a fuel irregularity with the Red Bull.
Vettel's task had got slightly easier even before the start of the race, after the HRT of Pedro de la Rosa failed to get away for the warm-up lap and had to start the race from the pit lane behind Vettel. Both men had to watch and wait as the lights went out and the leaders got underway at Yas Marina.
After all the pre-race focus on Lewis Hamilton's clutch problems at the start of recent GPs, the McLaren actually got a terrific launch off the grid and it was Red Bull's Mark Webber who got bogged down instead from second place. That left him vulnerable to a pincer movement by Kimi Raikkonen on one side and Pastor Maldonado on the other, and Webber was quickly demoted to fourth place before the first corner.
It was about to get worse for Webber: Fernando Alonso now had him lined up in the crosshairs, and just as we saw in last weekend's race in India the Ferrari's straight line speed was blisteringly fast, making mincemeat of the Red Bull and demoting Webber another spot to fifth place on the very first lap.
Hamilton wasn't quite having it all his own way at the front. The McLaren still appeared to be struggling to get heat into the tyres in the opening minutes and as a result Hamilton locked up on lap 2 and ran wide. That gave Raikkonen a major opportunity to try for the lead, but Hamilton was able to fend him off and after that the tyres started to work better for the McLaren and he was soon pulling away, comfortably out of DRS range of the pacey Lotus.
Meanwhile, Vettel had started his run from the pit lane exit and was soon cutting through the rear of the field with all the ease you would expect against such backmarker competition. Better yet, his progress was helped by a succession of minor incidents on the opening laps that left many of the midfield cars with damage that required pit lane attention.
The most serious incident was at the start into turn 1, when a four-wide battle ended up causing Nico Hulkenberg to crash out after contact with Bruno Senna; Paul di Resta also sustained a puncture and dropped down to 20th position, while Sergio Perez slipped through the incident to pick up ninth place. In a separate incident, Romain Grosjean was once again in the thick of things, this time clashing with Nico Rosberg: Grosjean suffered a front right puncture while Rosberg needed to pit for a new front wing.
As a result of all this, Vettel found himself up to 14th place by lap 5 - but he wasn't having it all his own way, a clumsy move on Bruno Senna causing some minor damage to the Red Bull's front wing endplate. While the team decided that a pit stop wasn't necessary, it took a slight edge off the car's performance and made Vettel's damage limitation mission just that little bit harder. That said, Vettel was soon able to breeze past the Caterham of Heikki Kovalainen for 13th.
And then the complexion of the race changed in an instant on lap 9: Nico Rosberg had also been on the comeback trail after his enforced early pit stop, and was approaching the back of a slow Narain Karthikeyan. Rosberg was caught out by the sudden closing rate on the back of the HRT and ended up launching right into and over the side of the car. The Mercedes flew right over Karthikeyan's head and ended up in the run-off safety barrier, while Karthikeyan's trashed HRT was on the side of the track in a settling cloud of carbon fibre debris.
A safety car was a no-brainer, but it was still too early in the race for anyone to come in for their scheduled single stops, although Jean-Eric Vergne needed to head in to deal with lingering issues from earlier skirmishes. Vettel did not, however, despite still having lingering concerns about the state of his front wing, and he duly moved up to 12th place behind Vergne's Toro Rosso team mate Daniel Ricciardo.
It proved to be a lengthy clean-up operation for the Rosberg/Karthikeyan crash, during which time the drivers were having to work hard to maintain their tyre temperatures behind the safety car in the cooling twilight conditions. Ricciardo's weaving and braking antics proved particularly vigorous and caught out Vettel, who had to swerve off the right hand side of the track and through a polystyrene marker to avoid ploughing into the back of the Australian's car.
That put the matter of whether or not to change Vettel's front wing beyond question, and Red Bull duly brought the car in at the end of lap 13 before the safety car was withdrawn. That put a seething Vettel back down in 21st position, but he was now on fresh soft option tyres that gave him the edge as he started to work his way back through the field again once the race restarted on lap 15.
Hamilton was once again in charge and he quickly pulled away from Raikkonen and Maldonado, while further back it seemed that the tables had briefly been turned between Alonso and Webber. The Ferrari struggled to stay ahead of the Red Bull through the first corners back under green, but Alonso was then able to make the most of the Ferrari's straight line advantage to protect his position and maintain the status quo. Watching on from sixth place, Jenson Button bided his time and waited for his own opportunity.
Further back, Vettel's latest charge hit a momentary speed bump when he tangled with Romain Grosjean for 17th place on lap 17: Vettel got past but appeared to do so by moving all four wheels off the side of the track, so he was advised to hand the position back and do it all over again rather than risk the stewards doling out a drive-thru penalty. This he did, and it took him just three additional corners to successfully remount the overtaking move on the Lotus. His pace was such that it now seemed a matter of if not when he was back in the points.
The one thing that wasn't in doubt was Hamilton's lead, with the Briton driving a flawless race - right up to the moment that the McLaren died on lap 21 with an electrical failure, a shocking and near-unbelievable reprise of Hamilton's fate while leading in Singapore. He could do nothing more than coast the car off onto the grass run-off and climb out, yet another lost opportunity in a season all too full of them.
That bumped Kimi Raikkonen into the lead of the Grand Prix, and Pastor Maldonado into second - although Fernando Alonso had different ideas about the latter, pulling off a gusty move on lap 22 to get past the Williams at the first opportunity. Mark Webber had similar designs on doing the same thing, but his move on the Venezuelan on lap 24 ended up in a collision that spun the Red Bull out into the run-off area. Webber complained about Maldonado over the team radio, but replays showed that it had been the Australian who had pinched the other car too tight into the corner and that he had left Maldonado with no where to go, making it a straightforward racing incident as far as the stewards were concerned.
A few minutes later, Jenson Button was able to deliver a master class to show how Webber should have done it, when he passed Maldonado cleanly for third place on lap 25 through the inside of turn 11. Webber meanwhile had dropped down to seventh place behind Felipe Massa after his spin, and his attempts to get past the Ferrari ended up in a new collision for the Red Bull: this time Webber survived by cutting across the chicane and rejoining the circuit in front of Massa, who spun all by himself over the kerbs as he was startled by the way Webber came back onto the track ahead of him.
Raikkonen continued out in front as more and more cars filtered through pit lane for their one scheduled tyre stop, his radio message to the Lotus pit wall a succinct "Just leave me alone." Astonishingly, all the pit stops meant that Sebastian Vettel was now up to third place, and his next target up the road was his own team mate Mark Webber - who was told to pit right away in what seemed like a conscious effort by the team on testing whether or not Webber would obey team orders to let Vettel past or not.
Raikkonen finally came in on lap 32, Lotus having timed his visit to pit lane to ensure he had just enough of an edge over Vettel to retain the lead when he came back on the track. In any case, there was no chance of Vettel making it all the way to the finish on the set of tyres he'd been given on lap 10, and he was in for a fresh set on lap 38 - expertly timed by the team to put him back out in fourth place safely in front of a gaggle of combative cars consisting of Romain Grosjean, Paul di Resta, Sergio Perez and Mark Webber.
That would not have been a safe place for Vettel to have had to contend with, as events the following lap proved: di Resta got the better of Grosjean for fifth place, and then it was Perez' turn to pass the Lotus and to quickly line up a move on the Force India. That did not go so well, and Perez ended up running wide, then making contact with Grosjean as he tried to come back on track. Webber then ran right into the danger zone and sustained rear wheel damage from the spinning Lotus for his pains.
With Webber and Grosjean too seriously damaged to continue, race control had no option but to deploy a second safety car. Di Resta was able to limp back to pit lane for repairs, while Sergio Perez was assigned the blame for sparking the whole mess and handed a ten second stop-go penalty by the race stewards.
As the drivers prepared for the restart on lap 43 with 12 laps to go to the finish, it was Kimi Raikkonen still in front with Alonso, Button and Vettel in close pursuit. Maldonado was in fifth place ahead of Kamui Kobayashi, followed by Felipe Massa, Bruno Senna and Jean-Eric Vergne with Paul di Resta now claiming the last point in tenth place after a wild, topsy-turvy day of it.
Snapping at his checklist-reading race engineer that he knew what to do to prepare for the restart, Raikkonen proved the point by having no problem pulling away at a brisk clip ahead of Alonso. The man most under pressure was Jenson Button in third place, who had Sebastian Vettel all over the back of his car as the track went green again. Button was initially able to frustrate Vettel's efforts and it appeared that Vettel might have to put discretion ahead of foolhardiness: but that's not the world champion's nature - and on lap 53 he kicked in the DRS as the two cars ran into turn 11 and pulled off a gutsy move on the McLaren to claim third place.
That put him right behind Alonso, making it a dream recovery from his qualifying disaster for Vettel, and thoroughly well-deserved and hard-earned. Up the road, Alonso could do nothing about Kimi Raikkonen to do anything about eking out a few extra championship points and had to settle for second place. That meant that Vettel retained the lead of the world championship by 10pts over Alonso, despite the handicap of starting from the back. Alonso would surely have been hoping for more in the circumstances, while Vettel's beaming smile spoke volumes about his own pure joy in the outcome of the evening's race.
And then there was the small matter of the winner of the race: the eighth different Grand Prix winner of 2012, with Kimi Raikkonen picking up his 19th Grand Prix win, his first since Spa in 2009 and the first since his return to F1 after a two-year sabbatical. And it was also first win for Lotus F1, who looked thoroughly dazed by the turn of events that they had been striving for all season long and which seemed to be slipping away from them this season.
He might have benefited from electrical heartbreak for Lewis Hamilton's McLaren to give him the lead in the first place, but there was no question about how Raikkonen had seized his opportunity and wrung every ounce of success out of it. A peerless performance, topping a worthy podium of world champions.